Is the "Happening" All Over or Still Tantalizingly Ironic?

Screen shot of a flash mob staged at a Los Angeles mall for the
ABC comedy mockumentary Modern Family
Sitting down to relax and watch a little television the other night (yes, I am one of those professors who actually admits to owning one—the others are lying) I was struck with an episode of Modern Family that featured a flash mob as part of the plot. Modern Family, a half hour mockumentary style comedy which follows the everyday lives of three families that are related to one another, has received critical acclaim for depicting the “real” dynamics of today’s complicated family relationships and situations. In general the show is quite provocative and hilarious in its delivery and the writers seem to have their fingers on the pulse of many contemporary pop culture references. In the episode I was watching, Mitchell and his partner Cameron (they are a gay couple who are raising their adopted Vietnamese daughter Lily) are out shopping for a birthday gift at a mall for their nephew Manny (he is the son of Mitchell’s father and his new Colombian wife Gloria—the family’s “modernity” is marked through such non-traditional familial relationships). Mitchell, who plays a somewhat uptight lawyer, is often accused in the show of needing to loosen up, and so he secretly leads Cameron to a site where he appears to spontaneously join a flash mob set to En Vogue's 1990's hit song "Free Your Mind." As we and Cameron quickly discover, Mitchell has been rehearsing with his co-workers for weeks to play the prank on his partner, and the apparent spontaneity of the situation is in fact part of a highly constructed and choreographed event (see YouTube clip below of the scene).

A Kaprow Happening from the 1960's
Watching the episode unfold, I immediately wondered if the writers of the show were completely brilliant in pointing out the ironic history and precursor to the flash mob through this episode or if they were simply referencing the fad as a current pop culture reference. What I am meaning to suggest here of course is that the flash mob is not new. The practice of assembling large groups of people into a public space to collectively participate and perform acts and then disperse dates back to the Happenings of the 1950’s and 60’s. At that time, the events were seen as a new form of participatory action where the line between life and art would be kept as fluid as possible. The origins of these events are also closely connected to the American artist Allan Kaprow, who many claim as one of the key pioneers in developing the theory around performance art, and the individual who coined the term “Happening” to reflect the inherently transgressive practice that he helped promote as an alternative to traditional art production. Through the 1960’s, however, the Happening was appropriated into other cultural contexts, often serving a political function through its use by the countercultural movements (particularly student groups) who staged Happenings as part of protests against war and social inequality. On the other hand, by the late 1960's and into the 70's, the Happening had also become increasingly absorbed into commercial and popular culture through the music, advertising, and film industries, which referenced the Happening as a way to appeal and appear “hip” to a new generation of baby boomer consumers.

Surf clothing advertised in the late 1960's
using the concept of the "Happening"
As Kaprow explained in a 1988 interview when asked to reflect on the shifting meaning of the Happening at that time, “I'd already repudiated the word, because many other people before that were using it. It was a catch word. You remember everybody went around going, "What's happening, baby?" Political uprisings on campuses and advertisements for butter and brassieres were all using the word "happening." I remember one ad showed a floating woman in outer space, a starry background, and the legend was, "I dreamt I was in a happening in my Maidenform brassiere." So by that time movies and the Supremes and all were in general usage around the world in ways that had nothing to do with my original sense, which became so foreign to me that I just dropped it.”

Interestingly enough, the flash mob as the modern day Happening has gone through something of a similar trajectory. Flash mobs have been distinguished from the Happening through their use of social media and new technologies to broadcast and mobilize people into action, and so much of the recent flash mob phenomenon has been connected to the subculture of mobile raves and grass roots protest movements. In this sense, the flash mob has maintained part of the transgressive character of the Happening as theorized by Kaprow.  But as with its predecessor, the flash mob has become increasingly mainstream and absorbed into pop cultural references, culminating with the “sponsored” flash mobs of T-Mobile and the highly choreographed flash mobs appearing more and more frequently as part of pop music concerts and paid promotion.  In this sense, I was not surprised to see the flash mob finally make an appearance on a prime time American TV show—and at a mall no less.
Phone company T-Mobile sponsors flash mobs
as part of its advertisement campaigns

Still, I am struck by the ironic way that Mitchell’s calculated “performance” was exposed and received by his partner. Cameron’s reaction to the flashmob was one of fleeting interest (he had seen them on YouTube) and then complete indifference (he was more upset that he hadn't been let in on the secret), and the audience was not left with any sense that Mitchell had significantly transformed as part of his role in the event (beyond wanting to impress Cameron for personal reasons). As Kaprow suggests, the Happening was always envisioned as an opportunity for a human stand, for freedom, and for alterity, but once it became merely a new style or a fad something crucial changed, “the whole situation is corrosive, neither patrons nor artists comprehend their role...and out of this hidden discomfort comes a stillborn art, tight or merely repetitive and at worst, chic." Here is where the flash mob depicted on Modern Family did succeed--by revealing the flash mob fad in all of its banality and tantalizing irony. I hold out just a bit of faith that the show’s writers (perhaps some of them cynical baby boomers) understood what they were doing. 

See the clip with the flashmob from Modern Family embedded below, and also some fantastic footage of Diana Ross and the Supremes performing their 1967 hit "The Happening."

Further Reading:

Nicholson, Judith A. “Flash! Mobs in the Age of Mobile Connectivity.” Fibreculture Journal 6 (2005).