Strive to fail

What new books by Chicken John and Reverend Billy have to say to the young occupiers in our streets

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Counterculture icons and authors Reverend Billy (left, among the faithful) and Chicken John (right, in artwork form).
REVEREND BILLY (LEFT); CHICKEN JOHN PHOTO BY JOHN CURLEY

steve@sfbg.com

LIT As I watched Occupy Wall Street grow and spread to other cities in recent weeks, I've been alternating between reading two books by familiar figures — a pair of fearless entities that have helped pry open public spaces using the simple weapon of creative expression — and I'm struck by the lessons they offer at this strangely hopeful moment in our history.

Together, they're like a one-two punch to the status quo and to the notion that we're all essentially prisoners of the existing political and economic systems. They encourage their readers to strive for impossible goals, to be guided by something bigger than our tiny selves, and to embrace failure rather than fearing it. These are the same ideas embodied by protesters occupying the streets of San Francisco and other major U.S. cities, this sense that they have nothing to lose by making a stand now but everything to lose by continuing to be obedient to the powerful forces that seek to dampen their spirits and rob them of their futures.

The Reverend Billy Project: From Rehearsal Hall to Super Mall with the Church of Life After Shopping is by Savitri D and Billy Talen, the couple behind the performance art church that critiques hyper-capitalism by doing exorcisms and other telling rituals in banks, chain stores, and other examples of what they call the "devil monoculture."

So the Occupy Wall Street movement that began Sept. 17 in their adopted hometown of New York City is right in their sweet spot. They've been down there almost every day delivering sermons, songs, and support — Savitri D as the group's stage manager and creative director and Talen as his alter ego, Rev. Billy, the evangelical pastor of a large flock of creative activists they're organized into a choir.

"It feels like the culture is breaking open," Talen told me by phone as he surveyed the scene at Occupy Wall Street. "These kids are really going for it."

I've long been an admirer of their work and I included Billy as a character in my own book, The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture, along with longtime burner and San Francisco-based showman Chicken John Rinaldi, the author of the other book I'm discussing.

The Book of the IS: Fail...TO WIN! Essays in engineered disperfection was launched by Chicken and the eclectic group of culture-shakers in his orbit during a spectacular free party on Sept. 30. The 111 Minna Gallery contained 50 unique, custom-designed covers to his already well-designed book, selling for a whopping $250 each — and they sold out! Outside, the closed-off alley was filled with variety acts, strange artsy spaces to explore, a buzzing Tesla-coil tree, and hundreds of people.

Both Chicken and Billy have run for mayor in their respective cities, Chicken in 2007 and Billy in 2009, both injecting art and unconventional creativity into their campaigns. Ironically, it is Chicken who discusses his campaign at some length in his book, despite his basic disdain for politics, while Billy and Savitri — whose art is performed in service of political principles they hold dear — don't include the campaign in their book.

"We believe that the five freedoms of the First Amendment — religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition — that you need to have these freedoms flourish in public spaces, and that has been shut down in New York City since 9/11," Billy told me from Occupy Wall Street. "We've suffered a loss of our public spaces in New York, and to have all these young people open that back up is very exciting."