Aleksey Kiselyov
How the Flash Mob Changed Everything

Technological leaps at the dawn of the twenty-first century led to the emergence of previously impossible ways for people to organize themselves. Sociologists had predicted a new wave of grassroots revolutions, eco-activism, carsharing and even dating apps back in the 1990s, but they signally failed to predict one of these emergent forms of self-organization. Devoid of any practical meaning, it captured humanity’s imagination for a brief moment before going to rack and ruin, leaving behind a legend of an embodied utopia of anonymous art and a term that today has come to mean something completely different from what was meant at the time it was coined—flash mob. Flash mobs take place every second in the virtual space nowadays. They have been put into the service of governments, and the very principles of instantaneous organization have been adopted by the social services. So what is the flash mob? Or, rather, what was it?

What’s Happening?

It is the autumn of 2003, and I am on the second floor balcony of the Gorbushkin Dvor shopping center in Moscow. The balcony resembles the upper tier of a theater, only down below there are escalators and stairs, not seats. There are a lot of people, even an unusually large number—I distinctly remember a crowd. Anyone on the escalators and stairs can clearly see those who have gathered on the balcony, around fifty people who would be indistinguishable from ordinary shoppers if not for two circumstances. They all stand with expressionless faces, silently staring in front of them. Each of them is wearing yellow glasses. Is it a product promotion? It doesn’t look like one: the props are clearly homemade. Some have covered their glasses with yellow stickers, while others have painted them with yellow paint, and still others have yellow lenses. I am among them. Three security guards nervously click their walkie-talkies, pacing from side to side. The tension grows. Then something quite strange happens. The group applauds almost synchronously. Then it applauds again. I am one of them. Again and again, speeding up, we clap about twenty times. Or two hundred and twenty times: it is hard to reconstruct the events from this remove. The tension doesn’t abate. On the contrary, it increases. This unprovoked ritual, reminiscent of collective mooing during a mathematics lesson, seemingly cannot end well.

It’s New York

On May 27, 2003, sixty-some New Yorkers received the following email: “You are invited to take part in MOB, the project that creates an inexplicable mob of people in New York City for ten minutes or less. Please forward this to other people you know who might like to join.”

Less than a month later, on June 17, 2003, near Herald Square in Manhattan, two hundred people gathered in the furniture department on the ninth floor of the Macy’s department store to examine its selection of carpets, informing the clerks that they all lived in a commune in Long Island City and were looking for a “love rug.” Ten minutes later, without buying anything, they left the store.

Snapshots from the first successful flash mob, at a Macy’s department store in New York, June 17, 2003

The subscribers of the MOB mailing list soon gathered again, this time in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt Hotel, to applaud for fifteen seconds for no reason—and there were already twice as many people in attendance as at the first action. In Central Park, near the Museum of Natural History Museum, they imitated bird calls. Then, disguised as tourists, they met in a shoe store to wait for the bus. They formed a huge queue outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral, joined by dozens of curious passers-by. (This was MOB #7, which almost literally reprised an action by the Polish art group Akademia Ruchu in the late 1970s, with the only difference that the artists’ queues led nowhere).

Video footage of the August 8, 2003, action shows a crowd suddenly flooding the huge second-floor showroom of the Toys ‘R’ Us store in Times Square. Seemingly ordinary shoppers, strangers to each other, gathered in front of a giant animatronic tyrannosaurus, and when it began moving around and growling, they screamed and dropped to their knees before the reptile, paying no mind to a panicked security guard and other customers, who were also taken aback. One participant boasted to a journalist as he left the store, “The look of disbelief on people’s faces, you know, you show up and people are like what’s going on, you know, it’s fun. You know, it’s just the shock value I guess, the giving people surprises, it’s New York. You’re not supposed to live just A to B to C to D every day.”

