Aurillac International Festival of Street Theatre
August 20-21, 2010

Photo: Heidy Elainne
Hot on the heels of one festival, Spencer quickly finds himself headlining another. Somewhere deep in the Auvergne lies Aurillac, a mini-city with a population of around 28,000. But do not let this small city fool you, for it is the capital of the French umbrella industry, providing France with 50% of its umbrellas; it is also the home of one of France's more eclectic festivals: the Aurillac International Festival of Street Theatre. Celebrating it's 25th anniversary in 2010, the organisers saw fit to invite Spencer to hold a series of installations, bringing together both these aspects.

For his main installation on August 20, Spencer made use of the umbrella in homage to the surrealist artist René Magritte. The following morning, with a smaller group comprised mostly of women, Spencer paid homage to another great French artist, Eugène Delacroix. 

It was befitting the occasion that after dark on August 19, while the Aurillac festival-goers innocently revelled after a day of festivities, an entourage of Brits quietly invaded the unsuspecting French stronghold in Auvergne with military precision, and heading down the mountain from the neighbouring village of Thiezac, descended upon the town before dawn to take possession of several elusive umbrellas so as not to miss out on Spencer Tunick's célébration des parapluies

Peter Jacobs was a part of this entourage, and this is his account of the weekend.

Spencer Tunick at the Aurillac Festival
Peter Jacobs

People say that you should never go back but there is something so profoundly personally satisfying about taking part in a Spencer Tunick installation, for many people it would seem, that even as I reluctantly tore myself away from new-found friends after taking part in the Saturday session of Spencer’s Everyday People installation in Manchester and Salford I knew that I would do another one if I got the opportunity. Spencer Tunick in Manchester fell into my lap – despite the labyrinthine registration process before you got to go and queue with no guarantee of taking part (I went extra early to make sure). A street arts festival in a part of France even the locals happily refer to as in the middle of nowhere seemed unachievable and I resigned myself to not going. But fate can be kind as well as cruel and despite some nervous misgivings I found myself booking flights, a hotel and two days off work and committing to meeting six complete strangers and heading off into the unknown in a minivan to get naked with hundreds more strangers. My misgivings were misplaced. I spent little more than two days with six diverse and wonderful people with whom I felt completely at ease – naked as well as dressed!
Friday, 20 August. Despite arriving well within time for the start of the first installation and via the car park bus provided, we arrived at the registration area somehow near the back of the large crowd of eager (or drunk) participants and came perilously close to being bumped from the first installation altogether. Sensing the danger, our nicely cohesive group briefly had an outbreak of every man for himself and four of the seven excitedly found themselves through registration and clasping the requisite black umbrella – more than half of France’s umbrellas are manufactured in Aurillac. Myself included. Unfortunately the other three had been held back and faced a long wait for the second installation after we had finished the first, although we didn’t know this at the time.
Photo: Sascha Prabitz
After a short wait as darkness turned to dawn, we headed up a steep hill, mindfully avoiding the generous scattering of cowpats at various stages of drying out. Being a second-timer I knew what to expect but was still full of excited anticipation. Eventually we reached the top of the hill and gathered in a field near a scaffolding platform where Spencer and his crew were making their final preparations. One young Frenchman was so excited (or drunk) that he was already naked and raring to go. Soon Spencer came over, climbed a ladder and started briefing us through a megaphone with the assistance of translators – I’m not sure we four weren’t the only Brits there. We were to do a large installation on the hillside looking over the town, holding the umbrellas in various positions; we would be spread out and he was looking for symmetry. Then he would do a work with the men while the women dressed and returned to the town to do a ‘waltz through the town’ with clear umbrellas. He then reminded everyone that he would be doing a second installation on Saturday for women only and revealed that this was to be a recreation of Delacroix’s Liberty Leads the People, with 250 French flags and smoke machines. At this point my thoughts and feeling were a jumble. I was delighted he was doing a work just with the men; but it sounded as if the town installation with the clear umbrellas was primarily for the women – we were told only spare umbrellas would go to any men who managed to make it after the men’s shoot – and the Saturday shoot sounded thrilling but again, was just for the women. Had I come all this way to be excluded for being male? After some brief discussion about whether we should flee the hill in the hope of joining our compatriots and ensuring a place in the town installation – something three of the four of us were reluctant to do – we established via some hasty texting that our trusty friends had secured clear brollies for the two men (myself and Gil); the two women (Carol and Lorna) were guaranteed inclusion. The only problem would be getting from the hill to the town in time. 

