Fluxus Research/Fluxus Performance
by FLUXUS Midwest

According to an old aphorism, if you ask a silly question, you'll get a silly answer.

What could be sillier than asking people face-to-face how many shoes they are wearing?
  1. I conducted the survey among people I ran into as I went about my day on 20 March, 1998 (from 2:15 - 11:00 pm).
  2. This is what I typically said: "I'm conducting a little survey with everyone I run into today. It's just one silly question: How many shoes are you wearing right now?"
  3. I thanked every person for participating, and if requested, I discussed what I was doing. After leaving, I recorded the time, location, the person, and his or her verbal response.

Location Time Participant Response
Home 2:15 A trial run of the question on my wife who knew I was about to leave to conduct survey. "I don't have any extra money to bail you out or to come to the sanitarium and get you, baby."
Beginning of survey.
Birmingham, Michigan
US Post Office 3:12 Older male clerk "Two. One on each foot."
Troy, Michigan
Outside Somerset Mall 3:19 Mark, parking valet "Two."
Neiman Marcus 3:21 Francis, sales associate "This is a trick question, isn't it? How many shoes am I wearing? Two?"
Neiman Marcus 3:22 Jennifer, department manager "Two."
Outside the mall 4:15 Male, parking valet "I'm wearing two."
Royal Oak, Michigan
Stamping Grounds
-rubber stamp store
4:35 Marta, cashier "Two"
Stamping Grounds 4:36 Red-headed female clerk "Let me see...this is a trick question, isn't it? What is this, a philosophical question? Like if my shoe falls in the woods will anybody hear it? Hmmmm. Two."
Stamping Grounds 4:38 Customer "Two."
Cinderella's Attic
-vintage clothing store
4:46 Female sales clerk "One.........pair."
Cinderella's Attic 4:47 Female sales clerk "Two shoes."
Off the Record
-music store
4:50 Glenn Barr, cartoonist "Two."
Gayle's Chocolates 4:53 Clerk "Two."
Gayle's Chocolates 4:57 Customer "Two."
Gayle's Chocolates 4:58 Clerk "One pair."
Gayle's Chocolates 5:04 Customer "Two?"
Gayle's Chocolates 5:06 Clerk "Two."
Stamping Grounds 5:12 Dottie, Owner "Is this a trick question? ['No.'] Well, I guess none. I have boots on. Unless you want to call those shoes."
Paula Messner's House 5:22 Young girl (Giggled) "Two."
Paula Messner's House 5:22 Paula "Zero. I'm wearing slippers. These aren't shoes are they?"
Paula Messner's House 5:22 Young girl's mother "Two."
Gags & Gifts
-novelty store
5:28 Customer "Geeeez, two, I guess."
Gags & Gifts 5:30 Female sales clerk "Two."
Birmingham, Michigan
Home 6:40 David Banda, dentist "I don't understand the question. ['It's not a trick question, Dave. It's very literal.'] Two?"
Royal Oak, Michigan
Starbuck's Coffee 8:06 Male cashier "Two. Two individual shoes."
Starbuck's Coffee 8:08 Male coffee maker "Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh(grimacing pretending to think hard)hhhhhhh...two."
Berkley, Michigan
Twelve-step meeting 9:17 Rita "Two?"
Meeting 9:17 Lorrie "Two."
Meeting 9:18 Mark "Two."
Meeting 9:20 Joe "Two."
Meeting 9:20 Kevin "Two, why?"
Meeting 9:23 Benny "I'd have to say two."
Meeting 9:23 Robert "I'd have to say the same, two."
Detroit, Michigan
My sister Cheryl's house 9:52 Cheryl "Two."
My sister Cheryl's house 9:52 Armond "Two."
My sister Cheryl's house 9:52 Visiting grad student "How do you say 'shoe' in French? Two."
Birmingham, Michigan
Kinko's Copies 10:45 Male cashier "How many shoes am I wearing? Two."
outside Kinko's 10:46 Teenage male "Two."
End of survey.
Home 11:00 I tried the question one last time on my wife. "None. I am barefoot."

graphic summary of results  

As is evident in Figure 1 there were NO Silly Replies to the survey question.  The majority of people simply and accurately answered "two."  Several people accurately answered "one pair."  One person wearing slippers and one person wearing boots answered that they were not wearing shoes. 

After giving their reply, most people looked to me for some sort of "punchline," for an explanation of what the real answer to the "trick question" was, or for an explanation of what I was really up to. To some I explained it was a Fluxus project. To others I said I was testing the notion that if you ask a silly question you'll get a silly answer.

The results of this research-and-performance project completely contradict the aphorism that if you ask a silly question, you'll get a silly answer.

A variety of different people participated in this survey and everyone of them gave a reasoned and accurate response to the survey question. They did this even as they speculated aloud that the question was a trick question. They did this even when told that the question was "silly." They did this even though it was almost always obvious and apparant that the person taking the survey could clearly see for himself how many shoes the respondent was wearing.

SO...why didn't the participants respond in a silly manner? 

One might argue that giving a "serious" response to a perfectly silly question, IS a silly response. The demeanor of most participants as they gave their answers, however, suggests, that few if any were trying to be subtly silly when they replied "two shoes."

Another possibility is that the survey participants were an unusually serious lot, unwilling to take advantage of an opportunity to speak or act in a silly fashion. Many of the survey participants were quite well known to me, however, and I have seen them say silly things or act silly on many other occassions. And vice versa. In fact, the overall tone of most of these interactions was more playful than serious.

It appears that they rather automatically chose to respond to a nonsensical question in a serious, literal manner. By doing so they were able to quickly dispose of the question and move past it in order to find out "what was really going on." They declined the initial opportunity and invitation to be silly until they had made more sense out of the situation.

This automatic and obsessive sense-making is, of course, exactly why more Fluxus is needed in everyday life.

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A Fluxus Influx Event