On my first “Float,” I joined a gang of 50 glowing humans dancing down Manhattan’s High Line. We danced through the Meatpacking District, past the AIDS Memorial at St. Vincent’s Triangle, and commemorated the end of the night by taking off our shoes and dancing barefoot in the Washington Square Park fountain. You might have seen groups like ours when out for the night in New York or LA. We look like a horde of dancing kids dressed for a rave: in glimmering jewelry, fairy wings, and unicorn onesies. We’re hard to miss. We might have asked you to dance with us. We hope we weren’t too pushy. Floating makes us think everyone wants to dance with us.
What the Float—the architect of this adventure—is a dance and urban exploration scene in New York and Los Angeles, in which participants go on a guided dancing tour through city streets, parks, and hidden byways. Participants wear silent disco headphones, and everyone on the tour listens to the same song at the same time. The music is curated to the exact space you are in. For hours we dance, get sweaty, and laugh a lot. We twirl, Singin’ in the Rain-style, around lamp posts. We can-can down staircases.
The rules of Float are simple: put on your glowing silent disco headphones, switch them to the channel everyone around you is listening to. Count backwards from 10. Dance. Follow your pied piper wherever they take you. Don’t get hit by cars. Don’t dance up on pedestrians who do not wish to be danced up on. Each new Float there’s a new route with new music. There are songs for dancing past al fresco diners in Greenwich Village, songs for running down the Brooklyn Heights promenade with lower Manhattan glittering above you across the East River, and songs for sneaking like elves through wooded paths in Prospect Park.
In the days that follow a Float, as my aching body recovers and I go back to work, reality seems to buzz: while Float hasn’t changed the world, I feel changed by Floating. The spaces we danced through continue to seem different, and I seem different in them. As a result of my dance journey, the psychogeography of my city—the manner in which these spaces affect my feelings and behavior—changes.
Psychogeography is a term most often associated with a group of French avant garde socialists from the 1950s and ‘60s, known as the Situationists. The Situationists didn’t go on Floats; however, they did go on “drifts,” known in French as dérives. Situationist Guy Debord describes them in his essay, “Theory of the Dérive” as such: “In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.” On their dérives, Situationists wandered, sometimes for days, through city streets without a goal in mind or an awareness of time. Instead of being pinballed from one consumerist encounter to the next, they were deliberately aimless. They were trying to experience the city as it truly is, the city without the capitalist spectacle.
What the Float hews closely to the spirit of the Situationist drift, especially in its urban exploring aspects. The tours often contain surprises. They almost always take me somewhere I’ve never been—and I’m a New York native and a former walking tours guide. I thought I’d been everywhere. What the Float also took me to places I would never have wanted to go: to Midtown and Times Square and new commercial developments like Hudson Yards—developments that have all the charm of a fresh bruise.
Nicko Libowitz, What the Float’s impresario (and a psychogeographer if there ever was one), talked to me in a recent phone interview about his first experience Floating. He was working as an acting apprentice at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. He told me, “All the people working for little to no money at a theatre festival day and night picking up cigarette butts and building sets needed some sense of release and a feeling of actual ownership over that space.” Libowitz liked the experience so much that he started holding his own Floats in New York City a few years later.
What the Float takes advantage of the safety and emptiness of business districts by night. Libowitz told me that on Floats, “You can recontextualize all these spaces that you’ve been stomping angrily through trying not to trample tourists or step in anything, to this wonderland at night that you create yourself.” Participants may look like flash mobbers swarming around some blob of a modern skyscraper, but we feel like we’re the carnival come to town. We feel like we own the place. Floating momentarily humanizes these authoritarian spaces and makes them feel less intimidating.
That I was going Floating in the same period as I was becoming an active political organizer, and that I discovered Floating through people I had met at protests and at socialist meetings, was mere happenstance. Just a quirk of being a Berniecrat in New York City in the second decade of the 21st century. It was only by chance that I was Floating down the same streets where I had, only days before, been marching and chanting “whose streets? Our streets!” It was just a charming coincidence that I was leaping and twirling in glowing headphones and glitter through neighborhoods very like the ones I canvassed for socialist candidates for elected office.
Nevertheless, these experiences couldn’t help but bleed into each other. Once you and your glittering, glowing friends have grinded up on each other in the middle of Lincoln Center Plaza, in full view of 1,000 theatre goers, other types of public display start to feel different. Through these parallel experiences, I learned that becoming a loud and visible part of a political demonstration—yelling at cops, shouting into a bullhorn, or organizing masses of strangers—comes a lot more naturally when you have a feeling of ownership of the space around you. It’s a feeling that New York City’s anti-homeless architecture and heavily surveilled public private parks deliberately attempt to repress.
I learned that this feeling of ownership, once embraced, could be put to use in completely different contexts. I could bring it with me wherever I went. As one of several thousand volunteers who went to Iowa in January of 2020 to canvass for Bernie Sanders, chatting my way into apartment complexes in rural agribusiness towns didn’t seem like trespassing. Because of my Float experiences, I felt a lot more comfortable and less intrusive talking to strangers about Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.
