Spencer Tunick sounds tired.

It’s just before midnight in Ramapo, outside New York City when Tunick speaks to Broadsheet over the phone. When we chat, Tunick has been in lockdown for 60 days, a relative who lives nearby is recovering from the virus and New York is the US state with the highest rates of Covid-19 infection in the world.

“We’re so sensitive to our surroundings right now and very nervous. I feel like I’m in this bizarre science fiction novel.

“It’s okay. [There’s] a lot of energy coming from Australia right now, so it’s kinda keeping me up,” says the American photographer.

He’s talking about the attention he's getting about launching his latest project in Oz, which is inspired by the pause enforced on his career when the coronavirus took hold. In normal times, the artist-photographer takes ambitious images of nudity on a grand scale – thousands typically apply for the chance to appear in a Tunick photo. In Australia, he’s shot iconic installations in front of the Sydney Opera House and on a rooftop in Melbourne’s Prahran. Every shoot follows a similar formula: volunteers – hundreds of them – congregate at the agreed location. And Tunick, a general on a stepladder, directs them to disrobe and pose for him.

The results are always surreal and compelling. And while each of Tunick’s projects has a different purpose, all of his photos communicate the honesty of mass nudity as a way of emphasising the importance of shared human togetherness. It’s a lesson the world needs now more than ever. But with coronavirus lockdowns likely to linger in some form for the foreseeable future, mass human proximity isn’t a luxury that’s available to us.

So Tunick has started Stay Apart Together, a new project that takes the photographer’s most common themes – human connection, the power of mass action, the courage of baring yourself – and places them within this era of strain and isolation.

“I live like a hundred metres from a 1920’s art deco movie theatre,” Tunick explains. “And on the light-up billboard, you know those letters – I don’t know what they’re called – it spelled out ‘Stay Apart Together’.”

The title stuck with him, and after some workshopping, he began a soft-launch for his idea. Stay Apart Together involves Tunick hosting a 100-person video chat (with that Brady Bunch-style grid of faces that Zoom has popularised) directing nude volunteers, all of whom are joining in from the confines of their homes. Instead of using a camera to capture the right moment, Tunick takes a screenshot.

Since publications like Broadsheet first reported the project last week, thousands have enquired about participating in the project. Now, Stay Apart Together is open to applicants from the general public – and Australia is the first country in the world eligible to volunteer.

So far, in the process of a soft-launch of rehearsals, he’s been surprised by the intimacy of his new way of working – ordinarily a Tunick shoot is a tense and stressful affair, choreographed with efficiency in mind. But now, with limits on how many people can join a video chat, Tunick is working with dozens of people, not thousands.

“When I would take my mouse and scroll, people’s names would then pop up and I was able to call people by their names when I was directing them,” Tunick says. “So I would say, ‘Rashad, move here. Move your arm up’. Or ‘Move your head a little bit to the left’. Or, ‘Jennifer, why don’t you come closer to the camera? Tilt your laptop screen down’. I had never been able to do that.

“It’s always been, ‘hey you, with the grey beard’. It’s been enjoyable for me to really communicate with a group of nudes knowing people’s names.”

Another unexpected joy: the ability to interact with people in different places and time zones at the same time. Stay Apart Together features more diverse backgrounds simultaneously occupying a frame than any of Tunick’s past works.

“I think they’re really getting a lot out of it and you can have a man who’s writing me from Pakistan saying, ‘I really want to be a part of this, but I’m nervous. It’s not part of my culture’. And so to get him to participate along with … someone from Sweden, and then someone else from Peru, it’s sort of everyone coming together and elevating the body and the art.”

But Tunick’s also aware of some of the limitations presented by this adjusted medium. At the moment, Stay Apart Together lives exclusively on Instagram and video-conferencing software such as Zoom, both of which impose strict guidelines on nudity.

“Right now, with this overt censorship in social media, including some of the video chat platforms, there’s just corporate censorship that’s run amok. And it’s very hard in these times to work with the nude in a non-sexual manner and not be threatened with either deletion of your account, or deletion of images,” says Tunick. “That’s why I’ve always believed in tactile protesting: getting out on the street, [and] confronting people.”

Experimenting with this new form is also spurring Tunick towards thinking about where he can take his art, post-coronavirus.

“I want to work with virtual reality. And simulating people posing in places that I might not be able to go because I’m possibly not an astronaut. I’d like to orchestrate people to pose in phenomenal places one day and I might need to do that with computer imagery,” Tunick says.

“For now, this is a great first step into getting people together at a time when people need that connection, need this sort of platonic, physical, naked art action.”

Applications for Stay Apart Together are now open to the Australian public. If you’d like to apply, email a photo of yourself to StayApartTogetherAustralia@gmail.com (you don’t have to be nude in the application photo). Successful applicants will be contacted.