Running in Great Cities

[The Reverend Billy Talen is the founder of The Church of Life After Shopping, a project of The Immediate Life, a New York based arts organization using theater, humor, and grassroots organizing to advance individuals and communities towards a more equitable future. Reverend Billy has been preaching against consumerism since 1996. This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

And now, fresh from the “Condemned Diner Center for Urban Design” – a traumatized Burner jogs across Amsterdam and gives us a report of strange goings on. He needs so badly to get to Black Rock City this year, where he believes the nature of the staring eyes will change…

Photo by Amsters@m via Flickr

Today I jogged through Amsterdam from the Royal Palace on Dam Square to the mouth of the river. Like many European city centers, Amsterdam has evolved into a super mall, an old surface covered with the images of models posing with products, often in gigantic proportions. There is a spell cast on me, regardless of how much outright disgust I have for corporate marketing. By the end of the run, I’ve had thousands of these mannequin-humans stare into my eyes…

The expressions in the models’ faces are the whole range of human experience, from giddy to aghast. Whatever the emotion, they are intense. They make an emotional zone on the sidewalks or plaza before them. We are in the “view shed” of the eyes of these actors, who seem to see something unspeakably mesmerizing, shocking, threatening…

This is now the basic psychological rhythm of our great capitals. Public space is spotted with the reverse gravity of these emotional traps. And there is one look that is most common in 2010, these models are coached to make the same general “acting beat.” They are told to convey a look of primal surprise, like the first news of death, the startled moment of seduction, the leading edge of something unthinkable.

These dramatic eyes hit me again and again during my run. Then it becomes clear that whatever the setting of these eyes – in the surf with Omega – at the opera with Jaguar – they stare out from the same undercover city. They share the same laws and symbols, the same millions of barrels of liquefied fossils, the same speculative global money systems – now crashing. It is as if there is one grandest city inhabited by these smooth-skinned young giants – behind all the great cities of the world. And now their little pedestrians – back out here in the analogue city of history, cities still built on the ground – we are dying, and we are the consumers who must continue shopping so that their secret metropolis lives.

And so they stare at us, the last horrified glance of a thousand corporations. A few years ago advertising actors were smiling and relaxed, and there were far fewer of them. That was when Vienna was Vienna and Barcelona was Barcelona. Now these cultures are consumerizing themselves, devolving from history into identical shopping experiences. A new skin is stretched across the old gaggle of griffins, lions, angels, goddesses and dead kings. This rubberized flesh is Heidi and Kate and Giselle is stranded there as the horizons are buckling, the tides rising, the wind whirling into killing shapes.

As I run out of breath, I appreciate that there are these lonely paths through public space that we use to wind our way between these beautiful, stranded giants and the earth they have affronted. The sheer scale of these two opponents – and the earth must and will win – is so massive. We are caught in between. Can we save ourselves by how we live?

About the author: Reverend Billy Talen

Starting in San Francisco in the early 90's Reverend Billy Talen began to explore "a new kind of American preacher" - a post-religious one, but a good whooping preacher anyway, inspiring people toward a spiritual event that did not need the mediation of organized religions or other corporations. Moving to New York City, he preached on the sidewalks of Times Square, and found people clapping and singing along with him, and the choir grew to empower the message of resistance to Consumerism. They called themselves the Church of Stop Shopping. They came to Burning Man in 2003 ("Beyond Belief"), but many of the singers and musicians were longtime Burners. They were invited to perform on a stage built in the base of the Man that year. Two years later they gathered with Joan Baez and the jazz musicians of the playa to raise money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Their hope is to continue to preach and sing against Consumerism, and for the Life After Shopping! Change-a-lujah!

4 thoughts on “Running in Great Cities

  • A few years ago I walked across Spain from France to Portugal, in my soul searching journey , I came to realize that the trap of modern consumerism,that with its claws of “more is better” tears at the very flesh of most humans is not the problem of the human soul, The problem of the human soul is the inability to say NO.

    Report comment

  • Leave a Reply