On a fall evening two years ago, Matthew Flaschen donned a headlamp, slipped on a backpack and, along with about 20 other similarly dressed men and women, went spelunking in downtown Atlanta.
Each member taking hold of a long rope, in slow, painstaking fashion, the expedition descended a staircase in the shadow of a dull, lifeless parking deck. Entering a cavernous space, the group continued slowly on its subterranean quest, using flashlights to illuminate various chambers that opened up along the wide passage and studying the various strange formations that descended from the high ceiling and walls around them.
But Flaschen and his fellow spelunkers soon encountered an obstacle: a uniformed security guard who, much like everyone else that evening in Underground Atlanta, wondered what the hell was going on. Still holding the rope uniting them, the 22-year-old Georgia Tech student and his crew were ushered to the door. They climbed past Underground's outdoor fountain, crossed Peachtree Street and entered the MARTA station, where they continued to confuse onlookers.
The event — or "mission," as masters of the craft prefer to call it — was just one of nearly a dozen preplanned pranks carried out by the Gobi Lumberjacks, a ragtag group of urban jesters who've helped organize such anarchic displays of surrealism in Atlanta since early 2008.
One of hundreds of such groups across the country, the Lumberjacks have frozen in midstep at Atlantic Station; launched into spontaneous, musicless dancing at Lenox Square mall; and pretended that bananas were cell phones at Perimeter Mall. Those missions were in addition to organizing the local No Pants MARTA ride, the worldwide annual event in which straphangers ride the rails sans trou.
The Lumberjacks don't get paid, they're not seeking fame and they haven't misplaced their medication.
"Our motto is 'amuse and bewilder,'" says Jame Riley, an Atlanta graphic designer and one of the group's founding members.
"Say you're in your normal day-to-day routine," he says, excitedly. "You're in a train and gotta get to work. The same old place, same old crowd, same old people you never talk to. And, all of a sudden, people start taking their pants off and riding the train. And then, at the next stop, people are getting on with their pants off. It's benign, it's funny, and it's something to break up the monotony in people's lives. And it gives people something to talk about the rest of the day or week."
Adds Flaschen: "Anyone can go to a play or musical. But it's not every day you're going about your daily life and something strange starts happening."
Much like street artists use the urban environment to offer a different perspective or simply shake people out of their routines, the Lumberjacks' missions and such acts of silliness as the Freedom Park pillow fight (see sidebar) take the everyday and insert the unexpected. So far, Atlanta seems to have embraced the nonsense.
But the Lumberjacks, which has no organized leadership structure, also faces challenges that are unique to Atlanta. Thanks to its decentralized layout, the city can be a hard place to pull off a prank.
But obstacles can be overcome and plans are under way for another event near the end of September. The pranksters are tight-lipped about their upcoming mission, but it will likely involve song and dance and commuting.
Unlike flash mobs, the now-ubiquitous social phenomenon that's unfortunately been co-opted by commercial interests as another guerilla marketing tool, urban pranks are quick doses of choreographed silliness aimed at simply entertaining.
"We like to turn dull moments of life into something fantastic," says Jenny Fox Shain, a new member who's helping organize the next prank. "I think our brains are conditioned to think entertainment is only contained in certain boundaries or places. It's creating something fun in uncreative environments where people aren't expecting to see something that brings joy to them."
How the movement — and the Gobi Lumberjacks — came to be can be traced to New York City. And oddly enough, to low-fi alterna-popster Ben Folds.
In August of 2001, the Brooklyn comedian Charlie Todd and two friends convinced a bar filled with strangers that they were the Ben Folds Five. Free drinks and autograph requests followed. The prank convinced Todd, who teaches and performs with at the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe, to form Improv Everywhere, a pranks collective open to anyone who has the time and audacity to participate in elaborate public scenes.
