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.