The woman stands composedly in the half-empty space in the middle of the vaulted rotunda, long hair pulled back in a tidy braid. Her unhurried removal of her overcoat reveals a military uniform. Turning to her left, she trades the coat for a violin handed to her by another uniformed person who just happens to walk up at that moment. She starts playing, joining the band members already assembled: a guy sitting on a chair, playing a cello; another standing behind his bass, plunking away; others in the background with saxophones.
Over the next few minutes, the entire United States Air Force band emerges as if by magic from the crowd at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC, and plays a set of Christmas music.
Flash mobs. We’ve all seen them on YouTube. Dancers, singers, and musicians appear as if out of nowhere, perform, and disappear. The best ones look impromptu and blur the line between participant and observer, sort of like quantum physics.
Starting—so the all-wise Wiki tells us—as ironic social commentary on meaningless fads, they have largely morphed into performances: either for advertising paid for by large companies (TMobile or Belgian TV) or for ‘street-art’ initiatives paid for by public institutions (Opera Company of Philadelphia).
Most happen indoors (think airports and shopping malls) or outdoors on a nice day, but I saw one where the participants braved a Moscow winter. That one was so large that the participants seemed to outnumber the onlookers, raising the question of whom they were performing for. With cameras everywhere, of course, they’re all performing for the internet masses, and for the ages.
The surprise factor is part of their appeal: so, I think, is the deceptive ease with which they come off.
There’s no sign of the commitment required to learn a craft well enough that public performance is even an option.
There’s no sign of the organizational collaboration required to get permission to perform in a public place; or to arrange for piped-in music over someone else’s broadcast system.
There’s no sign of the planning and logistics work required to get a whack of people with a common purpose to one location at the same time, and to hide the cameras that will record it all, usually from many angles and often from great heights.
There’s no sign of the creativity required to synchronize participants who can’t rehearse in the actual performance space.
There’s little sign of the leadership required. While a few music mobs bring their own conductor, many do not, and dance mobs never have their choreographers front and centre, calling the next move.
And there’s no sign of the post-production work required to take the raw footage and turn it into an edited video.
Flash mobs (or ‘smart mobs,’ per Wiki) play to a fantasy about ‘sparks’: that one person can set off another in a chain reaction that soon has a mob of unrelated people performing as one. It’s not true, of course, but it’s no less seductive for that.
As I leave YouTube to go back to my day job—which requires no singing or dancing but which does require me to work with others to a common purpose—I resolve again to appreciate the miracle of coordinated human achievement, in all its forms. To appreciate the commitment, collaboration, planning, creativity, leadership, and follow-up, which is all it takes to let us work together, more or less as one.