By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
If I recall correctly, they had some ties to the rave movement, and would freeze up traffic for hours. Their actions, like yours, were a bit like the tourist traffic jam scene in Jean Luc-Godard’sWeekend: bourgeois society collapsing under its own weight. You’re not an anarcho-syndicalist or something like that?
I am a political person — I’d taken part in protests before — but I’d never organized one. I didn’t want these things to be frivolous, where the point is saying, “Hey, who cares about anything, let’s just go and worship a dinosaur.”
It’s not nihilistic.
Not at all. And the more I did them, the more I realized the mobs actually did have a deeply political value. The nature of public space in America today has changed. It’s shopping malls, large chain stores, that kind of thing. The presumption is that you’re going to purchase something, but once you try to express yourself in any other way, suddenly you’re trespassing. New York City is blessed with a bunch of real public spaces, but at this point, if you’re young in America, chances are you have grown up without authentic public space. I discovered that it was political to go into one of those stores.
As long as you weren’t buying refrigerator magnets.
Right. It wasn’t commercial in any way. That was very liberating. At first, I denied any political interpretations, but eventually I became won over to the political power of my own project. It’s not as if we had a big meeting and drafted a manifesto. I didn’t know where my comrades were coming from. I had no idea. Like any reporter, I was forced to rely on anecdotal evidence — things that people told me, e-mail that people sent. Some people liked it because it was funny, many liked it because it was social, but the more I talked to people doing it in other cities, the more I came to the conclusion that it was coming out of a baseline political consciousness.
Did you ever think of trying to make the flash mobs exercise those politics more explicitly?
No, I didn’t. My sense was that you couldn’t do a flash mob that was political in a meaningful way. They were too ephemeral. At the point when it might get in people’s faces and confront them with something, they just dissipate.
Maybe sound-bite protests are the best way to make an impact in a sound-bite culture. Did you ever think of how much media attention you were getting compared to actual protests?
I thought about it a lot. And the protesting groups never tired of reminding me. Flash mobs spread so quickly, and so many people wanted to do them, and a lot of the more political, guerrilla-type art-slash-protest groups were pretty irritated — and for good reason. A lot of them were doing actions that were every bit as clever that never got any attention because they were political.
My personal sense is that corporations wouldn’t be able to pull it off. The kind of people who participated in flash mobs have pretty sensitive bullshit detectors. Certainly they would never get burned twice. If you showed up to a flash mob and realized you’d been made the unwitting tool of some corporation, you wouldn’t be very happy.
Many people in the blog world had suspicions that I might be a corporate operative. I kept joking that at the very end, the last mob was building up to the opening of a new Applebee’s.
Endings and a New Beginning?
How did things draw to an end?
Well, the last mob I did got completely out of my control. It was on 42nd Street near Sixth Avenue. I had created a recording and was playing it on a boom box. It was a voice that led people in a bunch of cheers and chants and various things. The idea was people would listen to this disembodied voice, as if from a loudspeaker, and would respond to it. It was a commentary on people obeying a nothing. But once people began to chant, they began to drown out the sound from the boom box, so they just started performing various actions that would just spread through the crowd.
Then there was just this guy who showed up. Somehow, he had a neon sign in a briefcase, and he started showing people this neon sign so everybody thought he was the feature performer of the event. They started to follow him, some people had their pictures taken with him, that sort of thing. A couple minutes into it, I just walked away and let it take whatever course it was going to take. It was the perfect ending to the project because it was as if the mob had developed its own logic.
Was it hard to let go?
Any creative project has to evolve or stop. If a thing doesn’t have an arc to it, it has to get off stage. In fact, part of the reason I stopped doing them was that I didn’t really feel there was a way for the concept to evolve into something more political, because of the constraints that I had put on it. Everything was supposed to be silly but, more importantly, the gatherings were only supposed to last for 10 minutes.
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