Last year (in Engagement via Participation) I confessed my fascination with flash mob arts experiences and got several links to groups that organize them. My favorite is one of the best funded and most visible of such efforts, Random Acts of Culture™, a program of the Knight Foundation. The Foundation funds such work because of the Foundation’s interest in “promoting informed and engaged communities. To that end, we strongly believe in the potential of the arts to engage residents, and bring a community together.” (You can hardly expect me to let that point of view slip by unnoticed.) In December, Tim Mikulski of Americans for the Arts featured several examples in his ARTSblog post, Random Acts of Culture™. (We’re all being careful about including the TM in our titles.) He featured dancers at Charlotte’s airport (where I spend a *lot* of time but unfortunately missed this experience), a string quartet at the Tanger Outlet Mall in Macon, GA (playing, of course, “Georgia On My Mind”), the Queen of the Night’s curse from Mozart’s Magic Flute at the Free Library in Philadelphia (Marian from The Music Man would have been horrified), and ballroom dancers at San Jose International Airport.
What is it about these things that so attracts me? As I confessed before, I’m a *real* sucker for them. Some of it, certainly, is the “cool” factor. Arts experiences out of their traditional context “make special” locations and events that are otherwise mundane. They are inherently interesting for being so unusual. They also facilitate what I think of as a Zen-like “being in the moment” from which we otherwise insulate ourselves with the distraction of concerns unrelated to where we are. Rituals, which almost always include the arts, are designed to set a moment in time apart. While generally not intended to do *that,* random acts of culture (lower case letters) have that effect. People will remember their visit to Charlotte-Douglas airport, the Tanger mall, the library, and the airport in San Jose on the days these events took place far better than any other time they have been in those locations.
It is probably this aspect of “specialness” that is so appealing. Certainly, if it happened every day, the effect would quickly diminish. (Ask your favorite economist about the law of diminishing marginal utility.) And special these moments are. (I’m inadvertently sounding Yoda-like here.) One of my favorite things is watching the reactions–facial expressions, whispers, even joining in–of the spectators. To a large extent, people seem to enjoy these moments. While flash mob arts can (and have been) presented for publicity/marketing purposes, some are also done just to make life a bit more fun. They have the side benefit of reminding people (many of whom have forgotten or never knew) that the arts can have that effect. In raising the visibility of an art form, they also highlight the fact that the arts can (and the arts community hopes to) be important to the population as a whole.
In the context of the mission of this blog, flash mob arts is a potentially valuable mechanism for engagement. Arts organizations on the local level, whether LAA’s (local arts agencies) or individual arts groups can use this “genre” (if you will permit me to elevate it to that) as one method of reaching out to and (ideally) involving their communities. I suspect that there is a good deal of as yet untapped potential here. I’d love to hear from or about organizations utilizing this kind of work in an attempt to make meaningful connections with their communities.