Last night I stumbled onto one of the most whimsical conspiracies ever. I originally thought I should file this away for April Fool’s Day, but the more I think, the more it screams Christmas. Jesus was quite the prankster, after all.
I don’t know how it happened. I got home from a show last night and was killing time in the bottomless pit of internet, poking around in online videoland. I started with videos on Kim Peek and other savants. One link led to another and suddenly I stumbled into a world where the usual rules don’t apply.
Improv Everywhere is a collective that “causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places.” They are somewhat related to flash mobs, but usually much more organized. They do things like freeze in Grand Central Station, throw a “welcome back” party for a stranger at the airport, and pack a doomed-to-failure $10 Sunday night show of an obscure band from Vermont.
What I love most about this group is the deeply subversive nature of their attacks on New York reality. In that city, people generally leave each other alone, but isolated bursts of eccentric interaction are part of the fabric of life. In some cases, the pranks are set up to start small, so innocent bystanders don’t immediately notice that something is “wrong” beyond the presence of a garden-variety weirdo; then they are dragged through several stages of realization that everyday life has left the building.
This dynamic is most highly realized in their (mis-named) “spontaneous musicals,” which are an all-out assault on normalcy. Musicals have always struck me as absurd: suddenly the monotone spoken world dissolves into song, in which anyone from lovers to rival street gangs can more deeply express what’s really on their minds.
IE’s masterpiece was a tightly choreographed musical number in the middle of a food court. “I Love Lunch” took advantage of the Today Show’s technical toys and even recruited one of its hosts for a cameo as “Agent Curry.” The mission started subtly, with a socially-unacceptable shouted conversation between two agents across a food court. One (sitting alone at a table without any lunch) warns the other “don’t sing a song, man” but it is too late. The agent simply loves lunch too much for his passion to be contained in simple speech.
In the video of this incident, the crowd seems mildly annoyed by the disturbance. This is New York, after all. Lots of artists live here and sometimes they get carried away. Probably the stress of trying to make it during the recession, coupled with low blood sugar. His friend’s response suggests this isn’t the first time this has happened. Most witnesses probably don’t notice that the agent is somehow backed by musical accompaniment from the PA system
But then another agent joins in. And another. Soon a half-dozen people are singing and dancing and brandishing sporks. The crowd’s irritation turns to alarm, to confusion, to a sort of blissed-out disorientation.
I’m not sure if and how this actually helps out with the economic issues that are the focus of this blog. IE doesn’t seem to be very profitable, so distribution of dividends is not an issue; they do, however, double as a sort of cooperative marketing opportunity for their “senior agents.” Even so, I think something important (and hilarious) is going on. We need some dramatic shifts in how people see the world and interact, so this sort of signal jamming can be very helpful in helping people bust out of the Matrix.
I believe there is power in the disorientation wrought by inspired mass pranks. At the very least, it gives witnesses someone something to tell their friends. It often seems to break down barriers between strangers, who bask in the aftermath and ask each other “what just happened?” Maybe some of these stranger become friends. They at least might say hello next time they see each other on the 6 train, and remember the day they got a glimpse of another world.
But the potential may be even deeper than this. I’m sure that most people faced with a growing crowd of singers will wonder how far the virus will spread. Many might have a moment of fear that they’ll be the only ones who don’t know the words (surrounded by zombies scenario). A few might even teeter on the brink of song themselves, totally open to the moment when they suddenly know the words and melody, and are swept up in the miraculous music.
In the same way that disorientation can be used for evil (such as sensory deprivation techniques that the US uses to pretend that it doesn’t torture people), the experience of another reality can open people up to new ideas and experiences. I’m not sure what that looks like, exactly. Perhaps Rev. Billy and the Church of Life After Shopping is a step in this direction, using the street preacher concept to attack consumerism through stunts like his Starbuck’s exorcism.
Another fascinating aspect of all this is that people in groups can get away with things that they would never try alone. Groupthink is a powerful source of permission to do whatever is happening. This, too, can go horribly wrong (Rwanda, for example). But if IE can stage an annual “no pants subway ride” it seems like there’s a lot of room for modeling all sorts of oddly positive behavior: spontaneous public potlucks (loaves and fishes, anyone?), repeats of the $10,000 Wall Street Money Drop, and soap box preaching (not necessarily religious) are just a few ideas that pop to mind.
Those who want to explore this might investigate the Urban Prankster Network, where troublemakers can connect and conspire to make life more interesting for the rest of us. I’m not quite ready to start the Sacramento chapter, but if someone else does, I’ll be happy to join.