LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 50, No.4 - Winter 2004
Editor of this issue: M. G. Slavėnas
Copyright © 2004 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
FLASH MOBS: ART, CYBERSPACE AND THE SONOROUS COMMUNITY
In the summer of 2003, the new media began to report on a new fad called "flash mobs," which some critics label superficial entertainment and others recognize as artistic events or experiments in social organization. The term "flash" can indicate a sudden although brief burst and the term "mob" can refer to a riotous, many times lawless crowd. According to most accounts, for example the San Francisco Chronicle reporting on a flash mob event that took place in a local park, large seemingly spontaneous crowds gather to do some trivial task or play some silly game and then quickly disperse. These flash mobs are organized primarily by artists using e-mail, weblogs (personal diaries on the web) and word of mouth (via cell phones). Precise instructions as to time and place are sent out over e-mail and cell phone while final instructions explaining what exactly will be done are given when everyone gathers. But it is the use of the cellular telephone (cell phone) and what is being called "mobility media" that has critics interested in flash mobs as both an artistic expression and a social protest.1
On the one hand, commentators report on the superficiality of the activity finally engaged in as shallow entertainment. The purpose seems to be just to have a lot of fun, the gathered mob playing a child's game such as Duck, Duck, Goose, or mimicking some simple movements like banging a shoe on the pavement. The main criteria are that the group (the mob) both gathers and disperses quickly, which is where the modifier "flash" comes from. But some critics claim that flash mobs have relevant political and cultural implications as performance art and as a form of social revolution.2 Rheingold, for example, points out that social activists have been using cell phones to organize political protests for some time now. For example, the Seattle protesters against the World Trade Organization used cell phones to organize. Rafael reports that cell phones played a key role in the January 2001 protests in the Philippines, where a spontaneous mob was organized using cell phones in order to demand the resignation of the president as soon as his impeachment trial was declared a mistrial. In Lithuania this was the case with what was called the "Funeral of Democracy."3 One participant, Mrs. Frances Slutas (Šlutienė), reported that she received several cell phone messages and e-mails inviting her to the political protest against then president Rolandas Paksas about the unjust treatment of the mayor of Vilnius. The event was peaceful and playful - participants tossed rolls of toilet paper on the buildings, played music and danced in the streets -but had serious political implications. She saw "hundreds of young people peacefully organized and freely expressing their views," and even "older couples were coming, it was fantastic the response" (2003, e-mail). And according to Šlutienė, "Later that evening on TV Prime Minister Brazauskas made a comment that this was the first such rally since January 11 and should be reckoned with, so that there aren't anymore" (from an e-mail).
The other redeeming feature of flash mobs is that they are works by artists. Many journalists describe them as performance art. But, for the most part, the purpose of the summer gatherings of 2003 was entertainment, with notable flashmobs occurring in major metropolitan centers around the world.4
I would like to suggest, based on the context out of which this phenomenon emerges, that these flash mobs are not only legitimate forms of play and social protest but that they point to a shift taking place in the arts throughout the twentieth century. This shift places the arts and artist at the center of the growing importance of culture and communication as a prime ingredient in twenty-first century social, political and economic change. In this paper, I place "flash mobs" within the context of the recent arts tradition of postmodern performance art in the twentieth century by discussing the expanded notions of creativity, community and cyberspace and finally looking at sound and the community of those who appear to have nothing in common.
The Arts and Performance
I am suggesting that Flash mobs are a form of artistic expression intrinsic to the art tradition of twentieth century and that they reenergize a century-long shift, which begins with DADA and Surrealism, from an art that is objectified and visual to one that is performative and aural. On the one hand, modernism is the rejection of content, giving attention to the formal qualities of the visual and the intrinsic quality of the medium. This led to a metaphysical aesthetic and an international style that sought to be universal, disinterested, and elitist - based on the production of art objects wherein the artist and the art world sought not to "represent real life" but to make present through their vision the pure, the essential, the thing-in-itself. Danto designates this aspect of modern art the "era of ideology." In the visual arts, the focus on form leads to pure abstraction and the blank canvas: Malevich's Supremacist Manifesto and his painting White on White, Pollack's gestural paintings and Rothko's mystical canvases all lead to the creation of art objects abstracted and removed from life.
