Countless Dead as Blood-soaked Feathers Line Pavement of Dundas Square
Was anyone else hoping to read that in the newspaper headlines the morning after the latest public pillow fight event? There must be a certain neurochemical make-up of people that compulsively organize "events" regardless of their value - and a certain make-up of those that root for them to fail (i.e. me). Maybe I'm a Schadenfreude junkie or maybe Toronto's play-dates bent on "urban bliss" are starting to siphon my own.
Obviously my reticence to accept an expressly anti-cynicism movement spearheaded by two U of T students who really like the colour pink is going to seem a little, y'know, cynical. That's, uh, because I am. I mean c'mon, who wants to witness other people have fun for no good reason, except maybe those pseudo-spiritual happiness chasers the world over who continually champion these events. Well, mainly in the notoriously pop-psych- and community-health-drenched United States, the only country in the world that considers happiness something we'll one day be able to isolate, grow in a Petri dish, and sell as an energy drink.
But the US still produces witty, satirical, perverse, and just generally confrontational urban playground happenings whereas Toronto's remain friendly, earnest and...well...cute. And ecstatic, with Newmindspace, the organizers of said pillow-fights-and-other-whimsy, splashing their website with photos of their events that look like a New Years celebration in the biblical heaven. This "fun!" and social aspect of such groups represents a new trend in mob activity that creates a stark contrast with historical "groups" like the Cacophony Society (still, after 23 years, active today) who were expressly anti-social, so much so that they eschewed the very notion of cohesion. Operating as individualistic coagulations of mischief, they sought not to enjoy their city, but to disrupt it and, potentially, dismantle the whole urban system.
It seems, unfortunately, that after the presence these urban mischief (anti)-entities have established in North American cities (and popular culture in general e.g. Fight Club's Project Mayhem), there is an assumption that if any activity, regardless of its inanity, is done on a large scale, it's worthwhile, even epiphanical (quoting Jenny Holzer in Newmindspace's "documentary", which I will call a public service announcement: "the most profound things are inexpressible"). And one would think, given the freedom to develop ones own sense of play within the urban sphere, today's softer, cuddlier groups would at least go beyond scavenger hunts, capture the flag and other teacher-sanctioned frolics of our youth. After all, this is fun you don't need an adult's permission for, as one of the many liberating aspects of urban play is the freedom from any need for licenses or other bureaucratic nods to execute something. So in kind with our generation's loss of a taste for revolution, today's demonstrations not only lack any spirit of progress, but have resolved to declare the opposite: a regress into childhood frivolity.
That's not to say there haven't been any attempts to mobilize an ideology. Kevin Bracken himself has stated that people's attraction to his Newmindspace activities are rooted in an "underlying frustration with consumer culture," articulating the impulses of these groups to enjoy themselves outside of what's being provided by the corporate octopi. However, he should be careful, since things like discourse can "[suck] all the fun right out of it." This coming from Brian Bernbaum of SFWeekly, who is not only a supporter of urban playground events, but a resident of San Francisco - the home of the Cacophony Society. San Francisco, a city with probably the most colourful legacy of provocative, ideologically-driven urban mischief events in recent history. Ranging from the incendiary to the whimsical, they're all tied to rhetoric on culture jamming, reclamations of public space, challenges to the deadening routines of urban life, etc. Something as simple as a large group publicly freezing in place (a very popular activity, executed all over the United States), can deftly contradict a city's obsession with motion.
Of course, it's easy to wax righteous any time something outrageous is going on. One blog calls the events a reclamation of the city from "the endless creep of advertising". Okay, but what is the urban playground, but an internal fury of advertising. In fact, the vitally spontaneous nature of these events depends on the use of instantaneous communication (namely mobile internet and texting) to parse out the times and locations of events on the fly. Elaborate schemes (found particularly in an American brand of play centered around of messing with the public's heads) can be coordinated through the synchronization of phone clocks, coupled with the broadcast of silent commands, creating events that sometimes even comically challenge the technology itself (see: the Starbucks simultaneous cell phone conversation). Of course, continuing to entertain ideas of being involved in some sort of "reclamation" is incomplete and hypocritical. These groups are still not using their technological assets to their full revolutionary potential. In the Philippines, China and North Korea mobile communication is used to organize protests. Here, it's being used to not wear pants with a lot of people also not wearing pants.
