Performing Resistance: Contemporary American Performance-Activism

Performing Resistance: Contemporary American Performance-Activism

Pia Wiegmink

In his book Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), Frederic Jameson argues, that almost all aspects of human life have become commodified and that thus "the very sphere of culture in contemporary society" has been transformed (5).

As a result, Jameson claims, that "aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally" (4).

In place of the temptation either to denounce the complacencies of postmodernism as some final symptom of decadence or to salute the new forms of harbingers of a new technological and technocratic Utopia, it seems more appropriate to assess the new cultural production within the working hypothesis of a general modification of culture itself with the social restructuring of late capitalism itself as a system. (Jameson 62)

Here, the question arises, how political art - or more precisely art trying to tackle this logic of capitalism - is at all possible and if so, what it looks like. In his analysis of Jameson, performance theorist Philip Auslander argues:

Even if Jameson is correct in calling postmodernism "the cultural logic of late capitalism," that logic must be seen as giving rise to cultural discourses that can occupy very different political positions - some that reinscribe, others that resist the action of capitalism itself. A distinctive feature of postmodernism is that it is not always easy to tell to which stream any given work or cultural text belongs and that it is essentially impossible to construct a list of formal or content criteria for marking that determination (7f.).

Drawing on Philip Auslander's observation, in my article I explore three examples of contemporary performance and media activism that politically articulate a clear position, but who aesthetically negate any kind of attribution. The three following examples articulate their resistance not so much in terms of negation and overt protest, but through a much more subtle, thus rather invisible strategy of appropriating commercial, political and also religious rhetorics by playfully turning them in on themselves and reversing their aims and contents. Hence, the performance activists presented here "do not oppose dominant modes of power; they utilize them" (Harold 197).1 In the following I am interested in the aesthetic implications of these performances rather than in their political effects.

Reverend Billy


Video example 1: Reverend Billy at Potsdamer Platz Arkaden, Berlin: January 24th 2004: http://kanalb.org/topic.php?clipId=38

When we see Bill Talen also known as Reverend Billy descending the escalators of the shopping mall, he is awaited by a crowd of pilgrims, eagerly awaiting his Anti-Sweat-Shop sermon. Dressed in a white suit, collar and waistcoat, Bill Talen begins his "shopping intervention" (Lane 61) until [this was not part of the video] he and the devotees of his "Church of Stop Shopping" finally enter the store of a transnational clothing company and proclaim "we have taken back the property that should be public property." Thirty minutes later he is arrested by the police and is removed in a police van.

Reverend Billy is a New York based performance artist who primarily appears in Disney Stores and Starbuck's coffee shops - Times Square being his public stage. Apart from his alter ego as a street preacher, Talen has also written a series of "Invasion Manuals" (Lane 70) which function as scripts for performances in commercial spaces. One of these manuals, for example, is intended for a couple, starting an argument in a Starbucks store, about how this 'corporate coffee culture' continuously replaces local shops. Of course, here, Augusto Boal's concept of an invisible theater2 is staged in which an unsuspecting audience who usually consists of what Talen calls "tourist-shoppers" (Lane 71) suddenly becomes part of a "politicized 'theatre disturbance' that follows, engages, and creatively speaks back to the multiplying sites of privatization that have colonized urban public culture" (Lane 61). But while Boal's Theater of the Oppressed (1979) uses camouflage as a tool of articulating political opinion in the totalitarian regime of Brazil in the 1970s, Reverend Billy's preacher - performance is clearly directed towards a western middle class audience in that his 'shopping manuals' "direct an audience's attention to the theatricality of advertising and corporate staging " (Lane 73).3

Augusto Boal applied invisible theater in public spaces in which the unknown audience should be made aware of bad working conditions and political suppression. In this sense, Reverend Billy stands in direct tradition to Boal as he is drawing people's attention towards inequalities. But while for Boal's theater it is crucial to remain invisible, in that the actors performance is not to be recognized as part of a rehearsed spectacle, Reverend Billy uses his alter ego, the false priest, as a means of gaining as much attention as possible. While Boal explicitly tries to remain within the realm of the everyday, and seeks to foster dialogue and discussion between the invisible actors and the unaware audience, Reverend Billy's performance builds on "sensationalism, spectacle, and monologism" (Schutzmann and Cohen-Cruz 14).