(In hindsight, Todd says he wishes he'd chosen a different moniker, as orchestrated and complex events fall outside the traditional definition of improv, which is a give-and-take, spontaneous dramatic or comedic display.)
Todd and friends would brainstorm ideas or accept suggestions from the many fans IE gained over the years thanks to savvy videos of imaginative pranks. Among them: hoodwinking passersby into thinking they were watching U2 perform on a rooftop outside of an actual U2 concert; having more than 100 guys shopping bare-chested through Abercrombie & Fitch; and performing a lavish food-court musical.
Todd, who's benefited from the experiences with an elevated profile in the cutthroat NYC comedy scene and inked a TV pilot and book deal, views the missions as both a civic exercise and a way to shatter notions of what is or isn't entertainment.
"It's important for people to have experiences exercising their freedom of expression in public places and doing so without having someone's approval," he says. "As long as it's safe, fun and no one's getting hurt, I think people should have the right to do something silly on MARTA or the streets of downtown Atlanta. And it awakens people to the idea that art and creativity and comedy can happen anywhere — and not always in preapproved, expected places."
The event that really put IE on the cultural map took place on a cold Saturday afternoon in January 2008, when more than 200 people of all ages, races and backgrounds converged in Grand Central Station's vast terminal and simply froze in place.
For five solid minutes, a man leaned over to pick up a stack of scattered papers. Two lovers remained locked in a kiss. A man held bunny ears over friends' heads as they posed for a photograph.
A well-edited YouTube video of what was dubbed the "Grand Central Freeze" became a viral sensation; to date, it's been viewed nearly 29 million times.
Flaschen, a fifth-year computer science undergrad at Georgia Tech from suburban Philadelphia, and Riley, a 48-year-old graphic designer with a lifelong love of comedy, were among those who watched.
"I knew about improv, but I'd never seen people doing it in everyday life," Flaschen says of the clip. "That to me was unique. There was nothing close to that in Philly I could compare that to."
Riley, who says he's been chronically shy for most of his life, was looking to shake out of his routine, entertain strangers and seek out new experiences following the death of his wife of 17 years. Impressed by IE's brand of humor and knack for surprising the unsuspecting, he was sold on trying something similar.
"It was witty, amusing, entertaining, sometimes silly," Riley says. "But it was never stupid."
Shortly before the Grand Central Freeze hit YouTube, Todd launched the Urban Prankster Network, a message board that gave people in different cities and countries a virtual meeting place in which to organize missions.
Flaschen, who says he'd never before been involved in the performing arts, realized that Atlanta lacked a presence and started the group.
Ideas were punted around: Inviting people to an elaborate fake outdoor concert in downtown Atlanta, replete with fliers and a MySpace page for the fictitious band; staging a showdown between rabid fans of the colors red and blue; and taking over a college class midlecture. But when someone broached the idea of joining more than 20 other cities in a worldwide tribute to the Grand Central prank that helped put IE on the cultural radar, the choice seemed obvious.
On a day in mid-February, 12 members of the still unnamed group — it wouldn't get a name until several months later, when Riley suggested the Monty Python-esque name "Gobi Lumberjack Society" — met in a northwest Atlanta park to cobble together plans for the Atlantic Station freeze.
A week later, a group of about 65 met in the retail mini-city's parking lot and went over final plans. Participants set their cell phone alarms, placed them to silent mode, and started milling about Atlantic Station's courtyard.
When agents' phones hummed at precisely 6:15 p.m., the participants froze. A father and son had spilled a drink and newspaper and were frozen in the process of picking up the mess. One young guy, who bought a ring from a nearby department store minutes before the mission started, knelt in midproposal before a surprised "girlfriend."
Chefs, waiters and store clerks ventured outside to see what was happening. Bystanders, some of who thought they were witnessing a commercial shoot, tried to provoke reactions from the agents. A few onlookers even joined in.
Five minutes later, the participants unfroze and walked away without explanation. No harm, no foul. Mission accomplished.