“New Yorkers invade toy store in bizarre internet craze”

In August, footage of the dinosaur worship and the causeless queue at the cathedral was broadcast around the world. The media suggested names for the season’s biggest trend, beginning with “inexplicable mob.” Blogger Sean Savage then suggested the more euphonious term “flash mob.” It was translated into Russian as mgnovennoe stolpotvorenie (“instant pandemonium”) and even momentolpa (“instacrowd”), but the English word itself came to be used instead, slightly Russified: fleshmob. As they tried to figure out the phenomenon’s origins, journalists would immediately agree on one thing, however: the strange fad owed its emergence to a book recently published in the US.

Howard Rheingold Foresaw the Flash Mob

Two years before the events described, shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Californian Howard Rheingold went on his latest round-the-world trip. He was fifty-four years old at the time. In the eighties, he had written about artificial intelligence; in the nineties, about virtual reality. Now it was time to gather material for a new book. Rheingold writes about the development of computer technologies and their impact on society. It was no wonder, then, that he found himself in Tokyo. In the middle of the city’s Shibuya Crossing neighborhood, where every passerby wielded a mobile phone, Rheingold had an epiphany. A year later, he released a book entitled Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, whose first chapter was entitled “Shibuya Epiphany.”

Rheingold’s investigation of the internet’s effect on world politics and the economy, of the civic self-organization of crowds, revolutions of the future, dating via local networks and the influence of gadgets on people’s behavior has been translated into dozens of languages. The Russian edition was published in 2006, its cover featuring a word not mentioned in the text itself—flash mob. The fact is that a book entitled Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution might never have been published in Russia (because the pool of potential readers was too small) were it not for the phenomenal popularity of mass tomfoolery that journalists around the world linked to the book’s publication. Rheingold thus unexpectedly benefited from a global flash mob of sorts.

David Yang and the Russian Connection

When Howard Rheingold returned home and started working on the book, some American and Japanese teenagers were wild about Cybiko, a handheld computer for games and dating. The device generated a wireless local area network with nearby identical gadgets at a distance of up to three hundred meters. (In the United States, however, the range was significantly smaller due to government regulations.) Up to three thousand users could be on the same network. At the 2000 North American International Toy Fair in New York, Cybiko was recognized as the number one novelty.

A Japanese ad for Cybiko

Cybiko was invented by the Russian entrepreneur David Yang, better known as the founder of ABBYY and the creator of FineReader. Using Cybiko, you could meet people by specifying preferences (the device vibrated if a suitable candidate was nearby), organize groups, install games and apps, upload photos—and even switch the interface language to Russian. Sales of the toy never took off in Russia, however. It also failed to conquer the US market: the Cybiko had bet on robust sales for Christmas, but Sony’s PlayStation console was the big hit that year. Yang went home to Moscow. Meanwhile, Rheingold’s book was published, and the first flash mob took place in New York.

“I was on a sabbatical, ” Yang now recalls now. “The Cybiko project had ended, I was taking time off. The funny thing is that it was my mother who told me about flash mobs. She had read about them about three months after the flash mob took place at the Macy’s store in New York.”

“Bill”

Web developer Rob Zazueta was supposedly inspired to launch the first website for organizing flash mobs (flocksmart.com, now defunct) by Rheingold’s book. However, Zazueta, as well as Tom Grow, the creator of another popular flash mob platform (mobproject.com, also defunct), told Fox News in the summer of 2003 that the movement’s founder was “Bill, ” as the person who sent out the emails inviting people to take part in MOB identified himself. When asked by presenter Greta Van Susteren whether Zazueta and Grow knew who Bill was, both said that neither of them knew “Bill” personally. “From what I’ve read, he works in the cultural industry, and that’s about as specific as we’ve got with him, ” Grow said.

Rob Zazueta and Tom Grow on Fox News in 2003

“People intuitively understand that it is a powerful thing to very quickly and surprisingly transform a physical space, and one reason they keep coming back to the mobs is there is this feeling that something is being created that can’t be ignored, ” said “Bill, ” as quoted in New York Times article published on August 17, 2003, two months after the first action at Macy’s. A month later, he announced the project’s end in an email to participants. While the flash mob had indeed entered its final phase in the US, everything had just kicked off in the rest of the world.

