Photo by Fred Askew
You may want to start shopping more, just to increase your chances of running into the brilliant and hilarious anti-consumer performance artist Reverend Billy and his mad crew.
But if you're averse to hanging in malls, you now have another option — you can watch What Would Jesus Buy?, a new film directed by Rob VanAlkemade and produced by Super Size Me director Morgan Spurlock. The film follows Billy and his "Church of Stop Shopping choir" on a trek across America, between Thanksgiving and Christmas in 2005, as our protagonists try to inject a little bit of genuine holiday spirit into the frenzy of the Xmas shopping season. (You know — love thy neighbors, help the needy, give peace a chance...)
To accomplish this, Billy and the choir tweak the harried shoppers with some good-natured, mock-Biblical preaching and singing that challenges them to put away their credit cards and get with some spontaneous, joyful, and real human experiences. Reverend Billy is Bill Talen, a seasoned performance artist who moved from San Francisco to NYC in the late '90s — and if the prospect of an hour or two of typical lefty agitprop leaves you dry, don't worry. He's a funny man who could charm the pants off of Scrooge.
Naturally, when I had the opportunity to interview him, I had to give him a bit of a hard time. Sorry, Reverend, I have a lot of ambiguity about the tendency of some people on the left to tell us how to live – and the anti-consumerist left may be the worst of them all. Of course we may indeed need to change how we live, but there's something too finger-pointy about the whole thing for my taste and it makes my right knee jerk. (That's my libertarian knee. My other knee is left.)
In addition to the film, Public Affairs has released the bookWhat Would Jesus Buy: Fabulous Prayers in the Face of the Shopocalypse, which contains some of Billy's finest rants, including a description of The Church of Stop Shopping's historic visit to Disneyland at the end of the '05 tour.
RU SIRIUS: So tell us a bit about yourself, Rev Billy. Before Bill Talen was ordained as a Reverend in the Church of Stop Shopping, did you do other types of performance? Can you tell us a bit about them?
REVEREND BILLY: For a long time I was a storyteller and bodybuilder who hitchhiked. In other words, I was a simulation Beat Poet who arrived at least 20 years, maybe 30 years late.
I had long Conan-style hair, and I would stand up on the Interstate with my thumb out. At truck stops I would write rhapsodic poetry on napkins. I loved the dark world behind truck stops, the hidden world of small towns with white clapboard facades and strange hedges. Then I would get a job on someone's ranch, fall in love with their daughter, stay for six months.
Once I performed one of my monologues at a truck stop, which was unusual because usually the two worlds didn't mix like that — but they gave me a big ham as my pay!
RU: How did you hook up with Morgan Spurlock? Did he come to you or did you come to him?
RB: Morgan and I lived for a long time in the East Village about a mile apart. I was preaching in a community garden on Rivington in 1999, and he was there being an NYU film student at the time. So this is an argument for staying in the neighborhood. Do the work, shout in a garden, and the world eventually sits in the seats.
RU: But did you ever have much attachment to brands or have a tremendous lust for shopping?
RB: Gandhi said, "Become the change you seek." I think I could do better at not shopping.
I've been touring lately, so recycling becomes difficult. In fact, being on jets and in motels, I end up surrounded by containers — plastic mostly, boxes and packages and bags. I'm constantly stuffing garbage into cans while sitting down with my computer, and some gentle human being from Winnipeg is confessing to me that she is shopping too much. It won't do for me to preach Stop Shopping and then be covered with the wounds of fossil fuel.
RU: OK, let me lay my balls on the table. We have many similar political ideals and I appreciate your entire shtick. I think corporations have way too much power and I think we can do better than a society that's entirely centered on production and consumption.
But I never could get much of a hard-on over consumerism. In fact, even before I heard about your magnificent preachings, I wrote, "Consumerism is the original sin of the counterculture." I think that's true, and everything that implies follows. Fundamentalist anti-consumerists have sinful things they can not do to follow the way — to feel righteous and like they're doing good works. They get to feel morally superior to those heathen, unenlightened, brainwashed shoppers. And they get to preach the word.
Honestly, after hanging out with really hardcore anti-consumerist types, I always wrap myself up in furs, buy a tub of genocidal chicken from KFC and settle in to watch Flava Flav pick a new girlfriend.
Ok, not really, but isn't there something a bit too preachy about the whole thing, Rev?
RB: Oh yeah, god. We are all sinners, and keep laughing — definitely! Jesus. I've never had the temperament to be ideological or religious (we say we are post-religious) but I know these limits are just defenses.
I do respect, though, the people who resist consumption in a more thorough way than I do. We need that end of the spectrum — the rigorously maintained compost heap in Vermont, the freegans and their dumpster raids in the cities. I regard such people highly, and where would we be without them?
On the other hand — human suffering from fundamentalism as such, from Mao to L. Ron Hubbard to the Atkins diet to the Khmer Rouge — let's face it, an unbending law is probably wrong. We proceed then, laughing and singing.
RU: Laughing and singing, indeed. Tell us something about your cast of characters. You must have had some great, strange, creative people on this traveling tour...
RB: Well the choir and the band are like the 7 Train in Queens. From all over the world. We have folks from Nigeria and Korea and Sweden and Venezuela.
