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Flash

It was so simple to execute, and for such great results. First, a definition:

Flash mob — a work of situationist art whereby individuals communicate over the Internet in order to come together as a group without warning, perform some random, pre-defined action intended to disrupt and confuse the people nearby, and then disperse.

By October, 2003, the flash mob was already demode. It had previously had a certain currency among self-defined cultural leaders via the breathless chronicling of Wired News and via those essential vehicles of democratic communication, weblogs. But by the time we came upon our plan the popularity of the act had waned.

Thus we—well, say “I,” as there's no reason to involve anyone else, and I did all the hard work on this one—situated this flash mob it as an ironic parody of the flash mob event. “FLASH MOB RESURRECTION,” was the subject of the email, coming from a Hotmail account. After a paragraph of sufficiently exclamation-filled prose, filled with winking quotes, came the instructions: “Dress EXACTLY like a flash mobber. Trucker hat, etc. We will converge in Battery Park at 10:30AM. Mill aimlessly. At exactly 10:35 A.M. you are to run to the spherical sculpture in the northern part of the park. Then squeeze in as close as you can to the statue. Begin yelling the words 'We refuse to submit!' over and over. At exactly 10:40, a whistle will blow, and then you are to disperse. When it is over, send a message to this email account to receive information on a web site where you can download video and photographs of the event.” The promise of ensuing media, of forthcoming documentation, would be particularly tempting. I closed with a link to the Tycho time server, established by the United States Navy, which could be used to synchronize watches.

The sculpture around which they would gather was The Sphere (1971, 2002), by Fritz Koenig. It had originally been installed beside a fountain in the plaza of the World Trade Center, a place that all New Yorkers had once agreed was an an ugly, windswept place, never guessing they would come to miss it. The homeliness of the sculpture, intended as a tribute to world peace, was in tune with its inhumane surroundings.

When The Sphere came out of the wreckage, it was filled with office chairs and pieces of airplane, dented and torn open. And many found that its oversmoothed, inoffensive brass now had a rugged depth, a rawness and emotional immediacy. Much like Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even or The Large Glass, which the artist proclaimed improved when its encasing glass cracked in transit. Koenig came to his sculpture's second unveiling, and said that his work “now has a different beauty, one I could never imagine. It has its own life—different from the one I gave to it.”

And soon, a third life, at the center of this mob. The gathering was blessed by a crisp New York October morning, as sharp as a knife blade, with a cold breeze coming up from the Atlantic. It was perfect weather for a flash mob.

I had found a position on a nearby roof, with a perfect view of proceedings. Through the lens of my tiny videocamera at the stochastic motion of the park's walkers, I wondered which of them I could claim as my own. The park looked crowded, but perhaps it was wishful thinking. I imagined the flash mobbers checking their watches, waiting for the moment when they would bring themselves to the statue. These were long moments for me. Morning light glinted off the sculpture, which I imagine can be easily seen by airplanes when the sun catches it. In my fantasies I had seen thousands coming to this gathering; in my night fears, none.

The night before, very late and very quickly, I'd placed a bookbag inside The Sphere. There are clear rules against distributing information which could aid a terrorist, and I am writing this from America—when in Rome. So I will simply say: it was one beautiful bomb, down to the accurate quartz timer. I built it with as much attention to detail as those Chinese craftsmen who carve tiny hillsides from a single tusk of ivory.

In the LCD screen of my camera, the battery still showing an hour of tape remaining, I saw them start in. Were this a film, you would see a dozen bathetic foreshadowings: mothers with strollers, smiles. Children with hands joined, spinning in slow motion. But I saw only creatures in coats, no bigger than insects.

The viewfinder read 10:34:30 when they began to run, and then at 10:40 they were racing, all the lines moving, like ants coming to spilled sugar. There were at least 100, probably more, and I knew that among them were the youngest, the brightest souls extant in the city. I'd picked them carefully, reading the New York Observer over the past months, then Googling names that sounded promising. The up-and-coming tastemakers. It was a pleasure; the Observer is a well-written and carefully edited newspaper.

This demographic filter was applied for many reasons. As I said, there was no easy way to convince people to come to a flash mob. They were out of fashion. But this was a group to which the idea of the exclusive, ironic, parodic flash mob—the egalitarian event suddenly made elite, turned into a situationist event that functioned as a parody of a situationist event—well, they would love it. As they ran to the statue at the appointed time I could see their cloaks of detachment, their shields of wit and irony, three layers thick, flying out behind them, those young and beautiful souls in motion.

