If culture jamming is anything, writes Mark Dery in the foreword to Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Cultural Resistance, it is “the dream of reclaiming our sense of ourselves as citizens in a culture that insists on reducing us to consumers – wallets with mouths, in advertising parlance”.
The term can be defined as negative, as in the blocking of commercial messages, or it can be likened to a musical jam session, an experiment in cultural forms, and becomes something more creative and constructive, “seeking artfully to invent new visions of the future”, according to Marilyn DeLaure and Moritz Fink in their introduction to the same book.
Reverend Billy and The Church of Stop Shopping see their role as illuminators in helping people to reclaim a sense of themselves.
They have been doing this for over 20 years, under the direction of Savitri D, through Billy Talen’s sermons and the passionate performance of the choir.
As part of their actions against Bayer/Monsanto, they filled a hearing by the Environmental Protection Agency with gospel-style music, singing “Monsanto is the devil, no glyphosates,” and they marched into a glyphosate chemical plant.
They have ‘exorcised’ a Starbucks and danced through the streets of New York City with Mickey Mouse on a cross. “A lot of our work is just making things visible. Running with a giant neon arrow and pointing at something, that’s a vanguard position. It’s here, the crisis is right here,” Savitri D told Resurgence & Ecologist.
While the work of groups like BP or not BP? focuses a lot on press coverage and social media to disrupt the one-way flow of corporate messaging, Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir have a different goal.
“Our mission is to introduce wildness into public space and open up public space into a different kind of behaviour,” Savitri D says. This can be seen in the way they interact with people in the street, singing and dancing. Many bystanders turn and watch: some look shocked or turn away, some laugh, and others even join in.
“The street is a charged space because there are players that you can’t control, pressures that you can’t foresee,” Savitri D says. “The police, casting them in the play, for example. The street has the unknown in it in a very powerful way.”
This ‘wildness’ has to come from inside, Billy continues. “Wildness must come from an invitation to wildness, dancing with wildness, becoming wildness. And let the attacks on wildness, by Bayer/Monsanto for instance, let them be the outsiders and meet them from wildness so you have that strength.”
At a time when it’s all too easy to find yourself sucked into doomscrolling the latest global news, an injection of humour is very welcome.
Whether it is through ‘subvertising’ advertisements on billboards and spreading the word on social media, or via flashmobs and creative actions on the street, the jamming of this consumer messaging is a huge relief.
It gives us the space to step outside our commodified reality and see it for what it really is. The successes of the campaign against oil sponsorship of the arts show too that it works.
Savitri D and Billy Talen take this peaceful protest one step further by inviting us to look away from advertisements and see each other.
Marianne Brown is editor of Resurgence & Ecologist. This article first appeared in the Resurgence & Ecologist magazine, out now.