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Hit the Wal: For participants in Whirl-Mart Ritual Resistance, emptiness is proactive.


A Call to Jams


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WHY IS THERE no culture jamming going on in the South Bay?" Biter was asked this question by Sean Gillis, a social activist who recently moved here from Seattle. We were standing in front of the Grateful Head, a beauty salon housed in a nauseating suburban strip mall on Showers Avenue in Mountain View. A monolithic Wal-Mart dominates the dreary horizon here and painfully dwarfs the nearby suburban hamlets of Mervyn's, Payless Shoe Source and 24-Hour Fitness. Consumers poured out of their vehicles into Wal-Mart as we discussed culture jamming in general.

Gillis is waiting here for other members of Whirl-Mart Ritual Resistance (www.breathingplanet.net/ whirl/), a loosely organized band of social activists who don white lab coats en masse and silently push empty shopping carts through Wal-Mart--a combination of activism and performance art. According to their website, "As a form of active resistance, [Whirl-Mart] is peculiar in that it functions quite differently than an ordinary protest. First of all, it is a silent activity. There is no direct solicitation of propaganda and no intentional confrontation with the target audience. Rather, Whirl-Mart utilizes tactics of occupation and reclamation of private consumer-dominated space for the purpose of creating a symbolic spectacle."

The rituals generally last for about an hour. This would be the second Whirl-Mart event in the South Bay. The first one took place the day after Thanksgiving, when Gillis and company declared "Buy Nothing Day."

Whirl-Mart Ritual Resistance began as a single happening in Troy, New York, and has evolved over the course of the year into a monthly ritual activity that is performed across the United States and is now known throughout the world. Biter was looking forward to seeing this unique combo of silent protest and performance art hit a South Bay Wal-Mart. But on this day in question--Dec. 21, 2002--no one showed up for the event except Gillis.

"I got about 10 email confirmations, but I guess no one came through," Gillis said. So there we were, waiting to make a public comment on the crass consumerism of America, and no one showed up. A fitting conclusion for the South Bay. Several other members of Whirl-Mart Ritual Resistance were probably tired out, Gillis told us, since they had just starved themselves for five days in front of the downtown San Jose Federal building, protesting the imminent war in Iraq.

So we were left with a puzzling situation and a number of generalizing questions, some of which made sense and some of which didn't: Are people in the South Bay just so ambivalent about things that they'd rather just carry on with their drab suburban lives, their SUVs and their tract houses? Have they given up caring about social issues? Are San Francisco and Berkeley the only places around here where real culture jamming can generate any interest? The suburban South Bay is the place where culture jamming is needed the most, so why does so little culture jamming happen here?

Combining instinct with impulse, Biter answered, "Because there's no culture here to jam."

Which isn't entirely true, of course--it all depends on how you define "culture." But it always amazes us that the jaded city of San Francisco--a place where a 400-pound naked man could probably walk down the street hitting himself on the head with a sledgehammer and not get a second look from anyone--is a place bubbling with culture jamming and subversive behavior, while San Jose--a farmer's town since 1777--isn't.

Biter and Gillis talked at some length about all this. "I know there are probably lots of people in the South Bay that are into culture jamming and active resistance," he says. "I don't know why they don't come out and do it."

So let this be the call to all San Joseans who secretly desire to stand up and make a statement against the homogeneity, against the mediocrity of anyone or anything: Everywhere you see In God We Trust, change it to In Fraud We Trust. Order those pharmaceutical "May Cause Drowsiness or Dizziness" stickers you see on prescription bottles and go stick them on all the toys in Toys "R" Us. Anything. This is an open call. Jam away!

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From the January 1-8, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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