Here, Bill Talen's use of the satiric impersonation of a preacher somehow becomes a double-edged sword. Within this role of the preacher, Talen is able to express his protest against consumerism, capitalism, and globalization. Soon, people become aware, that this is not a 'real' preacher. Nonetheless, Talen's ironic impersonation of a preacher does not entirely abandon the idea of a spiritual leader. As Jill Lane has observed,

At first blush we might imagine that the preacher role is solid satire. Talen offers a send-up of the abominating fundamentalist rhetoric that characterizes the rise of the religious right in the U.S. [...] Yet, the obvious ground for satire does not fully account for the ways in which Talen's work actually advances certain spiritual notions of community development and social activism. [.] When asked, point blank, are you a real preacher? The Reverend does not answer. At best he winks. (78f)

Talen is a hybrid persona. He uses his theatrical impersonation of a preacher in a double sense. While the content of his sermons is designed to be a parody of actual religious speeches, his anti-consumerist prayer nonetheless retains a certain 'authentic' religious stance.

In terms of invisibility, another aspect of Talen's performance gains importance. Remarkably, all three artist-collectives discussed in this paper are all predominantly white, male, middle-class Americans. I argue, that for the critique these artists articulate and the performance style they choose, this privilege of whiteness that is their ethnic invisibility, is used tactically as a means of gaining access (Lane 71). Quite paradoxically, in terms of content this 'privilege' is criticized: Talen preaches against the power of the industrial countries who exploit third world labor under sweatshops conditions. At the same time, he utilizes this privilege to articulate his critique inside the stores of the corporations he is attacking. This process seems to be rather ambivalent: on an aesthetic level, Talen camouflages the preacher persona of religious right wing rhetorics by subverting their message. Nonetheless, he can also be regarded as a spiritual leader, since content and form of his anti consumerist sermons meet a huge audience.

Billionaires for Bush

Similarly, the Billionaires for Bush appear as rich entrepreneurs supporting the Bush government. By wearing dinner jackets, drinking champagne and driving a limousine, for the passers-by, the Billionaires for Bush actually pass as high society representatives. Just like Reverend Billy, the Billionaires for Bush utilize the invisibility of their outward appearance to gain access to public places, where they - if they'd appear as 'real' political activists - would be denied admission.

Billionaires for Bush are a grassroots network initially consisting of designers, media producers, and street theater activists. The network was built up before the presidential election in 2000, when "the Billionaires campaign was devised to educate the public about twin evils of campaign finance corruption and economic inequality" (Boyd 370).

At first glance, the Billionaires' campaign is not distinguishable from any 'real' electoral or political campaign; they have bumper stickers, slogans, posters, banners and a corporate logo depicting a piggy bank overflowing with money alluding to the colors as well as the stars of the American flag.


Fig. 1: Billionaires for Bush web banner
http://www.billionairesforbush.com/logos.php (6.05.2005)

Similar to Reverend Billy, the Billionaires for Bush's use of parody, and irony is crucial for their performances. Again, whiteness appears as perfect camouflage. They dress as rich entrepreneurs and the message they convey seems identical to their outward appearance: support of the Bush administration: "government of, by, and for the corporations."4 Their 'disguise' as electoral campaigners is utilized in order to get public attention. While Reverend Billy overtly addresses and attacks the large corporations he is criticizing, the Billionaires' ironic exaggeration of the Bush politics actually reveals the groups criticism of just these politics. Here, the Billionaires' performances are invisible to the extent that their criticism operates on a much more subtle level. Appearing in large limousines on automobile exhibitions or playing croquet in Central Park, the Billionaires for Bush actually impersonate their object of critique. During the Republican National Convention, protesters were banned from Central Park. Instead of articulating their discontent with such a restriction, the Billionaires played croquet. Thus, the Billionaires for Bush's performances were not only invisible to the extent that they were not apparent as actors, but also that their political aims were disguised.


Fig. 2: Billionaires for Bush Playing Croquet in Central Park During the Republican National Convention, New York, 2004.
http://www.billionairesforbush.com/photos.php (6.05.2005)

Instead of overtly criticizing the corruption of the governmental power system (which is their actual critique) the Billionaires appropriate the rhetoric, appearance and gestures of their subject of critique. While Reverend Billy aims at the actual consumers as his audience, the Billionaires campaign is designed to attract the mainstream media. In this context, founding member of the Billionaires Andrew Boyd states: "I came to think of the matrix of [.] media as a vast theater of viral warfare. [.] Our idea was to create a humorous, ironic media campaign that would spread like a virus via grassroots activists and the mainstream media" (370). Thus, what is remarkable about this campaign is that it simultaneously addresses "two disparate audiences: corporate media and grass-roots activists" (372). The fake-electoral campaign appealed to political activists who searched for a platform in which they could actively participate, while the internet appearance, the mock radio and TV-ads as well as their well organized appearances in public space managed to penetrate the mass media (cf. Boyd 372).