Media Frenzy

On June 5, 2003, the public radio station WNYC’s program The Next Big Thing broadcast a report recorded at the first, failed, flash mob. Presenter Dean Olsher mentions that it is raining, and his guest, reporter Liza Featherstone, quotes extensively from the email she received inviting her to the “inexplicable mob.” They note the presence of police and briefly interview some of the participants, including “Bill” himself. From then until the end of the summer, almost every flash mob was announced in the media, and reporters armed with video cameras would arrive at the sites in advance. Each such report, in the summer and autumn of 2003, would explain what flash mobs were and summarize the most interesting events that had already taken place around the world.

In late July and early August 2003, Newsweek, Wired and USA Today published overviews of the summer’s flash mobs. On August 8, 2003, the BBC’s Russian Service posted an article, “Instant Pandemonium Spreads Around the World, ” describing the first actions in New York (the “love rug”) and Rome (three hundred people asked for a non-existent book at a bookstore). It was the first Russian-language article about flash mobs, whose participants were identified not as “flash mobbers, ” but as “flash mobsters.” The article included a straw poll of readers:

Do you want to participate in a flash mob?
1. Yes (68.82%)
2. No (16.32%)
3. I’ve participated in one (5.33%)
4. Only if I’m well paid (9.53%)
619 people voted
(This is not an official opinion poll.)

The article quotes a member of the first London flash mob, 33-year-old Simon Hudson, who argued that it was a new cultural phenomenon: “I think that later we will tell our grandchildren about it. Such things let you disrupt the usual flow of life.” The article was soon cited by the first Russian flash mob websites (as well as the flash mob community on LiveJournal). Leonid Parfyonov was the first journalist to talk about flash mobs on Russian television.

CNN and Time delved into the history and geography of the flash mob in articles published on August 9 and August 10, 2003, respectively. Time also mentioned the new phenomenon’s incredible popularity in Germany and described the first flash mob in the UK, which happened on August 7, 2003, at a Sofas-UK store: “Once in the shop the mob had been instructed to ‘look at a sofa, view them [sic] with the reverence and awe that one should have for soft furniture’ and say, ‘Oh wow, what a sofa’ without uttering the letter O.”

Lauren Goldstein, the article’s author, was the first to situate the flash mob in cultural history, labeling it an echo of “‘60s-era ‘happenings’ or ‘70s-era Situationist art projects.” A week later, Amy Harmon, in the New York Times, claimed that the flash mob was akin to Dadaism, and also to phonebooth stuffing, flagpole sitting and other earlier US prank fads. She also reported the emergence of an anti-flash mob movement that urged people not to go to flash mobs, because they were pointless, stupid and dangerous.

On August 29, 2003, the French website JDN reported the first flash mob in Paris, at the Louvre (participants were asked to first speak loudly into their telephones before abruptly falling on the floor): “On July 26, participants in Vienna ate fresh fruits and vegetables. In Dortmund, it was bananas. On July 24, in Rome, several hundred people asked for a non-existent book in a store. And on August 7, more than 200 Londoners were ecstatic about the goods in a sofa store. Please note that the first Paris flash mob is planned for today.”

On September 1, 2003, the Moscow magazine Afisha also reported the actions in Rome and London, as well as two other mid-summer flash mobs: “July 31, Dallas: 40 people gathered at the Metroplex cinema, dividing into two groups and inflating red and green balloons. The first group shouted, ‘Marco! ’ while the second replied, ‘Polo! ’ August 1, Berlin: 50 people took out their cell phones right on the street and started shouting, ‘Ja, ja, ja! ’”

The Afisha reporter made an astute observation: there were twice as many reporters as flash mobbers at the first Petersburg flash mob, at Moscow Station on August 16, 2003. (Participants greeted passengers arriving from Moscow with signs on which “NzR178qWe” was printed. It was a joint flash mob with Muscovites, who had seen off the same train from Moscow’s Leningrad Station.)

The media frenzy and the flash mob’s subsequent popularity made it impossible for the movement to continue in anonymous guerrilla mode. However, the media frenzy also spread the very notion of gratuitous, anonymous self-organized crowds. If the first actions in New York were a local exotic pastime, after the explosion in media coverage, flash mobs literally took over the world in two months.

