Starving in the Land of Plenty
By Liz Worth
As consumerism infiltrates every inch of our lives through TV screens and soda machines, it has become savvier in covering new territory. Cleverly, it has crept into places we’d least suspect, and now thrives in the intangible. It has made political concepts almost non-existent for many people, or else skewed these ideas with product placements. We live in a culture where replicas of Che Guevara’s jacket can be bought for several hundred dollars and anarchy is used to sell t-shirts. As product addiction becomes increasingly fervent, political awareness, creativity, and social responsibility begin to weaken. But there is a force working to free people from the sparkle and shine of new trends in advertising, and it is called the Church of Stop Shopping.
Headed by anti-consumerism activist Reverend Billy, the Church is taking its robed choir into stores everywhere, not to sing the praises of god but to preach the need to get out of the aisles. Part street theatre, part direct action, Reverend Billy exorcises cash registers and spouts the sins of the store patrons as they browse through the racks. He leads demonstrations wherever a corporate retailer can be found and into the streets where communities have been broken because of them.
With his roots in acting, theatre producing, and a whole lot of waiting tables, Reverend Billy, a.k.a. Bill Talen, got his start in the late ‘70s in San Francisco, and later moved to New York. It was there that, in 1998, Talen developed the compellingly campy persona to carry out his “interventions.” He’s become well known to passersby, businesses, and police for his protests against companies that he believes are exploiting workers or consumers. He’s banned for life from Starbucks and has been arrested numerous times, once outside Times Square’s Disney store while trailing a Mickey Mouse statue behind that he had handcuffed himself to.
On the phone from his New York home, Talen says he wants people to think about who they’re buying from, and to ease up on the shopping frenzy that has become commonplace in our society. Even in conversation the pompadour-styled preacher’s sentences are punctuated by bursts of fist-pumping exclamatory shouts of “Amen!” But these interruptions from his alter ego only work to emphasize just how serious he is about the impact consumerism is having on people. He talks about the “nonsensical loop” it traps us in, keeping us in a false relationship with what’s around us, ultimately leaving us alienated.
“We’re surrounded by these plastic logos that are all the same,” Talen exhorts. “We’re surrounded by these supermodels that are producing in great multiplication across this society. After a while a community is hard to build when you’re building in a world of constantly repeating images, constantly repeating language. A part of the strategy is to keep us dazzled and tired; keep our senses exhausted by repetition.”
In his preaching, the Reverend’s campy, gonzo style softens into earnestness: “People lose traction. They don’t build meaning anymore with the environment that they’re walking through because they don’t have a mental grab on things. They start drifting and they get this other sort of fragmented dream-life. That kind of drifting makes us less political, less able to put together whole sentences, less able to create meaning… and people become more like tourists in their own lives.”
It sometimes seems that people would rather surround themselves in the individualized attention that shopping provides. Most of us have been witness to or, on the receiving end of, customers who make ridiculous or irate demands over things like return policies or how a meal was served. If people put as much energy into social issues and political identity as they did demanding refunds, imagine what progress the human race could be making.
Twenty nine year-old Cisco Ribas has worked in and out of the service industry since he was fifteen. “I think we have created a vacuum where we are now a completely bored culture,” he says. Ribas’s service experience has ranged from working on the sales floor at Wal-Mart to late nights at a busy bar in downtown Toronto, Canada. “We need to entertain ourselves only through that level. To watch a movie, go to a club or a bar, to do anything, you have to pay for it. Everything we buy is created by somebody else. Why don’t we create our own entertainment? Why are stores so packed on Saturdays? Because it’s a day off, and on days off people go shopping instead of going swimming or flying a kite. They actually go and stand in front of the mirrors.”
In this climate of co-optation, social movements and street culture have become fuel for multi-million dollar industries. Shoes, jewelry, cosmetics, clothing – the list of products that have been spun off from once credible youth movements is endless. When consumer-culture jamming becomes a marketing campaign in disguise, it’s sometimes impossible to tell what is a grassroots movement and what is just helping things to move along. Using one of his favorite targets, Starbucks, as an example, Talen points out that artistic revolution has been turned into a marketing campaign for the coffee chain. In New York City, Starbucks has been plastering the streets with ads that claim to promote the arts. But here, it is the rebellious cultural movements that have popularized coffee culture – Dadaism, Surrealism, the Beat movement – that are clearly being used to promote a particularly pernicious coffee chain. Starbucks, Talen emphasizes, promotes savvy marketing, not revolution.
This certainly isn’t the only example of cultural resistance made corporate. Subcultures that the general public once saw as inherently threatening– like punk and hip hop– are, for many, now just so many reasons to go shopping. The words “revolution” and “rebel” have been used to sell everything from computers to pet care products. Even “guerilla” is fast becoming predominantly a marketing term, rather than a political tactic. The recent venture by Vancouver, British Columbia retailer Campbell McDougall epitomizes the way we market mindsets. His “guerilla” menswear store, Komakino, features designer label clothing, and will change locations every six to twelve months. Each location will be reinvented as an art installation, and McDougall’s aim is to take his high-end store “back to being more underground and real…and make it all about the product. The inspiration comes from a D.I.Y. post-punk ethos and an early ‘90s Berlin-like attitude,” he says.
Talen says that now products are almost an afterthought; stores have become an “advert-topia” where people aren’t just there to shop, they’re there for an experience. Not only have we become de-politicized, we have confused advertising with reality, with spirituality.
Obviously, many dangers come from the commodification of political identity. It leaves us with a sense of hopelessness, breaks down our communities, and distorts our reality. Efforts to move toward social changes and common goals fall to the side as people are more than willing to seek empowerment in the role of consumer, where the old adage still applies: “the customer is always right.” As marketers become increasingly aggressive in their search for the next big thing, cultural movements become harder to establish. There’s barely time for anything to catch on before it’s turned into an ad campaign.
Talen sees a mystery in how such an absurd environment has become the norm. But it’s an enigma he won’t give up on. Despite the product daze people have become caught up in, Talen believes each one of us is “brilliant…we’ve just had our brilliance outmaneuvered.” He sees the sale on our society nearing its final days soon. But is this rise of individualism reversible, or are the mental consequences of living in a world that lets us think we can have whatever we want, when we want it, going to have a lasting impact?
“I believe we’re very close to the revolution,” Talen says. “I think that we’re very close to people just standing up and just walking out of Starbucks. We’re very close to that moment. In the not-so distant future people will look back to the turn of the millenium when things became so consumerised and we will ask ourselves: how did they fool us for so long? How did they call that freedom? How did they call that democracy? How did they call that choice? How did they call those petroleum products good foods? That bright orange package was all it took. That’s all it took? No, our natural brilliance, our souls within us, we’re going to get our bodies back, we’re going to get our minds back. It’s gonna happen very soon. The revolution that is not content for the product revolution is about to happen. Amen!”
Liz Worth is a freelance writer and co-host of CKLN’s 12-Inch Voices.