It felt good to seduce them; they were so certain they had the world's number; they were so endlessly snide. These were those who would be repeatedly eulogized in maudlin commentaries: youth stolen so soon, talent cut down in its prime, &c;. Self-important, their good friends were other self-important folks, everyone committed to the preservation of the myth that they were actually in some way useful as they wrote novels and screenplays, reviewed books, delivered commentaries on the radio, and published in Condé Nast publications. Any good writer yearns for those he loves to die soon, so that he might eulogize them. The lives of those gone on would be endlessly dissected, and most of the world would secretly think, without voicing it, so what of these spoiled dead aesthetes?

More bodies were streaming in from the rest of the park, and now the mass were shouting, first a few tentative yells reaching me from my vantage, but now loud, a sound much like a cry of protest. They had long since stepped over the low chain around the grass, and many of them were actually touching the sculpture, like pilgrims around the Ka'aba on the hajj.

I knew they were down there smiling, my flash mob, laughing with each other at the rest of the world. I knew they were screaming our words, “we refuse to submit,” as if they were at a concert, but none of the words reached me, only echoing nonsense, inchoate, from the tightly clustered group, speaking now as one.

The regular parkgoers turned to look at the commotion: tourists waiting to go to the Statue of Liberty or to Ellis Island, hot dog and novelty hat sellers, those on their way to the Staten Island Ferry. Another unexpected moment in New York. I guessed 150 were around The Sphere. 150 was, to me, a true success.

I put my head down so that I would not be struck by shrapnel, but kept filming, angling the camera over the side, holding it still, keeping it zoomed in on the circle around the sphere. On the videotape, frame by frame, you can see the wave move out.

It is like watching a flower open into the sunlight. The sculpture is the bud, and the bodies suddenly falling backwards are the petals, cut open by pieces of brass, everything washed over by a wave of red and orange light. The noise you'd expect is missing, more of a pop followed by creak. A white light lingers on the screen where the flash took place, burnt into the camera's lens, then fades. Hidden behind the ledge, I could not see, but I knew the rivets in the sculpture were flying out, that the welds used to heal the sculpture prior to its rebirth were ripped open first. Silence came, and now, to fill it, screaming. I felt a real pride, a sense of having done what I was supposed to do.

My cell phone alarm went off. By my own plan—I was to be on the ground in 90 seconds—I had to go. But I lingered, hypnotized, looking at the rising smoke, suddenly smelling it. For 15, then 20 seconds. How could I turn away? I was watching history.

The image on the tape moves from the street to the black inside of my shoulder bag, because I didn't want to take the time to turn it off. You can hear the sound of the elevator, followed by the sounds of the street and the howling pain, then the sound of the camera bumping my hips as walk quickly North, all of that fading. I was well past the great brass bull, edging on Wall Street, when the sirens started. I exhaled a breath as large as the world.

From the moment we first arrived at this plan, I had fantasized about how I would explain myself to an interviewer. What would I tell the woman from the New York Times? At first I thought I would say, out of sympathy to those I killed, and their clannish ways: if you have to ask why, you'll never understand. I thought I would say, as an artist: those people were bachelors stripping the bride bare. But I decided: I would invoke King Lear, and say, “we have given our throne to those who would least preserve it, to our greediest daughters, and now we stumble through the storm, with only fools to guide us.”

And I'd stop there, end the interview. Leave them with only that. Let them decide whether those standing around the sculpture, chanting, were Lear, or his daughters. Let them decide whether I am the fool, or the storm.

Links Related To Flash

2003 Oct 29 They Explain, You Decide
I've received some emails from paranoid fellow-citizens wondering how long it would be before the feds show up at my door to question me. For the inquiring federal officer, I think this brief piece by Aaron Schutzengel regarding “Flash” might provide some context.
Nov 3 Art for the Cosmos
A riff on Flash. "Its no secret, though little remarked on, that before 2001, most New Yorkers hated the World Trade Center. Although useful as a way to determine which way was south below 23rd St., they were largely seen as ugly, imposing structures that loomed menacingly over the rest of the city, lacking the grace and style that the rest of the city has."


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