Moscow: 1b vs. 2b

On August 15, 2003, the first Russian flash mob was held at the fountain in the GUM department store, near the Kremlin in Moscow. It was a near-reprisal of the second New York flash mob, when three hundred people had gathered at the Grand Hyatt Hotel to applaud. But there were no more than twenty Muscovites on hand in the GUM. The event would have gone unnoticed if a reporter from Leonid Parfyonov’s national prime-time TV program Namedni (“The Other Day”) had not been there.

In the autumn of 2003, it was possible to punch the keywords “flash mob Moscow” into a search engine and get links to two local flash-mobbing sites at once—flashmob.ru and flashmobber.ru—independent forums where activists had migrated from LiveJournal threads. Mobbers called the first site “1b” and the second “2b, ” after the number of b’s in their names. The second was soon renamed fmob.ru, but for old times’ sake it is referred to as “2b” even today, when neither one nor the other is online.

After learning about flash mobs in the early autumn of 2003, David Yang immediately went to meet the folks behind flashmob.ru, whose names have never been disclosed. “I said, ‘Let’s do really cool actions, international actions.’ But the [the flashmob.ru] guys turned me down, ” Yang revealed to me for the first time. He then reached out to the creator of “2b, ” known by his nickname, “Dirty.” He liked the idea, and so in October, Yang started paying the site’s hosting fees himself. Under the nickname “Dave, ” he became the Moscow flash mob’s front man.

“1b” and “2b” went online in August and September 2003, respectively, becoming factories for the production of non-institutional happenings and non-spectacular art in the first six months of their existence. “I remember that there was some strange competition and opposition [between the two websites], ” Yang recalled. “And that was the cool thing. It seems to me that [due to this internal competition] the flash mob movement in Russia was much more coherent and systematic than in other countries.”

Petersburg: Extreme Flash Mobs

Meanwhile, flash mobbers in Petersburg were getting together at an online forum called Let’s Go: it was there that the movement that arose spontaneously on LiveJournal had migrated. By the autumn of 2003, not all of its members would be aware of what a “flash mob” was, but Let’s Go had itself become a household name and a term of art: Poidem na Let’s Go, local mobbers would say—“Let’s go to the Let’s Go.”

The site’s founder, nicknamed “Mob, ” has not yet been deanonymized. “No one knew who exactly was behind it. Apparently, the guy who started it didn’t want to be in the public eye, so he walked away from it quite quickly. Roughly speaking, he just created the website, which then ran on its momentum, ” Vladimir Vinogradov, head of development at a Cyprus-based company, told me in 2021. In 2004, while still a student at Petersburg’s Polytechnic University, Vinogradov accidentally witnessed a flash mob in the Petersburg subway, after which he went home and registered on Let’s Go under the nickname “F@tON.” Vinogradov would later be known as the chronicler of the Petersburg flash mob scene. “We had a forum where everyone laid out their ideas. There was a whole branch called ‘new ideas.’ Once a week, we would choose the most interesting idea by a vote of all the members. Then the organizers would select a venue and come up with an ‘agency’ [agentura]. The agency is when, in order to get a leaflet indicating the place and time [of the flash mob itself], you would have to go somewhere and perform an additional action. Even the least-promising scenario could be leveraged by the agency so that on the whole it looked just awesome, ” Vinogradov recalled.

The “agency” for the flash mob Childhood (September 17, 2005), the hundredth operation by the Petersburg scene, involved bringing a balloon and a favorite toy along. The balloon was to be given to a little girl in exchange for printed instructions telling participants to go to a small playground and play with their toys. A placard with the word “childhood” written on it was attached to the collected balloons. When it soared into the sky along with the balloons, this signaled the end of the action.

However, not all the “agencies” were so sentimental. Instructions for one of the actions had be obtained from women holding men on leashes. These “owners” were collecting money for “dog food.”