In his famous essay "Requiem for the Media" from 1972 Jean Baudrillard argues that mass media constitutes "speech without response" (282). In Baudrillard's sense, "the mass media are anti-mediatory and intransitive. They fabricate non communication" (280). Thus, mass media offer only one way communication, messages are directed towards an audience which is isolated from the sender of the message and has no way of responding to it. As a result, Baudrillard comes to the conclusion that "because the power of the media derives from the socially isolating effect of their form, not their ability to transmit content, neither intervening at the level of content nor, taking possession of the media apparatus can turn the media to revolutionary ends" (Auslander 16).

Contrary to Baudrillard, I would argue, in the context of the performance activists presented here, that artists critically engaging in political public discourse seem inclined to transport their 'messages' by an appropriation of advertising and mainstream mass media techniques (Orenstein 144). In this context, Billionaire Andrew Boyd refers to Media theorist David Rushkoff and his idea of media viruses with which new critical concepts are 'injected' into mainstream media:

Media viruses spread through the datasphere the same way biological ones spread through the body or a community. [.] The 'protein shell' of a media virus might be an event, invention, technology, system of thought, musical riff, visual image, scientific theory, sex scandal, clothing style or even pop her - as long as it can catch our attention. Any one of these media virus shells will search out the receptive nooks and crannies and will stick out anywhere it is noticed. Once attached, the virus injects its more hidden agendas into the datastream in the form of ideological code. (Rushkoff 9f, author's accentuation)


Video example 2: Billionaires for Bush television ad "Just like us"
(directed by Dan Katz)
http://metal-tiger.com/BOB_REYNOLDS_06short-1.mov (12.03.2006)

At first glance, this video clip looks like a commercial for the 2004 election of George W. Bush. On American television, the so called 30-second TV spot became a very popular political art form. Already in 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower first utilized television in his "Eisenhower answers America" commercials. Since then, political television advertisement in the US is an essential component of American election campaigns.5 With "Just like us" the Billionaires mimic this history of political TV ads, by maintaining their narrative and appearance. But again, the format is subverted by its contradictory content. The TV ad might be called invisible insofar as it adapts the media format but at the same time reverses its aims. The Billionaires for Bush utilize ads and media as a strategic tool "by playfully and provocatively folding existing cultural forms in on themselves [...] in an effort to redirect the resources of commercial media toward new ends" (Harold 191).

The Yes Men

Reverend Billy's and The Billionaires' performances take place in public space and appropriate structures and narrations of popular culture. Although similar in their targets (which are multinational corporations and governmental organizations) the affiliation of media artist-activists "The Yes Men" (founded in 1999) chose a different space of performance: the internet. The Yes Men register domains with web-addresses which are very similar to that of big corporations and organizations such as the American internet toy company etoy, the WTO or Dow Chemical. Then they mirror these original websites. At first sight, these sites look almost identical to the 'real' ones. Thus, taking a closer look, these homepages reveal political decisions, attitudes and historical facts which the represented organizations seek to keep out of public sight.

In 1984, for example, a carbide accident took place in a plant in Bhopal, India where 27 tons of toxic gas leaked and half a million people where affected by the catastrophe. More than 20.000 people died immediately and today another 120.000 people still suffer from the after-effects. In 2001, the plant was sold to an American chemical corporation, Dow Chemical, who refused to take responsibility for the accident, clean the plant's environment or compensate the victims.6 On The Yes Men's website which imitates the official Dow Chemical page, these pieces of information are displayed, whereas on the original, 'real' Dow-website the corporation's attitude towards this catastrophe is simply omitted. Here, a given form, the internet appearance of a multinational company, is utilized and charged with subversive content.

But The Yes Men's performances are not limited to the virtual sphere. In the cause of the upcoming 20th anniversary of the Bhopal tragedy in December 2004, the BBC send an email to what they thought was the 'real' Dow Chemical website and asked for a statement. As a response, The Yes Men managed to arrange a live interview broadcast on BBC World in which Andreas Bichlbaum, a Yes Men member, appeared as a Dow Chemical spokesman with the telling name Jude Finisterra and announced Dow Chemical's full responsibility to the Bhopal disaster and offered a $12 billion plan for a full compensation of the victims.


