By Sara Roberts
Elias Canetti was a Bulgarian-born Swiss and British modernist novelist, playwright, memoirist, and non-fiction writer. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981 for his writings on the human history and psychology. "Crowds and Power" is considered a masterwork of philosophical anthropology in which Canetti examines the formation and dissolution of crowds, the manipulation of power within crowds, mass psychology, and the dynamics of social life.
I teach for a living and as a practice, and every semester I am assigned a few small crowds to take along down the ever-morphing passages of the subjects I teach. I'm mystified by what happens when a roomful of individuals become a group, not in a hold hands-and-a-unicorn-appears kind of way.
"Crowds and Power" is a strange and compelling book. It's best if you don't come to it expecting scientific fact. Canetti is writing from his own profound and difficult experience plus a couple decades of obsession with the topic of human massing behavior: the dark side of our moon, the part of ourselves we don't know personally. This might be anthropology or sociology, but Canetti is not writing science -- there are no references to experts, or studies, or other books. (Though he's certainly read them -- look at that bibliography!) Canetti writes with a pressing certainty, like Nietzsche. He needs no backup for his strange and arresting statements, like these: "There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown." That's the first sentence of the book. Then, further down the page: "It is only in a crowd that man can become free of this fear of being touched," and "the urge to grow is the first and supreme attribute of the crowd." Not to mention: "The most important occurrence within the crowd is the discharge... this is the moment when all who belong to the crowd get rid of their differences and feel equal." Canetti's book treats the crowd as an organism with an identity that has nothing to do with the individuals who make it up. The book is primarily about the many dark and strange factors that determine the identity and behavior of a crowd.
Canetti's book has been for me a sober antidote to treacly thinking about both education and relational aesthetics. "Clump and Whistle" was an emergent performance based on principles extrapolated from Canetti's book. The public was invited to join with Machine Project and myself for two participatory performances. Clump is an experiment in group/crowd behavior, based on a simple rule set but without fixed outcome or direction. In "Whistle," the crowd, equipped with multi-pitched whistles, configures to play compositions based on what the person next to you has just done, making propagating sound waves. While clumping, the group physically clumps together, touching one another, to move as one entity. Clump is not really a team-building or a trust exercise -- not therapeutic but revelatory, Dionysian, slightly dangerous. People tend to clump then un-clump feeling energized, maybe euphoric, but also a little dismayed at themselves, having been someone they don't recognize.
The project was filmed at the Glendale Civic Center Plaza, at Broadway and Glendale Ave, in the Los Angeles-adjacent city of Glendale. It was filmed at this location because of the unique open plaza space under the Civic Center, the power center of the City of Glendale. Recently poet Joshua Beckman spoke with me about the "Clump and Whistle" project as part of Machine Project's Field Guide for L.A. Architecture.
Joshua Beckman: We've talked about different practices you've done at different points, were there things you were drawn to return to in the past year?
Sara Roberts: I always do clump. It's technology-free and it involves this thing that I'm constantly trying to capture in the stuff that I do with technological things -- it's just about people feeling each other there, people having to leave behind their me-ness and become us. It's mostly simply about that.
It also always looks really good, and I've been doing it for a long, long time, probably ten years with different groups of people. It developed in my classes, with somebody coming in with a flocking exercise. Because it was so exhausting to run in a flock, people said "let's get together and lean on each other and stagger around."
But actually what I've been thinking about returning to recently, which is really kind of strange, is code.
JB: Code? Say more.
SR: I've always done stuff that was about human dynamics, about how people act with each other, how people act in groups. A long time ago I used to try to make computers act like people. I was really interested in artificial intelligence, and how to make a group of computers act with each other with a social dynamic.
JB: What do you think is drawing you towards machines?
SR: That they've gotten a lot smaller, and It would be easy to make something that people could use together. I also just like programming and I haven't done it in a long time. My students do it. They're constantly getting out their laptops and showing me their programs. I don't know the programming languages that they're using, but I can still tell what they're doing, and I envy them.
