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  • Reverend BillyPreaching, Protest, and Postindustrial Flânerie
  • Jill Lane (bio)

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Crowds responding to Reverend Billy at the Culture Project on the corner of Lafayette and Bleecker, honoring the recently bulldozed Esperanza community garden (February 2000). (Photos by Michael Rubottom)

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Enter Reverend Billy, a six-foot-tall, imposing, 50-year-old preacher. His booming "Swaggart-expansive" voice greets his flock of urban, East-Village New Yorkers: "Welcome to the Church of Stop Shopping, Children!" In a measured, vibrato baritone, he intones, "In this church we gather to ask the great questions that face us." Pause, slowly extending his emotion-heavy hands: "Is there life after perfect teeth?" Apocalyptic rise: "Will we survive good graphics?" Crescendo: "There is not a person in this room who has not had a loved one chased down and ki-i-illed by discounted luxury items!" Huge applause and hollers from the audience."God help us, yes, we will be delivered!" A rising chorus of "Amens." "We will stop shopping yes! We will stop shopping, children!" (Talen 1999a).

Through such abominating semi-ironic preaching, the Reverend has been raging against the noxious effects of consumerism, transnational capital, and the privatization of public space and culture in New York City since 1997.Re verend Billy is the pseudonym of performance artist Bill Talen, whose work as the leader of the "Church of Stop Shopping" represents a fascinating departure for new left theatre in the era of global capital. Like many political theatre artists in the 1990s and beyond, Talen has faced the challenges posed by the rapidly changing political economy of globalization.

In 1994, the innovative network art-activists of Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) warned in The Electronic Disturbance that the current systems of social power may have rendered oppositional art obsolete; the ground against which opposition could be staged has turned "liquid." Arjun Appadurai similarly argues that the competing forces of globalization have created a social scene in which culture and power are produced and disseminated in always-shifting "flows," whose movement rushes through the disjunctures between fluid social landscapes—part material, part imagined—of technology, media, ethnicity, ideology, and finance (1996:27-47).Numerous other cultural theorists—Zygmunt Bauman (2000), May Joseph (1999), Stuart Hall (1997), Mohammed Bamyeh (2000), among others— follow Appadurai in characterizing our new "global times" as marked by ever more complex, asymmetrical and asynchronous transnational flows of capital, [End Page 60] goods, labor, information, and peoples; these, in turn, have informed the progressive corrosion and decentering of previously stable, if also fictional, categories of national-ethnic boundaries and identities. In this overwhelming scene of social "liquescence" (to borrow CAE's term), how can an artist or activist stage oppositional discourse? How can artists address the devastating effects and casualties of the new global economy, when the representation of power is itself now nomadic, liquid, and on the move? CAE contends that rather than stage opposition, our only viable option is to create calculated "disturbance" in these networks of power. What role then can performance play as a site of such disturbance?

Bill Talen's work as Reverend Billy offers one trenchant set of answers to those questions, revitalizing political street theatre as a sophisticated repertoire—or arsenal— of anticonsumerist theatre techniques. Indeed, Reverend Billy offers us a model of politicized "theatre disturbance" that follows, engages, and creatively speaks back to the multiplying sites of privatization that have colonized urban public culture. From his beginnings as a sidewalk preacher protesting the corporate redevelopment of Times Square in New York City, Reverend Billy has taken his theatrical activism to a range of sites, most of which are what he calls "contested spaces": those urban sites that have been recently commodified, or newly condemned, to commercialization. In this vein, he has staged numerous "shopping interventions" in which he and fellow artists perform in commercial spaces themselves—from the Disney Store to Starbucks—in an effort to intervene in (disturb) the seamless corporate architecture and choreography of shopping, or to "re-narrate" them with memories of the lives they displace. Talen also regularly lends the Reverend to a range of staged "political...


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