Unlike our Asian counterparts, having a "reason" for these elaborate, perception-altering spectacles is too heavy. If Bracken wants to continue to appeal to today's delirious masses, he might want to stick to his other soundbyte: "Free fun in an age where entertainment costs you." And since most entertainment-driven mediums are designed for spectatorship purposes only (movies, sports, video games), the real price tag is a spiritual one. It seems that the hunger to return to the idyllic days of childhood springs from a back-to-basics spirit of re-appropriating "fun" as something actually immersive, before we were swallowed by the static pleasures of the screen (if there was ever such a time for some of us). If only NMS commitment to this concept was steady. Contradictorily, their New York mass-bubble-blowing hosted a kitschy Gameboy-themed after-party complete with a cover charge, suggesting not only that not even our city's cheerleaders of puritanical bliss can resist merchandising, but that their ideology has not been sanitized of media-zombie paraphernalia. And also, perhaps, that it's not about "purity" or "innocence," but youth itself, a fetish so pervasive, so easily tickled, that it guarantees NMS attendance in the 25-to-old range. And, just like moms shopping at the same stores as their daughters, this can be seen as yet another defensive reaction to the spreading generation gaps and telescopic pace of style culture. Each generation is having a harder and harder time understanding the previous one so why not close the gap by doing our youngest functioning children are doing (children are, after all, the most faithful to traditions).
The group's PSA kicks off with a quote from Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world." Kids... I thought you liked playing nice. You see, using the words of a great thinker who fueled the women's liberation movement and sexual revolution of the 1960's to inflate what is a veritable revolution of innocence is enough irony to sink an oceanliner. However, watching the rest of their video, I couldn't accuse them of not being clever. For example they used chalk, plaster of Paris and tempera paint to cover queen street with hearts, which are impermanent enough to not be considered vandalism by the city's bylaws. Stamping love on an unwillingly moody environment and getting away with it: it's kind of funny, in a dialectical way. You can't help, but enjoy people's reactions: "I think Toronto's a better place because people are doing crazy, but really quite nice things." It's provocation without the slightest hint of malice. It's art that's pure of heart.
Perhaps too pure? The social politics of their events are a tough nut. They obviously preach inclusiveness - come one, come all, engage in your... no, OUR city! - but since the people they attract, says Bracken are "like us", anyone not young, hip and fanciful might get their square asses stuck while spiraling down the urban playground's slides. Lori Kufner (the other half of NMS) concedes that people who use the city functionally (she calls them "business people"; I call them "most people") are more likely to hear about their events in the media or "from their kids." Really? Or how about as they push through the clots street nymphs as they lumber to adultland? People with driven, recession-fueled professional lives are inevitably going to be ostracized from people who have really nothing better to do in their city. To NMS's credit, the pillow fight seemed to expand their market to another type of bourgeoisie by reaching out to kids, which consequently drew a demographic of bored middle class families.
Further evolution of this movement is going to be rapid, care of, naturally, communication technology. The Urban Prankster Network is a veritable mischief laboratory; and they're already merchandising with a DVD and soon-to-be book available for purchase. People post their happenings, i.e. "No pants day, Sao Paolo, Brazil, be there!." Others float ideas, many of which don't get many takers (i.e. "outdoor library!...anyone?...anyone?...") People are already getting a taste for novelty and want to have their stamp on the next new idea. People are becoming very creatively-driven in a whole new medium of expression. And, fittingly, some cities are even making it all into a game - a competition with marked progress of "our willingness to interact with the city". Although San Francisco just loves being the first, I wonder if the people at SFZero even thought to ask if the activities they award points to are even progressive.
Toronto remains a city waiting for something meaningful to do. All these pillow fights and "complaints choirs" are just a harmless means of catharsis - practice for when it's time to actually make splash. Of course, when everyone finally gets the "storm parliament hill!" message they'll probably come dressed as Che Guevara armed with squirt guns thinking it's some kind of revolution-themed party. I couldn't imagine it any other way. We're a people that create memories for the sake of memories, forming mobs mainly intended to look exciting in pictures (every urban play network implores their members "take pictures!") - constituents of one big urban scrapbook. The question remains: do we really need an adversarial target for our public displays of affectation to count? Do these activities need a vision of a better world, or are they themselves that vision? Perhaps I'm over-analyzing things (wait... no, fuck that) and maybe it's just not so bad to have someone peel back the canopy of the urban jungle and let the sun shine in.
Written by guest contributor Stefan Ravalli.
Lead photo by Roger Cullman.
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