The Whirl-Mart concept comes to Austin
It's noon on the first Sunday of June, and a group of about 15 young people clusters in the parking lot of the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Round Rock to get ready for "Whirl-Mart-- -- their monthly performance mocking the world's largest retailer. "We're just going to spend an hour not shopping," says Whirler Sean O'Neal.
Before entering the Bargainbox of Bentonville, the group must don their uniforms: long-sleeved white shirts with "Whirl-Mart: Ritual Resistance" printed in crisp black letters on the back. Once inside, they grab shopping carts and silently stroll the aisles by themselves without picking up any merchandise. Joining them are documentary filmmakers Susan Kirr and Rusty Martin (Bike Like U Mean It), who are making a short Whirl-Montage. After being kicked out on past outings for filming, the two now hide their cameras in tote bags to avoid a confrontation with store security. About Whirl-Mart, Kirr says, "We're attracted to the beauty and simplicity of the idea."
After about 20 minutes of strolling individually, the Whirlers converge in a grocery aisle, form a line, and push their carts in unison. Customers, managers, and smocked "associates" stare, and some appear intimidated by the group. After an hour of strolling, Whirlers head towards the cash registers and stand in line. When it's their turn, they thank the cashier and walk out.
Back in the parking lot, Whirlers giddily share their experiences. "I put myself in a trance-like state," says Matt, who compliments another Whirler for his "great shopping look." Says Samantha, a skinny, 12-year-old first-timer: "I think it's a really good way to express how you feel about Wal-Mart. It's kind of like they're taking over -- there's so many of them."
Sometimes Whirl-Mart performances don't go so smoothly. During a March performance at the Wal-Mart on South I-35, store managers grabbed Whirlers' shopping carts, told them to disperse, and threatened to confiscate Kirr's camera. Although the group left immediately, a general manager followed them into the parking lot, scolding them for "causing trouble," and warned that he had called the police. O'Neal contends, "At no point did we ever cause 'trouble,' stop anyone from shopping, converse with the customers or employees, block aisles, or otherwise impede the shopping experience."
The rationale behind Whirl-Mart, he explains, is to make a political and cultural statement in a way that's more visceral and less in your face than the standard picket-sign-and-rally protest. "We want to let people figure things out for themselves," he says. But a Wal-Mart spokesman at the company headquarters says that store managers reserve the right to ask people to leave if they aren't buying anything.
The Whirl-Mart concept originated last year in Troy, N.Y., when a group called breathingplanet came up with the idea in response to a call for April Fools' Day "foolish action" by Adbusters magazine. (The glossy bible of anti-corporate types, Adbusters devised the term "culture jamming" to denote creative resistance to branding and advertising, environmental degradation, globalization, and the like.) Word spread, and performances have occurred across the country. For would-be Whirlers, breathingplanet has posted an online "starter kit" that covers everything from shopping cart etiquette ("in an effort to leave enough carts for shoppers in [certain] situations ... Whirlers have adopted the shopping basket as their principle prop") to negotiating with hostile store managers.
To promote Whirl-Mart and similar activities locally, O'Neal and fellow Whirlers have formed a collective called How+Why?. The group has put on several theatre and video events, and runs a Web site (www.howand why.org) that includes a forum for suggestions and discussion of politics and culture. The group hopes to develop an "Every Day Subversion" section -- "a compendium of little acts of rebellion and Situationist thinking that you can do any time without a whole lot of planning," O'Neal says. They also plan to obtain nonprofit status in order to get grants that will enable people to develop their own creative resistance projects. For now, Whirl-Mart is their most consistent effort. Members provide specific reasons for opposing Wal-Mart, but most complain that local businesses disappeared when the world's largest retailer arrived in their small hometowns, and all condemn the company's labor and management practices as exploitative.
Wal-Mart disputes both notions, but a growing number of critics -- from Jim Hightower to present and former Wal-Mart employees -- are making life difficult for the company, which reported $218 billion in sales in the most recent fiscal year. Class action and individual suits filed by employees and former employees in 28 states accuse Wal-Mart of forcing or pressuring them to work overtime for free; U.S. federal and state law prohibits employers from such practices. A Wal-Mart spokesman told The New York Times last week, "managers who required or requested off-the-clock work were subject to disciplinary action, including dismissal."
None of How+Why?'s current members have ever worked at Wal-Mart, though they have studied the company's history and policies. By performing inside the belly of the Box, they hope to bring some shoppers to a similar realization -- but increasing awareness among the public is a slow process, particularly when challenging a behemoth retailer that made its name by selling products at slashed prices to bargain-hungry Americans. "It would take an act of God to get what we're trying to say to come to fruition," says Rachel Woodman, a How+Why? member and dedicated Whirler.
For their July 7 Whirl, How+Why? will target the Wal-Mart at 5017 U.S. 290 W. They had some trouble choosing a location (O'Neal says they've already whirled all the Wal-Marts in the immediate area), but will soon have another option: A sign just a few miles down the highway from the Round Rock Supercenter marks the future home of yet another Wal-Mart.
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