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A How-To of Holy Resistance
By Claudia Orenstein

The Reverend Billy Project: From Rehearsal Hall to Super Mall with the Church of Life After Shopping
By Savitri D and Bill Talen
Ed. and Intro. by Alisa Solomon
Univ. of Michigan Press, 2011


As I read this marvelous and important book, the word that kept springing to mind more than any other was "timely." In December 2011, Bill Talen, in the guise of his alter ego Reverend Billy, headed a long line-up of performers taking part in "Occupy Broadway," twenty-four hours of continuous free performance in Times Square, with the goal of introducing "tourists and New Yorkers going to Broadway shows or shopping themselves into debt to the idea of occupation as CREATIVE resistance" by "turning once blandified space into a space for cultural production."

Reverend Billy has gained an impressive following since the 1990s, when Talen first created the evangelical head of the Church of Stop Shopping, a character he has been playing on street corners and in shopping malls ever since. Nonetheless, his crusade against overconsumption and the ravages of global capitalism on American habits and values, as well as on the lives of sweatshop workers around the world, may have seemed at times like an isolated or futile crusade. Savitri D, his director and wife, sums up this concern in a scene from the 2007 documentary on Reverend Billy, What Would Jesus Buy? She slumps exhausted on a hotel bed after an uneventful exorcism ritual at Walmart Headquarters and says:

I just don't know if anyone hears us, or if they do hear us, they so don't want to hear us... I feel I need for what we do to have some impact on someone soon.

Although the film shows inspired audiences singing and cheering along with the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir at several events on Reverend Billy's tour to save Christmas from the "Shopocalypse," D's cries reveal the struggle of the committed activist facing daunting odds.

Five years after this movie premiered, however, the Occupy Wall Street movement, aided by the international economic collapse, has helped foster a newly politicized environment in America, within which Reverend Billy's message is being "mike check" amplified. Moreover, for OWS, which prides itself on being leaderless, Reverend Billy, a fictional character, offers a much needed focal point around which participants can gather and hear their views expressed in clear and creative terms. In Talen's embodiment, Reverend Billy has as much charisma, visibility, and conviction as any real religious leader, but with a "comic irony," in Alisa Solomon's words, that "prevents Reverend Billy from tumbling into self-righteous moralizing." [14]

At this new politically transformative moment, The Reverend Billy Project, a collection of essays and reflections by Talen and Savtri D on their performance activism, offers an opportunity to see the longer trajectory of their politically engaged performance (or theatrically engaging politics)--to hear their personal thoughts while peeking into their creative process and tactical planning. The book combines a trio of voices, moving back and forth between sections written by Talen and D that are bookended by a rigorous critical Introduction by Alisa Solomon and an interview with the authors.

Solomon clarifies the deeper nature of Talen's work by linking the power of Reverend Billy's political message to the inherent strengths of performance.

Reverend Billy connects the enjoyment we have in the theater or in the streets with the need to free our colonized imaginations, to detach ourselves from the long-standing idea that shopping offers the most direct route to pleasure (and to patriotism). [13]

Her views help give theoretical grounding to the more personal reflections elsewhere, and they reveal the strategic thinking behind political actions that, on the surface, can sometimes sound like mere comic antics--conducting an exorcism on a Starbucks cash register, for example. It is, of course, Reverend Billy's purpose to create events whose dual nature as ironic spectacle, on the one hand, and serious, politically revelatory action, on the other, reveals the insidious invisible discourses that pervade contemporary capitalist culture and dull our minds to the harsh realities of the global marketplace.

The bulk of the book recounts the thoughts of Talen and D as they wrestle with the highs and lows of political activism. In chapter 1, "City of Angels: Banished, Convicted, and Free," Talen recounts how his "activist pride," in choosing to go to jail instead of paying a fine for one of his Starbucks actions, melts into terror when he is confronted by gang-members in an L.A. prison. [33] Faced with these dangerous cell-mates, in an environment very different from the New York cells he grew used to from his frequent arrests there, Talen desperately tried to explain his crime--ironic, political performance in a Starbucks--and the philosophy behind it that targeted Starbucks's exploitative business practices in places like Guatemala. To his surprise, his frantic explanations hit home for these Latino inmates, whose families knew first-hand the experiences Talen's actions addressed. In response, they provided Talen with unsolicited protection from other prison gangs during his three days of incarceration. This experience gave him a reality check on the risky nature of civil disobedience along with an unusual vote of support for his political work.

Chapter 9, "Iceland: Holding Back the Dam," tells of Talen and D attempting to translate their American-style activism to a foreign context when they are called in to help a small Icelandic group develop a protest strategy against the spread of hydroelectric dams across the country's pristine wilderness. The seasoned activists are at first stymied by a country that "lacks racial and ethnic minorities" and has only 320,000 people--only "about fifty" of whom, they say, are willing to "get arrested for civil disobedience on behalf of a cause like 'the wilderness.'" [148] Furthermore, Iceland, they realize, was "never industrialized, so the people never had to organize against the voracious appetite of heavy industry." "Fish and cheap power are its only easily commodified resources," they observe, and the Icelandic government has made no secret of its eagerness to exploit the potential of both." [149] Talen and D's long-cultivated political organizing skills turn out to be valuable resources for the fledgling Icelandic politicos. However, as the authors also show, the economic melt-down that hit Iceland in 2009 was, in the end, more effective at revealing the weaknesses of the economic system built on consumerism. It moved many more people to the streets in protest.