Video example 3: Interview of Jude Finisterra on the Bhopal Tragedy BBC World TV, Dec. 3, 10 a.m. http://www.theyesmen.org/hijinks/dow/video.html (12.03.2006)

According to Democracy Now! a New York based radio and TV news program, 23 minutes after this hoax, Dow's share price fell 4.2 % in its marked price (which is a market value of $2 billion), but of course, was fully restored after the hoax was discovered two hours later (Democracy Now!, np). What the Yes Men intended with this fake interview was that Dow Chemical had to declare their position on this 20th anniversary regarding the Bhopal tragedy. Here, the invisible theater works much more in Boal's sense: the actors do not step out of their roles. But the Yes Men's invisible theater does not so much consist in anticipating public discourse about a specific subject, but in using the authority of the person they are imitating towards their own ends. In other words, "[b]y embodying their targets, the Yes Men engineer acceptance of authority into a vehicle for change" (Paletz 40). In this sense, the Yes Men's performances also critically engage in today's politics of representation and question the way knowledge is distributed via mainstream media. While on the one hand the mass media - in this case BBC World - is utilized as a vehicle to draw attention to Dow Chemical's rejection of responsibility, at the same time by means of this utilization, "the patterns of power rather than its contents" (Harold 209, author's accentuation) of the distribution of information are unveiled and criticized. "Rather than attempting to dismantle the corporate power system, [...] [the Yes Men] exploit it; they observe the 'adaptable' and 'organic' nature of corporations [and in this case also the mainstream media] and approach it as fertile soil for rhetorical and political appropriation" (Harold 200).

But what were the consequences of the hoax? Unfortunately, the actual answer of the Dow Chemical Corporation was rather short and did not fulfill the Yes Men's expectations. Instead of admitting that the company is not compensating the victims, Dow simply confirmed "that there was no basis whatsoever for this report, and [they] also confirm[ed] that Jude Finisterra is neither an employee nor a spokesperson for Dow" (Holder np).

Additionally, as Andreas Bichlbaum himself has acknowledged, it was rather unfortunate that it was the BBC who was made carrier of the hoax. Unlike other TV channels, BBC was among the few who broadcasted a documentary about the Bhopal tragedy on its 20th anniversary and thus took an interest in the whole issue. As a result, BBC had to face immense critique and was in danger of losing its renomee and reliability - especially since the 2003 disaster regarding David Kelly.

The third effect, I find most problematic, is that during the one to two hours it took the BBC and Dow chemical to respond to the hoax, the news also reached the actual Bhopal community who were at that time holding a commemoration for the victims. Of course, one could argue, that the 20 years of suffering (the carbide company has caused) are not comparable to 2 hours of false hope (which the Yes Men's hoax might have caused).

Regarded from a somewhat postcolonial perspective, the Yes Men's appropriation of mainstream media - although intended to help the Bhopal victims - at the same time also reproduced the rhetoric of hegemony. The 'invisible' white male Yes Men did not make it possible for the Bhopal victims to speak for themselves and but instead used his invisibility and thus his access to the media, to speak for the victims.

To conclude

At this point, I return to Augusto Boal once more: While Boal created invisible theatre as tool for articulating dissent within the oppressive regime of Brazil in the 70s, the performances of the activists presented here articulate different positions:

While the Billionaires invite everyone to participate in their potentially transformative process of making political theater and start their own, local Billionaires' chapters across the United States, Bill Talen in his impersonation of Reverend Billy clearly functions as a spiritual leader for those willing to shout 'amen' and 'hallelujah' against corporate capitalism. In contrast, the Yes Men - although the most "invisible" and in my opinion also the most political of these three examples - do not so much perform a Theater of the Oppressed than a Theater for the Oppressed. Boal's "foundational principle of giving people the power of self-representation" (Green 53) is neglected.

Thus, their invisible performance as white, middle class, male Americans and their utilization of mainstream media operates within the rather ambivalent or indistinguishable interface of appropriation and reproduction. What, nonetheless, makes the artists so interesting and what distinguishes them from other political artists today is, that their artistic practices operate within popular culture. What definitely needs further elaboration is - to come back to David Rushkoff's idea of the media virus - is the question of what happens to popular culture and the mainstream once the virus has injected its hidden agendas and ideological code and how, on the other hand, this virus survives or even flourishes within the organism of contemporary popular culture.


1 In her article, Harold does not discuss the artists I am dealing with, but refers to Joey Skaggs, a New York based media prankster and artist.

