If you happened to be at the Fashion Valley Mall on March 1 at around 1 p.m., you might have witnessed a series of unusual events. Around 70 people, most of whom had never met before, coordinated a massive takeover. They were not protestors or food-court crusaders or supporters of a particular political party. No, this mass of San Diegans had gathered together to test out the latest in digital, edible technology: the banana phone.
That's right. More than five dozen people walked around the mall talking on bananas. Professional looking 30-somethings conducted business calls over banana. One young performer argued vehemently into his banana with the girlfriend who had just dumped him. A few players pitched the banana phone to fellow shoppers. When asked what they were doing, participants replied, “Testing out the new phone from Banana Wireless.”
After a Banana Wireless representative—dressed in a banana suit—was escorted out by mall security for “soliciting bananas,” the gig was up. Most participants sat down, ate their bananas and went on their way. But everyone else was left wondering, as one witness put it, “What the fuck?”
It was actually a local group called Scene Diego, not Banana Wireless, behind this and a number of other stunts that have taken place around San Diego during the past few months. The group's goal? To provide a little comic relief and lots of confusion. Scene Diego was created in February by a few kids—or at least kids at heart—looking to have a good time. The group's founder is a 26-year-old web designer known to fellow Scene Diegans as “Agent Neil” and to his friends as Andy. Other members of the planning committee include Agent Carabina, Agent 2904 and Agent Poohead.
Scene Diego was inspired by the wildly popular, New York City-based comedy group Improv Everywhere. When Agent Neil saw a video of Improv Everwhere's infamous Freeze Mission, in which more than 200 “agents” froze in place in the middle of Grand Central Station, he was hooked.
“We saw the video and I just sat there, and I was, like, ‘Oh my god.' I am a prankster at heart. I get in trouble for pulling pranks on people sometimes and this just was totally right up my alley.”
In early 2008, Improv Everywhere launched a website to encourage similar acts of randomness. Agent Neil and Agent Carabina, independent of one another, started their San Diego groups on the Improv Everywhere site; neither was aware of the other until they started getting messages from confused San Diegans who couldn't decide which group to join.
“We ended up joining the groups,” Agent Neil says. “We merged because this type of thing—it works as a group. Everyone needs to work together to really make it happen.”
Scene Diego's first mission took place Downtown on Feb. 19. Titled “Sleeping in Starbucks,” it involved a mere seven agents. As a group, they trickled into various Starbucks throughout the evening, pretending to be customers who didn't know each other. The agents proceeded to fall asleep for a total of five minutes at each Starbucks, while Agent Neil used a hidden camera to videotape people's reactions.
“The Starbucks one was OK,” he says. “It was a Tuesday night, so there weren't really many people out. But it was our first mission and it got us a lot of attention. A lot of people joined because of it.”
Banana Wireless, Agent Neil says, is his favorite of seven missions to date. The best, he says, is when regular citizens jump in to participate, as happened when a group of teenage tourists joined an impromptu dance party for the “Do Not Push” mission. (Scene Diego placed a box in a walkway at Seaport Village with a button on it that said “Do Not Push.” Of course, it was pushed, and each time, it activated an iPod and prompted agents to either dance around the people who pushed it or clap loudly for them.)
Scene Diego is a member of the Improv Everywhere Global website, but its home site, www.scenediego.org, is the group's headquarters. Photos and videos from past missions are accessible to anyone who visits the site, as are updates on upcoming missions. Currently, scenediego.org has more than 400 agents and is working on launching a Facebook page.
“Every time I log in to look, and every time I send a new e-mail I'm, like, ‘Wow—where are these people coming from?'” Agent Neil says. “It's only been a few months…. It's kind of hard for me to fathom. We don't really promote ourselves; we don't advertise anywhere. It's all word-of-mouth. People come out with us and they have a good time and they want to tell other people. That's where we're getting all of our friends.”
For as much attention as it's getting, Scene Diego prefers to remain under the radar. New members—dogs, cats and children included—are always welcome, but minimal media exposure keeps the missions a surprise and the public's reaction authentic.
With its grassroots approach to organizing and an ever-increasing mass of bodies appearing in public spaces, Scene Diego shares obvious similarities with political groups and organized protests. While there does seem to be a movement afoot, Agent Neil insists that Scene Diego is not interested in politics. If the group is protesting anything, it's American culture's tendency to focus on the negative.
“We notice all these bad things going on around us, and there's not a whole lot that people really smile about anymore,” he says. Scene Diego “gives you a chance to just let loose and have a good time and not worry about what people think because they don't know what to think.”
If you're interested in joining Scene Diego on a mission or becoming part of the planning committee, visit the website to create your own agent name. And remember, no mission is intended to cause any harm.
“A lot of confusion, that's what we aim for,” says Agent Neil.
For more info, visit www.scenediego.org.