Photo: Heidy Elainne
I swiftly switched my focus to the task at hand. When the instruction came I quickly undressed with the 700+ other participants and headed off over the brow of the hill enjoying being naked and holding my open umbrella, and on a mission to get a good position. The town spread below the hill as the morning continued to brighten. It was warm, the ground was rough; I was completely naked on a hill in south central France and doing another Spencer Tunick. Life doesn’t get much better than this, I thought. As the participants spread down the hill the black umbrellas above (mostly) tanned bodies against the expanse of grass looked wonderful.

After going through our routine of umbrella holds (low over our heads; held aloft; held out to one side, arm outstretched; turned to face the town) and after much of Spencer’s now traditional ‘Don’t smile. Don’t look at me’s, the ladies were sent to get dressed and Spencer headed down the hill bringing the men with him. He seemed to be in a fantastic mood, friendly and relaxed. After organising the men into a fan shape and spreading us out – I tried in vain to be near the front, I confess – we were asked to lay on the grass, propped on one elbow, half of us with umbrellas held aloft. It was fun but it was soon over and I quickly realised that I needed to get moving if I was going to get into town to meet the others for the clear umbrella installation. I looked up the hill to where our clothes were. I could see Gil already determinedly halfway up. I broke into as good a run as possible going up a grassy, stony hill in bare feet. Once dressed, to cut a long story short, I shamelessly used Gil’s good contacts and after running frantically back down the hill we rode into town on the back of Spencer Tunick’s truck with his crew. I have rarely felt more glamorous.

After gathering in a small square we ‘got naked’ again and walked into the narrow streets of Aurillac old town with our clear umbrellas and did a number of set-ups, startling a few of the locals, as you can imagine. Soon the surreal fun was over and we got dressed, spending a very enjoyable day wandering around the street festival enjoying the blazing sunshine, the craft market, the performances, the good-looking French boys and a few beers and coffees in street-side cafes. A long day but an amazing day, spent with good company and holding on to a satisfied glow of achievement.
Photo: Heidy Elaiine
Saturday, 21 August. Another early start, but our first view of our hotel in neighbouring Thiézac in daylight. The women (Carol, Janet, her mum Vi, and Lorna) were all keen to take part in the women’s installation and the men (Robin, Gil and myself) were determined that they should have the opportunity. We had by now been joined at the hotel by Carmen and Sascha, friends of Robin who had driven from Austria. Gil had managed the day before to get Spencer’s agreement for him to watch from the sidelines and hoped to get the rest of us in too. Otherwise we would have a long wait in the town until it was over. We arrived in two cars at the location, Aurillac station, which appeared to have been closed for the event.
As the ladies queued to register Gil ran off to have a word with Spencer, who was in a relaxed and agreeable mood and consented to us all coming to watch so long as we stayed out of the way and out of shot. The previous night we had discussed the Delacroix painting and speculated that a horde of French women of the revolution would be well-served by a scattering of dead men at their feet, little knowing how true that was to the actual painting. I didn’t dare hope but Gil planted the seed with Spencer. After navigating the Aurillac Festival security we found ourselves on one the three platforms excitedly waiting as the women registered and collected their variously sized French flags. Spencer gathered the women on the middle of the three platforms to start shaping the installation and we were asked to wait in the buffet where we would be out of shot. Then word came through that we could watch the action with Spencer’s crew. 

Photo: Heidy Elainne
We quickly ran along the platform and across the tracks to join them. Watching Spencer Tunick and his crew prepare for the shoot; positioning the women; setting up the cameras; testing the smoke machines; his photographer and videographer recording the process; was fascinating and I knew I was in a very privileged and special position. 

The women went back to the buffet to undress and returned bearing nothing but their flags. Spencer got them back into position; choosing particular women to take on central roles at the front others spread across the tracks, some sprawled at the front; shaping the work, trying out how the smoke was going to work. I thought the set-up looked fantastic and that the pictures were going to be special. I could see Lorna and Carmen to one side on the tracks, Janet with her distinctive long blonde hair in the centre with Vi behind her, and Carol nearer the front. The smoke proved unpredictable with the entire group of women and the crew initially swamped in the grey cloud but Spencer and the smoke crew started to get the right kind of drift and direction and it was clear that timing was going to be key. After taking several shots – ‘Don’t look at me. Don’t smile, madam’ – Spencer switched the women around, keeping roughly the same tableaux but moving the women around to create different effects and featuring others he chose from the participants. After taking many more shots and satisfied that he’d got what he wanted something wonderful happened. Something I had hoped for but had told myself over and over not to expect. Spencer turned to us from his ladder and said, ‘Where are my naked guys? Do you four want to get undressed now and we’ll have the ladies attack you with spears.’ We were going to be in the next set-up.

