Woe to those who, to the very end, insist on regulating the movement that exceeds them.
- Georges Bataille
Gathering in stadiums, on the streets, in unlicensed clubs and in stained-glass churches; the convulsions and euphoria. Under cover of darkness or laid out on warm sandy beaches we lose ourselves, obeying a logic of more than one. We converge. Entering a crowd bodies are cannibalised and repurposed. The result can be liberation—the ecstasy of the dancefloor, voices amplified in protest—as much as enclosure. The power that metabolises a crowd is no longer the body of the organism but the body of its intensity—and we surrender to it. We are indifferent, mournful and joyous. We are riotous.
Crowds are so commonplace now we forget they are a relatively new experience, emerging in earnest in the late 19th and early 20th century. As cities and towns gorged, their belts widening in each swell, first inhabitants then citizens were drawn into forms of collective experience that took them beyond their physical and psychological limits—fever-pitch descends to hooliganism, consumption enters golden quarter hysteria, and blood, sweat and soot transform themselves into manifestos for the future. In time we have wielded this power to enact political change and transform our societies, whilst egregious politicians continue to harness our anxiety of crowds to build arguments against immigration and suffrage. In their Janus-faced nature, crowds both reflect and challenge held ideologies, uphold democracy or ignite bellicose ferment.
Art has long responded to this energy - from Bosch’s 15th century hells through the pre-war industrialism of Bomberg, Lewis and Nevinson... Here bodies are isolated or fragmented, in each case induced to delirium. Crowds have long been a trope of existential burden—seen as oppressive, claustrophobic or suffocating; as in Kafka’s court chambers, where the rule of law, burdened by mob-like spectators, succumbs to obsequious whim. Evermore so today, we are subject to the throngs of an accursed share, an unpleasant game of sardines crammed in boats, trains and planes, or lost amongst the squall of Twitterstorms. Crowds are no longer a site of flesh and movement but a confluence of energy that sucks us in.
French moralist Jean de La Bruyère wrote, “The great misfortune, of not being able to be alone.” Today we are rarely alone. The age of anxiety chases our thoughts; even when separated, we remain connected. Yet for many, gathering in number remains a clandestine movement. Together we organise better. We protest and celebrate more intensely. Enveloping bodies swarm amongst one another, extending the end. In a crowd we learn to sacrifice for a common cause. Our cries scream out frivolity, power and emancipation. We are the love-drunk clamour of a birdsong after dark; a unified voice in the desperate struggle to be heard.