I recently watched the documentary We Cause Scenes, which follows the origins and viral success of Improv Everywhere. They're the New York City-based group that seems to have pioneered flash mobbing (though they would not call it that), conducting silly and edgy experiments in unexpected public displays of chaos and fun. You may have seen their work in YouTube videos like the No Pants Subway Ride, the Best Buy Uniform Prank, and Frozen Grand Central:
The documentary itself - streaming on Netflix if you have it - is really delightful to watch. Improv Everywhere founder Charlie Todd tells a great story about his quest to bring something unusual and joyful to everyday spaces, and he's just one of those people who you're rooting for to have good things happen. The film is also the story of the emergence of YouTube, blogging and social media for spreading cultural memes; it starts in 2001 when Charlie had to type out descriptions of pranks in his hand-edited Geocities site because online video sharing wasn't really around yet, and showing how modern publishing and sharing tools have become essential parts of this kind of creativity now.
I was touched by the clips of hundreds or thousands of people, strangers to each other, coming together briefly to do something artistic, unusual or just fun. You can see the fruits of those efforts in the edited final videos, but seeing some of the backstory and the ways in which people trusted the art form over what might have been their natural caution or suspicions was really great.
I was also struck by the tendency of adult witnesses to these spectacles to treat them as potential problems, at least initially (children seemed to trend toward excitement and wonder). As the "agents" participating in the pranks would begin whatever the act was, people sometimes looked unsure, frightened, or even outright scared. In some cases the police were called and the agents were detained, despite not causing any problems. I even found myself cringing a bit at the idea of large groups of people taking over a public space, my rule-following side worried for those who didn't know what was going on.
But then I felt embarrassed about that, resentful of the idea that our cultural public life may have become so protective of things safely looking and feeling like they always do that we would call 911 when an unexpected piece of performance art begins. Yes, it's good to be vigilant for unexpected malicious public acts, and fine, it's important to be aware of strange things happening in our surroundings. But I hope that we don't lose the ability to accept and even wonder at public acts of entertainment and playful disruption.
Mainly, I want people like Charlie Todd and his collaborators at Improv Everywhere to continue to stretch our imaginations and expectations about what can happen in public spaces, injecting playfulness into a world that needs it.