Out of Hand Theater experiments with flash mobs in Group Intelligence

What's the environment got to do with it?

"What are you guys doing?" an Emory student asked me last Thursday evening on the university campus.

Good question. "It's kind of like a flash mob," I told him. I could have just as truthfully answered, "We're taking part in Out of Hand Theater's mass MP3 experiment Group Intelligence," or "We're a team of strangers working together to move these water bottles from one location to another."

"Can anyone join in?" he asked.

Well, yes and no. Out of Hand doesn't charge for Group Intelligence, but it requires advance registration and is limited to 300 participants. About 60 people took part in Group Intelligence's first run-through on April 14, and the fact that it attracted some lookie-loos suggests that Out of Hand succeeded in creating a public spectacle.

But the event's real audience wasn't the passers-by, it was the headphone-wearing participants following identical pre-recorded instructions to form circles, search for clues and accomplish group tasks. Group Intelligence isn't a "show" so much as an interactive, open-air experience, a kind of quirky social experiment that playfully uses new communication technologies to try and demonstrate the benefits of group dynamics.

"When you think about mobs, you think about the negatives, like 'mob mentality' or 'herd mentality,'" says Out of Hand co-artistic director Adam Fristoe. "But mobs can develop something called group intelligence, when they're smarter and more capable than the individual." Out of Hand and its collaborator, the Dutch theatrical ensemble the Lunatics, attempt to give mobs a good name with Group Intelligence.

The term "flash mob" was first coined in 2003 when Harper's Magazine editor Bill Wasik used social media to bring strangers together at Manhattan department stores. Since then, flash mobs have become a kind of public performance art open to everyone who's a Facebook friend or Twitter follower of the organizers.

"The flash mob experience has been a big movement across the world, both in public art and in performance. It gives a chance to change the way people look at the things around them," says Fristoe. Anybody can delight in the idea of, say, a disco dance number breaking out in a food court, but Fristoe points out a flash mob limitation. "They're pranks, and if you're participating, you're in on a prank," he says. "We're interested in doing a show with the audience as the performers. In a sense, Group Intelligence has two audiences, the participant audiences and the audience of onlookers."

The National Science Foundation/NASA Center for Chemical Evolution co-sponsors Group Intelligence, continuing Out of Hand's partnerships with scientific researchers. Fristoe explains the show's chemical connection: "As we learned about molecular evolution and chemical evolution, we found that molecules act just like humans. They start in chaos and gather in communities. The ones that become the most diverse are the ones that thrive."

That explains why Out of Hand's other artistic director Ariel de Man greeted participants with a "Welcome, molecules!" at the start of the event. We gathered in a circle, cued up the first track, put in our ear buds, counted down from five and pushed play. Our first instruction: "Run!"

In Group Intelligence's first phase, a calm female voice treats participants as isolated individuals in our own little worlds, encouraging us to think about love, fear and family. The group is gradually commanded to come together, first forming triangles of three people, then circles of eight and continued until the entire group was orbiting in a circle.

The crowd split into teams that gathered around a portable CD player offering more instructions to the group as a whole. We introduced ourselves to each other and took a group photo to post online. The voice asked us a series of semi-personal questions and told us to take a step based on our answers: "Are you in love?" "Have you ever driven drunk?" "Have you purchased water in the past month?"

One guy got big laughs by stepping forward — the "Yes" response — for the questions, "Would you sleep with someone if they paid you a million dollars? A thousand dollars? A hundred dollars?"

Part of the inspiration behind Group Intelligence is to explore the issue of water sustainability. At one point, the teams are instructed to "gather all that you think you need" from a stack of empty water bottles to illustrate Earth's finite water supply. My group struggled to meet the second challenge of filling the bottles with sand and transporting them like a bucket brigade: Did we fail because we were too greedy in taking so many bottles? The kind of reality TV competition rules that reward dog-eat-dog behavior seemed self-defeating here. We were also repeatedly told not to waste or spill the sand, perhaps as a reminder to conserve limited resources.

Group Intelligence's overall message wasn't entirely clear, but that may not be a bad thing. Nobody wants to be scolded about their environmental behavior or carbon footprint, so Out of Hand may have deliberately spared participants a "Go green" lecture. Still, the instructions and narrator don't provide enough detail to encourage reflection over water issues or molecular metaphors. As one young woman wondered aloud at the end, "What was the point of the sand?"

If theater presents some kind of narrative before a generally passive audience, then Group Intelligence isn't theater, although bystanders might be diverted by a mass display of odd behavior. Group Intelligence's best moments felt like giddy ice-breaking games, although one particularly difficult challenge felt like the Endless Corporate Team Building Exercise of Sisyphus. The experience definitely succeeds as entertainment, though, with its high-spirited unpredictability. In its own eccentric way, Group Intelligence demonstrates that, cliché as it may sound, communities can accomplish more than individuals, and that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

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