In late 2003, the Let’s Go website was renamed flashmob.spb.ru (and, later, spbmob.ru). A warning appeared on the site’s home page: “Alcohol (during the mob), drugs and unprotected sex are bollocks for a real mobber.” Vinogradov claims that there were no social, political or even artistic statements behind the actions. “The flash mob is outside of politics and outside of advertising, ” he said.

In its first year, the Petersburg scene staged flash mobs that would later be repeated in many cities around the world, including Kissing City (on February 14, dozens of couples gather and kiss for several minutes), Pillow Fight (whose title speaks for itself), and Bang-Bang (mobbers point imaginary pistols at each other, imitate shooting when a signal is given, and simultaneously fall to the ground).

Without calling their flash mobs contemporary art, Petersburg organizers staged properly actionist antics and mass performance art pieces. Petersburgers ran naked down Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s main drag, walked through the streets in shoe covers, tortured the “bald punching bag” (they were instructed to go to a shopping center food court, find a bald man sitting alone at a table and do whatever they wished to his bald head), and covered the street with handprints in a matter of minutes.

The most impressive scenario, which would soon be repeated in several cities and would later serve as a convenient illustration of a “classic” flash mob, was Roundup. The action was first witnessed by passers-by on Nevsky Prospekt in late 2003. They saw about a hundred people standing facing a wall, their hands behind their heads, while others lay face down on the pavement with their hands behind their backs. After a few minutes, the participants of the flash mob dispersed as if nothing had happened. There is a tiny snapshot of the Moscow iteration of Roundup, staged in 2004.

In 2005, a prankster branch of the flash mob called “extreme mob” emerged, followed by a more radical and performative offshoot known as “mincemeating” (farshing). At one extreme mob, participants brought bags of their own feces to a supermarket to have them weighed and charged at the checkout. At another action, one mobber sold worms and cockroaches in a subway car while the other mobbers, disguised as ordinary passengers, bought and immediately wolfed them down. Mincemeating is a series of actions for a limited number of participants who have passed an initiation in which they have to do something that they have never done in their lives and would ordinarily not be able to do. Someone might inflate a chicken with a pump while standing in the middle of a square wearing a jacket and women’s tights, while someone else might squirt ketchup and mustard all over themselves and other mincemeaters. “Humpamies, ” who witnessed and was involved in extreme mobs and mincemeating, came to the conclusion that, for a certain segment of mobbers, such actions were nothing more than a type of therapy. “In fact, [mincemeating] is the next step after extreme mob for those who joined the flash mob to shed their inhibitions or explore their fears, ” he said.

“Flash Mob #2 in Kharkiv” (Queuing at a Flower Bed for “Shaman’s Tambourines”)

While the extreme flash mob was emerging in Petersburg, Moscow was planning an action that would unite the whole planet—and put an end to the history of the flash mob.

Radek Meets the Flash Mob

In 2003, Maxim Karakulov was a 26-year-old economics student at Moscow State University, but for several years he had been looking for ways to change a world that did not suit him. In the end, his search led him to the Radek Community, a group of radical artists. Its members had once climbed onto the Lenin Mausoleum, unfurling a banner inscribed with the slogan “Against All [Parties], ” and while crossing a street on a green light, they mingled with other pedestrians while unfurling red banners emblazoned with slogans like “Another world is possible.” The Radek Community’s actions were written about all over the world, inspiring one researcher to come up with the concept of “archaeo-modernity.”

It was then that Karakulov learned about flash mobs. “In 2003, a wave of flash mobs spontaneously swept the world. Ten-minute actions with absurd and ridiculous scenarios were happening. The most amazing thing was that all of them were staged by ordinary people, remote from art, ” Karakulov recalled in 2014. “It occurred to me that if we managed to change one of the general scenarios, it would inevitably lead to the creation of a new reality. For example, a long queue suddenly formed at the VDNKh to see the Tu-154 aircraft [Unflyable Weather, September 11, 2003, VDNKh, Moscow]. Or a crowd of onlookers formed on a street corner, looking for something on the roof of a nearby house [House, September 11, 2003, Arbat, Moscow].”

