Pillow Fights in Union Square— Isn’t There a War On or Something?

031603 article smallwood Pillow Fights in Union Square— Isn’t There a War On or Something?On a Saturday in late February, 120 citizens gathered in Union Square for the purpose of battering each other about with fluffy pillows for an hour and a half. Afterward, they posted photos of themselves—pillow-fighting—on the Internet. Organized by Toronto’s newmindspace.com, the fight attracted enthusiasts from as far off as Stockholm, Toronto, Brooklyn and Long Island. Their goal was nothing short of “urban bliss dissemination,” otherwise known as fun.

Social conservatism is on the rise; civil war is breaking out in Iraq. Closer to home, we contend with the dual threats of diabetes and luxury condominiums. Union Square has historically been a place where the populace gathered to express itself and rally for its concerns. In 1858, the goal was to demand food for the poor; in 1861, it was to support the Northern cause. In the 1870’s, 80’s and 90’s, socialist and labor union rallies were de rigueur. In 1913, thousands of garment workers took over the square; 40 years later, masses gathered for a vigil to protest the Rosenbergs’ execution.

Now people have pillow fights.

Beating one another with pillows is, after all, ultimately the purest demonstration of leisure time, the essence of frivolity. But these young New Yorkers believe that this is the stuff of civic and artistic engagement, and such activities are thriving.

The participants are in their 20’s and 30’s. Most are overeducated and underpaid. They’re Flickr-savvy. Some bicycle; many shop at Whole Foods. “They’re kind of granola, kind of anarchist,” 19-year-old Kevin Bracken, who founded New Mind Space with 19-year-old Lori Kufner, explained. “It’s not quite art and it’s not quite protest, but it attracts artists and protestors.” Those they attract also like their massive Easter-egg hunts and games of Capture the Flag and subway parties. They share a nostalgia for childhood and a lack of inhibition that might prevent others from diving headfirst into earnest play with strangers.

“The way that wearing a mask would free somebody,” Mr. Bracken said, “being involved in a massive urban event frees somebody.”

But no one not already possessed of a certain exuberant extrovertedness would show up in Union Square with a pillow. Underneath it all, the fluffy fighters fiercely believe that their brief episodes of acting out matter in some critical way, improve the city, make it livable. An earnestness bordering on the devout permeates: They are clever but not ironic, and more than a little self-righteous. If you don’t like what they do, it is because you are the problem—you with your shopping bags and your naysaying and your curmudgeonly newspaper articles.

“Political organizations have the goal to put public space in the forefront of the public consciousness,” Mr. Bracken explained. “We consider ourselves a playful extension of that. We see that public space is being increasingly privatized; billboards are eroding the visual economy of the street. In a city, you can work or you can play. We like to play.

“I think that we’re living life to its fullest,” he added.

NOT SURPRISINGLY, LAST YEAR THAT WEEKLONG CELEBRATION of altered states called Burning Man welcomed a Pillow-Fight Club into its mix of 25,000 people. Held in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, Burning Man celebrates “radical self-reliance” (read: camping) and “community.” Though not affiliated in any way with New Mind Space, it is Burning Man that epitomizes this subset of the population, serving as a sort of pilgrimage for faithful seekers of all things D.I.Y. It’s the strongest and most visible manifestation of that growing contingency of groups that briefly occupy public spaces for their own games, art events and missions.

Last month, Harper’s editor Bill Wasik touched on similar phenomena in an essay outing himself as the creator of the flash mob. In the summer of 2003, he wrote, he managed to whip a social experiment into a media sensation, causing hordes to stare at one another in the Grand Hyatt New York and worship a large-scale Tyrannosaurus rex. Harnessing the power of e-mail, he organized a group in public for the mere purpose of organizing a group in public. Mr. Wasik conceived his project as exposing the vacuity of fashion-obsessed, Strokes-listening “hipsters” everywhere and demonstrating the tendency of the young and avant-garde to “deindividuate” and follow, herd-like, the newest fashion.

Yet by defining his focus group as the hundreds of thousands of educated young urbanites with strikingly similar tastes, Mr. Wasik gave himself a little too much credit. He seems to think that his mob attracted an urban trendsetting elite, those who, with the help of the Internet, make “the same books, records, films … au courant by all” at the same time. But while Mr. Wasik’s examples—Friendster, Franz Ferdinand, even Jonathan Safran Foer—were all popular things that had brief heydays among some stylish youth, the flash mob never came close to achieving that kind of status. Mr. Wasik is correct to grasp the disposability that mass culture and manufactured “hipness” shares with the mob, but what he mistook for trendiness was in fact the mob’s own unique smugness.