On the other hand, the beginning of the century also brought Duchamp's challenge to art institutions and the rejection of the art object. Dada and Surrealism attack the art object with performances that were both silly and playful as well as offensive and irreverent. Challenging the notion of a universal aesthetic, this work, designated "Postmodernism," seeks to undermine these assumptions by being concrete, particular, political, regressive, ephemeral, embodied, reflective, and communicative (see Tumas-Serna, 1992 b). Early examples of this art work were called Happenings, later Performance Art and Fluxus, affecting most of the theater arts and dance as well. Danto, a well known and respected philosopher of art, calls this period the end of art. It is not that artists stopped making art, but that the linear trajectory of art becomes "post-historical" and the notion of linear progress marked by periods of style - Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism - is abandoned. Today, according to Danto, there is no unified style of art. Some believe that this is a harmful position for the arts, but many artists and critics see it as a liberation and the affirmation of the creative vitality of a more diverse and embodied aesthetic (See Mickunas, 2002; 1989).
Flash mobs and the artists who conceive and carry them out operate in this performance art tradition that has finally created a medium that makes their challenge viable. These are the mobility media of the cell phone and e-mail in Flash mob performances. But earlier technologies of recording both sound and video played a key role in this shift also, all to create art events that take to the streets by creating performances that are interactive, inclusive and popular. In the visual arts during the first half of the twentieth century, artists used traditional media (oil paint for example) and traditional institutions (galleries, museums, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and public television) to make art. But after the 1960s, performance artists attempted to reach beyond these institutions through popular media to make a political difference (Laurie Anderson, Adrian Piper, and Robert Maplethorp). These revolutionary artists sought to address the unexamined assumptions of traditional modern avant-garde arts and their gendered, racist, and Eurocentric elitism, while the more rebellious aspects of late twentieth century art sought more inclusive, if not more democratic, forms. But like every movement that seeks to challenge institutions, dangers are always possible: chaos, anarchy and the destruction of our institutions, not only arts institutions, but social, economic and political institutions like nation states and even Western Civilization itself. It turns out that art and culture are extremely political. It has become to be known as "soft power," according to Joseph Nye, Dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government.
I am not advocating "mob rule" as the label "mob" might seem to imply. Even Flash mobs, as open as they appear to be, have an effective historical consciousness that functions to provide patterns of engagement. There are dangers of course. But I am interested in how this new manifestation of performance art can be analyzed and interpreted based on its place in the arts and how that changes our understanding of art and culture. At this early date in the development of flash mobs, what are some of the indications as to the meaning of and popularity of flash mobs that make them both entertainment and serious art capable of bringing about social change?
Creativity, Community and Cyberspace
I want to look briefly at three areas that contribute to
the shift I am describing. These are changes in our understanding of creativity,
revisions to the concept of social organization, and alterations to the concepts
of cyberspace and
1. Creativity as Art
Creativity is no longer just the venue of the artist as creative genius, but creativity is part of the entire social fabric, such as creative industries. Terry Flew, in his book about new media, points out that the creative industries are the most lucrative area of the economy in postindustrial society. Flew observes that "creativity does not simply reside in the arts or media industries, but is a central - and increasingly important - input into all sectors where design and content form the basis of competitive advantage in global economic markets."5 In this context, culture consists of the commodities of consumerism. For example, people construct their personal identity through the consumption of commodities such as clothing and the latest fashions of popular culture, where there is a blurring of lines between art and popular culture. The breakdown of the high art/mass culture dichotomy is evident in the rejection of the demarcation between "commercial value" and "cultural value." Thus the creative industries, using Adorno and Horkheimer's designation "cultural industries," supply goods and services that are associated with cultural, artistic and simply entertainment value.6 Second only to the industrial military complex, these creative industries are one of the most lucrative areas of the US economy and help to maintain our GNP and balance of trade. But Flew suggests that unlike the earlier analysis by Adorno and Horkheimer, this situation has benefits in that it increases the capacity of the audiences to creatively understand "non-informational cultural symbols and aesthetic signifiers."7 New forms of production, new understandings of "culture," new forms of consumption and distribution have overrun the cozy separation of "art" and "cultural value" and even art objects have become commodities. For example, paintings at auction houses, such as Christies's or any number of art galleries, have become investment instruments like stocks and bonds. So, today, creativity and culture are big business.
Despite how we may feel about the commercialization of culture, creativity is no longer the purview of the arts and a cultural elite. This extends the notion of culture to a whole way of life and seeks to challenge the object d'art and the dominant art institutions. Some artists began to rebel by refusing to create the objects. Happenings, Performance art and movements such as Fluxus are manifestations of this rebellion. And the move has been to make creation and creativity an activity, a work in process, and to make present this process in lived experience. Performance art takes the participant through the creative process and does so in an open public venue, which becomes actively political. Performance art is a rejection of the commodification of culture and the institutions of the art market and an attempt to address this expanding notion of creativity. This is one very powerful context in which flash mobs operate.
