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Glowlounge: September 2003

Glowlounge: September 2003
Date: 2003.09.17
Location: Outdoor patio of Red & Black, Williamsburg
Speaker: Bill, founder of NYC Flash Mobs
Participants: Peter Lasell, Sharilyn Neidhardt, Ellen Matlach, Peter G. Belan, Holly Tavel, Lori Waxman, Fred Hoysted, Andrea Moed, Christine Hill, Carol Stakenas, Kelly Evans, Alex Zucker, Mike Epstein, Ginger Dzerk, Christina Ray
Minutes: Lori Waxman
Note: This meeting took the form of a casual group question & answer session with Bill, rather than a more formal presentation. Consequently, the minutes have been recorded in a related, if sometimes unavoidably inconsistent, format. Questions are not always answered. Not all questions are really questions. Not all answers are really answers.


Question: Photography and other documentation of the Mobs has been a concern for many Mob-goers; did you also record the events?
Bill: No; it was secondary to the project, not a primary goal.

Q: Was the Mob an event for the sake of it or an event with some purpose?
Bill: It's a work of art, but shhhh.

Q: How'd it all start?
Bill: My role was crucial; but accomplishment happened over time, through blogs, email, media; not me. To attract more people, I gave anonymous interviews. (Someone equates Bill with Wizard of Oz).

Q: Why so many people into this? Why all the media coverage?
Mike: See the story of Bills outing on NPRs The Next Big Thing--via an interview with "My Friend Mike."

Bill: For Mob #1, participants were instructed to go to an accessories store on B'way and Astor Place, but somebody, "Squealy,"called the cops. Consequently, for Mob #2, participants were told to first go to a designated bar, then get a slip of paper, etc., so nobody could squeal. Squealy thus acts as an impetus for the Mobs to take off.

Q: What about the legalities of the Mob?
Bill: Well, the Mob is gone before anyone can ask questions; it takes place in quasi-public spaces, i.e. commercial. But it was only a rumor that I cleared the legality of Flash Mobs with the authorities beforehand -- I didn't.

Q: Clues make the Mob seem like "Mission Impossible."
Bill: The pre-meetings were almost more exciting than the Mob itself. The knowing glances people would give one another...
Q: The Mob as set-up, as the sublime, the quick moment, something giddy: an "Urban Festivity."

Q: Who is Bill?
Bill: [Identifying biographical information omitted so as to maintain Bills anonymity.]

Q: Where'd the original idea for Mob come from?
Bill: My interest in "scenesterism." I wondered, could you get New Yorkers to go somewhere just because an email said they should?

Q: The press seemed unable to decide if the Mobs were art or wacky frat shit.
Bill: What began as jokey art project became a genuine transformation of space. And political--can all these people be wrong?

Q: Is it culture jamming?
Short discussion: culture jamming. Adbusters and subversive campaigns.

Q: How'd you structure it?
Bill: For Mob #1, I chose Claire's Accessories because there's never anyone there. I wanted to overwhelm the space. For Mob #2, I wanted a bigger target. A small corner of Macy's rug store had visual appeal. Before the crowd arrived, I told the salesman: "I live with a lot of people." Mob #3, at Grand Central, came from an original idea for a ballet in the terminal, an idea that was scrapped at the last minute for logistical reasons. Instead we all gathered in the mezzanine of the Grand Hyatt, with applause. Mob #4, at Otto Tootsie Plohound, was struck by the appearance of many photographers. Mob participants told store clerks they were on a bus tour from Maryland.

Q: Regarding the overwhelming media coverage at the Toys 'R' Us Mob, Mob-goers had to ask themselves: What are we participating in?
Bill: The medium of the Mob is social impulse. Thus the media/press is a natural participant, as are the Backlash articles (in NY Times).
Discussion: Was Central Park Mob a disappointment? Outdoors, lacking boundaries, lacking the ever-important spectator element. NYC is about being a spectator and not knowing what’s going on. Audience/performer relationship.

Q: Can you tell us about the last Mob [#8] ?
Bill: There was serious pressure to make good. My idea was to have a boom box leads chants, and for participants to follow pied-piper style to an after-party. But no one could hear the box, so once the cheering started, it couldn't stop or turn into something else. Then this mysterious guy with a neon sign in his briefcase--accompanied by chants of "peace!"--began to lead the crowd, becoming the impromptu and unexpected star of the show.

