Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Flash Mob? For Whom?

You should read some very important views on some very important topics. I'm No Picasso has summed up what's wrong with the video where two very nasty boys harass a woman, and the way people have been talking about it, pretty well. And everybody should read The Korean's takedown of "The Cockpit Culture Argument" (based on Malcolm Gladwell's chapter of "Outliers" AKA the only thing a lot of people know about Korea, that can be made into a talking point right now), regarding the Asiana crash in San Francisco.

I may have something to say here about culturalism, once I've processed some of the stuff from one of the classes I took this semester. But today... flash mobs. Because why not.

This is a flash mob. This is one of the first flash mobs. The NYC Central Station "Freeze"

I've always liked flash mobs. It seems like a cool thing to have happen, to break the monotony of your day. I love imagining the people who encountered it, going home and telling the story. "And then suddenly, like 300 people in street clothing were dancing along to The Sound of Music in the subway station!

Improv Everywhere did some of the early ones. Another I liked:

Here are probably the two best flash mob videos.
Beethoven's 9th in Spain:

Sound of Music, in an Antwerp subway station:

(The Hallelujah Chorus is a pretty famous one, too)

On Reddit today, I saw a link to a "Flash Mob" where a group of classical instrumentalists played a rendition of "Arirang," and then the Korean national anthem, in a public square in insadong, one of the popular streets in Seoul for tourists to vist, and one of the first four places your new Korean friend will take you if you just got off the airplane.

It was alright. Here it is. It's a great tune.

But I'm having trouble calling it a flash mob. Wikipedia makes a distinction between a "flash mob" and a "smart mob." Here's a working definition of a flash mob I've written, based on the entirely subjective metric of which videos I saw on teh internetz and though "this is described as a flash mob, and it's awesome."

A flash mob is...
1. an organized group action
2. in a public place
3. where ordinary people do something surprising and a little extraordinary
4. that has been planned and maybe coordinated beforehand
5. and then everybody goes about their day.

Bonus points for:
1. People not involved in planning it can join in (watch the Antwerp DoReMi again-  people have jumped in without knowing where to step next)
2. including people under age 13 or above age 45
3. a video shorter than 4, preferably 3 minutes, unless it's friggin' awesome!
4. that "what on earth is going on?"/"wait a minute... I live in a musical?" feeling at the beginning, as apparently random people somehow seem to know the steps, or pull musical instruments out of their jackets.

Negative points for:
1. the number of people involved who appear to be professional performers. Also, music stands.
2. that general stink of being staged by PR people
3. any agenda other than "let's give the people in [this place] something to talk about when they get home from work" ... and the more obvious that agenda is, the more points you lose.
4. having a space cleared out before it starts. Feels like it was planned, and that's anathema for that "what on earth is going on?" feeling I mentioned.
5. Being this. Thanks for ruining flash mobs forever, FOX.

So... flash mobs now:

Wikipedia calls agenda-driven flash mob-like activities a "smart mob" -- if you're too clearly trying to sell me something, if your political demonstration involves apparent passers-by doing a choreographed dance or a freeze (while holding signs and slogans), or if they're clearly professional dancers (again, about the music stands), or if it was run by any business, but especially one larger than a community theater... sorry, kids. I'm not sold, and you're a smart mob, not a flash mob.

I wanted to make rule number 3 there hard and fast... no selling shit... but googling around revealed that the Antwerp Do Re Mi, and the Spanish Beethoven were both sponsored too. With a light hand, in the Antwerp case, but the Beethoven video does kinda finish with a corporate logo... so I realize that this "flash mob" thing has a fuzzier definition than I'd like. But here go those criteria, for the "This Is Arirang" video:

The "This Is Arirang" project was planned by a bunch of Korean student organizations (listed at the end.) According to the video description, "This is Arirang Project was designed with the aim to let foreigners know the Korean folk song, 'Arirang' and the 'Korean national anthem'"

Nothing wrong with that at first pass. Run by students is better than "run by a mobile company"(as slick as the T-mobile liverpool flash mob was)... though I can't help wonder why a bunch of university students care so much that foreigners know about their folk songs. Somehow I would have liked the video more if its purpose were to celebrate a beautiful song (cf Spain's Beethoven, the possible inspiration for it), rather than being to perform a beautiful song for "foreigners." Who cares if foreigners know/like arirang? The way "foreigners" are constructed in Korean promotional efforts is often problematic for various reasons, and the fact Korean culture becomes constructed as a performance of "Korea" for foreigners, bothers me sometimes, when Koreans should be doing the things Koreans do because it's meaningful to them, because it's beautiful, or fun, or connects them to who they believe they are in the world. There's a big difference between that hottie who dresses up because looking nice is nice, and the one who does it to fish for compliments.

Because, to steal from an old riddle, if the Arirang played, and no foreigner heard it, would it still be a beautiful song?

Yes. Yes it would. And it doesn't need foreigners to say "ooh! What a beautiful melody!" before Koreans can celebrate it, love it, and sing it. For their OWN damn benefit.

I was going to do a part of this blog post where I complained that flash mobs never really caught on in Korea -- even though Korea would seem like the perfect breeding ground for an absolute flash mob craze:
a culture of people who like doing things in groups (check)
everyone has a cellphone camera (check)
everybody already knows a set of dance moves and steps because of popular kpop songs (check)
one of the world's most wired populations (check)
a youth population prone to grab onto fads and run them for all they're worth, if so inclined (check)

I was going to complain that given the above, there are surprisingly few flash mobs in Korea.

Except I would have been wrong.

Now, many of these fail my own nitpicky criteria for a flash mob, because they're for a poltical cause,  promoting a Kpop single, they're not in a public space, or they're too obviously staged. But then again... some of my favorite flash mobs fail one or more of those criteria, so I've got to be more forgiving.