Prior to the pandemic, one of the best parts of Floating was handing onlookers my headphones so they could listen in for a moment and dance. Some, a lot actually, took the headphones; others didn’t. Whatever their response, for a brief second I had communicated wordlessly with a stranger. Soon after, I would be back to dancing and onto my next adventure. Canvassing, especially in unknown spaces, was a bit like the thoughtful, verbal version of this activity. Having floated, I was less afraid of strangers and of rejection. I was uncowed by doors slammed in my face or angry Trump supporters screaming at me.
Another core concept in Situationist thought, besides dérive, is détournement—roughly translated as rerouting or hijacking. The idea was to take an elevated symbol and subvert its original message. Acts of détournement often came in the form of political pranks, as in 1950 when pranksters dressed as monks declared the death of God from the altar of Notre Dame Cathedral during Easter High Mass. You might already be familiar with the concept of détournement as culture jamming or subvertising. The Situationist-influenced culture jamming publication, Adbusters, for instance, takes advertisements or corporate logos and spoofs them. Culture jammers might take a roadside billboard for Coke, and remake it so that the classic serif font spells out “Capitalism” instead of “Coca-Cola,” forcing passersby to do a double take.
These traditions are part of a lineage of cultural activism that can burst out of left-wing movements at times of social upheaval. In 2011, Adbusters cemented the Situationist heritage in recent radical history by leading an act of détournement in the world’s financial capital. Their call to occupy Wall Street was taken up globally and led to the three month occupation of Zuccotti Park. Decades earlier, in Paris, in March of 1968, the Situationists were among the left-wing groups to occupy an administrative building of the Nanterre campus of the University of Paris to protest class discrimination and the oppressive bureaucracy that ruled over students’ lives. This action is thought to have triggered a series of explosive demonstrations leading to the uprisings in May of 1968: events which included the largest general strike ever attempted in French history, nationwide student uprisings, and the barricading of the Latin Quarter. Situationist Guy Debord was himself active in the occupation of the Sorbonne. Slogans inspired by his book, Society of the Spectacle, a kind of Situationist manifesto, were graffitied throughout Paris.
While it’s hard to quantify the impact that cultural movements like Situationism have on revolutionary uprisings, it’s hard to deny the role their ideas and aesthetics play in setting movements alight. May of ’68 resulted in a 35 percent minimum wage increase for French workers, as well as the wide scale democratization of French universities. Occupy Wall Street helped radicalize a generation that would go on to support Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020. It hugely influenced the rebirth of socialism as a mass movement in the United States.
What the Float is obviously no revolutionary movement. Although Floating can feel radical, it aims to do little more than give kids with glow sticks a fun night out. Still, my experiences going on Floats, and simultaneously getting politically active, got me thinking about how much radicalization is an imaginative act that is shaped by our emotions. It also made me think about how hard that is for a lot of radicals to admit. To do so would be to admit how vulnerable we are to the spaces we inhabit and the people around us. I view Floating, like the dérive or an act of détournement, as an activity that extends a radical environment into places (and among people) where it might not normally exist. Floats have this in common with other moving parties, like Second Line parades, Puerto Rican parrandas, or wassailing in the British Isles. In all these activities the boundary between spectator and performer is broken down. Participants can jump in en route, and the audience is compelled to join a temporary community of merrymakers.
For these partygoers, a space gets opened up for a world with fewer walls and greater freedom of movement. Reflecting on a decade’s worth of Floats, Libowitz told me:
Some people will see it as a public event, a performative thing where they get to strut their stuff and show off their dance moves or their wild outfits or their general fearlessness to anyone who passes by. Other people are more drawn to the privacy of large crowds, where if you drift to the middle, you’re completely invisible no matter how brightly you’re glowing… You can also be absolutely alone in your own world.
I find floating liberating because I could be all of these things over the course of a three-hour escapade. I have started a Float feeling shy and hiding inside a mass of dancing bodies; then moved to the sidelines to watch the bemused hot dog vendors watching us; and ended the night doing jetés across 6th Avenue, blowing kisses to gawking tourists.
This fluidity of movement is also the appeal of belonging to a communitarian society. Karl Marx famously wrote that under communism we wouldn’t be forced into a single sphere of activity day in and day out in order to survive. We would be able “to hunt in the morning, to fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as [we] have in mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.” Activities like Float give me an intimation of what this kind of unenclosed life would feel like. They leave me longing for that better world and eager to fight to bring it closer.
These days, the commercial developments I danced through on Floats have lots of empty storefronts. Hundreds of thousands marched past them in the summer of 2020, protesting the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. At the same time, street dancing became a fixture of city life. It was often hard to tell where a protest ended, and a street party began. Some summer nights, whole neighborhoods seemed to turn into raves. For a brief moment, there was no distance between actors and audience. There were no observers. There was nothing to buy. There was just the crowd. Everyone was on a dérive. Floating would have been superfluous.