The Serendipity Revival
13 May, 2011 - Maureen Lovett
With the ever-present, and sometimes intruding, information age presiding over our daily digest, we have become the consumers (and creators) of a constant newsfeed. Whether we experience total access to information as progressive or destructive or a hybrid of both, our participation in the digital age seems to be unavoidable and is (for better or for worse) morphing into a democratic leveling of information. The same online source that tells us about unrest in the Middle East also tells us what Ben and Dylan had for lunch and that it was better than what they had yesterday. Our decorating choices have become as public — and even as digitally consumed by our peers — as the news of The Royal Wedding.
This isn’t yet another plea to abandon the Twitterverse or your Facebook account in exchange for the world of traditional-paper-and-print; this is merely an observation on digital participation, our inkling for discovery, and an age-old phenomenon that has been resurrected in response to this need.
In a 2009 New York Times article, “Serendipity, Lost in the Digital Deluge,” Damon Darlin noted that though the digital age is free, fast, and full of choices, “we’ve lost something as well: the fortunate discovery of something we never knew we wanted to find. In other words, the digital age is stamping out serendipity.” Though we feel a twinge of discovery when an e-mail about a vintage-trunk-turned-kitchen-table lands in our inbox, “we are discovering what everyone else is learning, and usually from people we have selected because they share our tastes.” Even our chance discoveries are filtered.
As of January 5, 2011, our public, personal information had amounted to “five billion images and counting on Flickr; hundreds of thousands of YouTube videos uploaded every day; oceans of content from 20 million bloggers and 500 million Facebook members; [and] two billion tweets a month,” according to Rob Walker’s “Cyberspace When You’re Dead.”
Insomuch as we continue to consume everyone else’s playlist, recipe choice, witty response to Kevin’s question, and the Robinson’s toddler’s first walk across the room, we contribute to the public, collective existence, where our private experiences are praised when shared. As more public opportunities arise to publish our private happenings, our choice to keep our choices to ourselves slowly becomes a luxury. Despite this growing, infinite download, Darlin claims that “the human need for surprise” remains intact.
Since Darlin’s 2009 call for fate to somehow remain vigilant in the face of exponential information growth, an element of privacy has made a very loud comeback. We still want to keep some things to ourselves. We want to be the one to break that news, to discover that thing that no one else knows. Consequently, there is an undercurrent in our contemporary waters; our paradigm of public omnipotence is being infiltrated by secrets.
Yes, secrets are the new business model, social movement, and artistic practice; secrets are the new news.
Take the recent rise in speakeasy success. A nightlife movement claiming passwords, hidden hours, and secret-symbols-as-signage is nothing short of exclusive. Even when you know one such secret establishment exists in your city, good luck getting a reservation (unless it’s for 3:00 pm on a Wednesday afternoon). Though some of speakeasy’s popularity is perhaps due to its drink menu fit-for-a-queen, or a crowd made up of historical-period-junkies seeking etiquette hearkening back to the Prohibition Era, you are initially drawn to its novelty as a secret enterprise — even if you blog about it later and even if, actually, everyone already knows about it. These hidden establishments remain seemingly removed from the infinite news-o-sphere that you spent 9-5 pm digesting.
Likewise, secrets have invaded public assembly. Flash Mobs have gained so much popularity that they are even beginning to infiltrate mainstream marketing — an inherently conflicted outcome of their initial reason for novelty. From the Grand Central Freeze to the (now annual) No-Pants-On-The-Subway NYC escapade, a local manifestation of one such secret gathering could comically infiltrate your public experience at any moment. Even if documentation of the event goes viral immediately after it’s set in motion, the plan itself remains a secret known only to flash mob participants from conception to culmination.
Lastly — and most boldly — the guerilla arts have found themselves a very unique place in post-modernity. From guerilla gardening to guerilla knitting, these secret initiatives are welcomed with enthusiasm in the public sphere.
In the guerilla guidebook (The Guerilla Art Kit: Everything You Need to Put Your Message Out Into the World, for Fun, Non-Profit, and World Domination), Keri Smith defines a guerilla movement as “any anonymous work (including, but not limited to, graffiti, signage, performance, additions, and decoration) installed, performed, or attached in public spaces, with the distinct purpose of affecting the world in a creative or thought-provoking way.” The rules? Start small. Don’t get caught. Be responsible, polite, and stealth. Bring the basics (tagging supplies, a crew of helpers, and clothing with pockets.)
Personally, my experience in the guerilla world began in a collegiate Guerilla Book Club. We (obviously) had an anonymous Gmail account, announced the reading and location of discussion the week of, and — just like it sounds — radically discussed literature in public spaces. Our movement was complete with spray-painted posters and secret lingo.
This readers’ rebellion acted as the gateway for my involvement in the guerilla knitting movement. From Washington Park with Magda Sayeg to Lee Park in Charlottesville with a group of female conspirators, I was launched into a movement dedicated to covering our collective, public space with “the fiber equivalent of graffiti.” Our victims have included garage doors, trash cans, and trees as we presented sweaters fit for public infrastructure. I am admittedly a culprit of — and a sucker for — the secret revolution. And so is most everyone else.
Accompanying the recent popularity of Banksy’s documentary film Exit Through The Gift Shop, most of the Western world is now looking for Shepherd Ferry stickers on its corner stop sign. Fabric-filled potholes and knitted buses fill our buzz feeds. (But only after the fact.) We’re on the lookout for guerilla gardeners, who “fight the filth with forks and flowers.” Guerilla bannering has us turning the corner to find a flag-in-our-face declaring: “You’re A Star.”
The secrecy is as addictive as the craft. Why? As a guerilla movement onlooker, Keri Smith explains, “I get excited knowing that the artist and I share a little secret. For a moment, I am taken out of my known world and presented with an alternative, one that is unexpected and daring.”
At least the onlooker has the privilege of knowing something about her artistic confidant — perhaps that she knits the European way, or she prefers guerilla tomatoes to guerilla basil. The artist is often ignorant of the work’s effect because, by nature, guerilla art does not generate its own organized reception; there’s no planned opening and no length of an exhibit. The artist’s choice to dispense anonymous, public information — and to suddenly abandon it — automatically places a limit on the information’s dissemination. Even if the action or placement is so well received that it becomes widespread, public knowledge, it still cannot become universal: there are still some things the artist will never know (like who saw it first and if it generated more movement; like a sweater for another tree in another state … like Ohio).
Unless you are physically present as the audience or privy to the covert gathering ahead of time, these gardens and sweaters remain a subset of information limited to a select group of accomplices and bystanders until the experience is complete — until it goes viral. The participants are thrown together by chance — a chance that forms an alternative community to the filtered one we experience online.
As long as these secret actions maintain their integrity (i.e., no one spills the beans), our guerilla experience is full of serendipity. Whether we participate as initiators or onlookers, these hidden, public endeavors remind us of our ability to discover. This trace of secrecy in our cultural taste is the alternative to Darlin’s prophesied death of fate in the rise of the online age.
Or maybe, like our fourth grade selves, we just like a good, old-fashioned secret and are willing to fight for its contemporary: the clandestine, hush-hush endeavor in the public arena.