Q: Mob #8 was so ambiguous it allowed for highjacking.
Bill: But I'm happy with it. It generated into a real mob, self-congratulatory, with an imposter to highjack it. The End.
Discussion: The hipster scene where everyones there because everyones there: Question of insecurity.

Q: So why are you ending the Mobs?
Bill: It's the end of summer. A political feeling of community and meaningfulness is notbaly absent in this activity: the Mobs are purposeless and last 10 minutes.
I need to stop and think about other more meaningful projects. And get back to work.
Discussion: Mob process as similar to Friendster, the Dean campaign, to movements that create a tactile thing through email, which is also a transgression of (the email) medium. Classic agit-prop is about advancing an idea, an alternative. But it can also just disrupt, make an absurd roadblock. We needn't be so serious all the time.

Q: Will we see a global franchising of Flash Mobs?
Bill: Nobody (except Bill) is in on the "joke" or the irony of the original idea for getting people to gather. The tenor of the times is that we want to go out but we don't know how or why. Perhaps we long for old-fashioned collective action. But the Mob is weirdly authoritative.

Q: Is the Mob or might it become a protest as show?
Bill: I may do something more explicitly political, with larger groups. But less often and with other organizers.
Discussion : Global flash mobs. But if everyone knows about it, then where's the surprise? Mob is agenda-less, so everyone can have their own reasons for participating.

Q: Isn't it ironic that our generation is more likely to come out for naught?
Bill: The Mob has been criticized as art and as satire, as manipulative. Some critics have made suggestions for good
Mob activities(!!)
: clean up trash, hug. But the Mobs as they are have stayed true to being a comment on scenesterism. You have to wonder, who would start a Mob in another city--a person who thinks the Mob is a "movement."

Discussion: America as an exporter of cultural ideas. See Yahoo Antimob group.
Bill: The Mob shows the idea that getting people out in the street for no idea is important today.
Discussion: The Mob makes you think about why you're doing it. Inherent human search for meaning.

Discussion: Is the Mob a portable artwork? Is it DIY?

[Tangential talk about blackout.]

Q: There's tension about whether the Mob is an underground action or a media event: the Mob as rock star. This raises the question of authenticity.

Bill: Ralph Nader is an example of such. It is okay for things to be big, to get outside of the limits of the underground.
Discussion: Issues of scale and time. We don't have 1 min. for Greenpeace but we do have 10 min. for the Mob. Start small and don't worry about being David (of D & Goliath). Create a weapon, like in the Philippines, by cell phone.

Q: Have you been approached by any PR firms, or by other media? What if they asked Bill to plan Mob-like commercial events for them?

Bill: No. But I did get a call from some TV people. But a TV show based on the Mob = bad idea.

Discussion: Potential mutation of Mob concept, e.g. flash mugging, flesh mobs and other ironic responses have appeared on various websites. Spencer Tunicks naked mobs have been in existence long before flash mobs. People were found to be distributing fake slips at some pre-mob meetings. The post-9/11 fear of suspicious activity in public spaces. Questions about the ethnicity of the Mob, which has been predominantly white--would an African-American Mob have drawn police response? In Boston, young black professionals mob mostly white bars.

Bill: Think of the NYC Mob as absurd but slightly political street actions. Have real activist mob groups formed yet? It's unknown.

Q: For the last Mob, why did you choose bars on 9th Avenue if the Mob was on 6th?
Bill: I was lazy and procrastinated in planning. I was trying for perfect. Port Authority? 42nd Street? But none were ideal.
Discussion: Some thought it might happen at Rockefeller center--Mob pretends to be skating in the middle of summer. Others thought $2 was for a subway ride.

Q: What was your life like during the Mob? Were there groupies?
Bill: Things were good at the office; my work mates were interested, stirring much conversation. I was obsessed, giving 30-40 interviews, dealing directly with the 700 email addresses on the list. I never set up a website because I was working with email as a form of human interaction.

[Disintegration of meeting into general conversation.]

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