Partying as a radical organizing tool: from Power Hours of Fun to rallies for political justice
By Elise Granata
When was the last time you lost yourself? I’m not talking “six beers” kind of lost yourself or “eleven episodes of Gilmore Girls” kind of lost yourself or “somehow six hours on Tumblr” kind of lost yourself. I’m not talking “karaoke” kind of lost yourself unless your karaoke really is that great.
I’m talking that immersive, all-emotions-go, timeless kind of lost yourself. Where you feel safe and dangerous all at once. Was it a show? A performance? Were you performing or watching? A rally? A really good dance party?
For me? Last Friday. I created a Power Hour of Fun for my birthday party. This was an hour-long, non-stop party of 60 different activities happening in a row. Examples include: A minute of high fives. A minute of trust falls. A minute of maintaining eye contact with someone. There was a scrappy hour-long video cycling through a different prompt, song, and image for each minute. About 50 of my friends gathered in the atrium of the museum where I work (free rentals are a perrrrrk). We did a short warm up where I laid down the rules and did a short movement activity. My friend Bennett pressed play, and the thing didn’t stop until it was over.
What I’m about to tell you may seem like a sugary tale of connection over a collective “quirky” experience. Well hey, it was totally that; but that’s part of why it works.
Often, when you’re part of a collective body, you’re with a bunch of strangers. The common denominator is this thing you’re a part of: your mission, your art, your politics. I counted, and there’s still about a million things to break down before we do anything productive. We feel awkward, unsafe, and unfamiliar. It takes a lot to collectivize. Even more to organize. When we get to lose ourselves in something– a party, a meeting, a conversation– we emerge more vulnerable and ultimately more connected to one another. This is my case for “losing yourself” as a radical method of organizing.
At the top of the Power Hour, we began as 50 strangers in the room. We may not have left as friends, but we left having shared a vulnerable experience. Afterwards I heard things like “My friend has massive social anxiety. That was the first time I saw him smiling and laughing around strangers.” I saw my best friend and co-worker’s brother-in-law flossing together and giving each other massages. There were minutes of obvious vulnerability (“Talk about the last time you cried,” “Say ‘I love you’”) mixed with minutes of more subtle, but bigger-cojones vulnerability (“Group floss!” “Group haircuts”) and minutes of all-in fun (“High fives,” “Yell,” “Eat a hot dog”). Later at the bar as I introduced my friend Elaina to another Power Hour-er, she said “I’ve already told you ‘I love you’ and about the last time I cried. Do I really need to be introduced to you?”
At the end of the night while wiping some combo of tears or sweat off my face, I wondered: why do I feel this way? Why did we feel this way? What makes people lose themselves in a social space?
Today I am Party Scientist Jr., P.H.D., and I’ve got three theories for you:
-Obligation. There are traditional social spaces where we feel obligated to push ourselves because of someone else. This could be a birthday, wedding, or even when you go see a friend’s band. When the reason for being somewhere exists outside of yourself, it gets easier to say “Well sure, I wouldn’t prefer to dance in public to this Whitney jam like this, but it’s Elise’s birthday so I really should.”
-A format so awesome, it disarms you. Something with no precedent– a Power Hour of Fun, The Mp3 Experiments, The New Year’s Eve Experience. There is powerful magic in getting to say “I’ve never done something like this before.” This magic is like superglue for strangers. You’re all baffled; but you’re all baffled together. There are things that can make the format more disarming than others: giant groups of people, something visually striking (inflatable snowman, LED lights, wild outfits), an unexpected space (a moving truck, a public park, a museum), or some strong instructions. “Never underestimate the power of an external task or instruction,” says Nina Simon, who designs participatory museum experiences as Executive Director of the Santa Cruz MAH, “and the desire to be part of something bigger than oneself.”
–Safety in the chaos. You won’t laugh your hardest, dance your worst, or yell your loudest if you’re too busy watching your back. My party only worked, as a friend said, because everyone was vetted by me, so they were “probably already decent.” By extension of this, they would also invite more decent people. One would think.
These may make sense in a hyper-curated, private space like a party– but how do we replicate this in public art spaces? We have all the potential in the world to feel connected to one another, and all the barriers in the world to stop that from happening.
I’m reminded of seeing Terror Pigeon!, a non-stop touring band and collective sweat experience that is like the church you always wanted to go to. Within minutes, Neil Fridd will have you yelling “THERE IS NOTHING ABOUT YOU I WON’T LOVE!” while under an LED blanket with a bunch of strangers. How? “You have to convince them it’ll be worth it. That they’ll be glad they did it. That their day/night/life will be richer for having done so,” says Neil. He has become a jacked up evangelist for the Terror Pigeon! experience even when it shifts from one temporary space to another. You can’t help but follow what he says.
This is about using social intervention to bind us to each other and ultimately come out stronger for something in the end. As a collective. As friends. As a community.
My friend Chelsea is an incredible organizer. When I asked them about the last time they lost themselves, they brought up the rally for justice for Michael Brown late this summer in New London, Connecticut. They work with an incredible organization called Hearing Youth Voices and collectively organized when they saw a lack of local action. The HYV youth had never organized a rally before. But for them, chants worked like a power-up for instant collectivizing. “These powerful Black and Brown youth organizers went out there marching through the street, yelling out chants like they had been chanting for 20 years,” says Chelsea. “They had literally never heard a rally chant before in their entire lives.”
We are infinitely more powerful together. What are the simple actions we can to do connect us? What can we do to lose ourselves more?