By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Yes. It’s in the spirit of things. The whole thing was a little homespun.
Theory and Praxis
In some ways, in its pointlessness, flash mobs remind me of the work of Shepard Fairey, the guy who invented “Obey Giant” and began putting up all those “Andre Had a Posse” stickers that you see everywhere. He has described his project as an extension of Martin Heidegger’s ideas about phenomenology. He said the first aim is to reawaken a sense of wonder about one’s environment. Does that resonate with you?
In the nicest possible way I actually saw flash mobs as something of an authority experiment. An art magazine once asked me what my artistic influences were, and I said that the artist that had influenced me the most was [social psychologist] Stanley Milgram [best known for his Obedience to Authority experiments]. The events I did in New York had an undercurrent of poking fun at everyone for being such a herd. Most of them had some dimension of obeisance or self-congratulation.
What do you mean by self-congratulation?
The participants would feel that they were cool just for participating. On some level I intended it as commentary on scenesterism, the idea that you could get hipsters to come out to anything they thought would be the next big thing, just because it’s the next big thing.
I feel like the reason a lot of people live in big cities is that we have this sense that we want to get close to the center of things, so we’re always looking for the next big band, or the next big author — partly because we really do love art and want to experience it, but partly because, in these short lifetimes, we want to get as close as we can to the greatness that might be around us.
So flash mobs are people getting together to the one point of greatness?
Yes, but of course that’s the trick. Generally speaking, the closer you get to the center of things in artistic spheres the more you realize the center doesn’t really exist. When you try to get close to it, the thing kind of evaporates. Flash mobs invite people to a non-existent center. For example, in the third mob, we lined the banister of this hotel and stared down into the lobby for five minutes. Two hundred people lined this huge, city block-sized balcony, and after five minutes we just applauded. The idea being it was just this crowd of people, but at the center of it was a vacancy.
Another way of looking at it is to acknowledge there is a social dimension to experiencing art. Your friend invites you to a concert or a reading, and you go in part because you want to be out in the scene, and see people who like to experience the same things. There’s a social commonality. Flash mobs are sort of like those scenes, but it dispenses with the art entirely. All you’re left with is the social connections.
It sounds to me like an art project that got out of control.
I intended it as a prank, but in its execution the prank became a piece of performance art. After the mob had formed, people just walking down the street would see this huge crowd, and add themselves to it, just because they wanted to know what was going on. The joke got people there but, in coming, they unwittingly became part of something that was beautiful and meaningful.
In what way?
Well, eventually I decided that what made it a compelling idea was that you were disrupting the flow of people in a city. You go down the same streets all the time and you pass hundreds of stores. You might pass the same store every day and never see more than three people inside. And I liked the idea that one day you would walk by that store and suddenly there would be 150 people, and they’d be spilling out onto the sidewalk, and they’d be yelling and screaming like they wanted what that store had to offer so much . . .
Politics and Commerce
Do you see political implications in flash mobs?
I’ll be honest. When I started I really saw it as a gag that had an artistic dimension at the end. I expressly tried to make the mobs absurd and apolitical — in part because I wanted them to be fun, in part because I didn’t want anyone to see them as disrespectful of protest, or as parody. What I didn’t expect was how many people would see the mobs as political statements.
You mentioned the group Reclaim the Streets. Wasn’t that quite similar to what you were doing?
Reclaim the Streets was a movement started in London in the mid-’90s. It later spread to a couple of other cities. The basic premise was to have guerrilla street parties. They would show up on a block, and erect three or four huge metal tripods that were sort of like ladders. People would climb up and just stand on the tops of the tripods, effectively blocking the street, and using themselves as human shields. The police or the fire department couldn’t just knock them over, or they’d hurt the person at the top. They would have to call in cherry pickers to get the people off.