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What Happens When Social Media and Soviet-Era Public Housing Collide

A new exhibition at MoMA's PS1 shows us a new kind of flash mob. But don't blame the internet.

We all know about flash mobs. They’re those quasi-spontaneous group demonstrations or performances that quickly materialize then disperse, organized for reasons ranging from political dissidence to conceptual improv to fighting en masse with light sabers. In the United States, despite freedom of assembly laws, many states have laws forbidding so-called “incitements to riot.” But these rapid changes in the ways people organize have opened up some new, problematic territories for organizers and law enforcement.


Those changes have also opened new pressure valves for violence, as the video above demonstrates. The footage depicts a Russian flash mob of sorts taken from the first half of Desniansky Raion (2007), a film project by French artist Cyprien Gaillard, whose solo exhibition “The Crystal World” is currently on view at the New York MoMA’s PS1 space in Queens through March 18.

What we see above, explains the PS1 wall placard, is a hoard of “young ruffians who meet on the internet and plan elaborate public fights.” The “ruffians”—many of them strangers, presumably, given the way they organized—wear red or blue shirts so they know who to attack. They assemble quickly, pummel one another for a few minutes, then disperse, in true flash mob fashion. It’s like a massive, 2.0 version of the rumble in The Outsiders.

Perhaps violent, internet-driven phenomena like this are inevitable in places where, as the Pussy Riot debacle showed us, dissent is regularly crushed with impunity. But Gaillard seems preoccupied not so much with social media or overt political repression as he is with the politics of architecture, urban environments, “progress” and its decay. That’s emphasized by the film’s location: a Russian public housing tower complex that could just as well be the project high-rises of major American cities, or the banlieue or council estates outside Paris and London.

“’The future is the obsolete in reverse,’” Gaillard explains in this video by the Tate Modern museum in London, quoting Nabokov. “And I think these buildings stand for that. There’s a kind of something quite medieval about these modernist structures, and the film is going, I guess, back in time showing first this fight in St. Petersburg that, for me, recalls 18th Century paintings of battlefields.”


Indeed, as uncommon and unsettling as the Russian footage is in scale and anonymity, it’s not unique to countries with poor human rights records. Just this January, a bunch of presumably bored kids in Baton Rouge, La., are believed to have organized a 200-strong flash mob in a shopping mall (another dehumanizing structure) via Instagram that turned into an all-out brawl.

The soundtrack further reflects the moral and social decay corrupting our efforts to herd the human spirit into neat little boxes. As Gaillard explains in the Tate video, the music was composed by Koudlam, a former opera singer-turned-composer whose goal is to make “electropic” music: Music that explores the notion of “entropy”—defined according to one definition in Merriam Webster, as “the degradation of the matter and energy in the universe to an ultimate state of inert uniformity”—and electronic music.

Our cities’ mid-century housing projects were built by people who sought to build “vertical garden cities” to ennoble the lives of the poor. Those projects failed.

Still a project tower is no simple monolith. Their destruction, as we saw recently in Chicago with the dismantling of the notorious Cabrini-Green projects, is a bittersweet affair. These are people’s homes, after all. Writ larger, they also acknowledge a basic failure on our part as a society to find viable remedies for inequality. Like so many of our best-laid plans, our cities’ mid-century housing projects were built by people who, following the lead of visionary architects like Le Corbusier, sought to build “vertical garden cities” to ennoble the lives of the poor via sleek structures set at surprising angles, and plenty of green space.


Those projects failed. The towers became dense, suffocating hives of misery. The green spaces became, as in the video above, battlegrounds for urban warfare. It took the ideas of Jane Jacobs and nearly 50 years for us to admit as much to ourselves and tear down monstrosities like Cabrini.

In the video below, we see the second segment of Gaillard’s film—a gripping, beautiful depiction of the demolition of a project tower outside Paris. As in other places where project towers are destroyed, the former residents had mixed feelings about its demolition. In an appeasing gesture, the mayor arranged a light and fireworks show to commemorate its destruction—the kind of “celebratory, pyrotechnic display,” PS1 curators note ironically in the wall text, “usually reserved for historic monuments.” The music, again, is Koudlam. When the destruction finally comes at the end of the light show, it is swift and total, like the drop of a guillotine.

In an interview with Mousse Magazine, Gaillard talks a bit about this second-half of his video, the last scene of which was shot during an illegal fly-over above the bleak, snowy towers of outer Kiev.

MOUSSE: It's a video in which alternate aesthetics of vandalism and minimalism, order and chaos. There is the brutal violence of gangs, pyrotechnical collapses of constructions, and architectonical geometries of a series of buildings in Kiev. The effects are destabilizing. What is at the origin of this conflict?

GAILLARD: The origin of this conflict can probably be traced back to what I said earlier about European politics of renovation and “requalification” of entire urban areas. The contrasts I used in the video show the strong analogies that exist between our present and ancient ages. The massive fight portrayed in the first part of the video (which was composed as a Triptych) formally opposes what you call the “architectonical geometries” of the buildings in Kiev, which for me represent the links with the stone ages. It was impressive to notice, while I flew over Kiev for the shooting, how these buildings seemed to [be] a kind of Ukrainian Stonehenge.

In the end we have changed, but we haven’t changed that much, as the Russian video shows. We build modern day Stonehenges to package utopian futures, but they only exacerbate our most brutal and ancient human needs for expression. A new project tower occupies the past and future at once: As a moral idea, it begins decaying before its first brick is laid.

Another definition of entropy is “the degree of disorder or uncertainty in a system.” This Russian video is what happens when disorder boils over, when uncertainty becomes an inescapable fact.