“Then I began to understand, ” Karakulov continued, “that any person’s life consists of a set of scripts, each of which is similar to the scripts of flash mobs. In everyday life, we synchronize these scripts, thus building our common reality. We all go to school at a certain time, go to university, get married, have children, buy a dacha, go shopping, go to the theater, take part in charity events and give up our seats on public transport.”

Karakulov met Yang, registered under the nickname “enjoy” and became the ideas man at fmob.ru. The forum was soon chockablock with articles about contemporary art and the psychology of deviant behavior, and ideas for new scenarios grew out of these articles. Yang formulated detailed recommendations for the organizers of actions, including the rules of conspiracy, ethical standards and safety rules:

1. Study the script in advance so that you have no questions.
2. Strictly follow the instructions.
3. Synchronize your watch as precisely as possible.
4. Be at the site ten seconds before the start of the flash mob.
5. Don’t come with friends.
6. Don’t say hello if you see someone you know.
7. Don’t laugh during the flash mob.
8. Don’t stay at the site after the flash mob.
9. Don’t talk about the flash mob either before, during or after the action.

Regarding the overall philosophy of flash mobs, Yang fully shared Karakulov’s passion. “It is absolutely conceptual art, an attempt to find new boundaries. We can regard it a means of communication, a means of thinking, a means of cognition, ” he said.

“An example of an ideal flash mob for me was Spy Tourists, one of the first Moscow actions, ” Karakulov recalled in an interview with Afisha in 2013. “That was when people started snapping pictures of everything in the shopping arcade on Manege Square as if it was a tourist sight. There were about a hundred people, and the whole place lit up with twinkling lights. Another beautiful action was Billiards, in which people just moved from column to column in the subway. To the outside observer, it seemed like the ordinary chaotic movements of a crowd, but if you looked closely, you might have noticed a strange, unusual order.”

In the terms elaborated on the forums at flashmob.ru and fmob.ru, these were examples of classic non-spectacular flash mobs. The definition in the Russian Wikipedia article about the flash mob was probably borrowed directly from the theory sections of these forums (in 2004, it was still in a nascent state): “These are actions in which participants try to model a subtle, sometimes barely perceptible socio-communicative space in which the experience of the participants themselves is primary. [Flash mobs] can be invisible to others. The actions of the participants approximate everyday life so closely that their image begins to ‘flicker.’”

Moscow mobbers suddenly dropped coins on Novoslobodskaya Street, filling the space of a shopping center with ringing for a few seconds. They staged a minute of silence on Tverskaya Street, and jangled keys in their pockets while walking through a long pedestrian underpass on Rizhskaya Street. It was such “classic” mobs that Yang also recalled in Afisha as the basis of the Moscow flash mob movement on the occasion of its tenth anniversary.

In fact, flash mobbers are wizards of sorts. In this sense, the most interesting, subtle and elegant mobs, I find, are the ones in which behavioral principles are violated in very insignificant ways. One of these scenarios was Heightened Sense of Smell, in which we employed a tiny deviation from traditional behavior: in a perfume store, the participants sniffed not the test samples of the perfumes, but their price tags. Another example is the flash mob Circular Movements, which was also very subtle. You had to strain a little to see what was happening: the participants walked in circles on different levels of a shopping center in opposite directions—some clockwise, others counterclockwise—but you could only notice this by standing down below and looking up.

“I saw that people really were clicking, ” Elina Kaplun, a Moscow flash mob activist, said about Circular Movements when I interviewed her recently. “Nothing special seemed to be happening, but something was wrong. In terms of the spatial shift effect, it was the coolest flash mob, I think.”

User Anzver Shtagnaute later posted a video of Circular Movements on his YouTube channel with the caption, “Perhaps an art video by the Radek Community.” “It is a flash mob, ” Karakulov, who conceived the action, noted in the comments.

