When I arrive at the corner of Yonge and Eglinton, a crowd has already gathered. Amidst camera crews, spectators and the clamour of rush hour traffic, we stand in silence and in ironic anticipation that something spontaneous will occur. A bookish young woman in her early 20s, mounting a nearby statue, beckons us toward her. "Everyone, walk around me like this," she says, raising her arms and knees emphatically.
At www.flashmob.com, this new form of collective weirdness inspired by cellphone and Internet communication is described this way: "Like a symbiotic bacterial infection, flash mobs will infiltrate the public conscience, cleansing, reinvigorating and breathing life and vibrancy into the dull corners of modern life." If flash mobs are a response to the banality of modern life, Canada's first event is a lethargic reaction at best.
Few comply with the organizer's gentle pleas. It's soon clear that most have come to spectate, not to participate. All around us, cameras flash and television crews fumble to capture the "excitement." When the mob stops of its own accord, overcome by a disheartened inertia, she encourages us indoors to Toys R Us, where we are to "hop like frogs" in the aisles.
As the crowd grudgingly makes its way inside Eglinton Square, spectators begin to disperse. "I'm not hopping like a frog," says one observer, adjusting her mini skirt and shuffling away on her platforms in disgust. "I'm going to hop, but if I have to bark, I'm leaving!" says another as he hurries to catch up with the mob.
Dave Meslin, of the Toronto Public Space Committee, sees flash mobs as a form of reclaiming space, much like Reclaim the Streets or Critical Mass. "People want to get out of their cubicles and out of their cars and interact with other beings in a way that isn't commodified, branded or sponsored,' he tells me.
While the online dialogue certainly gushes with kinship and community, "Tom" at www.flashhack.blogspot. com remains the most belligerent voice of dissent. Decrying all mobsters as "cellphone sheep," he claims flash mobs are "this summer's equivalent of roller disco, goldfish swallowing and college streaking."
Then there's the Anti-Mob Project, an online spoof. Members of this, in characteristic postmodern pretension, encourage mobsters to create a ghost town atmosphere in a famous public space. "This will appeal to passive-aggressives," claims the organizers, "and give them an opportunity to express their hostility in a safe and indirect way."
But for all the theoretical glamour and online controversy, the actual flash mob event offers a high less satiating than a long espresso. The mob is now making its way to the Eclipse Fitness Club to looks of acute alarm by the staff. A lone handful of mobsters begin, to their credit, an energetic set of jumping jacks. The gym's patrons remain unperturbed. They continue on their treadmills and Stairmasters, their curiosity insufficiently piqued to even remove their headphones.
While the mainstream continues to grapple with the ambiguity of the message, it's Meslin who seems to have the most poignant take: flash mobs, he says, are a sad reflection of what we have become. "Our streets are covered in advertising but devoid of culture, so anything you do in public, even when it's on public space, becomes a subversive act."