Photo: Matthieu Dussol
I got undressed with the other guys, completely unfazed by the 160 women watching, the fully-dressed crew or the few people across the road from the station, who could see some of what was unfolding. It’s strange how completely comfortable and unselfconscious I feel, even chatting to a fully-dressed Sascha, who despite some gentle encouragement maintained his stance of not participating himself.

The women were moved across the track to the platform next to the station buildings. After getting them in position, Spencer called us men across and we set off across the tracks to a rousing cheer from the women. It was an amazing feeling. Gil was asked to lie on his back to the right of the platform with his head towards the front; Robin was positioned on his back on the railway tracks with his legs up on the platform (European stations have lower platforms than the UK, of course). Spencer then led me to the centre and into the second row of women and then guided me back into a prone position similar to Gil. Three-time participant Fabio (the fourth man) was then positioned on the left side to match Gil. Some of the women at the front were then asked to spear us in the heart with the poles of the flags and to crouch menacingly around us. A little girl was brought forward to mop Fabio’s brow tenderly with her flag. Robin was draped with another. I lay there on my back surrounded by naked Frenchwomen praying that Spencer didn’t step back and decide that it was a terrible idea. 

Gil and I glanced across at one another, not quite believing how everything had gone so as we hoped so unexpectedly. After more documentary shots and much testing of the light by Spencer’s camera tech, the smoke was tested. I closed my eyes and hoped I look suitably tragically fallen. Occasionally I opened my eyes to be faced with a sea of naked women above me – a rather unsettling experience for a gay man. Then, as the smoke drifted across my body, with several ‘spears’ pressing into my chest and stomach, I lay there, my eyes closed while Spencer ‘made some art’. I could sense that Spencer moved around, coming closer and taking shots from different angles, changing cameras. I concentrated on looking how I hoped he wanted me to look, appropriately dead, and drank the sensation in. I was alive and in Spencer Tunick heaven.

Although it was over all too soon, it was one of the most satisfying and complete experiences of my life. We got up and Spencer soon started on the next set-up. We men had done our part and were no longer needed. We (rather reluctantly) got dressed as Spencer moved the women onto the other two platforms and set up some pictures of them slowly walking into the distance along the tracks, flags held aloft or strategically draped to cover some very unperiod tan lines. This was the hardest set-up for the women as Spencer pulled several women out of the installation because their tan lines were too prominent, moving others rapidly along the sharp and unforgiving gravel. I know how hard it was to walk on barefoot. And then that was it. The installation was complete.

L: Spencer (centre) and his four naked guys: (l to r) Peter, Robin, Fabio and Gil
R: Team GB: (l to r): Peter, Gil, Lorna, Robin, Carol, Vi, Janet, with Carmen from Austria.
Photos: Sascha Prabitz
After everyone was dressed and we men had filled in the model release forms that would ensure we get the precious exclusive print that is our only material reward for participating, the nine of us – Carmen and Sascha too – enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and eventually said our goodbyes and set off on the long, hot drive back to Bordeaux to fly home.

Two Spencer Tunick installations in two days, three locations, five set-ups (personally). I didn’t feel the same buzzing exhilaration as I had doing The Lowry installation but the entire experience of going to France, bonding almost instantly with six wonderful and remarkable strangers (now friends), the Festival in Aurillac, the glorious sunshine, and taking part in Spencer Tunick’s work – including an installation that I know is very special – was a completely satisfying and fulfilling experience. I have the same feeling of transformation as I did the first time. I feel fantastic. Now I’m just desperate to see the finished work. And to take part in another Spencer Tunick installation.

Photo: Matthieu Dussol

Christian Wuethrich writes:

Aurillac, a thrilling city 5 days per year

The installation of Spencer Tunick in Aurillac took place on August 20 and 21 as a special event of the 25th edition of the Street Theatre Festival. Aurillac is a peacefull city that gets surrealist 5 days per year during the Street Theatre Festival that attracts artists and spectators from a very broad horizon.

