Imagine this: You're walking down Burnside on an overcast Saturday afternoon. Maybe you just picked up a pair of shoes at Buffalo Exchange, or you're on way to see a battle of the bands at Fez Ballroom. Everything's fine until all at once, everyone freezes.
Just like that. Frozen. Conversations suspended mid-word, unflicked ashes on smoking cigarettes growing perilously longer as time passes. No one's saying anything. Is this the rapture? A film by Michel Gondry? Have you died?
Maybe not, but you have walked into a piece of public art, a sort of social experiment coordinated by the Portland Cacophony Society and fellow mischief-makers Portland Mayhem. Oh, and those thoughts you're having? Well, they're the point, sort of. Maybe.
This past Saturday, Feb. 23, at 10th Avenue and East Burnside Street, the self-styled “Cacos”, under the leadership of the elusive Ms. Chief, staged just such a freeze. Organized in connection with New York-based Improv Everywhere's Global Freeze, which took place in cities from Berlin to Chicago to Sydney, the event required that participants freeze in public places for exactly five minutes. The timing was coordinated by cell phone alarms, which were to vibrate once at the beginning, and again at the end of five minutes.
All right, it sounds interesting, but what's the point? Although organizers were tight-lipped about the freeze's larger significance, participants were surprisingly lucid. Cimi, 36, a UK transplant with striking black hair, said, “The point is to make people stop and think. We're all walking around all day long, you know?” The Wrench, 31, with punk earrings and a white mohawk, agreed, “The point is to get people to stop and look.”
For others, it was about forming a community. Silas, a 15-year-old in a lemon-lime-colored track jacket and custom rainbow Sambas, said, “I think it's great that total strangers will come together to do something like this.”
After a briefing from Ms. Chief, participants the approximately 80 participants moved in small groups over to the chosen site. At the appointed time—3:15 pm—everything froze.
It was magical. With little prompting, participants chose poses that were interesting without being silly or attention-grabbing. A couple sitting on a dumpster had been swaying back and forth—they froze leaning leftward, slightly off-center. The fingers of guitar players hovered over strings, suspended in mid-strum, while friends, who had been bobbing their heads to the beat, stood stunned, appreciative looks on their faces. Text message typers sat locked in staring contests with their mobiles, and photographers agonized over pictures they couldn't take. My favorite was a biker who managed to freeze while pedaling—a trick he accomplished by positioning himself next to a guardrail.
Onlookers didn't have the slightest idea what to make of it. Murmurs of “what's going on” and “what happened” crackled like popcorn among the Saturday afternoon crowd as they squeezed by frozen pedestrians. One over-knowledgeable fellow in a Puma hoody loudly asserted to anyone who would listen, “Dude, chill out, act natural, they're just makin' a movie.” Another passerby, a timid-looking woman in thick glasses, asked a friend, “Do you think there are aliens?”
She didn't have much time to ponder. Five minutes may have seemed like a long time for those holding poses, but for those of us who watched, it was over in a flash. At 3:20 pm., exactly following their instructions, participants resumed what they had been doing before the freeze—walking, smoking cigarettes, or proposing marriage.
The event was not without casualties. At least two gents appeared to have gotten stuck: both failed to come out of their freeze after the five minutes had elapsed. One, who wore a red leather jacket and Jackie O sunglasses, leaned against a light pole at the Northeast corner of the intersection. The other, who wore a plaid shirt and nursed an unlit cigarette, staked out the railing in front of Powell's Books' main entrance. Neither would respond to questions. It is not known whether their cell phones failed to vibrate, thereby signaling the end of the five minutes, or whether they were in fact participating in the event to begin with.