My coworker at the Public Theatre in New York’s Astor Place assured me that this afternoon’s show would be one of the weirder ones. “You don’t know Reverend Billy? Oh this guy’s a real treat. Kind of a crazy East Village legend, but I’m still not really sure if he’s a real reverend or not. I just don’t dig the whole fundamentalist thing, you know?”
The lights dim and the room goes silent. A tall man in a white suit struts onto the stage with an absurd pair of buckled white winklepickers. An assortment of people follow, grooving haphazardly as a single organism. They’re rainbow clad and picked at random from vastly different global origins; the age range goes from seven to 70. They start singing: “Capitalist Dogs are Barking, Run for Your Lives!” The atmosphere gets darker. A woman named Dragonfly recites the names of unarmed black people who lost their lives to trigger happy police. A moment’s silence. The band start to play a reggae beat, it’s Bob Marley’s War:
Until the philosophy which hold one race superior
And abandoned –
Everywhere is war –
Me say war.
With the choir crouching down on either side of the stage, the spotlight turns to a charismatic Ethiopian-American named Teddy, who recites Haile Salessie’s 1963 address to the UN in Amharic. Fists are raised. Afterwards, anti-deportation activists and immigrant families are brought up to the podium. A leading activist from the New Sanctuary Coalition, Ravi Ragbir, tells us that he’s had to pay rent on his ankle monitor to avoid deportation. The choir sings them a song of gratitude. By this point, some of the audience are wiping away tears. I feel an aura of rapture and exaltation fill the room, but there’s no religion here. The collared man delivers a sermon: “What do we believe in? Earth is our government! The God for people who don’t believe in God! The choir cheers: amen! ‘allelujah!”
This is the Church of Stop Shopping, a radical performance art community of activists who sing on streets and stages around the world. They hail an impressive cohort of collaborators and disciples; Neil Young, Morgan Spurlock, Slavoj Žižek, Kurt Vonnegut, to name a few, but their hearts lie with grassroots community activists—from the Lakota Tribe at Standing Rock, to the anti-gentrification network in Brooklyn.
Before I joined the choir, it seemed that I was the only one of my coworkers at the Public Theatre who understood what the Church of Stop Shopping was all about. Were these guys an actual fundamentalist cult? Wasn’t Reverend Billy some kind of televangelist preacher? I heard the lyrics to songs like ‘We are the 99%’, ‘Monsanto is the Devil’ and ‘Shopocalypse!’ and I knew what they were getting at.
Everything is terrible. More people are globally displaced now than in WWII – with 65.3 million forced to live in privately owned detention centres and for-profit prison camps. 21 million of those displacements are due to climate change. The earth’s temperature is expected to rise as much as seven degrees in the next hundred years, effectively making human life on earth unlivable. Public taxes spent on bank bailouts since the financial crash have only made the culprits richer; eight men now own as much money as half of the entire world population. Without sweatshop workers, they’d go broke, and when sweatshops aren’t killing workers, workers are killing themselves. In 2013, a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,134 labourers and leaving another 2,000 having to perform DIY limb amputations on themselves to escape from the rubble. In 2010, 18 workers under the age of 25 hurled themselves off the top of China’s Foxconn factory, the womb of the iPhone. At that age I was working my sixth unpaid internship in the Land of the Free and tenderly identified with these brief candles. I understood the allure of politically checking out like my coworkers because after 40 grueling hours of work, most people just want to relax. Who could blame them when it seems like all traditional revolutionary cracks in the system, like unions or socialist parties, are sealed by the glue of capital?
Back home in Ireland, I had been involved in activism on the left until I realised that gathering on the street and angrily chanting with signs or engaging in heated online arguments or quoting smug Debordian critical theory whilst unironically wearing a beret and a turtleneck (I’m so sorry) wouldn’t bring about an end to income inequality and catastrophic climate change any time soon. Anyway, who would want to join a movement that was infected with a ‘call out’ culture of aggressive contempt and moral and intellectual superiority? Anyone who disagreed with doctrine was ‘disgusting’, ‘scum’, ‘evil’ and should be ‘wiped out’, ‘killed’ or slung onto the G train, straight to the gulag. By the time one of my comrades told me he was enthusiastically reading Memoirs of My Time With Stalin, I figured it was time to leave the country.
