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The Library of Congress Mannequin Challenge and Emerging Traditions

The Library of Congress has created its own Mannequin Challenge video featuring many staff members and Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. The American Folklife Center’s Jennifer Cutting, Valda Morris, and Kelly Revak were among the participants. Here it is (it can also be found on Library of Congress YouTube at the link).

The Mannequin Challenge is a new trend in internet video where a group of people enact a single moment in time, remaining frozen in place while a camera pans around them and music plays. It has spread widely in a little over a month. Social media increasingly makes making and sharing of video easy to achieve and so grassroots artistic uses of this media are bound to develop. The first videos had no sound or ambient sound, then “Black Beatles” by Rae Sremmurd became popular background music.[1] As the trend develops, other musical selections are being used. A common theme seems to be an expression of group identity, of clubs, classes, groups of friends, athletic teams, organizations, musical groups, and others: “this is who we are” summed up in a short, shareable video. Other Mannequin videos depict dramatic situations, such as responding to an emergency;  or they raise awareness for causes. As we might expect, the subject matter of the videos is broadening as the trend spreads.

The Mannequin challenge might be seen as emerging from the tradition of flash mobs. Specifically, in a flash mob organized by Improv Everywhere in January 2008, a group of over 200 people took frozen poses in Grand Central Terminal among surprised travelers.[2]  Another source of inspiration may be frozen time sequences in films and television.[3] Folklorists and those who study popular culture take an interest in emerging grassroots artistic expressions such as the Mannequin Challege. It is a fine example of an emerging form of artistic expression in the digital age.

Women in tights and robes offer a cup to a central figure.

An example of a nineteenth century tableau. “Ganymede offering the cup to Venus.” Photo ca. 1885. Photographer unknown. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b11247

The Mannequin Challenge trend seems to have begun in late October 2016, with students at Edward H. White High School in Jacksonville, Florida claiming to have made the first one.[4] But it has many antecedents, such as tableaux of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that were wildly popular as another new technology was emerging — the photograph. As early photography worked best with subjects holding still, a theatrical tableau made a good subject. An antecedent more likely to have directly influenced current generations is the children’s game of “statues” many of us played. Like the game of statues, the basic plan of people in frozen poses allows many possibilities for expression in these videos.

Some new trends are  short-lived, while others may endure or inspire new forms of enduring tradition. I suspect this one may be with us for a while and may develop many variations on the current themes.  I will be interested to see what the “mannequin” performers come up with next.

Notes

  1. The Library of Congress chose royalty-free music for its Mannequin Challenge, “Shake that Rump” by Brian Matthews and Cameron Scott, produced by Prolific 1 Publishing. Many online music videos use music without the permission of composers and performers, which is a concern for artists and libraries as well.  The Library of Congress includes the United States Copyright office and so respects the rights of artists and the laws that protect their work. [Footnote added 12/13/2016.]
  2. Improv Everywhere describes their inspiration for and enactment of “Frozen Grand Central” and presents the video on its web page.
  3. Other sources of inspiration in popular culture might be science fiction films or television shows where what appear to be mannequins come to life, such as the Autons in Doctor Who, or the episode “The After Hours” of The Twilight Zone. But Mannequin Challenge videos do not present mannequins as a threat or danger as these stories often do — at least not yet.
  4. Davis, Wynne, “Can Someone Please Explain the Mannequin Challenge?” All Tech Considered, National Public Radio, November 10, 2016. This article includes the video made by the students at Edward H. White High School and  a few other early examples.