In response to the alienation present in modern industrial social institutions, references to community generally reflect nostalgia for an ideal traditional community and the human interaction available within this form of social organization. The bureaucratization of the public sphere and its social contract are indicators of a breakdown and alienation of individuals in this organizational structure. In the past, the massification of institutions and resources was necessarily based on the limits of early communication technologies. But we have moved from an industrial to a postindustrial society and organizational change is evident. The social theorist Ferdinand Tonnies first published his theory of society in 1887. He made the distinction between community and society as an explanation of the shift in social organization due to the movement from agrarian to urban life and a mass culture, mass media, mass education and market economy. It would seem that the shift more recently to a postindustrial society would demand or maybe provide opportunities to change these bureaucratic, social organizations and make them more responsive to human needs in our present context. Manuel Castells suggests a network society. In Communication Studies and Media Studies one area that is being reexamined is the structure and meaning of community and the Internet. This reconstruction of the notion of community on the World Wide Web has focused on cyberspace and virtual reality, but Flash mob episodes acknowledge a more embodied reaction. Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong would designate these phenomena as a manifestation of a new tribalism or second order orality, but Naomi Klein disagrees:
Thanks to the Net, mobilizations occur with sparse bureaucracy and minimal hierarchy; forced consensus and labored manifestos are fading into the background, replaced instead by a culture of constant, loosely structured and sometimes compulsive information swapping. What is emerging is an activist model that mirrors the organic, decentralized, interlinked pathways of the Internet - the Internet come to life.8
Klein sees this model of organization as not defined by a ruling elite or hierarchical governing structure but by communities themselves. So the goal to bring about social change "is not to win control, but to seize and build autonomous spaces where 'democracy, liberty and justice' can thrive."9 She suggests that there are places where these types of leaderless structures are operating today. Her example is the revolution going on in Southern Mexico, where Mayan indigenous communities are practicing a form of revolution aided by the World Wide Web. They are using the web to get their message out to the world, and their leaders have refused to create a hierarchical structure or organization.10
Early on in fiction and in scientific literature, the new electronic media have been conceptualized as space - limitless, empty space - for Gibson a "collective hallucination." In the arts, Oliver Grau, in his new book Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion, makes the connection between virtual reality and the tradition in Western art of illusion and the immersive image. His position is that virtual reality in the visual arts is part of a long history of illusion and immersive spaces; his examples range from the panoramic murals of Pompeii through Veronese, Mantegna; and the ceiling panoramas in the sacred space of southern Germany and Austria. He then constructs an analogy between these per-spectival spaces and the constructs of virtual reality, but this interpretation of virtual reality is merely visual and spatial and, I suggest, incomplete. Even his example, artist Char Davies' Osmos, suggests something else because the artist continues to search and seek to create what Grau calls immersive spaces that are polysensual rather than visual. Davies searches for a way to articulate a full-body, kinesthet-ically explored virtual embodiment. I suggest that this calls for an audial expressivity as well.11
Grau's interpretation of this art does provide historical evidence for an aesthetic of distance, but it continues the metaphysical search for the pure spatial experience to provide the presence of a true reality, this time virtual. I would suggest that this immersive quality of experience is not visual/spatial, for space collapses. In fact, the artist must "deceive the eye" to give way to a multifaceted experience that is more intense and polysensual. I would suggest that sound is what can and does create the immersion. Immersion is not spatial but audial. Space is silent, distant, cold and impersonal while sound makes it "living," emotional, psychological - an embodied consciousness without boundaries, without dichotomies of inner/outer, mind/body. The problem with virtual reality art is that it again ends up with the silent, pure, abstract space of Malevich, whereas Flash mobs are full of life, embodied responses to the lived experience of being human in the twenty-first century. This concern with lived experience is present in the other areas of research that investigate online communities and flexible identities.
Flash mobs emerge out of an arts tradition that is much more complex than equating it with visual illusion. These shifts in our understanding of creativity, community and cyberspace point to an interpretation of the phenomenon of flash mobs as an indicator of how people are dealing with and shaping the development of the new communication technologies.
So, Where Are We Now?
