The Retail Revolution

"THIS IS WHAT happens when you have creative people whose minds have too much free time. It's a recipe for trouble." So says the underemployed, overeducated John Troyer, a former theater/poli-sci major at the U who recently lost his backstage job at a local theater. Earlier in the week, he distributed a cryptic e-mail promising "an unsolicited and illegal happening" at the Mall of America by an outfit calling themselves the "Praxis Group"--complete with a quote from Marx advocating a "ruthless criticism" of society. Yet far from the self-serious agit-prop artiste, Troyer's exterior is all affability. One imagines Troyer years later--after having pulled off something Really Big--looking back on this escapade and giggling.

For now, though, there is a happening to execute. The plan is this: The Praxis people, wearing white labcoats, will circumambulate the mall for 20 minutes, carrying signs with factoids on them. Taken from actual mall literature, these slogans range from the forgettable to the fairly amusing: "THE 78-ACRE CENTER ATTRACTS FASHION-CONSCIOUS POWER SHOPPERS"; "MEDIAN HOUSEHOLD INCOME: $55,000"; "THE MALL OF AMERICA GENERATED 24,450 TONS OF WASTE IN ITS FIRST 2 1/2 YEARS." Some of the Labcoats will take notes on shoppers' reactions. Photos with shoppers in Camp Snoopy will be taken. That's if they're not all tossed out onto the "Indiana" parking terrace by security first. It seems the First Amendment takes a forced sabbatical inside the sacred ground of Camp Snoopy--this as decided by no lesser authority than the Supreme Court.

Troyer, it turns out, is both friendly and fearless. Upon losing his job, he explains, "I said, I won't get bored and I won't get depressed because there's just so much goin' on! The way I look at it is this: As long as I'm not completely fully employed, I might as well have fun." And so here we are at the mall following two silent art babes around when Officer Dingman stops us outside Bloomie's. A passing resemblance to the cop on The Simpsons belies a gentle spirit. We're not doing anything illegal, he says. In fact, observing people, as we're doing, is his favorite part of the job. Apparently, though, there's a rule about carrying signs. He thanks us for our future cooperation. Officer Jaworski, however, isn't so generous, and tells other Praxis people they must remove their coats and cease note-taking. "It's not portraying the correct image of the mall." A speech on "proper channels" for protest and the likelihood of imminent arrest ensues.

In the end, the 20 Praxis folks (young and cute and friendly, all) cease and desist. They deem the day a success--and why not?--despite the mute stares and exclamations of so what? received from passersby. The goal from the start was simply to do it, not to provoke a specific reaction. "I'm not going to slam consumerism," says Troyer. "That's too easy--to say there's a lot of crass consumeristic buying at the mall. That's what it's there to do! What we're getting at is that there's a lot going on out there that people should think about." (Kate Sullivan)

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