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Bill Talen is the man behind the character ‘Reverend Billy’, evangelical leader of ‘the Church of Stop Shopping’. The preacher and his gospel-singing church are perhaps best known for their Situationist-inspired invasions of branches of Starbucks, in which they stage impromptu theatrics against the café chain’s bullying of smaller traders, its exploitation of coffee growers and the homogeneity of its consumer environments. Their US performances have also included choreographed mobile phone actions in Disney stores, blessings on sidewalks and anti-consumerist ‘conversions’.
In August, the Reverend came over to London, without his choir and with his partner Savitri D, where they met about thirty London activists of various stripes and paid a visit to two Starbucks branches on and near Oxford Street. This event involved all the participants becoming enamoured with an object within the Starbucks store – whether a bin, a packet of sugar or a cup of coffee – and then imagining the history of that object, right back through all the stages it had experienced, whilst describing this out loud and slowly raising the object above their head.
Meanwhile, over the cacophony of incantations, the Reverend loudly preached against Starbucks in his camply evagelical style and fawn polyester suit. As confused and entertained crowds gathered, the police appeared (one of whom asked if it was a stunt for Channel 4) and a passing teenage boy jubilantly announced that he had the whole performance on his mobile and was sending it to all his friends right now. Jo Littler talked to the Reverend and Savitri D after the event to find out more about what was going on and to ask them about their red-green politics.
Can you tell us was this action in London was about?
Reverend Billy (RB): Today’s action was called ‘Shoplift’. In this action we hoped to encourage the labour and earth resources history of products. We hoped to create the products’ past. And this is an act of imagination; it is an act of subversion; it undercut’s advertising’s façade. We hoped to go back as a group of thirty people together in a collective memory of the origins of coffee.
Savitri D (SD): We aimed to stimulate memory and change the physical environment of the Starbucks itself. The idea was to separate everything there from its tether, from the typical way that retail environments are laid out, so that the room itself actually changed and alternative spaces open up between things and their place. So it was both an implosion of the room, a kind of deconstruction in a way – in the literal sense of the word – and a construction of a memory and a narrative of its products. We were reclaiming the history and the story of the product. It’s the loss of those stories, that amnesia, that allows consumerism: that allows us to repeat ourselves and our mistakes over and over. It allows us to carry on with this absurd economy, where things just magically appear and we’re entitled to them.
RB: We had a second agenda item, which was, in our collective memory, to reach past the impoverished coffee workers, all the way into the sky, beyond the beginning of the coffee, the growth of the coffee, in the tree. Do you think that we succeeded in doing that? [laughs]
SD: I do. Well I know that personally I did, I had a sort of couple of revelatory moments [laughs] with leaves, and sunlight, and sky. I was going ‘the sky! The sun! the rain!’ and I looked over and their was a woman looking at me, like, what a New Age Hippy! But I also think it’s important when you go into a retail environment like Starbucks, you know, every surface is artificial, is coated with some kind of synthetic plastic. So just evoking the earth in a place like that feels radical. Coffee is an elemental substance.
Is pushing an ecological agenda something you’re increasingly interested in?
RB: Well, it’s famous that something progressive activism forgot to do was to be generous with people in matters spiritual. We forgot that part of it. And so we tend to be totally rational – we just whine, and whine, and whine, until we’re all depressed, and then we get together. Whereas the right has a whole machinery – they run cultures, narratives, fun, think tanks…
SD: …..they’re more willing to create a value system in which people live and to call it meaningful. I think that on the left we’re afraid to do that because in doing that we’re stepping on the toes of other people. I also think it’s really important right now to try every strategy possible. If you go up to people and someone and you say, well children are dying to make that coffee, and that doesn’t make any difference to them, I’m going to try something else. I’ll say, well how about that the soil is completely polluted from that? How about that they’re busting unions? How about that it’s ruining our neighbourhoods? All those things are true. My agenda is to slow consumerism: so, for me, it’s about finding something that people will respond to.
RB: We’re from the Church of Stop Shopping. Our main agenda is to slow down the pursuit of consumerism as the definition of joy. It’s always ecological. Consumerism is a fossil fuel supporting the economic system. So if you oppose consumerism, very quickly you find yourself thinking about ecological concerns.
So this is embracing a big system. We’re against chain stores and supermalls partly because they destroy independent shops, our public space, our community, our markets: they come in and damage that. They also damage the ability of our citizens – of us – to create original culture in our talk. To have that playful, jagged edge in and between our personalities. As we get more consumerised, we get increasingly depoliticised. The war on Iraq was sold to us as a product. We accepted it because we were consumers. When the weapons of mass destruction were nowhere to be found, that didn’t matter at all, because that was advertising, and advertising doesn’t have to have any connection to the product.
SD: And that’s our ecology. If you think about a tree having a healthy environment, where it can grow, and get light, and get sun, I believe that a human’s natural ecology is similarly one of freedom, where we can talk with our imaginations and explore -like a tree explores towards the light. We underestimate how important the living, moving possibility of our imaginations is to our health and to our evolution.
So the idea of The Church of Stop Shopping is to change restrictive consumer ecologies.
SD: Absolutely! I mean, I want organic milk, right, for a number of reasons, but I also want my imagination unthreatened by consumer culture. It’s just as important as having a healthy kidney.
RB: Once you resist consumerism, you’re called four things, because you’re erasing four different leftist categories of consumer. Boom! You’re some sort of post-religious spiritualist. Boom! You’re an environmentalist. Boom! You’re a community defender! Boom! You’re looking after public space issues, etc etc.
Your action was in Starbucks, yet Starbucks sells a fair trade line. What do you think of that?
RB: That’s greenwashing. They sell such a small amount of fair trade, its just enough to make it possible to put a little chalk up on the oard ‘fair trade’. The NGOs we talked to, including Global Exchange, estimated that their worldwide sell of certified fairtrade coffee was overall they sell under 2%. ActionAid estimated that in the UK it was less than 1%. Starbuck’s relationship to fairtrade is a neoliberal lie. Harold Schulz is a billionaire. 2% isn’t good enough.
Where would you like to see people drinking coffee right now?
RB: Well, there’s a couple of choices. One is to go to chain store cafes that have fair trade coffee. But it’s difficult because we don’t like chain stores. We support independent cafes. So in London we like to go into independent cafés and ask for fair trade.
Why come from New York to do this action in London?
SD: It’s also really important for places like NY and London to talk to each other, as they have a lot in common, and share a lot of similar problems, like gentrification and monocultural takeovers. So I think it’s important for us to come here and be loud and obnoxious about how bad it is. If we can come to London and give any help to you’re your movements, that’s great.
RB: And we gain a lot too. We learn from the UK activists. For example, through our discussions about the difference between fairtade coffee and a fairtrade cup of coffee in terms of the extra non-fairtrade mark-up]; and about the attempts to close Berwick Street market to make way for more chain stores. London has a real relationship to New York: we feel a connection there. And one of the problems that we share is that we both have between 200-300 Starbucks.For more information see [http://revbilly.com and Bill Talen, What should I do if Reverend Billy is in my store?, New Press, 2003.