The dokdo shuffle in Busan is unaccompanied by English or notKorean text, limiting its effectiveness in swaying world opinion... but whatever (and the dokdo song is awful -- it sounds like one of those songs that politicians blast from their flatbed trucks during election season, or a ghastly revolutionary chant repurposed). However, the airport flashmob is clearly in the true spirit of flash mobs - and I like that it ends with "Sunny" -- because that song has become a cultural touchstone in Korea ('cause of this, great, movie). Shilling for Kpop happens. Meanwhile, the WonderGirls video "Like This" has the feeling of a flash mob, and it worked in this case. This is probably my favorite flash mob that I've found so far.

So... Flash mobs happen in Korea. And they're not all lame (though some are) and I don't know WHAT to make of this.

As for flash mobs in the Korean news: well, they're popular enough to have been made illegal. Hankyoreh on that. And must be registered in advance. Wouldn't have happened if they'd been used for fun instead of for statements. But then again... I'll never begrudge someone giving a damn about the political situation in their country. Even if it means no Do Re Me song when I walk by Chunggyecheon.


Roboseyo said...

First to comment

"if the Arirang played, and no foreigner heard it, would it still be a beautiful song? Yes. Yes it would. And it doesn't need foreigners to say "ooh! What a beautiful melody!" before Koreans can celebrate it, love it, and sing it. For their OWN damn benefit."

I have to slightly disagree with you there, not because I think Arirang isn't a beautiful song, but because I think that Arirang has about the same importance over the average Korean's life as Oh Susanna or Oh My Darling, Clementine has for most Americans.

Or maybe the great Northwest Passage song has for Canadians.


(Correct me if I am wrong, I'm not Canadian and don't know what songs you consider staples of Canadian tradition, but if I had to guess, I'd choose that one...)

Needless to say, in the grand scheme of things, these songs have little to no influence on their respective people's daily lives.

And that would bring this discussion into the realm of what actually is traditional culture other than a performance for people not of that culture?

I think you will find that Arirang carries much more weight for people who are on the fringes of the definition of what a Korean is, that is to say people who aren't raised in Korea but want something to latch onto because they are interested in being considered Korean one way or another.

Arirang is most important for people in the Korean diaspora, or among non-ethnic Koreans in Korea or interested in Korea.

It's the same as going to visit palaces or folk villages.. those who most often visit these places are usually not Korean themselves (in one way or another, or are Korean but showing it off to people who aren't).

I've always been of the opinion that the best thing a Korean person can do to show Korean culture to a non-Korean is to take them to a baseball game, especially if that person they are showing comes from a country with a strong baseball tradition. It provides a frame of reference from which to gauge the cultural differences while simultaneously highlighting cultural similarities.

Because when you boil it down, you can learn far more about Korean culture by taking the subway across town and watching people giving up seats for the elderly, selling and buying stuff, prostheletizing their religion, or having casual conversations with each other than you can by observing a traditional performance sponsored by a tourism organization followed by a tour of Insadong.

That said, the Arirang flashmob or smartmob, whichever it may be, was cool. I think that the film itself was definitely a sponsored activity, but I think if you eliminate that professional quality film, the fact that student groups organized it (regardless of the purpose) qualifies it as a flashmob.

It wasn't as if SK Telecom or the Ministry of Unification came up with the idea of making the Arirang flashmob... in that case I'd say it was a smartmob.

Roboseyo said...

How long did it take for you to stop referring to South Korea as South Korea or the Republic of Korea, or did you always refer to it as such even when were growing up in Canada? As much as I wish the North didn't exist in its current hell-hole of a separate, sovereign state, most people outside the South find it fairly confusing trying to differentiate between the two without those two, wildly divergent, identifying precursors when they do not appear before the word, Korea.

Roboseyo said...

You've been reading and commenting here for years, John. This is kind of out of character for you.

And off topic.

Roboseyo said...

Great comment, Eugene.

A few things:

1. I don't think there's any one song that Canadians identify with (or that others identify with Canadians) the way "Waltzing Matilda" is associated with Australia, for example. Oh Suzanna or Oh My Darling resonate more in some areas than others in the USA (ditto for New York, New York). I'd even say that Arirang (at least the version played in this 'flash mob' video) is closer in the way it's used to "God Bless America" or "This Land Is Our Land" than Oh Suzanna -- every time the flags come out, there it is.

the song that sums up Canada might be this: http://youtu.be/QCcWzLAcv4o (hahaha) ... I don't think there's one song that is to Canadians what Arirang is to Koreans - the Hockey Night In Canada Theme Song, or Stompin' Tom Connors' (may he rest in peace) The Hockey Song http://youtu.be/UxJvrD80nJ4 --but I digress.

I agree with most of what you've said about for whom Arirang holds the most meaning -- people outside hteir land of origin seem often to hold tighter to that type of identity. And if this video had been described as "Reaching out to Koreans and those who Love Korea Around The World" I would have been 100% for it, and had no gripe, and probably not written this post. But the youtube description and the titles in the video explicitly say the goal is to "let foreigners know" -- that "do you know" tone is somewhat off-putting to me, because embedded in it is a bit of condencension "you don't know anything about Korea, do you?" a bit of inferiority anxiety "nobody knows about Korea" and a bit of that over-eager "please like us" thing that's ... off-putting.

Roboseyo said...

The harrasment vid is apparently fake and/or doctored:


Roboseyo said...

I LOVE flash mobs. They almost always make me cry. They remind me of Happenings, but happier, way shorter, and way less serious. Still art that shakes people out of their daily headspace, that only really does what it intends to when it is live, and creates something ephemeral and inclusive. So cool.

Roboseyo said...

Can you put up some links of "happenings"? That sounds interesting. I think you should PLAN a flash mob.