2 Jan Cohen-Cruz defines Invisible Theatre according to Boal as "rehearsed sequence of events that is enacted in a public, nontheatrical space, capturing the attention of people who do not know they are watching a planned performance. It is at once theater and real life, for, although rehearsed, it happens in real time and space and the "actors" must take responsibility for the consequences of the "show." The goal is to bring attention to a social problem for the purpose of stimulating public dialogue." (237)

3 Here, it would be crucial to elaborate, what the term oppression in Boal's sense means for activists in capitalist democracies and to which extent his approach to fighting oppression can be applied to the commodification of public space. For further discussions on this issue cf. Schutzmann and Cohen-Cruz (1994).

4 Obviously, this slogan is also a parody of Abraham Lincoln's famous definition of democracy in his 1863 Gettysburg Address: "government of the people, by the people, for the people" (Lincoln, 22).

5 For a detailed documentation of the history of political TV advertisement cf. "The 30 second candidate" http://www.pbs.org/30secondcandidate/text/timeline/years/1952.html.

6 For a detailed record of the catastrophe cf. http://www.bhopal.org/whathappened.html (3.06.2005)

Works Cited

Auslander, Philip. Presence and Resistance: Postmodernism and Cultural Politics in Contemporary American Performance. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994.

Lincoln, Abraham. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Ed. Roy P. Basler. Vol.7. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP 1953.

Baudrillard, Jean. "Requiem for the Media" The New Media Reader. Ed.Noah Wardrip-Fruin. Cambridge, Mass. [u.s.]: MIT Press, 2003. 277-288.

Boyd, Andrew. "Truth is a virus: meme warfare and the billionaires for Bush (or Gore)" Cultural Resistance Reader. Ed. Stephen Duncombe. London, New York: Verso, 2002. 369-378.

Boal, Augusto. Theatre of the Oppressed. London: Pluto Press, 1979.

Cohen-Cruz, Jan. "Mainstream or Margin? US Activist Performance and Theatre of the Oppressed" Playing Boal: Theatre, Therapy, Activism. Ed. Mady Schutzmann and Jan Cohen-Cruz. London, New York: Routledge, 1994. 110-123.

Cohen-Cruz, Jan. "Glossary" Playing Boal: Theatre, Therapy, Activism. Ed. Mady Schutzmann and Jan Cohen-Cruz. London, New York: Routledge, 1994. 236-38.

Green, Sharon "Boal and Beyond: Strategies for Creating Community Dialogue" Theater 31: 3, 2001. 47-61.

Harold, Christine. "Pranking Rhetoric: 'Culture Jamming' as Media Activism." Critical Studies in Media Communication. 21.3 (September 2004): 189-211.

Jameson, Frederick. Postmodernism or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1994.

Lane, Jill. "Reverend Billy: Preaching, Protest and Postindustrial Flanerie" The Drama Review 46:1, 2002. 65-84.

Orenstein, Claudia. "Agitational Performance, Now and Then" Theater 31:3, 2001. 138-151.

Paletz, Gabriel M. "The Yes Men Cometh" The Progressive 69:4, 2005. 40-41.

Rushkoff, Douglas. Media Virus! Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture. Rev. ed. New York: Ballantine Books, 1996.

Schutzmann, Mady and Cohen-Cruz, Jan. "Introduction" Playing Boal: Theatre, Therapy, Activism. London and New York: Routledge, 1994. 1-17.

Internet Sources

Blatt, Jens. Reverend Billy at Potsdamer Platz Arkaden, Berlin. 14 Jan. 2004. 12. June 2005. <http://kanalb.org/topic.php?clipId=38>

Holder, Matt. "BBC caught out in Bhopal hoax" BBC NewsWatch. 15. June 2005. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/newswatch/ukfs/hi/newsid_4060000/newsid_4065600/406 5673.stm>

"Interview of Jude Finisterra on the Bhopal Tragedy." BBC World TV. 3. Dec. 2004. 12. 03. 2005. <http://www.theyesmen.org/hijinks/dow/video.html>

Katz, Dan. "Just like us." The Billionaires for Bush. 12. May 2005. <http://metal-tiger.com/BOB_REYNOLDS_06short-1.mov>

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"What happened in Bhopal." The Bhopal Medical Appeal & Sabhavna Trust. 3. June 2005. <http://www.bhopal.org/whathappened.html>

The Billionaires for Bush. Homepage. 2. May 2005. <http://www.billionairesforbush.com>

The Yes Men. Homepage. 6. Dec. 2004. 2. May 2005. <http://www.theyesmen.org/>

"Yes Men Hoax on BBC Reminds World of Dow Chemical's Refusal to Take Responsibility for Bhopal Disaster" Democracy Now!. 6 Dec. 2004. 10. June 2005. <http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=04/12/06/1453248>

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