Alone in a Crowd
Amorphous both literally and conceptually, The Crowd is the focus of Critical Mass, a 42-page dossier originally published in WIP magazine issue 07. It spans interviews with artists and football Ultras alike, as well as essays that explore the idea in many ways: throngs of skaters descending on an idyllic Scandinavian cityscape, religion and fuel shortages in eastern Europe, the future of crowd control. Accompanying these are various visual conceptions of the crowd, from archival footage gathered by video artist Rawtape that trace visual archetypes across different gatherings, to AI-generated images that reckon with the power of the masses in an age of misinformation and manipulation. As artist Clemens von Wedemeyer puts it: “Crowds form because the individual imagines something within it.” Exactly what is up to you.
At the tail end of a summer of fuel shortages, flight chaos and the uneasy return of gatherings en masse, Zsófia Paulikovics considers the reputational rollercoaster of the crowd.
Did you know that you can call a petrol station and enquire about eg. when the refill truck will be arriving? I didn’t, personally, until this summer in Hungary when I sat in the car with my brother, sandwiched between 15-20 other cars all waiting for the truck to come. “It’ll be here in 45 minutes,” someone announced, coming back through the sliding doors. “I heard the cashier tell someone on the phone.” “Wait,” said someone else hanging out of their car window, “you can call a petrol station?” And that’s how I know. It seemed like a long wait, my brother wanted to leave, which was impossible because we were hemmed in from all sides. It was cordial but also claustrophobic; it felt like we were part of a crowd across the country, or perhaps the world, all waiting for petrol.
A couple weekends before, I was in London. Flights were being canceled en masse. Later, the tarmac melted at Luton. Stuck at home waiting for my replacement flight, I decided to treat myself to a pedicure in Soho. Only I forgot that it was Pride weekend and the beginning of the heatwave. Wading through Greek Street, I narrowly avoided stepping on a baby that was being changed on the pavement. Around me everyone was losing their mind to Mamma Mia (sure) while waving giant bubble blowers (???). In the Piccadilly Whole Foods, the fridge aisle was blocked by an American youth group who seemed to have come to Pride as a stop on their itinerary. They moved around as one, strangely synchronized like a majorette troupe.
Like TikTok and health supplements, crowds owe a reputational boost to the pandemic. Or maybe a reputational rollercoaster. They were bad during lockdown, good in June 2020. Either way, we’re thinking and talking about them more than ever before – certainly, I never used to give them a second thought. I was a small town girl in the big city, crowds were life-giving, end of.
Now I find I’m more uneasy in crowds, but my need to belong has gone through the roof. Maybe what I’m saying is I’m lonelier and (yes, I see the irony) I think I’m not alone. In New York, apparently people are ‘really into’ Catholicism. In Hungary, after a governmental effort to instill ‘Christian family values’, my generation is boasting the largest number of marriages since 1991. Young families are everywhere, two-three children are the norm. Both of these things exploit the aesthetics of religion but also, I think, some liminal promise to make you belong. Religion makes faith into a group project; gives framework to a privately felt thing. Growing up, I don’t remember ever aspiring to the traditional family unit, I do however remember wanting to see connections, be a part of something bigger. I suppose I didn’t think opportunities would be this limited though.
Recently I went on a hike with my family. I’d been to the area, a cascading valley in the North of Hungary, home to a waterfall and a trout fishery before, over a decade ago. The trail was busier than I remembered; it’s a good place to go if you need a quick fix of the sublime. If I had to guess, I’d say four out of five conversations I overheard were about the fuel crisis, anxiety about the ‘difficult autumn’ to come. The waterfall was hard to see, because it was blocked by a solid wall of spectators, and also because it had dried out significantly. A man stood with his teenage daughters, playing the sound of a waterfall from his phone. They were all laughing and looking jumpy; they tried to draw the crowd into their performance, but no-one would meet their eye.
The best time I had in a crowd this summer was at the Red Hot Chili Peppers concert in London. Flea and Anthony Kiedis did a bit about first coming to the city and playing for a room of 20. I think they really meant it! They seemed emotional. A boy, 20ish, pushed his way through and halted in front of me. He was beautiful, like a lost Hedi Slimane surfer, and smelled like he hadn’t showered in weeks. He pulled out a bag of cocaine which he did in one go. “Lift me up!” he screamed, and the crowd obliged.
This article was taken from issue 07 of WIP Magazine.