Shaggy-haired hipster girls in leggings are obsessed with recognizing, and outdoing, each other, but the flash mob’s desire is to force everyone else to recognize it. Like an amoebic teenager, flash mobs and their kin insist on their difference from the norm, or life as it is usually lived, free from hundreds of synchronized wristwatches. Look at your bourgeois life! the mob screams at the appointed hour. We are not like you! Then the last grain of sand slips through the hourglass, and they disperse once more.

The flash mob did succeed in demonstrating the power of e-mail and the Internet to organize groups of strangers, and this generation’s desire to show up for the sheer sake of seeing what might happen if they do. What pillow-fighters and other such arty-crunchy performers do is introduce the element of physical play and fun. But they also don’t care who organizes the activity or, really, what it is.

“We don’t call ourselves a flash mob,” said Mr. Bracken. “Flash mobs have no purpose. That is their essence. We have a purpose. The purpose of Capture the Flag is to capture the other team’s flag. Capture the Flag has been played for decades, if not centuries. Millennia, perhaps. There have been pillow fights for as long as there have been pillows.”

Yet the real purpose of these groups is unclear. Improv Everywhere, whose mission is to cause “scenes of joy and chaos in public places,” is the project of Charlie Todd, a 27-year-old improv-theater teacher at the Upright Citizens Brigade. Since August 2001, he has led his “agents” on over 50 “missions” that are, in his words, “essentially pranks.” In late January, more than 160 New Yorkers followed their lead and rode the No. 6 train without pants. On Feb. 18, the group organized 100 people to descend upon the Strand bookstore and blast their “Nokia Tunes” and “Samsung Tunes,” among others, into one grand and annoying “cell-phone symphony.”

“I’m a big believer in organized fun,” Mr. Todd said. “Have fun for fun’s sake. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t take the world too seriously. Slow down and enjoy the unusual things in your world and celebrate them.”

Although those who participate in the no-pants mission and, say, the Idiotarod shopping-cart race (an actual recent event) aren’t cut wholly from the same cloth, there is one common goal: They seek to reclaim public space for public use.

“Once you’ve played capture the flag under the Manhattan Bridge, you never experience the neighborhood in the same way,” Mr. Bracken said. “These spaces were designed with people in mind.”

And these people want to take back those spaces, take them and, by golly, have fun in them. “I had a whole lot of fun,” Gerr from Queens reminisced about the pillow fight, for example, on the New Mind Space message board. “Hopefully I can find myself in one of the many pics that were taken.” They pretend that by doing so, they are expressing a surplus energy that cannot be dominated by capitalist forces.

In interviews, Mr. Bracken and Mr. Todd both derided television and film as passive consumption, arguing that they prefer a creative, proactive experience. On the Nonsense N.Y.C. Web site, the home base of a listserve that often publicizes these types of events, the author writes: “We believe that there is more to life in New York than getting drunk at slick new bars”—suggesting that these folks are the creative types who long to escape the monotony of functional alcoholism.

But massing for massing’s sake—gathering in a crowd to perform a “funny” task for the sake of gathering in a crowd and performing a “funny” task—is no less nihilistic than sitting in the warmth and downing one of many whiskey and sodas. In fact, drinking, after all, is a social activity. There is music; there is dancing. It is the coffeehouse, where ideas are exchanged.

A mass action, on the other hand, refuses the exchange of ideas. It favors the performance of predetermined expressions of “joy” and “fun”; it demands obedience, compliance and discipline. Citizens organized into armies of the absurd decorate streets and shops with their calculated acts and circus tricks. They do not consume, no—nor do they contemplate.

“I plan everything,” Mr. Todd said. “But in terms of just these large things, the people at large, they definitely follow instructions. And oftentimes they show up for these things not knowing what’s going to happen at all.”

Those heady days when one imagined the political potential of large-scale civil disobedience, acts of “culture jamming”—everyone, get together and drive golf balls into the satellite dish on Fox’s studio roof!—have ended. Instead of satisfying political desires, we have the narcissistic pursuit of “experience.” All that remains is technology’s gift of quick and efficient mobilization, citizens all dressed up and nothing to say.