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by Fernando Calzadilla

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Multimedia Presentation: Billionaires for Bush

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The Reverse Effect
Ronald Gilliam

As a means of preventing damage to Central Park, New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg declared on August 11, 2004 that those protesting the 2004 Republican National Convention were not allowed to gather on park grounds. The decision sparked a debate about the loss of rights to assemble in protest, while also questioning who actually owns public land. The move to prevent protesters from using the largest park in the city angered many, but one particular activist group celebrated the decision by playing sports on the lawn. The group, calling themselves "Billionaires for Bush," began their "Keep Off the Grass" campaign in support of the privatization of Central Park at this time. Dressed in exaggerated billionaire-wear—tuxedos, elaborate jewelry, and big cigars—they began to play croquet (apparently a popular billionaire's game) while protesting the absurd notion that "the people" own public parks. This gathering seemed a bit odd in New York City's history of protests, especially since billionaires are generally not known for their activism.

Of course this uncommon behavior provoked the interest of the media, which is exactly what the Billionaires wanted. Upon being interviewed for their presence in the park, a Billionaire explained his frustration with people freely using the land and how he supported a government, led by George W. Bush, which would legalize future privatization of public space. During the interview another Billionaire attempted to shoo away people lounging, demanding that they leave "her property." After viewing this performance and observing their outlandish behavior, it becomes clear that the Billionaires are mocking the upper class. But why is this behavior confusing?

Looking closer, especially at the campaign material, it becomes hard not to question their agenda. For example, their slogan, seen in the most of their campaign material, states "Because we're all in this together, sort of." This inclusive statement is the opposite of the exclusivity the group preaches, and is a good example of how the Billionaires utilize symbolic inversion and reversals in public appearances.

The use of the body as a means of protest mixed with the use of inversion creates an atmosphere that can often become uncomfortable to people on both sides of the issues being presented. As with other instances of inverted bodies, especially the male/female binary with transvestitism, the feeling of being uncomfortable easily surfaces. The question lies in why the individual would feel a loss of comfort. Perhaps the discomfort occurs when one is outside of the normative in terms of societal pressure to agree with one side or the other. Many who see the performances of the Billionaires can sense this discomfort because they might be uneducated about the group's use of inversion and mistake them for actual billionaires, or on the other hand, the audience member who is associated with billionaire-like qualities could become uncomfortable as he realizes his iniquitous advantage in society. Often this association of discomfort is followed by a sense of urgency, and the viewer will feel the necessity to act before the inversion is transformed into reality.

On August 30, 2004, I observed the "Vigil for Corporate Welfare" presented by the Billionaires, in which comfort levels were easily examined. During their performance the group was to congregate at Union Square, a common meeting ground for organized protests, and march to the United Nations complex. I patiently awaited the arrival of the entire group as the woman who appeared to be their spokesperson, dressed in a black evening dress with elaborate jewelry and a tiara, began to speak about the very successful Million Billionaire March held the previous day. As she spoke with clarity and confidence under her black umbrella, I drew the connection between the United for Peace and Justice March, which was held the previous day, to her Million Billionaire March. This use of inversion was not only humorous, but also impossible, as there are only 218 billionaires in the United States (1) , but she was still able to make a point by presenting her ability to manipulate the media in a similar manner as those she performs through inverse.

As each billionaire arrived I was entertained with various chants such as "Watch More Fox News, Then You'll Share Our Right Wing Views," "No Justice, No Problem," and "Big Money. United. We'll Never Be Defeated." (2) Obviously one woman in the crowd became uncomfortable during the "Fox News" chant as she exclaimed the Billionaires had "no shame," and needed to "go home" because what they were saying was "garbage." (3) She quickly left the area where the performance was taking place so it was uncertain if she understood the use of inversion. Although it was assumed she was unaware, her feelings of distress sparked an urge to speak against the group when they were chanting a call for right wing views. (4)

A similar incident occurred with a man who understood the Billionaires use of reversals, but his discomfort originated from discovering how the performance is meant to spread left-wing ideology through inversion. At first, the Billionaires tried to utilize his verbal attacks against the left by saying that he should "work for them," but this tactic did not work to their advantage, especially after he began to shout slurs to the public. Since the Billionaires were appearing to lose the interest of the media, they tried two tactics to divert the camera away from the man. The first involved listening to him, but stating that Billionaires are the focus of the event and the camera should be pointed on them. This direct move of forcing the camera to cover their vigil and not the radical right was successful until the man began to scream what he felt about homosexuality and the war. At this point, the Billionaires tried a new tactic of flooding the man's voice with their own. Since he was shouting war rhetoric, they decided to do the same. "Four More Wars" was heard throughout the crowd, until the volume of their voices faded out while the man's became louder. At this point, either the Billionaires lost control of the space or they chose to listen instead of reacting. In moments, such as these, where the end effect of an inversed performance is reversed, an inversion of an inversion is created and thus a reverse effect is transported to a portion of the audience and on the performing body who initiated the effect.

The reaction of the Billionaires to remain quiet and listen to the man was not due to choice, but because the man used the reverse effect to negate their inversion. By spreading his viewpoint in opposition to the cause they were presenting through inversion (and also by exposing this inversion), the efficacy of the performance came into question. The eyes and ears of the crowd were then refocused on a new set of ideals and values, and through his demand for attention he was able to convert a few people from the crowd to support his rhetoric.

The reaction of the right-wing man questions the efficacy of the work presented by the Billionaires for Bush. How effective are their performances when confronted with the reverse effect and how does inversion work under those circumstances? At present, the group is focusing on a national limo tour that will stop in multiple swing states in hope that the Billionaires might motivate voters to stand up against Bush. But what will happen when the group is faced with another anti-left political voice that invokes the reverse effect? Will there be more occurrences of this effect and will the Billionaires, through their exposure of this phenomenon, learn how to overcome the reverse of their reversal? Unfortunately, this is a question unanswered until November 2004.

The use of imagery is an easy way to sway the masses, especially since all humans have sight, imagination, and creativity. Throughout history, inversion has been used as a tool within imagery in order to allow one's mind to easily understand the problems in society. Currently, the use of inversion is an important matter, not only because of its accessibility to those with both substantial and minimal political education, but also because it diverts the attention of the media and allows possible change. Without this coverage, a protest among thousands of other protests becomes unnoticed and vanishes into ephemerality. Impersonation and mockery are two actions that invoke laughter, which not only cures sadness, mourning, and grief, but also allows accessibility of the subject matter through humor. The true efficacy of inversion within political performance lies in the usage or avoidance of the reverse effect and how one reapplies the theories of inversion once someone has reversed that inversion. Only time will tell if the Billionaires have been effective in their performances across the United States. One thing is certain: if Bush is reelected in November, many more Billionaire activities will follow.


Ronald Gilliam is currently a Performance Studies MA candidate at New
York University and the founder of NoExit, Indianapolis's premier
cross-cultural performance company. His interests lie in the use of the
body in political performance, the effects of globalization and tourism
in developing countries, and intercultural performance.