Consumerism is a worldwide malady, it hits us all. So for our message to make sense we need the world's citizens there to testify. The serious deadly report of global capital's empire comes from all these different folks, whipping up their "Change-a-lujahs."
RU: I was once asked to describe what brands I was unreasonably attached to, and I couldn't really come up with anything, unless you count decrepit rock stars from my youth in the sixties. Do you think the strong sense of branding — and conversely against branding — is more of a GenX and post-GenX theme?
RB: I'm more concerned with the ambient presence of logos, the simulated sex-life while walking through a canyon of supermodels, the nano-science that leaves smart people well-paid because they reported on the neuro-switch in our brains that makes not buying impossible, the impulse inevitable.
So — brand loyalty isn't so much the question when we walk around inside these totalized environments. We don't have to love them anymore like that, like in the 50's when a Chevy was your iconic permission to be wild.
RU: Do you enjoy the fame that you have?
RB: Well it's all so new I don't know it very well. I'm in the East Village now and "Hi Rev!" rings out, but I've done real work here with Savitri D and the singers and musicians. Community gardens, and little bakeries and 53-year-old indy shops and the tenement house where Edgar A Poe wrote "The Raven" — we defend these places. So this is more like real fame, community fame where individuals choose to like us — not some Machiavellian media thing...
We're constantly amazed by Morgan's savvy, and appreciate the fact that from it we'll be able to go to community groups and help them with funding and press as they try to stave off a supermall or something... The book and the movie will help us with this work.
RU: But it also seems that hip "bobos" enjoy consuming media stories about "culture jamming" of various sorts, say, on the pages of Wired or even Wall Street Journal.
I think lots of people who don't share your views probably feel more amused than threatened. Do you ever feel yourself entering into the proverbial Society of the Spectacle, and does it matter?
RB: The condition of voyeur-Boboism is not a static one. Many souls come over from that kind of consumption, when they are ready.
So it is our job to keep dancing, keep preaching and singing, and especially to go to the activists in the communities we visit, and take the hit with them. Always pull the spectacle screaming toward the political change; drag the entertainment toward the activism.
More and more people are walking with us.
RU: Can you say more about your chorus members from all over the world? Do they have different approaches to the "Stop Shopping" theme? What have you learned from them?
RB: Well, Adetola's parents are Nigerian, whereas Urania is Greek-American, and Mi Sun is getting her residence visa after growing up in South Korea. Taking these three folks — the religion from their childhoods is more or less fundamentalist, if you go back far enough, but also internationalized and humanist, if you come forward. Adetola, Urania and Mi Sun seem to have found a spiritual home in "backing away from the product" (ed: a church ritual) judging from the fervor of their singing, and our personal sharing about it while we perform and tour.
Many Americans find it unbelievable that denying the impulse of living-through-more-stuff can be so powerful as to be called "spiritual." Those are the folks that underestimate how powerful advertising, packaging, and all those happiness schemes really are. Consumerism is a virulent fundamentalistic system. Our souls wait to be free of it.
RU: But do you think consumer culture can actually be liberating to cultures that are escaping various forms of puritanism like Iran or China?
RB: Lots of things can be. We have to be careful that our natural born American chauvinism doesn't start making excuses for standard imperialism.
If you are asking — "Is the globalized economy a necessary step in an evolution toward freedom?" Absolutely not. Usually the exact opposite. The puritanism of product-loving is more insidious, but not less anti-sensual.
The way out of the puritanism of systems like those in Iran and China might be better accomplished by rejecting "Free Trade," the American celebrity tradition, etc. Many re-find their own indigenous cultures, and then come back to the international community by contacting other parallel movements abroad. This is happening in the World Social Forum — under-reported by our commercial press — but a worldwide phenomenon nonetheless.
RU: You're writing and rap seems to advocate a return to place — the village life. I spent my teens and some of my twenties in a smallish town in Western N.Y. (I think the only corporate stores were J.C. Penney's, Woolworth's and Macys). It sucked. It was drab, dreary, ignorant; and small towns enforce conformity.
That's why bohos move to San Francisco and New York. Couldn't mobility actually be a lot more progressive and liberating than place?
RB: The defense of the First Amendment Rights of public space, embodied in the commons of a village or the streetcorner of an urban neighborhood — the idea of a child's unmediated sense of wonder coming from nature and neighbors... this line of reasoning doesn't have to take you back to a Norman Rockwell small town.
We are simply looking for ways to describe a healthy community, which certainly also exists in the cafe society of San Francisco and the village in New York — where the Stop Shopping Church is most popular.
The thing that is more drab, dreary, ignorant and conformity-enforcing is the mall, the privatized street, the vapid landscape of traffic jams and the toxic-coated no-humans-land of the suburbs. We go into those "seas of identical details" with our singing and preaching. We wade into traffic jams and motorists — god bless 'em — roll down their windows to say hi and get info. The Consumer-scape isolates us, and the new media that the corporations fear most is the media of talking and listening between citizens.
What Would Jesus Buy? is opening on Friday November 16 in eight cities, including New York, Denver, San Francisco (Lumiere), and Seattle.
The premier in NYC will be attended by Morgan Spurlock, Reverend Billy, Savitri (director of the performance and activist events of The Church of Stop Shopping) and director Rob VanAlkamade, and not least: The Stop Shopping Gospel Choir and the Not Buying It Band. The 7 PM NYC screening is a fall fundraiser.
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