Circular Movements, Atrium Shopping Center, Moscow, November 30, 2003

For the first anniversary of the world flash mob, Moscow mobbers produced scripts for a global operation that closed the parentheses opened at the Macy’s store in New York a year earlier. Participants went up to the cashiers at the Children’s World store on the Lubyanka, gave them ten rubles each and said, “Thank you very much! The love rug was amazing!” On the same day, activists outlined each other’s bodies in chalk on the pavement: flash mobbers in a hundred cities in nearly thirty countries simultaneously took part in the Bodylines project.

In hindsight, we can unequivocally state that in this symbolic way—first by alluding to the very first flash mob in history, and then by tracing “corpses” in chalk on the pavement—the death of the world flash mob was documented. Although that was not the intended meaning of these actions.

The Last Flash Mob

In August 2003, when the flash mob phenomenon itself was not yet three months old, the idea of spontaneous assemblies was put to use in the social sphere (in the UK, flash mobbers organized an unwanted clothes drive for the charity Oxfam) and the art world (in New York, photographer Spencer Tunick invited flash mobbers to take part in one of his naked crowd photo projects). On September 10, 2003, as the global flash mob craze was only getting hotter, Mob #8, which “Bill” had announced as the last in the series, took place in New York.

According to the instructions received at the agreed time and place, the participants were to gather in a small square near Bryant Park and watch a performance. It turned out that the flash mob itself was the performance, and here it is impossible not to notice the “last” flash mob’s superficial resemblance to Appearance, the first action by the Collective Actions Group, on March 13, 1976. The viewers who came to Izmailovskoe Field for the performance were handed leaflets informing them that the performance had taken place.

Barry Joseph, who took part in Bill’s final flash mob, described what happened:

We stood in a circle, hundreds of people, watching and applauding each other watching and applauding each other. […] We were told to go to this location to watch a performance and then leave. But, as it was, no one was there when we arrived… except for us, of course. We were the performance. At the same time we were also the audience. […] I would like to see the simple rules behind these actions be used to create not just simple affects—a line in front of a church—but a higher level of complexity. Emergence is a body of thought that explains how simple rules can create higher levels of complexity and organization, like a flock of birds or an ant swarm. […] But back at its core, the emergence of the FlashMob, even if tonight were the last in the world (which it ain’t) is an historic event.

Complex self-organized systems would not arise in the following years, but scripts first tested in the early flash mobs, such as book crossing and speed dating, would become widespread. They departed radically, however, from the essence of the flash mob, according to Joseph, namely: “Internet-coordinated acts of spontaneous absurdity amongst strangers in a public space.”

In May 2004, the first Monstration was held in Novosibirsk. What would become an annual parade of absurd slogans was organized by local artists.

In 2006, “Bill” revealed his identity. It transpired that he was Bill Wasik, an editor at Harper’s. As he wrote then, “Not only was the flash mob a vacuous fad; it was, in its very form (pointless aggregation and then dispersal), intended as a metaphor for the hollow hipster culture that spawned it.”

Bill Wasik (center), MOB #2 (“Love Rug”), New York, June 17, 2003.
Photo: Mike Epstein/satanslaundromat.com

Everybody Dance!

However, by this time in the US and around the world, the term “flash mob” was already firmly associated with crowds of cheerful people dancing synchronously on public squares. The biggest dance flash mob in history would happen at a performance by the Black Eyed Peas on The Oprah Winfrey Show on September 8, 2009: 21,000 people took part in this mass rehearsed dance.

Was it a flash mob? From the point of view of a hardcore flash mobber, no. From the point of view of the general public, yes. By the end of the noughties, almost any brief performance in the public space that emerged from the crowd and dissolved back into was considered a flash mob. The fact that only recently flash mobs had been seen as “internet-coordinated acts of spontaneous absurdity amongst strangers in a public space” was very soon forgotten by ordinary folk and the media.

In 2006, Google bought the newish YouTube platform. From then on, the target audience of flash mobs would not be random passersby, but the internet audience. Yesterday’s anonymous habitues of online forums would migrate en masse to the ever-more popular Facebook, signing up under their real names and replacing their avatars with actual photos of themselves. Anonymity on the internet became the lot of the marginalized.

At the same time, the American creative studio Improv Everywhere began officially organizing flash mobs around the world. The actions were quite openly rehearsed in advance and recorded on professional equipment. The slickly edited videos of the performances garnered millions of views.

