Tuesday, 14 December 2010

The joy of flash mobs (well, some of them!)

This may seem a strange topic for a blog about sustainability - but it reflects the orientation of the Good Lives project at Woodbrooke. We don't think that true sustainability consists of grim self-deprivation. Sure, we all have to live simpler lives, using less of the Earth's resources . . . but that can be joyful, fun, satisfying and creative. If we make ourselves miserable and boringly obsessive, our own inner resources will soon give out, others won't feel attracted to the kind of lifestyle we hope they will adopt, and we won't become beacons for a new and far, far better way of living.

What's a flash mob? The first one was created in 2003, in Manhattan, by someone called Bill Wasik:
The original idea was to create an email that would get forwarded around in some funny way, or that would get people to come to a show that would turn out to be something different or surprising. I eventually came up with a lazy idea, which was that the thing would just have one simple, in-your-face aspect to it--there wouldn't be any show, and that the email would be upfront about the fact that it was inviting people to do basically nothing at all . . . The idea was that the people themselves would become the show, and that just by responding to this random email, they would, in a sense, create something . . . I had conceived it specifically as a New York thing. People in New York are always looking for the next big thing. They come here because they want to take part in the arts community, they want to be with other people who are doing creative stuff, and they will come out to see a reading or a concert on the basis of word-of-mouth. Partly they want to find out what everybody else is so excited about, but partly they just want to be a part of the scene.
A flash mob (or flashmob), according to Wikipedia is:
a large group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual act for a brief time, then disperse.The term flash mob is generally applied only to gatherings organized via telecommunications, social media, or viral emails.The term is generally not applied to events organized by public relations firms, protests, and publicity stunts.
This last caveat is important, because such groups have tried to benefit from the buzz created by such events, and if you search for 'flash mobs' on YouTube many of the results that come up are this kind of commercial operation.

But there are 'real' ones that are quite different, and the whole art form (and I think it can really be that) has come a long way since the first deliberately pointless excercise.

There's a great clip of a group of adults and children dancing to to a Sound of Music track at Antwerp Central rail station; and one I really like is a performance in a cafe of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's oratorio Messiah. Just recently, BBC4 TV has screened a documentary about someone creating a dance performance flash mob after he got interested in traditional English clog dancing. The whole programme (60 mins, including a history of clog dancing, how the flash mob was recruited and trained, etc) may not stay available online for ever, but there's a clip available that shows the actual flash mob peformance.

One of the characteristics of such pieces of performance art is that they very often start with just one person (I think that would take huge bravery!), who is then joined by others. And if you watch the film as it pans around the crowd, who aren't in the know, you see the faces switching from 'uh-oh, we've got a problem person here', to 'wow, look at this' - the transformation is complete when the watching crowd becomes a forest of mobile phones, as people try to capture an image of what's going on.

I find myself really moved by these big group artistic performances - they stir something emotionally, which is, I think, a signal that something important is going on here. And what triggered me to write about this is that I've just got home from Woodbrooke's annual weekend when we bring together as many as can come of our Associate Tutors. These are people who aren't on the staff at Woodbrooke, but have particular knowledge, skill or expertise, and who run courses for us from time to time - maybe once a year, or every couple of years; some people more often than that. We have an annual weekend of getting together for personal and professional development, swapping ideas, feeling part of the bigger team (as mostly we work alone on a course, or perhaps with one other person), and thinking about Woodbrooke's future programme.

This weekend we were looking at what kinds of areas of work we should be focussing on during 2012 (our 2011 programme was finalised long ago - we're already living in 2012 in our heads!). From the half dozen small groups who were coming up with ideas on Sunday morning there was a consistent thread of the sense of needing to 'build community' - within course groups at Woodbrooke, in our neighbourhoods, among local Quaker meetings, and so on.

We'll be looking more at this as we plan the detail of the future programme, and I think it's the aspect of 'community' that, for me, makes these public performances so moving. There has clearly been a strong (if temporary) sense of community created among the performers. And, just as important, watch the onlookers' faces in the video clips - the daily chore of the shopping, or the solitude (which might - for some - be loneliness or isolation) of the solitary drink in the cafe, or the stress of a large railway station, are all, quite suddenly, transformed. People stop, and watch, and smile, and talk to each other. For a moment, we glimpse a different possibility of 'community' in the ordinary spaces of our lives - and this is part of a 'good life'!
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1 comment:

  1. A very moving and inspiring post. I participated in the recent Associate Tutors weekend and got home to find a link to the clogdancing flashmob on my Facebook wall. I hadn't thought of connecting the two events but they're both a way of changing lives, of making things a little better. Feeling rather humble, actually...