One of the book's most gripping accounts lies closer to home. In Chapter 5, "Coney Island: The Mermaid in the Window," D tells how her and Billy's inauguration as Queen and King of the 2008 Coney Island Mermaid Parade became a platform for leading a protest against New York City's proposed "massive strategic rezoning of Coney Island." The City proposal hoped to replace the old Coney Island with a "flashy tourist destination replete with luxury hotels, retail entertainment and a 'brand new identity for the Coney Island brand.'" [63] This plan represented an eleventh-hour abandonment of an earlier plan that had been carefully carved out over two years with community input, balancing local and business needs. The focus of D and Talen's campaign, in this case, was on getting community voices heard at a land-use meeting that would influence the City Council vote on the plan.

D takes us through her creative process as she figures out how to present the issues around Coney Island's redevelopment theatrically. Surprisingly, in the tradition of Stanislavski, she does it by fully identifying with the character she is asked to play, the Mermaid Queen, imagining how the Queen would feel and act if faced with the end of old Coney Island. D decides to live in a Coney Island storefront window as the Mermaid Queen for the nine days between the parade and the land-use meeting. A painted backdrop in the window fills out the Queen's fictional world while proclaiming D's intentions:

I will not return to my pearly castle beneath the water. I will not eat again until you, my faithful subjects, join me at the meeting and insist that this people's playground, where we indulge the fantasies of our spirits, be protected. [71]

The reference to eating evokes the most striking and vital component of this protest, a nine-day fast to amplify her message and force people to pay attention. In doing this, D showed the real commitment behind her spectacle and helped inspire 600 people to show up at the meeting. Reflecting on these events, she writes:

I think people responded to this particular hunger strike because it was both real and not real. I was really fasting, but "I" was a "mermaid." I wasn't actually threatening to die, and in fact I never could die, because I wasn't real. The death I threatened was palatable, unthreatening, and even better, people could play along and "save" me by going to the meeting, or writing to the mayor. Had I done the same thing as myself, as an individual citizen, I am pretty sure no one would have paid much attention. This says as much about the deprivation of our imaginations, as of our politics, and maybe the two are connected. Maybe invigorating our imaginations, our sense of play, is the way, at least a way, back to our politics. [79]

The destruction of pristine landscapes (in Iceland or elsewhere), exploitation of workers (in Central America or closer to home), gang violence (inside and outside prisons): politics is serious business. But a good part of The Reverend Billy Project is to get at this serious business through play and to remind us that, in the end, the work of human beings is as much that of creating joy through imaginative play as it is of taking care of our so-called important business. Often these two tasks work best together.

In actions such as the one presented in Chapter 7, where Billy protests Victoria's Secret's irresponsible destruction of Canadian forests in producing its famous catalogues, participants are moved to action, not only by the cause itself but also by being asked to address the situation with their creativity. In this case they are challenged to perform an angry endangered animal in front of a Victoria's Secret store. Participants, Talen notes, were "Ready to be foolish, to cross into the Sacred State of Exalted Embarrassment." [100] Talen and D's political actions don't just offer spectacle in order to capture attention, but, through theatrical enactment, they give their adherents a chance to feel the giddy joy of expressive freedom. This state is one that capitalist culture robs from us by transforming everything it touches into products deemed useful only in terms of their market value. One of Reverend Billy's strongest messages is that capitalism--especially the aspect of it that inundates us with seductive marketing imagery--has cheated us of the exercise of our own imaginations. Police reactions to the Church of Stop Shopping's many displays of "Exalted Embarrassment" help reveal the extent to which business activities are protected above so many other values in our society.

By providing this sort of uplifting experience through political performance actions, and also through the music of the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir, Reverend Billy's Church balances precariously between creating actual and theatricalized spiritual events. In fact, in his writings, it is sometimes difficult to discern where Talen's sense of himself as separate from Reverend Billy lies. Just as D's performance of the Mermaid Queen gained its power from being simultaneously real and unreal, the Church of Stop Shopping has solidified a committed following by being both a real entity--allowing for a shared sense of community engagement--and a fictional, ironic statement. Like other churches, it feeds a variety of human needs, including the need to engage in meaningful action while exercising our playful, creative spirits.

Fittingly, The Reverend Billy Project is both instructive and fun, as the writing swings back and forth between flights of innovative word play (including excerpts from Talen's performance "sermons") and more grounded immersion in the details of global economics and their fallout. The book contains important nuggets of activist wisdom as it describes the planning process of events and considers what makes them work and not work. Notable is D's frustration at organizing a commemorative event for Union Square in protest of the usurpation of that public space for a planned trendy restaurant. Unusually, for this event, she applied for permits and complied with all the City's numerous regulations on public gatherings. She writes,

I have to admit the sanctioned stage, just a few yards from where Billy was last arrested, felt diffuse, uncharged. Somehow the permit made the event almost too stable. Where would its threat come from? Where was the drama? [128]

She clarifies further,

The restaurant plan may or may not be a result of an organized, methodical effort to squelch dissent, but it is safe to say that the ideal conditions for consumerism are almost never the same as the ideal conditions for a civic democracy. If they can't shut public space down with laws and permits, they will shut it down with shopping… What defines a public space ultimately is its active use by the people. [136]

Clearly, the ideal impact of this book would be to inspire its readers to reclaim public spaces of all kinds by going out and occupying them, in body and spirit.


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