Whine and cheese: the Complaints Choir is coming to Toronto

Whine and cheese: the Complaints Choir is coming to Toronto

The Complaints Choir does more than give us a forum for griping—it encourages love and understanding. Togetherness, 21st century style

(Illustration: Kagan McLeod) 

On June 17, 2003, 200 young New Yorkers descended en masse upon a Macy’s rug department, asked for assistance in selecting a “love rug” for their commune in Long Island City, and left 10 minutes later. News of the odd department store swarming—orchestrated anonymously by an editor at Harper’s Magazine, Bill Waski—spread quickly. Waski had created an e-mail address (themobproject@yahoo.com), concocted a message outlining the plan, and forwarded it to 60-plus friends, encouraging them to pass on the details to others. He had conceived of the tongue-in-cheek shopping trip both to test how news travels on the Internet and as a way of sneakily mocking urban scenesters—like his co-participants—obsessed with tracking the next big thing. Copycat incidents soon popped up in San Francisco, Austin and Minneapolis.

Flash mobs are now officially part of life in Toronto, whether the event involves a giant street-blocking pillow fight outside the Eaton Centre, a group of pants-less riders swamping a subway car, or a dance party staged by footloose lawyers from Blake, Cassels and Graydon in the Commerce Court food court. They’re the performance art equivalent of forwarded joke e-mails: easily accessible and wide reaching, often delightful, sometimes annoying and always, always in your face.

But flash mobs have a broader mission, a more pointed goal than purely to entertain. They ask us to rethink how we engage with the people around us. We’re a society of bubble dwellers, listening to our iPods or typing on our BlackBerrys, perpetually tuning out the chatter at the next table or the fellow passenger crammed against us on the streetcar. Being surprised by a mass of mumbling monsters in Trinity-Bellwoods during the annual Zombie Walk yanks us out of our virtual worlds and into the corporeal one. It’s a much-needed entreaty that attention should be paid, and an artful way to force us to look at each other and acknowledge our shared existence.

An increasing number of artists are using flash mobs as vehicles for dissecting social interaction—a kind of art-fuelled science experiment. In 2005, the Helsinki-based couple Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen and Tellervo Kalleinen began a series of public art interventions that spread to various cities under the banner Complaints Choir. Citizens were invited to submit their complaints about everything from quotidian annoyances to pressing world issues, which were then used as lyrics for a song written by a local composer, and sung by a choir (often in surprise public locations). Since its inception, there have been more than 60 Complaints Choirs staged worldwide, in such cities as Birmingham, Tokyo and Jerusalem. (The staff of CBC’s As It Happens organized an on-air rendition in 2007, culling complaints from listeners across Canada.) The Kalleinens treat the event as a community art project, offering a format and certain guidelines, but giving participants across the globe the freedom to take up the idea and make it their own. Torontonians will be able to hear their beefs laid out publicly for the first time this month, as part of the World Stage Festival organized by Harbour­front Centre, which has been collecting pet peeves at lifestinks.ca since last fall.

Singing about the things we hate is funny, and it’s precisely what pulls onlookers into the experience. Misery loves company

The Toronto edition, like all good flash mobs, involves a combination of rigour and spontaneity. Those who want to lend their voices to the ensemble (professionals and non-professionals alike) check Harbourfront’s Web site at the beginning of March for a list of rehearsal dates. Then they show up to help shape the song, moulded by composer Bryce Kulak, and perfect their vocals. It’s performance art—already an inherently populist form—for the masses. Submitting a complaint, joining the choir and reacting to the singers when you bump into them are equal parts of the equation.

Using complaints as the basis for a public art project is ingenious. Singing about the things we hate is funny and resonant; it’s precisely what pulls onlookers into the experience. When the choristers croon about unapologetic litterbugs or friends who don’t call back, it brings on a sort of group catharsis. Misery loves company. Griping about our commutes, our politicians and our unappreciative spouses creates a sense of community. The holy trinity of social media—Facebook, YouTube and Twitter—bear witness to that. They’re brimming with everyday grievances. But many of your “friends” and followers, who read about your crushing disappointment with last night’s frozen pizza or your opinions on the egregious outcome of Dancing With the Stars, probably wouldn’t recognize you if they passed you on the street.

That growing alienation—that on-line illusion of togetherness, which is supplanting real-life togetherness—is what kamikaze pillow fights and their ilk are trying to counteract. The exact specifics of the whinges—catastrophic oil spills and public nail clipping on the streetcar were both submitted to Harbourfront—are unimportant. The ultimate goal of the performance isn’t to change the world; it’s to make us feel less alone. When we unexpectedly stumble across the choir this month, maybe we can take out our earbuds and pay attention to our immediate reality. And when the last note has been sung and we are left standing together, it will give us pause to ponder why we work so hard to block each other out in the real world so much of the time. Maybe then we can start to contemplate ways to deal with the problems we face, together, rather than just bitching about them.