Several ways of commercializing and practically exploiting the flash mob phenomenon were discovered at once. However, it was videos of group dances to international hits, choral numbers from classic musicals, and performances of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy at central railway stations and shopping centers around the world—all hash-tagged #flashmob—that filled YouTube to the brim.

What Was That?

The idea that deviant behavior in public space, especially deviant group behavior, can transform reality, has occupied artists and poets for at least a hundred years, judging by the manifestos and certain performances of the Dadaists and Surrealists during the 1910s. And the sixteenth point of “A Flash Mob Manifesto” (published anonymously) according to which a single person can hold a flash mob, can be regarded as a direct reference to The Theater for Oneself, a programmatic text by the principal pre-revolutionary theater theorist in Russia, Nikolai Evreinov.

The notebooks of the Russian absurdist writer Daniil Kharms (of the 1920s) make clear that the idea of doing something strange in public while maintaining a relaxed appearance also occurred to him and his fellow OBERIU writers, who called more generally for a revision of art’s basic precepts. One of Kharms’s scripts reads as follows: “Order semolina porridge, coffee and cucumbers in a restaurant, cut the cucumbers with scissors, feed them to each other and stutter.”

In the late 1950s and the 1960s, a distinct art form, the happening, took shape in the USA and Europe and, later, a series of so-called Fluxus festivals was held. In both cases, we are talking about non-repeatable works of living art based on extremely rough scenarios, and the audience’s involvement was considered the key to the outcome. Fluxus co-founder George Maciunas dreamed of producing art that would be impossible to museify, monetize, replicate and, most importantly, interpret.

Russian artists have come close to realizing this utopia: first there was Collective Actions, followed by zAiBi (an acronym that deciphers as “for Anonymous and Free art”; the group’s artists, among other things, posted anonymous poems in the subway), and then the Radek Community.

Many journalists, flash mob organizers and flash mobbers themselves have repeatedly drawn attention to the fact that the flash mob, which emerged as a seemingly ridiculous overtone of the technological revolution, actually turned out to be an unprecedented global artistic experiment. Notable in this respect are the raids by flash mobs on the realms of contemporary art in Paris and Moscow. In the first case, the flash mobbers staged a magic circle at the Centre Pompidou. In the second case, they piled onto the stairs at the Central House of Artists like climbers at the top of Mount Everest.

Since flash mobs had no official authors, the actions themselves were not advertised, and repeat performances were not part of the deal, however, the flash mob phenomenon—a literal realization of the Fluxus utopia—went almost unnoticed by art critics and the art world. For that matter, it went unnoticed by the world as a whole: in historical terms, the flash mob wave did not last very long, appropriately enough. It managed to confuse some witnesses, make some participants smile, and cause still other participants to feel freer. And some of those who queued with everyone else or kept staring at the roof of a house when everyone else had already dispersed, it dislodged from the autopilot mode of registering reality, leaving them with the sense that the Matrix had broken down.

The flash mob appeared in the noughties and then disappeared. Everything described in this article is just the surface of a huge layer of unexplored and unstructured information. Out of thousands of proposed scripts, only hundreds were actually staged as flash mobs, and only dozens were documented. You can search and find evidence, mentions, scripts and documentation endlessly, even though the movement was anonymous, and the relevant websites have almost all disappeared.

***

There, on the second floor of the Gorbushkin Dvor shopping center, it was not only the fifty-some suspicious young people who were applauding. People riding the escalators and people who were going to buy something in the nearby shops had begun clapping, too. Something strange had happened to them. Something had forced them, prompted them—and now they were applauding along with everyone else.

The applause stopped. The mobbers took off their glasses—and the difference between those taking part in the action and mere passersby instantly vanished. I could hear people talking to each other. The meaning of these exchanges reflects with amazing accuracy the attitude of modern liberal thought to the flash mob as a whole.

“What was that?”
“What are you talking about? I didn’t notice anything.”

Translated, from the Russian, by Thomas H. Campbell

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