On Flock by Gary Stevens (2007)

Groups of people are largely recognised as threatening. If we look to much of the media that surrounds us, groups are portrayed as mobs, almost inseparable from yob culture or political dissidence. A group on the street is a gang, which necessarily implies threat. Our need to be individual is heavily stressed (and the largely group behaviour this results in is either ignored or presented as a negative). Our apparent need for individualism seems to be a denial of herd instinct. Where is our herd instinct now?

As a performer for Gary Stevens’ Flock I discovered my herd instinct – or rather identified an element which is always there but rarely acknowledged. Over two weeks I worked with a group of individuals, honed by Stevens to act as a single ‘hive mind’. Throughout this fortnight we were encouraged to forget ourselves, to not ‘want’ to go in any specific direction – to not want at all really, but instead to be sensitive to the movement and behaviour of the group. The result was a shifting mass of individuals, sometimes clustered and interweaving like a swarm of bees, at other times darting capriciously like a shoal of fish. We reacted to each other on an attraction/repulsion basis, trying to never be too close, nor too far apart. Every seemingly banal act – sitting on a bench, peering in a bin, stepping over a fence – was swiftly absorbed and aped by others until it became a collective act. With no active leader decisions were made collectively, with each individual testing a certain direction before the group as a whole pursued that path. Passersby, whilst never provoking panic, created small shifts towards urgency, as members of the flock would step, trot or canter to get away from these ‘foreign bodies’.

Being part of the flock required a high level of concentration and sensitivity – sensitivity mainly to the body language of the rest of the group. One quickly realises that it is far better to notice reactions within the flock – whose body language becomes familiar when working together – than to be constantly checking for pedestrians and obstacles. Once this realisation is reached it creates an extremely vigilant group, though with no one person on the lookout. This only came to me consciously when I noticed one of the flock giving a subtle flick of her head. As I turned to see what she had spotted I was aware of a small change in the group; within the space of a few moments, the whole flock had spotted the approach of a foreign body and was making small adjustments to make sure it would not make contact. When herd instinct takes over (becomes truly instinctive), one becomes aware of the size and shape of the group as a whole. Stevens says that we have a very natural sense of personal space – like when we weave through a busy street of shoppers without making contact – but as a herd our sense of space expands and contracts with the shifting movements of the other members.

At times we were driven apart from each other, buffeted by pedestrians or obstacles into different areas. Having developed such a strong group instinct, these brief separations provoked a reaction – though not of fear, certainly of some unease. Several times the group was completely scattered, separating into individuals and almost disappearing into anonymity. When this happened and we regrouped, we would for a moment form a close knit hub, pressing against each others’ personal space, before expanding and bulging out again into our default size and shape. At these moments it was as if the group needed to recover from its separation, though this action was reached spontaneously, without being devised.

Spontaneity within a structure is typical of Gary Stevens’ practice. He works with groups of people over a given length of time, experimenting and testing a range of scenarios under an umbrella concept. Once a system is found it is developed to such an extent that if unexpected events occur (as they are expected to), the group intuitively knows how to respond. Behaviour becomes instinctive, reactions present themselves naturally. This blend of structure and spontaneity is arresting for a viewer. We search, trying to understand how the piece is constructed – how much is devised and how much improvised – but the answer is elusive. This is a real strength of the work, that the line between spontaneity and structure, leader and follower, the choreographed and the ad hoc, is difficult to place. “I didn’t get it, but I’ve watched them for a while and got absorbed,” said one passerby. There is a certain beauty in watching a well developed system – and a satisfaction too, even if the rules governing that system are not always clear.

If people approached us, wanting to talk, the flock was advised not to ignore them but to smile as if to say, “It’s a funny old world, isn’t it!” Contained within this reaction is the sense that herd behaviour can be understood by all, empathically. In that moment we were all – whether flock or not – in on the same joke.