We were all deeply and irrevocably doomed. At least by the time heat death arrived, we’d probably all die of starvation or even iPhone poisoning: they’d likely be the last thing we’d sell for sustenance and when there was nothing left we’d have to put them in a blender and manically eat them, foaming at the mouth with rogue microchips. The blending process of every ascending iPhone model from four to eight has in fact already been watched by 100m youtube users. It’s only a matter of time before the Earth’s revenge forces us to devolve to the final stage of ingestion.
In Barcelona, Savitri D leads a group of artists out of the Centre of Contemporary Culture in a performance called ‘Naked Grief’. They’re heading for Deutsche Bank, grieving the financing of mountaintop removal. She’s naked, with voluminous brown curls flowing down her back. Inside the bank, the artists remove their clothes. Savitri weeps, and the crowd weeps with her. If Reverend Billy is the preacher, Savitri D is the pope of the Church of Stop Shopping, the choir’s director. Her artistic vision flows with passionate humanity, her laugh vibrates to the earth’s core. Without Savitri, there is no Stop Shopping Choir, without the choir, there is no Reverend Billy.
In New York, a Mickey Mouse toy is stapled to a towering wooden cross, leading Reverend Billy’s booming voice through the Disney Store in Times Square. “MICKEY MOUSE IS THE ANTICHRIST! THIS SWEAT STAINED RAT IS EVIIILLL! BACK AWAY FROM THE PRODUCT, CHILDREN! STOP SHOPPING!” The choir whoops and chants. Amen! Customers are disturbed, confused, and, finally, angry; waving their receipts in his face as the Reverend gets taken to jail in a police riot van.
In a Starbucks in LA, the Reverend is pulsating with the fervour of 300,000 exploited coffee farmers. His hand is on the cash register, the choir’s arms are in the air, enraptured. “CHILDREN! WE MUST EXORCISE THE DEEEEEMON OF COOKIE CUTTER CAPITALISM FROM THIS CASH REGISTER! OH THIS FAKE BOHEMIA IS DESTROYING NEIGHBOURHOOD COMMUNITIES!”
Starbucks issued a restraining order on the Reverend, banning him from not only entering any Starbucks globally, but from walking within 250 feet of the green mermaid, effectively prohibiting him from being in most parts of Manhattan. Whilst the New York Times claimed that this “Brechtian street performance” had no capacity for lasting social change, the LA City Attorney actually recognised the disruptive power of his performance, claiming that the cash register and the “flow of business” are “things that are sacred”. He was jailed for ten days, and has been arrested over 70 times for his activist art.
“CHILDREN, WE’RE IN THIS CHURCH AND WE DON’T EVEN KNOW IT! THAT’S HOW FUNDAMENTALIST IT IS! OH, STOP YOUR SHOPPING, STOP YOUR SHOPPING!”
This is the age of market fundamentalism: an absolutist faith in the power of the market to cure all social ills. The market will deliver democracy, the freedom of choice to buy; private healthcare, education, and even water. To interfere with the market’s drive for profit is to muddle with the divine logic of the commodity. What’s behind the zealous politeness of robotic corporate tics like “have a nice day!”? Like David Foster Wallace said of terrible times, we need to give “CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.”
The Church of Stop Shopping has tens of thousands of followers globally. Savitri and Billy know that people need “turn-ons” to join the fight against corporate greed: a space where judgement is revoked and diversity of belief is welcomed. We preach ‘compassion for the consumer’, a practice grounded by humour, music, community, and fun. It’s not about the traditional political divide of Us and Them, which is as pervasive on the left as it is on the right. “All of Us”, we sing.
“What do we believe to be effective activism?” the Reverend asks in one of his sermons. “It’s about bodies.” Many who watch Savitri D & Morgan Spurlock’s ‘What Would Jesus Buy’ notice how quick security and police are to use physical force against us. It’s about using our bodies to occupy public (and private) spaces through guerrilla theatre; using our bodies to enact a forum for political discussion in a way that builds unity against sectarian divisions. It’s a case of simply showing up and saying no: we are not going to live in a world where the only catharsis we have is buying things. It’s about using performance art and community to liberate our desire from the reigns of corporate control. We might not be able to bring the entire establishment down tomorrow, but if it’s ever on the agenda, it needs to be fun.
Artwork by: Sanaa Asim