New technologies are constituted and constitutive of the lived world, embodied communities creating and recreating our institutions of culture and society. The institutions we have now were conceived and created in a context much different from that of our own twenty-first century. For example, early in the development of the United States the landed gentry raised crops and produced handmade goods with small isolated populations unable to communicate across great distances, but long-distance communication wasn't necessary because their governance was based on community town meetings. Their communication media were limited to small printings of broadside newspapers and a communication system based on transportation. The industrial revolution and the increased diversity of the population through immigration, however, brought strangers together in the cities. In response, the press created a mass readership that required mass education, bureaucracies and layers of representative government. But today we have a highly mobile population that is able to bypass the gatekeepers and interpreters of information and knowledge, not only a highly mobile, well-connected technocratic elite, but also a media-savvy audience no longer willing to be homogenized and represented as one generalized mass public. These shifts call into question the institutions and bureaucracy of representational government and mass-produced passively received media and their institutions. Some fear the chaos of the diverse and open channels we have today and fear fragmentation and relativism or, even worse, a new tribalism. I would suggest that the development and popularity of new media, such as the Internet and the cell phone, demonstrate the limits of our institutions to address and represent the diversity of people and their needs, especially of those I call the "sonorous community." Here "sonorous" means sound.
Globalization and immigration have changed our understanding of community. As Rheingold and Resnick point out, the Internet and especially the World Wide Web have created communities beyond the limits of geographic territories. Flash mobs are experiments in new forms of social organization. As Lewellen recounts at the beginning of his book on the globalization of anthropology, although it appears to postmodern theorists that immigrant families live fragmented lives, this is not the case for those who live the immigration experience today. These people maintain their community both in the United States of America and in their home country despite the national diaspora. Through modern means of communication, despite the bilingual, bicultural, and binational lives they live, the community remains a viable option by which they anchor their identity. There has been a resurgence of ethnic communities that commute and communicate back and forth regularly, and the experience of Lithuanians and the worldwide Lithuanian community is a good example of this as well.
I spent a number of years studying the communication network of a community in Mexico. It wasn't until I was living in the Yucatan, researching this bicultural, bilingual, binational community, whose members commuted 3,000 miles between Telchac Pueblo, Yucatan, and Oxnard, California, in order to work, that I recognized the source of one of the most powerful aspects of their communication network - that of sound. The connection was not necessarily the sound of music but that they were communities of sound: oral communities that maintained their connections through sound, the sound of their voices, their music and the sonorous characteristics of people who live and communicate by participating within particular rhythms, tones, timbers, and volume levels of noise as a community. These soundings are nonrepresentational and nonconceptual, but still communicate to maintain the community, many times existing outside of literacy because they are immersed in the sound of their community - the voices of gossip and language, music and noise. I traveled to Lithuania in the summer of 1988. It was during the Folk Festival when, after a program in the University courtyard, a group of us walked the streets of Old Town while some of the old-timers sang liaudies dainos with new witty, sarcastic and ironic political lyrics criticizing the Soviet occupation.
My research with the Mexican community made me aware of how important sound is in the maintenance of their community in the United States of America. In the States, we would all sit in their living room with the Spanish-language TV station blaring out the latest soap opera in Spanish and everybody talking at once in a mixture of Spanish and English. The grandparents began coming to Oxnard, California, to pick strawberries in the 1960s. Now they were visiting from their home in Mexico, where they live in retirement and visit Oxnard frequently. In addition, the group consisted of their children who picked in the fields, and their grandchildren raised both in the US and Mexico - a great big group of us all talking and laughing about the past and the stories of picking in the fields, and the way that a certain Hispanic radio disc jockey played Mexican music for the workers in the field. Back then, there was a particular disc jockey who took dedications and passed on messages and lighthearted gossip over the air. My friends remember the disc jockey fondly and how they took comfort from his banter as they picked in the fields. They remarked that he was still on the air. These sounds made these immigrants aware and proud of their cultural heritage and aware that they had to sustain and pass on to their children the values of their Hispanic culture, which I have come to identify as a sonorous community. This connection to sound could be said of the Lithuanian community also. I remember growing up in Chicago as a second-generation Lithuanian. All of my grandparents migrated at the beginning of the twentieth century. We would all go to Lithuanian "doings," the best part of which was skits and dancing with my Father - waltzes, polkas, and fox trots. So, when I heard about Flash mobs, I took some of these observations with me, because the communication of on-line communities has also been described as having an oral structure.12
The Sonorous Community
I do not mean that Flash mobs or performance artists are consciously attempting to create sonorous communities, but that sound has been and continues to be an important component in the formation of community and is lacking in a culture that has a monopoly and a dominant culture that makes judgments based on literacy and spatial metaphors of distance and progress. Since mid-century, sound has played an important role in the construction of community in Western popular culture. Flash mobs could be a way that people separated over great distances can develop a community in the context of the arts and computer-mediated communication. Music, of course, is important but it is not everything. It is the experience of sound that gathers together those who are attuned to it. Sounds fill, surround, engulf and swallow space with various emotions; these can be feelings of joy, foreboding, laughter, even sadness, immediate and a-rational. If the visual, sonorous, tactile and other sensations are isolated, then experience becomes fragmented. Sounds are "diaphanous", one-through-the other: interdependent and inter-subjective. It is in sonorous communities that noise and the experience of sound take on new meaning. These sounds not only attract an audience but also create public awareness and meaning, not only for the Mexican immigrants I have studied but for other ethnic communities as well. Such is the Lithuanian community in the US in the latter part of the twentieth century.
