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Flash Mobbing — Buskers with a Taste for Surprise

by James Ranson

Imagine you are walking through New York City’s Grand Central Station, and suddenly dozens of other travelers simultaneously freeze, hold the pose, and then indifferently go their way. Or you are on a train in the London Underground and an apparently unrelated group of people bursts into an a cappella performance. Finally, suppose you are at Copenhagen Central Station, and symphonic musicians gather one by one, perform, and then nonchalantly disperse, leaving passersby mystified.

Welcome to the world of flash mobs. By now, you have likely seen a YouTube video of a flash mob, and if you are lucky, maybe you have even been part of one. Flash mobs have become an international phenomenon, making their way to everything from advertising campaigns to prison yards, and the history of this form of public performance is an interesting one.

Flash mobs have natural impact – and audience – in highly trafficked public areas, and Grand Central Station provided the setting for a defining moment in the culture of group performance art. Bill Wasik organized what is considered to be the first flash mob by arranging a group freeze in Grand Central Station in 2003. He said it was merely a social experiment intended to prove that it was possible to easily take over commercial and public areas (click here for an interview in which Bill tells his story). In the years since, flash mobbing has grown to include amateur and professional performers, and the motivations for organizing mobs has evolved from very clever social experimentation to online and social media phenomena.

Flash mobs have been used to raise awareness and to educate on behalf of groups, events, and causes. At one end of the spectrum, corporations like T-Mobile found an opportunity for eye-catching advertising by staging a dance in the Liverpool Street Station. Social and political organizations recognize the potential of flash mobs (or “smart mobs”), such as 1,200 anti-smoking activists falling to the ground in front of the offices to a tobacco company. And of course performing artists like singers and dancers have taken their art out of more conventional venues and into the streets. The London Underground and Copenhagen Central Station examples mentioned above come from the Swingle Singers and Copenhagen Philharmonic, seeking to draw attention to their work. Both are advertising, but there is something more here. The Danish musicians, for example, are clearly trying to reach beyond their traditional audiences and celebrate the experience of live classical music (shared below).

This aspect of flash mobbing may be the most significant for the arts community. Arts organizations have organized flash mobs from one end of the country to another. They have advocated on public policy issues affecting the arts, they have attempted to take the arts out of their traditional venues and contexts and brought them to the public, and they have raised awareness. Among the most notable in this regard may well be the famed Philadelphia Opera performance of the Hallelujah Chorus (shared below), which is at last count a top 10 flash mob video (click here for the full list). This flash mob (flash oratorio?) has measurable impact in the form of over 7.7 million hits on YouTube and counting. It has surely raised arts awareness in a time when such organizations are trying to galvanize support and increase visibility.

Flash mobs also satisfy a community impulse, both on local and global levels. The goal is not just random activity, but interactivity. Some local-connection mobs instruct participants to start in distant areas of the same city and eventually meet in something that is part participatory art form and part social gathering. One group at Pier 25 (wearing white shirts) and another at Esplanade (wearing black shirts) engaged in various group activities, then made their way gradually to a “neutral zone.” There, they mingled and interacted in in “connectivity” exercises (like dancing to strobe lights), all while following the instructions of an MP3 file that each individual had downloaded. Other mobs have synchronized their performances to unite participants in multiple time zones. Each group performs a dance, has a pillow fight, or simply occupies a space at its respective local time.

Finally, this manner of public performance fulfills a need we all have as they entertain us with uncommon, choreographed performance in the midst of our daily routine. The majority of flash mobs are designed to put smiles on people’s faces, for both the viewer and the participant. There is no better place to do something so uncommon than in a train station or airport where people are preoccupied with the daily obligations of their day, and an at least one ordinary day at the Dubai airport turned into the extraordinary (click here to view).

Though experiencing one of these events might feel unusual or even a bit uncomfortable for some, the flash mob has certainly carved out an intriguing niche in the performance sector. Public performers are not new. Yet it seems that now the buskers have more of a taste for group numbers and for the element of surprise.

For related articles from The Muse Dialogue:

Marching to the Beat of a Drum on His Face: An Interview with Jon Brumit, Public Artist


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