For months, Lumberjacks would meet on the group's Urban Pranksters Network page or Facebook to offer mission ideas. Members would critique each concept or strike it down all together.
They'd also follow some simple ground rules. Getting kicked out of private property is OK and sometimes even expected, but it's important to stay on the right side of the law, Flaschen says. Equally important is that no one, bystander or participant, gets hurt. If anyone's to look like a fool, it's the participants and not the audience.
Although membership is open to anyone, the majority of the Lumberjacks are college students. Class schedules, summer plans and limited transportation options interfere with scheduling missions. Come summertime, when students return to hometowns, get jobs or pick up internships, activities slow down to a lull.
Thanks to metro Atlanta's sprawlish character and lack of sufficient public transportation, it's difficult to wrangle participants on short notice. Agents learned traffic jams can also cause problems. The videographer for the Atlantic Station Freeze missed the prank after getting caught in gridlock, causing Atlanta to be one of the few groups without video of their mission.
There's also the problem posed by Atlanta's urban design. New York, Chicago and most other large cities have familiar places where large groups of people mix and mingle, Riley says, which means you're more likely to come across a captive audience. Not so in Atlanta.
"Atlanta has very few easily accessible public spaces," Riley says. "There are lots of nice little parks, but you need to have an audience to make these events effective. You can go to Woodruff Park, but the audience might get a little weird. You can do it in Little Five Points, but right there you're competing against so much weird already."
Walk a few blocks away from Five Points in either direction and the city streets aren't exactly bustling with enough foot traffic to justify a mission. MARTA, the site of many proposed missions, only goes in four directions.
Agents have also learned that generating excitement about committing absurd public pranks is easy — but that doesn't always ensure that enough participants will show up. When a dozen people show up on a MARTA platform without pants, the audience is baffled, but they know it's a prank. When there's one trouserless straphanger, however, people are likely just to wait for the next train.
And while Improv Everywhere — with missions that have attracted as many as 700 New Yorkers — boasts a 13,000-strong mailing list heavy with creative types, the Lumberjacks still need a larger membership.
In New York, Riley says, "All they have to do is walk out the door, get on the subway, and there they are. It's not that easy here. ... We invite 150 people, 40 respond and 10 show up. And some of the ideas we had needed to have bigger groups just to have an impact."
But Riley and Flaschen are optimistic. The group is constantly on the hunt for new members.
Says Shain, who says she's signed up 60 people for the upcoming prank: "Everybody seems to like to watch. But to participate takes someone who has no problem making a fool out of himself. If we can find those types of people, we'll be successful."
The Lumberjacks' rank-and-file understand their path might not lead to riches. Book deals or film projects aren't why they started braving MARTA without pants in the first place.
For Flaschen, an out-of-towner without a car, it's been a way to experience parts of a city he might never have seen. For Riley, it's helped him break out of his comfort zone after his wife's death.
And in a city that, right up until the economy took a nosedive, was enjoying an urban renaissance, the simple addition of an unplanned encounter with the surreal injects much-needed life and energy into the city. People snap photos, scoff, call security and are distracted from their shopping lists or the view out the train window.
"Atlanta needs it more than some of these other cities," Riley says. "The people are caught in cars in traffic going from point A to point B. They get up, go to work, pick up the kids, same old worries, same old struggles. When people get to witness some of these events, it gives them a bright spot in their lives."
Last weekend, members gathered to rehearse for their next prank. Should everything go according to plan, they'll unveil their creation later this month. For a few minutes that day, they'll amuse and bewilder the crowd with their version of guerilla performance art. Bystanders will call their friends, chuckle to themselves or simply pay it no attention. And then, without any explanation, the Lumberjacks will be gone.
Creative Loafing Atlanta presents: Subway riders in their underwear invaded MARTA on January 10, 2010. Though the No Pants! ride is in its ninth year, many onlookers were still not in on the joke.
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