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Preaching to People

With Shopping Bags Over Their Heads

- an interview with Reverend Billy/Bill Talen

Natalija Grgorinic & Ognjen Raden

october 2004.

Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping are definitely one of the most interesting phenomena of the American alternative culture. Founded in New York in the 90-ies, today they bring together a large group of enthusiasts from the world of theatre, music and social activism who organize performances directed against mindless consumerism and aggressive super-national corporations. Their crusade has a feel of those marathon religious TV-shows bursting with quotations from the Good Book, sighs of exaltation and redemption from the audience, heart-breaking hymns and feats of miraculous healing. The important difference is in the message: Stop shopping! Stop financing corporate monsters! Platinum blonde Reverend Billy, the leader of the movement is privately a middle-aged playwright, Bill Talen who came to New York in search for a job, only to realize that Broadway somehow got transformed into Las Vegas, completely removed from any artistic aspirations and values. Thus the Church of Stop Shopping came to be. Exorcising the unholy spirit from chain stores and arousing shoppers from their consumerist trance, the Good Reverend and his Congregation traverse United States, sometimes even on invitations from schools and universities. In one of their latest undertakings the righteous Reverend struck the coffee-shop Cyclops, Starbucks Corp. earning a restraining order for attempted sexual intercourse with one of the shop's cash-registers. On his web-site ( Rev. Billy offers other ingenious scenarios for sabotaging the coffee-empire from Seattle. In one of those and ex-convict regresses into his prison days upon recognizing candies he was packaging while doing time. In another one a couple of lovebirds interrupt their expressions of love by important messages from their corporate sponsors.

This is an interview with Bill Talen, and his alter ego, Reverend Billy (not necessarily in that order).  


How and when was the idea of the Church of Stop Shopping born?

The Mickey Mouse-led Disney Company was taking over Times Square where I lived in the late 90's. "Consumerism" was then actually violent, with cops jailing neighborhood characters who may have been, apparently, because they didn't fit the profile, unable to buy things on credit. Only consumers, tourists, were allowed to walk freely in the new outdoor and completely extralegal mall called The New Times Square.

The idea of frontier has always been the crucial one for the American people. Unfortunately there had always been those who were on the other side of that frontier. Today we are all Native Americans in the sense that our way of life is in danger by the American way of life. Americans always seem to want more. Is there any "more" to be had?

The Transnational Corporations have adopted what Americans were, the impulse to travel, expand, kill, establish, wave the flag and move again. It is not the Americans it is these monsters who create false large persons. Their shadow freezes us and our bodies are their new continent. But we are the ones who always have more and that is why they will fail. Our bodies are great unfathomable continents that the adventurers cannot possibly cross, the drown in our vastness ---we always have more and finally what we have left will burn the monsters in their own Lake of Fire.

If religion is opium for the people what would the Church of Stop Shopping be?

We simply say that to back away from the product you will find Odd and Wonderful bits of narrative, chromosome coupons, dazzling bits of metal, old photographs signed by forgotten Country Western stars -- this is all whirling up through your body. It is like the litter that flies at you and saves you from emptiness. --- Organized Religions are just another transnational chain store. We don't need them.

Why did you choose religious (or mock religious) approach to fight consumerism and big corporations? What does it say about the spirituality of Americans, did it fall victim of the Evil Forces of Retail?

We never use the word "Spiritual" because it has been stolen by dark muggers who never leave the TV screen. We never use the word "religious" because the Pope and Mickey Mouse are the same thing, and they say, "I am nothing by myself. I only do what you make me do." When we use the word God we say the word inside-out, with a joke on either side -- and we wear body armor.

What kind of a demon is Starbucks? What do people buy there with a cup of latte?

With a $4 latte you buy the Deluxe Color movie of women who rise at 5 AM, go out into the fields with their children, and return home at 8 PM with $4. Their children tag along in the wake of the $4, without school or healthcare, waiting for the unseen hand of capitalism to take them to an exile in America and a housecleaning job or prostitution. But here in this country we believe that to buy a $4 latte is to have a very brief conversation with Sartre or Charley Mingus.

What will it take to exorcise American society? Is there anything that cannot be bought or sold? Why do Americans believe that things which cannot be bought are not worth having?

