The Mobbers Are Coming

The Mobbers Are Coming

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September 19th was a day like any other until I
signed into my e-mail account and found a message from an unfamiliar
address awaiting me.

The
message, entitled “It will be soon,” consisted of little more than a
large, black square. Surely this was another piece of junk mail. But as
I moved my cursor across the screen and towards the delete button, I
inadvertently highlighted the text hidden within the square:

Pay attention to your e-mail. At noon on September 20th the information that you are waiting for will be there.

It
was all very mysterious and sinister, and as my boss walked by, I
minimized the message—for all I knew I was receiving notification of
the next Revolution!

The next
day I signed on to my e-mail with eager anticipation, not sure whether
the previous day’s message would be followed by an announcement of the
Second Coming or rather another spate of Viagra spam. What I found was
neither one nor the other, but rather: “Flashmob à Paris ce soir”
(Flashmob in Paris tonight).

This time, the black square hid a lengthier set of instructions:

The third Flashmob will take place tonight.
Synchronize your watches.

Meet at 5:57 in front of the bench in the small plaza near 1 Quai de Montebello.
Someone will give you your instruction sheet for this Parismob.

You will be let go at 6:20.
If possible, bring your camera.

Granted,
this message could have been just as suspect as the many others that go
ignored each day in my junk mail folder. After all, the word “flashmob”
brings to mind balding men and trench coats, and the additional
instruction to bring one’s camera sounds no more innocent than the
“Smut Bonanza” and “Peep this Porn” messages that flanked the Flashmob
e-mail.

But then, this wasn’t
exactly junk mail. I had signed up for (and subsequently forgotten
about) the flashmob e-mails, which alert potential participants of a
planned “happening” in some part of Paris. The flashmobs aim to elevate
the purposeless act to an art form, and have also recently been spotted
in New York, Rome, London, and Montreal.

According
to the founders, there is no political or artistic agenda hiding behind
the mobs, which debuted in Paris in late August when several people
fell to the ground in front of the Louvre pyramid. That act was
followed two weeks later by a group of “mobbers” opening and shutting
their umbrellas as they walked in a circle alongside the Pompidou
Center on a sunny day.

Now
fast-forward to 6:00 PM on September 20th, the night of the third Paris
flashmob. I have just been debriefed at the Quai de Montebello and am
now walking towards Notre Dame armed with a piece of chalk. As I stand
facing the cathedral, I watch the scurrying, camera-toting tourists
dodge the slower lope of several young Parisians, who, like me, are
fiddling with a small black sheet containing flashmob instructions.

The
minutes tick by slowly as the square begins to fill with participants.
At 6:10 the mobbers drop to the ground and begin to draw on the
pavement with their chalk. To my left, a surprised British couple
begins laughing, while before me, a passing Frenchman snorts, “They’re
making it look ugly!” Meanwhile, to my right, a man feeding the birds
becomes agitated and lays his accusatory eyes upon me. “What are they
doing? Are you a part of this? What’s this about? Hmm? Huh? Answer!” I
can understand his confusion, as seeing hundreds of chalk-bearers bow
down before Notre Dame is certainly a surreal vision, akin to something
straight out of a movie. Then again, had this really been a movie, the
man would have been a prophet, the birds would have flown away, and the
sky would have suddenly darkened as the meaning of the imminent
Revolution became clear to all.

But that wasn’t quite how it happened.

“Crazy
kids,” the man muttered, turning back to his birds while the tourists
returned to squint at the cathedral through the sun’s glare. But their
inattention was not to last, as the clock struck 6:10, and the mobbers
immediately rose and began taking pictures of their drawings.
Meanwhile, a small circle formed in the center of the square. It soon
began to widen, and in less than a minute had spread to cover the
entire square, sweeping tourists, gawkers, and Bird Man aside as it
pushed towards the perimeter, leaving a gaping hole in the center.

For
two minutes, not a word was to be heard. Even the tourists kept quiet,
perhaps for fear of the consequences. (Notre Dame is, after all, only a
hop, skip, and a jump away from the Hôtel de Ville, the home of the
guillotine during the French Revolution.)

At
6:15 Notre Dame’s bells began to ring across the island. At the sound
of the first bell, the mobbers threw their hands up to cover their ears
and screamed as they fled the square. The tourists remained on the
sidelines, bewildered but reassured by the end of the guillotine-free
performance, snapping photos to add the Notre Dame spectacle to their
collection of souvenirs.

And in
fact, the flashmobs in front of Notre Dame, the Louvre, and the
Pompidou make a great story for the tourists, who can tell the folks
back in Edinborough or Witchita how their casual cathedral or museum
visit became performance art. But the experience is even more
delightful for the mobbers themselves, who enjoy a shared sense of
naughtiness, as well as the pleasure of watching their meaningless act
perplex passersby.

All of which
means that the flashmobs will surely grow in size as word continues to
spread about the events. In fact, whereas the first Paris flashmob had
only one hundred participants, the Notre Dame affair easily tripled or
quadrupled that number. Which simply means that the event will surely
lose its cult appeal for many of those mobbers exchanging complicit
grins last Friday between sketches and ear-covering.

In
other words, you best get yourself to the Parismobs website before it’s
too late, so that in twenty years, you too can tell everyone you were
there when it all went down.Wanna jump like an ape in front of the
Paris Stock Exchange? Rendez-vous at
http://parismobs.free.fr for more information.

After
working as a reporter and translator in New York, Spain, and Portugal,
Jessica Powell moved to Paris to become the editor of an intellectual
property magazine. She spends most of her free time trying to make the
perfect quiche.

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