The Politics of Performance: Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping

Like many avant-gardists before them, Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping view their performances not as an artistic practice or profession, but as an orientation toward life.

In the opening scenes of Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping (2002), a documentary about the activist performance community based in New York City, Reverend Billy and his crew stage a situation outside of a Starbucks. Their intention is to inform consumers that Starbucks is not a fair trade organization, and that they should buy their coffee elsewhere. They bring signs, megaphones, and a choir. They chant “Don’t take slavery in my coffee!” with glee. Their performance is entertaining, but there’s a serious socio-political message at its core, and Starbucks employees know this. Within minutes, Reverend Billy is arrested.

To passersby, Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping are likely perceived to be insane, as if they are just another crazed group of New Yorkers with nothing better to do. The YouTube comments that accompany the clip below suggest as much, as one user says, “Something tells me these so-called ‘actors’ will be working at Starbucks the rest of their lives,” and another user writes, “This guy and his clowns are weirdos.” These comments are indicative of a public that does not understand the point of Reverend Billy’s performance art, or the socio-political agenda of the avant-garde in general.

Readers familiar with New York City will recognize the Starbucks on Astor Place as one of the largest and most populated in the city. This is disturbing to Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping, not only because Starbucks did not support fair trade at the time, but also because large corporations like Starbucks have stolen business from many local coffee shops that once thrived in Manhattan. The Village used to be a vibrant community of artists, but now the first vision you see after exiting the Astor Place subway station is that of a Starbucks, followed by a K-Mart a few doors down.

Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping appropriate religious terminology to make an artistic statement. For them, the devils are consumerism and militarism, and Reverend Billy and his followers preach to the public about abandoning the products of large corporations like Starbucks, Disney, and Walmart. In addition, they promote a general vision of justice, peace, and sustainability. Their performances are radical and confrontational, and like many avant-gardists before them, they view their work not as an artistic practice or profession, but as an orientation toward life.

Reverend Billy is the stage name of performance artist Bill Talen, and he and his community of 50 followers have been performing for more than ten years. Originally from San Francisco, Talen moved to New York in the early ’90s and gained notoriety when he created Reverend Billy, a passionate preacher who warns people about the ills of materialism. According to Talen, he was inspired by the commercialization of Time Square: “They were turning Time Square into a super mall… they had to privatize the sidewalks and streets, and get anybody who would ruin a sale, get them out of the picture. That included all of the interesting people and the less powerful—the vendors and the small shops and the unhurried, profane conversations on the stoop.” (“Reverend Billy preaches the gospel of the church of stop-shopping” by David Ian Miller, SF Gate 10 December 2007)

It’s easy to see that Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping are influenced by The Situationist International (SI), an organization of social revolutionaries that rebelled against advanced capitalism from the late ’50s to the early ’70s. According to founding member Guy Debord, the SI longed for the “possible transformation, someday, of this long restlessness into a routine of somnolence.” For Debord, “the problem is not that people live more or less poorly; but that they live in a way that is always out of their control.”

Debord expressed his beliefs in the essential Marxist text The Society of the Spectacle (1967), in which he elaborates on the concept of the spectacle as it relates to advanced capitalism. As Debord explains, “the spectacle within society corresponds to a concrete manufacture of alienation. Economic expansion is mainly the expansion of this specific industrial production. What grows with the economy in motion for itself can only be the very alienation, which was at its origin.”

One potential solution for Debord and the SI was the construction of situations, which ideally “consists in setting up, on the basis of more or less clearly recognized desires, a temporary field of activity favorable to these desires. This alone can lead to further clarification of these primitive desires, and to the confused emergence of new desires whose material roots will be precisely the new reality engendered by the situationist constructions.” Debord’s conception of the situation is more complex than I am making it, but in general, the goal is to dismantle the spectacle.

At one point in The Society of the Spectacle, Debord compares advertising in a capitalistic society to religious devotion. As he writes, “The fetishism of commodities reaches moments of fervent exaltation similar to the ecstasies of the convulsions and miracles of the old religious fetishism. The only use which remains here is the use of submission.” This comparison is provocative and thought-provoking, especially in the context of Reverend Billy’s performance art.

If, as Debord claims, the mass media marketing industries equate the purchase of material products to a religion experience, Revered Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping equate the rejection of these same products to a religious experience. Capitalism fetishizes the commodity, whereas Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping fetishize the rejection of the commodity. They employ performance art as a strategy to create situations that attempt to destroy the spectacle, and like Debord and the SI, their actions express a radical socio-political message.

Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping are unknown to the general public. Like most avant-gardists, they struggle to make a living, and integrate their art into their daily lives. To make money, Reverend Billy lectures at festivals, conferences, and universities, which is just enough to support him and his wife’s “fairly modest lives”. (David Ian Miller, ibid) In addition, he has been arrested over 50 times for his performances, which shows both the high stakes of his art and the struggle for its legitimacy.

In a 2012 interview with Jian Ghomeshi, cultural critic Camille Paglia proclaims that avant-garde is “dead” because “shock rewards you rather than gives you ostracism, poverty, and derision” the way it used to. She raises an important point, especially in relation to Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ photograph from 1987. However, Reverend Billy, as well as other avant-gardists like Pussy Riot and Ai Weiwei, suggest that some contemporary artists are not simply shocking for the sake of it, and that there are still major consequences for artists who express a socio-political message.

It’s somewhat depressing to realize that Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping are not well known to the public, despite the fact that their performances are at once hilarious, outrageous, and meaningful. Consider, for example, their performance in protest of the “Shopocalypse”. The clip below highlights what Reverend Billy describes as a “joyous, anti-consumerist gospel”, and it is simultaneously endearing and maddening.

It’s equally frustrating to think about the level of fame bestowed upon celebrities who perpetuate the cycle of consumerism Reverend Billy and his followers so vehemently criticize, and the amount of ostracism Reverend Billy and his followers face for courageously standing up to corporate greed.

Ultimately, I can’t help but wonder if the mass public does not comprehend the message behind Reverend Billy’s art, or if it chooses not to hear it because it hits too close to home.

Splash image of Reverend Billy from Everyday Rebellion (Directors Arash T. and Arman T. Riahi, 2013)