Americans a currently enrolled in a consensual hypnosis and it is really large. You can't imagine that hundreds of millions would be hypnotized so that they move together like synchronized swimmers. We sit in traffic jams, stand in line, sleep with TV's flickering on our hair. You can't believe that this is happening so blindly with so many people. It's like the Red Army got a fit of the giggles and they were rolling on the steppes. ----To wake the Americans up will be very painful and very oh-wow for them... whatever clothing they are wearing will suddenly not fit. Their parents would turn into small cubes. Whatever far horizon they were staring at will come to them like a hand of a dead celebrity around the throat.

In your sermons you emphasize the importance of small business. What would be good business as opposed to bad business?

A good business is where the proprietor sits at the back like a Buddha or a tea-leaf translator or a uppity multi-gender orphan and when you walk in you and try to be a customer you are immediately assailed with stories.

Is there the God That is Not a Product? If yes, why does he allow the existence of corporations?

The God That Is Not A Product will answer that question if you pray to her without a logo on your body.

Aren't corporations persons? Do they respond to love? What do they respond to? Often the people within them argue they are helpless, they say that all they do is for the benefit of shareholders. But don't shareholders breathe, don't they drink water, don't they walk in the sun? Don't they develop cancer as easily as the rest of us?

The American experiment was that the old European monarchies that had the rights and dispensed privilege would be overthrown and the citizens as individuals would have the rights, dispensing their privileges through the government. Therefore churches, families, armies -- all groups -- received their privileges from citizens. Corporations somehow won the status as "Persons," -- they jumped across that divide through bribery of the courts and the government. Now we are beset with this adolescent monster, this Nero with a B-2 Bomber, and he has a ravenous immoral diet for the world that no person alone would want.

Whose responsibility is to bring new values to American people now that is obvious no institution of law or religion will take upon itself that task?

You and I, through our fearless "Exalted Embarrassment." Change a lujah!!

What is the power of the microgesture? Does is work?

Work? It really must work. Yesterday I preached in a Starbucks. Today I recited the Constitution down in Ground Zero. Small groups of people were scandalized but intrigued too. And I wonder what those breaks in property, those forced dreams have in their thoughts now.

Why are Americans capable of dealing with serious issues only when and if those are presented in the guise of humor? Most of young Americans receive their news almost exclusively through programs like The Daily Show. The only mainstream critique of the system comes from comedians like Conan O'Brien or Jay Leno (okay, maybe not Leno). When did Americans become so soft that they need their truth to be sugar-coated in order to swallow it? What is the difference of your approach? You make people laugh too. Do you feel your sermons are working when people react with laughter?

Laughter is not one single thing. An audience is sighing, giggling, gasping, and sometimes there is a strong silence. You are setting up a simple dichotomy with your question that chases reality but never catches it. Humor is not one thing.

What is the responsibility of an American citizen towards citizens of Croatia, Brazil, Japan, and vice versa? Why do Americans feel separate from the rest of the world? If they use their nukes, same as when they start those 300 mil. cars every morning, don't they think they'll be blown up along with the rest of us?

Your questions are assuming a static American exits, a Type. The Reverend says, don't develop any "types" for anyone -- people are far more complex than that. There is good cooking in England, good gardening in France, and many Americans, even many Israelis, even many Germans in the 40's, do not accurately satisfy the type that we have created from our imagined hurts. There are Peace Movements everywhere and we need to reach each other.

What would be Reverend's message to citizens of Croatia who are in danger of following the American Dream? What would be Bill Talen's message to citizens of Croatia who want to do something about the way the world is run? What can they do?

I know what you mean by the American Dream. You mean the transnational corporations, which can be Dutch or Japanese. But often American imitations of James Dean etc. drive the ads. The American Dream that is embodied in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, the real American Dream, is a faith in the beauty of individual eccentricity, of localness, of the spirit that inevitably rises up in us when no single dominator is allowed. If you commit too much of yourself to the idea of a rapacious American, then you can slip into imitating it in your resistance. Like the rock song says, part of resistance is "Learning to Forget."

What is your message to George W. Bush?

Part of me want to love you to life. Part of me want to kill you to love others.

What is your message to John Kerry?

You were important in 1970 and that's not bad. Many of us are only watching.

What is your message to the Average Joe? Who should he vote for when there's no alternative?

That's the point. There is no alternative. So make an alternative. Start by saving your neighborhood. A healthy neighborhood is radical in the United States. Where original culture abounds, Peace has a chance.

What would the ideal society according to Bill Talen be? What would in it become of Reverend Billy?

Ideal societies are a dangerous thing. Let me tell you a story.