Rob Bliss' Urban Experiments

So you’re a 20-year-old in Grand Rapids. You’re not old enough to go to the bar. You can’t afford to regularly drop $50 on a show downtown. And to top it off you go to a commuter college. What do you do for fun?

How about a pillow fight? A big one: Guys, girls, kids, maybe even some pets and TV cameras. You could put on war paint and some Mad Max shoulder plans. Who knows? Maybe you could get a thousand other kids to come down to Rosa Parks Circle in downtown Grand Rapids on a Sunday afternoon and play along. (Click here to see how it turned out)

“On a broad scale, I wanted to help Grand Rapids become a more exciting place to be,” says Rob Bliss, creator of Rob Bliss Urban Experiments, which last month mobilized a thousand people from West Michigan and abroad to wage pillow war downtown. “I get a lot of kids who are like ‘There is nothing to do in Grand Rapids, blah blah blah…’ and I think a lot of times there is a lack of events other than the bars and nightclubs, the $50 shows.

“I’m making the events for them and for me. These are the events I would want to go to, and no one else was going to go out and create them.”

Over the course of the past year, Bliss has proven that it only takes a millennial with some free time and a Facebook account to rebrand West Michigan as spontaneous and surprising. His regularly scheduled Zombies of Zomb game has quietly grown to 500 regular players. His pillow fight event drew a thousand and was covered by national network news. This despite being promoted almost entirely through Facebook.

And next week’s Zombie Walk should be the biggest yet, with potentially thousands of citizens hitting downtown Grand Rapids in full zombie dress and a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records on the line. According to the event’s official Facebook page, the Discovery Channel will be filming throughout Wednesday night’s Zomb game at Cascade Township  Park and Thursday’s Zombie Walk for an upcoming special. The Downtown Alliance, which also partnered with Bliss for the pillow fight, is offering its full support, while The B.O.B. has signed on as a primary sponsor, promoting the event and hosting an after party.

“Now it’s all about what a large group of people can accomplish together,” says Bliss, currently a student at Grand Rapids Community College. “That’s an urban experiment. I am trying to make participants happy, to simply make an otherwise boring day a little more interesting. But I’m also doing this for the local businesses in the downtown area.”

All eyes downtown
Although it was still a spontaneous, feel-good operation for Bliss, the pillow fight was his first brush with the type of pressure that comes with organizing a highly publicized event. He had spent the week talking to radio stations about the event and knew that all eyes would be on him.

“If there were no spectators, just a bunch of kids doing this, it would have been so much less stressful,” he explains. “What if all these camera crews showed up and only 150 people walked up? It would have been, ‘Wow, this kid is dumb.’”

Besides the media, there were other interests watching closely. The Downtown Alliance, which had recently launched a program designed to encourage outdoor activities downtown (Lets. Go. Out.), had high hopes that Bliss could deliver a different type of attraction.

“Rob has done an outstanding job of bringing in a different audience downtown,” says Sharon Evoy, executive director of the Downtown Alliance. “With Lets. Go. Out., we have been trying to encourage events that reflect the diverse opportunities you can have downtown. People are very aware of the more formal events such as the theater, but not these spontaneous, informal type of events.”

Evoy was delighted with what she saw at the pillow fight, but even more so a few hours later when she began looking at posts of the event on YouTube.

“There was this one clip that ended with this guy saying ‘that this was why he loved Grand Rapids,’” she recalls. “There are so many different reasons why someone could love downtown Grand Rapids. Everyone comes at it differently. These types of activities are giving a whole different audience reasons to love it.”

The Downtown Alliance is expecting similar results from the Zombie Walk, another free event that should fill the city’s street with a younger demographic. If it’s anything like the pillow fight, downtown businesses should see a noticeable spike over what they might normally expect for the night before Halloween. On the day of the pillow fight, Johnny’s Lunch, located adjacent to Rosa Parks Circle, opened four hours early to brisk business.

“I want to embrace the community as much as I can,” says Bliss. “A lot of times you see events that work against the establishment. That is where I differentiate. I’m looking for ways to interest people and get them involved.”

With his recent success, Bliss has had to give some serious thought to his experiments. He believes they should evolve around three core ideas: fun, community and art. To date, the events have been “fun, crazy, high-adrenaline” activities, but coming events will focus more on the other aspects. He cited the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics as strong, if highly formalized, examples of what could be accomplished by mobilizing large groups of people.

“That is a perfect example of something amazing that couldn’t be done with just 10 dudes,” says Bliss. “If I can continue to influence and interest people, what these events can accomplish will continue to increase. Right now it’s all about being wild and crazy, but think what will happen if we turn some of that interest toward goodwill.”

Already, Bliss has inspired some imitators. Joey Alexander, another student, is organizing a massive group hug at Rosa Parks Circle for November 15. Unrelated to Bliss, there are also informal groups such as the student-driven Urban Capture the Flag league, which plays weekly on Sunday evenings. All the events are ubiquitous in their use of Facebook for promotion.

Get ready to zomb
A zombie walk is not a novel concept. Originally conceived as a means to stage zombie infestations for horror films, the events now occur fairly frequently in urban centers throughout the country, often in connection with genre film festivals. Detroit staged one last year, and Chicago claimed an unofficial world record of 1,150 zombies in its walk this past June.

Pittsburgh, in a 2006 reenactment of the George A. Romero classic “Dawn of the Dead,” which was filmed at its Monroeville Mall, set the Guinness World Record at 895 zombies. The city broke its record with 1,098 zombies the following year. This weekend, the city will attempt to set a new record.

“I’ll have four days to know and freak out,” Bliss laments. “I really think we’re going to need at least 1,400 people.”

To participate, head down to Rosa Parks Circle on Thursday, Devil’s Night, by 9 p.m. Both recently dead (some fake blood and bad hair, if that) and the decaying (gore) are welcome. All participants are expected to walk and communicate as if they were zombies. On Wednesday, interested zombies are invited to Cascade Park for an undead warm-up, the Zomb game. Players can come as either humans (must bring a Nerf gun) or zombies (no props required).

The West Michigan dilemma
While Bliss appreciates his recent success, he also finds it incredibly frustrating. An aspiring vocalist and pianist, his goals and studies are rooted entirely in music.

“While it’s wonderful to have people think highly of me and appreciate me, it’s not for the things I want to be appreciated for,” he says. “I’m just getting the slightest taste of what I’m interested in. Hopefully, I can meet people through these events and learn things that will help me toward that.”

Like so many local students, Bliss is going through school with one eye on the map. His long-term goals are to make a living as a performing artist, however meager. There is nothing saying that can’t happen in Grand Rapids, especially with support from his father, Roger Bliss, proprietor of downtown recording studio Image Audio Mastery. But if opportunity knocks elsewhere…

“I do love Grand Rapids, and it’s hard to say this is just a hobby for me, but my only passion is music,” Rob says. “I like that I’m being interviewed, but I want it to be for a song that I've written. Hopefully if I decide to someday move away from Grand Rapids people will still be doing the same things I am today.”

Daniel Schoonmaker is managing editor of Rapid Growth.


Rob Bliss (courtesy photo)

Zombie poster

The red team gets pumped up for the Pillow Fight

Resting in feathers after the Pillow Fight

Pillow Fight

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved

Brian Kelly is managing photographer for Rapid Growth. You can follow his photography adventures on his blog here.
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