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Collective Expressions

by | Brighton, UK

Monday, 15 November 2010

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Crowds are everywhere at the moment. Spontaneous gatherings are spreading like wildfire across advertising, cultural events, and publishing.

With social networking on the rise, there’s an obvious reason for communications companies to take an interest in the crowd. The rapid spread of viral sharing has found expression in the ‘flash mob’ genre famously adopted by T-Mobile in the UK, with the brand’s Liverpool Street station mass dance. Sony Ericsson was quick to follow with its mass procession of people on space hoppers.

It’s not just happening in the communications sector. More widely, crowds are now seen as sources of spontaneous expression, intelligence, and creativity.

For instance, The Wisdom of Crowds, a pop-sociology book by James Surowiecki, talks about how large groups of people, by providing a mass aggregate of opinion, ‘know’ more than individuals ever can.

And ‘meaning in numbers’ is even extending to the domain of personal care — previously the territory of the isolated beauty-seeker gazing in her mirror. An example is Vaseline’s global platform ‘Your skin is amazing’, with its ads [detail below] featuring hundreds of bodies intertwined into a ‘sea of skin’. 

Bringing collective expression into the domain of skincare represents a decisive shift in the way we imagine the body. For Vaseline, skin is now to be valued and loved as part of our ‘common wealth’ — a shared human treasure, rather than an individually-owned object of display and pride.

On the British cultural scene, the rising popularity of summer music festivals also demonstrates the new value placed on collective congregation and shared expression. This summer’s Big Chill music and arts festival was attended by Spencer Tunick, the photographer of vast gatherings of naked bodies — who took a panoramic shot of massed naked festival-goers. The crowd created and constructed within the bigger crowd of the festival — it would be hard to find a clearer expression of the theme at work.

Spencer Tunick’s panoramas of mass nakedness and Vaseline’s ‘sea of skin’ seem to be saying something very similar: forget the age of the ‘private’, and of individual discrimination — we’re now in an era when collective expression carries more weight. The theme of nakedness only adds to the implicit message: it’s time to strip away the illusions of individuality and separateness, and join in a shared humanity.

It takes us a long way from the 20th-century critical-modernist idea that the ‘mass’ was necessarily inert, passive, and stupid. Within this framework, intelligence or creativity lay with the ‘one’, or the small cabal: outsiders who used the margins to probe what was really going on.

But is the celebration of the crowd really such a radical departure — or does it simply reflect a new humanism? In a sense, rather than dispersing the ‘unified subject’ so heavily criticised in academia, the crowd revives it in a many-headed form. 

It’s true that the idea of humanity produced in the Vaseline campaign and the flash mob genre asks us to ascribe creativity, art, and expression to the many rather than to the lone genius. The underlying narcissism, though, remains the same, constructing humanity as a collective superstar, with powers and qualities worthy of constant marvelling.

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