Sound and the development of sonorous communities have been facilitated first by the audio media of recording and radio and then the audiovisual media of television. Rock and roll might not be your favorite music, but it created a bond for a whole generation. For groups of the disenfranchised, first jazz and later reggae, punk, and rap have empowered ethnic and popular cultures. These sounds emerged out of the community and accessed groups of people who under the regime of the visual were disenfranchised and silenced. When we say that these groups found their voice, this is literally the case. They began to sound. These sonorous communities, because they were so skilled in sound making, were able to appropriate the visual culture of the fine arts as the dominant culture. While the humanities and liberal arts deplored popular music and ignored their call, the commercial institutions and corporate capitalism jumped on the bandwagon and shaped them to their requirements.
In the example of popular music, different groups and their audiences find a groove, a sound that is their own (see Singer, 1983; Tumas-Serna, 1992a, 1994). And this sound produces an identity with others who "get it," feel the music. This is what jazz musicians said about their music. Through the sounds, participants can self-identify with others in a variety of ways, such as socioeconomic class, national identities, and generations, but each are inextricably linked to time and place. These are the memories and identities that these individuals share with their identity group. The Oxford English Dictionary says "sonorous" means "capable of producing deep or ringing sound". Sonorous communities are those that produce sound and are immersed in sound from within the depth of the community in which each individual member resonates with other members of the community. It can be the rhythm, tone and timber of a language, its sound, the happy bounce of a polka or sweep of a waltz to dance to, or silences, comforting or sad. This resonant experience evokes enduring images, memories and emotions. Sound is diaphanous, one sound is heard through another, and immersive. Sounds are music, but more than music in the sense of Western art. Sounds engulf the whole body with vibrations and excitations, and attuned to the sounds and moving with them the individual becomes one with the group, the crowd, a generation their community experienced as one body.
Flash mobs as an artistic endeavor could be seen as striving to use the new communication media to constitute a new form of community. Over and above the visual silence of cyberspace and its virtual reality of illusion, the Internet and its World Wide Web extend our voices in a global reach. The problem is that on the Internet they do so primarily as visual text. Flash mobs are an experiment in the extension of on-line communities. Those who get together on-line are reaching out, creating a context in which they come together as a group within a concrete lived experience. They are using the new technology of the cell phone and its aural reach to communicate and call together a community of on-line acquaintances with some mutual interest, no matter how superficial, that, by all appearances, have nothing in common but the call to meet. Although it is a little frightening to have all of our institutions challenged, artists give us a venue and use the new media available to them to create an experience, to raise awareness, no matter how playful, of the conditions for the possibility of cooperative action among communities of those who have nothing in common but their human condition.13
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1. Rheingold, 2002; http://www.smartmobs.com, 8/29/2003; Resnick, http://www.liveiournal.com/users/presnick, 8/29/2003.
2. http://www.e-thepeople.org/article/24448/view?viewtype=, 8/30/2003.
3. See http://www.culture.lt/uzuzur/?leid._id-l&kas-straipsnis&st.id+18.
4. http://www.e-thepeople. or-g/'article124448 jview?viewtype=, 8/30/2003.
5. Flew, 115.
6. Ibid., 117.
7. Ibid., 115.
8. Klein, http://www.yorku.ca/socreg/Klein.htm. 8/31/2003, paragraph 16.
9. Klein, 2003, paragraph 48.
10. See http://www.ezln.org.
11. See Grau, 200.
12. Corcoran, 1995.
13. See Lingis (1994) "in the face of death" and Mickunas (2002) as "world awareness."