It's this isolated world of total control. I guess I'm having a wave of wanting control. In those digital spaces you just think something up. It's very mechanical. It's like making a mechanism.
JB: It seems more active and participatory for you, compared to something like the clumping, which seems so much about preparing and then watching.
SR: It's preparing the context and then seeing what happens. Actually, the more I do preparing type work, the more I miss being in it. For a lot of things I do somebody needs to be watching, somebody needs to be coaching it.
JB: When you do clump do you keep notes on what happened?
SR: I have notebooks full of notes like, "This worked and that worked," and "Remember to do this."
When I start working, I usually have some kind of a site or a group. I always want to know where I'm going to be doing it and how many people there will be. I need to know that kind of exterior information. Then I think about how are we going to make the group become a group. It's more about their feelings about what's happening than specific activities.
How nervous are they going to be? Do we want them to feel competitive? Do we want them to feel like they're just one protoplasmic thing? A lot of it has to do with thinking about how people are going to feel.
The thing about clump is that almost always they become fairly unmanageable.
JB: Right. Sometimes even violent, apparently.
SR: Sneaky at the very least. Almost always they want to do something they shouldn't.
Early on I was doing it at CalArts a lot, and people were always like, "Let's go in the elevator," or "Let's go in the library and let's disrupt everything." When I read Crowds and Power, I had been doing clump for a while, and I was like, "Oh. I know what this is about." It was so great, because it dealt with not the happy, therapeutic notion of people getting together, but the base nature of people leaving their own selves and becoming their unknowing selves.
JB: It's interesting to think that even despite getting so physical, the space seems alive with anonymity, or at least released from responsibilities.
SR: Yeah, if there's this whole group in there, then no one can blame anybody. "I was just part of a group."
JB: What's happening to the attention of the individuals in the clump?
SR: At first there's a lot of trying to figure out whether they'll be bothering someone by putting their hands on them, but that goes by very quickly. I'm sort of claustrophobic, but it didn't bother me being in a clump because a lot is going on and you're moving.
I think what's going on with their attention is it gets sort of more panoramic. They seem to be very aware and goal driven. I've had dueling clumps, I had three clumps and I asked two of the clumps to compete for the attention of the third clump. One of them raised someone in the air and did a kind of dance, and one of them took off all their shoes and threw them at the person.
JB: What do you think is the retrospective experience of being in the clump? Is it a physical thing?
SR: As soon as the clump breaks there's this palpable sort of sense of relief and also euphoria. It's really pleasant.
It's kind of like if you haven't rolled down a hill in a long, long time, and you do it, you're astonished at how disruptive it is and how major a physical experience it is. But you can do it and you're fine afterward, and then you feel kind of better. It's just the strangest little euphoria of having had a physical experience and lived through it.
It's a physical social experience where you've left your usual self and come back and you're still there.
The main focus for me is did that feeling show up? Did that micro-climate coalesce? Did the ghost appear? Did the group become a single entity? Are the people working together making? Even if they're doing separate things, is there a feeling of all working, of being together? That sounds so hippie dippy.
SR: But it is. Clump is a very concentrated form of it, but I'm always looking for that kind of energy to come together, and when it comes apart, the energy is released, and that people come back to themselves having survived an experience that they wouldn't voluntarily go into.
Interview has been condensed and edited.
See more Machine Project:
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About the Author
California becomes an international export by redefining the concept of city and home.
Through workshops, education and placed based projects, art is the connective tissue of a community.
Funding bubbles, cultural deserts and the politics of access to the arts in the 21st century.
At the shadow of the entertainment industry, video artists and underground filmmakers take a stand.
Noir, sunshine and dystopia create a multi-ethnic narrative that is read, watched and admired around the globe.
Multi-hyphenate works that combine disciplines, remix dogmas, and reinvent the wheel.
A dialogue between cultures, the music of our state serves up the California dream like no other artform.
Staging the drama of California through dance, music and theater.
Breaking away from the European and New York vanguard, California reinvents the art world.