I slept in the camping site opened for the duration of the festival at the sport center of La Ponétie, as I did not plan any hotel. It was a good choice because you meet a lot of people in the camping. At 2.30am I woke up because there was a performance of a man spitting fire in front of my tent. Once the show was over, I headed to the meeting point of the installation as I was afraid not to find it in the night.

Aurillac, capital city of the umbrella

The registration of the participants begins and each participant is given a black umbrella produced by the local company Piganiol. After some necessary waiting time for the 700 people to get ready and for first light, everybody climbs the hill called “Puy-Courrny” on the top of which there is a small platform. Spencer, with his fascinating smile, is standing on the platform briefing his working team of the day. After some time, Spencer explains that he is happy that we do not have to sing under the rain today. There will be three installations. A first setup will involve the men and the ladies. Then the ladies will be able to get their clothes on and go back to the entrance of the site to swap the black umbrella for a transparent umbrella. The second installation will involve the men only. Then the third setup is an urban installation that will involve the ladies and some men if there are still some transparent umbrellas left. With some amusement Spencer explains that the setup of Saturday morning will involve the ladies with french flags and a smoke machine in a remake of the painting by Eugene Delacroix: Liberty leading the People. Spencer asks the participants to be patient and attentive to the explanations as otherwise the process could take more time. He explains that if anyone smiles he will look goofy on the picture. Spencer also encourages the participants to commit until the end of all the installations as he seems afraid that some ladies could be too shy to be naked in town.

A surrealist landscape

“1,2,3... déshabillez-vous!” Everybody is undressed in almost no time and the participants are asked to spread down the hill with their umbrella open. The crowd is like a living tortoise and at the beginning the umbrellas touching each other made the progression difficult. The dry grass and the thistles are there to remind the fragility of a naked man. Spencer asks the participants to spread on all the surface and to fill the holes but for the participants it is not obvious to see where the holes are. A first picture is made, the participants facing Spencer with the umbrella low on the head, the face is not visible. A second picture is taken with the umbrella high with the arm raised. A third picture is taken, the participants facing Aurillac with the umbrella at the end of the arm that is held horizontal. Spencer gives us some compliments, “You are beautifull” and “It is beautifull from here”.

The landscape is a mixture of shades of green, skin and black, like three base components. I enjoy this special moment where I have the feeling to be actor in a piece of art and spectator of this living landscape. It is only later that I will understand that the feeling of “déjà vu” I had is due to the inspiration of this installation by the painter René Magritte.

Photo courtesy of 
Christophe Paris, 
Aurillac Festival
The installation with the men is in fact a crowd of men reclining on their left side where about one third of the umbrellas are open. Spencer asks to a man nicknamed “Capitain Nemo” to go a bit in the back as his white beard and hair attracts too much attention. A lucky man with an homogenous shade of dark skin is asked to go in the front.

As we are going up the hill to get dressed again, Spencer shouts “the yellow people out of the field” as he realizes that the crowd moving on the field is an excellent subject for some pictures full of spontaneity.

The light was perfect, the sky was overcast with no clear shadows.

For me it was already over, it went really too fast because the moment of the installation is always enjoyable, like a moment of privileged communication with the artist.

The third installation involved the ladies and some men who did not have the chance to take part to the two first installations. It seems that at the end thirty ladies have been invited by Spencer for a last installation in the Jordanne, the river that flows through Aurillac.
The Installation of Saturday took place at the SNCF train station.

Photo courtesy of 
Christophe Paris, 
Aurillac Festival
Display of pictures in town.

I always have the feeling to be an orphan from that unique moment after an installation. Fortunately it is planned to have some pictures on display at the city hall as well as at the Place of Peace on Saturday evening. Spencer is in the front of the city hall at 7PM and seems to enjoy the atmosphere of the festival. A large picture of the first installation from Friday is displayed in front of the city hall. Some people have few words with Spencer and a man gets a picture of his young son with the artist. I even try to get some explanations about the signification of the umbrellas and Spencer, like a surrealist joke tells “It was to protect the people from the rain!”

After dinner I go to in direction of the Place of Peace. It is dark, the place is huge and a lot of people is there for the projection of a set of pictures taken by Heidi Elainne. At the end I recognize the voice of Spencer almost next to me. What a coincidence to meet him again within all these people in this darkness. I kindly ask him for a signature in the back of the entrance ticket for the camping.

This was my second installation and if the stress of the first time was not there the thrill is still present as I discovered more of the language of Spencer in his creative work. You have been warned, this is highly addictive.

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