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by Kirsten Anderberg
Friday, Oct. 03, 2003 at 2:09 AM
Whirl-Mart is a performance! It is art! It is a ritual! It is a “collective reclamation of space that is otherwise only used for shopping and buying...”
By Kirsten Anderberg
Whirl-Mart is a participatory, anti-consumerism, performance trend started by the Breathing Planet Troupe (www.breathingplanet.net/whirl). It is art, performance, ritual, and meditation all in one. The Whirl-Mart ritual involves a group silently pushing empty shopping carts through the aisles of a superstore, wearing Whirl-Mart smocks. Utilizing tactics of occupation, Whirlers call this symbolic spectacle a “collective reclamation of space that is otherwise only used for shopping and buying.” Averting outright protest of the “emptiness of material consumption,” they instead mimic the absurd shopping PROCESS instead! When asked by Wal-Mart employees what they are doing, and knowing that protests are not permitted inside Wal-Mart, they respond that they are participating in a “consumption awareness ritual,” confusing store employees and shoppers alike. And the good news is, Whirl-Mart is coming to a Northwest superstore near you!
Whirl-Mart began outside of Troy, NY, in response to a challenge from Adbusters magazine to do something foolish on April Fool’s Day, 2001. Inspired by the successful April 1, 2001, action, Whirl-Mart rituals began popping up all over the country, and even in the UK. By 2003, many groups, in many states, were whirling. On March 3, 2002, rituals were performed at Wal-Marts in NY, TX, AZ, PA, and more! The Austin, TX ritual had 8 Whirlers and 2 documentary filmmakers. For the first 45 minutes, they walked alone and in pairs with their carts. Then they formed a parade of empty shopping carts in the jewelry section. As soon as they heard a call for help over the loud speakers in jewelry, they disbanded. Shortly thereafter, one Whirler was cornered by the manager, who wanted to know what he was doing. He said he was trying to decide if he should buy something. When the manager asked what he was looking for, he said “something.” The manager took the cart from the shopper and forced him to leave. At the same time in a different corner of the store, another Whirl-Marter was cornered. When asked what he was doing, he said he was looking for something to buy. The manager said he had been looking for an hour. He responded that Wal-Mart has such a large selection…the manager forcibly removed his cart and made him leave too. The store also threatened to take the documentary cameras from the photographers. All of the Whirlers were told to leave except one. He went into the longest checkout line possible with an empty cart, and at the end, thanked the cashier and left! The manager said he called the police, even though the ritual did not block aisles, or interfere with shopping at all. The Whirlers left before police came. Yet it should be noted that out of conscience, Whirlers even go to the more populated stores, so as not to use shopping carts that could be in demand at smaller stores.
At a Wal-Mart in Indianola, Iowa, in April 2002, Whirlers tried to enter Wal-Mart with a live chicken. Their plan was to grab a pair of men’s pants made in El Salvador or Pakistan or India, and then to go to the cashier and try to barter the chicken for it.
The ritual had been publicized, and thus the parking lot was full of police cars and Wal-Mart managers with walkie-talkies to greet them. Knowing they were not breaking laws, 30 Whirlers entered the store anyway. But Wal-Mart would not let the media or anyone with cameras in, as it is supposedly against Wal-Mart policy to take pictures inside the store! Finally, the Whirlers were escorted out of the store, with their carts taken from them before they left the store.
At a Wal-Mart in Austin, TX, in 2002, Whirlers entered the store one by one, and in no time, had a Whirler on every aisle. After 10 mintues, they formed a train around women’s wear. Over the loud speakers in the store, a Wal-Mart employee announced “Code Sunshine,” and told shoppers to secure their children by their sides or in their carts! They repeated this “Managers, Code Sunshine” over loud speakers several times. One Whirler said he feared the Wal-Mart SWAT team was being activated, with big yellow smiley faces on their riot shields! The Whirlers disbanded into pairs again, yet the manager took one Whirler aside and asked “What exactly IS Whirl-Mart?” She feigned being a spaced-out hippie, saying it was a peaceful, nonviolent meditation, where she didn’t buy anything for one hour a week. He responded by saying, "Well, as long as it’s nonviolent, then you can do it for the next 20 minutes. What the heck—today’s free." So does it cost money to Whirl on other days?
In the Bay Area, they wore “Hi, My Name is Whirl-Mart” stickers because they did not have matching shirts. (You can download the Whirl-Mart logo for your shirts online at their site). Some of the Bay Area Whirlers waxed philosophical about what they think about while whirling. One Whirler said he liked to think, “How am I like an empty cart?” during the ritual. He said whirling was like watching the straight world through a two-way mirror and noted it was like a game of follow the leader, yet it went in circles. A friend and I used to go into stores and put our hands on a shopping cart, and let it lead us where it wanted. We said that we used shopping carts like an Ouija board. It was odd it most often lead us straight to the ice cream section! Shopping cart performance ritual has merit, certainly. Watch for a Whirl-Mart ritual appearing at a local Wal-Mart by you soon. The next planned Whirl-Mart day of action is November 29, Buy Nothing Day. You can go to the Breathing Planet website for a Whirl-Mart Ritual Starter Kit to start your own Whirl-Mart contingency today! “…Our empty carts and silent energy subtly invade the cathedral of consumerism…”
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