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If a Tree Falls in a Nonswing State

Environmentalists take off their clothes, terrorists attack Kerry and Bush, and the ballot inspires a hearty yawn.

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"We're hairy, we're smelly, we're really really hot! You're fake, you're plastic, you're really really not!" Six women in bras and panties cavorted around a couple of half-mannequins in thongs. They were at Victoria's Secret on Michigan Avenue at lunchtime protesting the company's excessive use of unrecycled paper, and I was in Rodan a few days later, watching all this happen on a three-by-five digital video camera screen. I'd gone out for a glass of wine and met a handful of folks from ForestEthics, a grassroots activist group based in San Francisco, D.C., and Portland that's pushing for more-sustainable forestry practices.

In town to protest the annual trade meeting of the North American Wholesale Lumber Association, ForestEthics decided to join forces with a group called Catalogs Without Clearcuts to hit the underwear store while they were here--why not? After all, VS is high on the environmentalists' hit list. The company's ubiquitous catalogs, 395 million of which are distributed every year, are printed on mostly virgin paper from Canada's boreal forest, which ForestEthics is trying to get the Canadian government to classify as endangered.

On the tiny camera screen at our table, six women and two men entered the overwhelmingly pink Victoria's Secret store and took off their coats, exposing slips on which were written VICTORIA KILLS TREES and PLEASE RECYCLE. Two of them held up a large banner that read VICTORIA'S DIRTY SECRET: CATALOGS = CLEARCUTS and started chanting about saving forests and being hot. Though the manager on duty took action, spritzing the air around them with body spray and perfume, most of the black-clad employees stood motionless, with stunned expressions, while two participants held up homemade cardboard trees and the others chased them around with homemade cardboard chain saws, cackling and making revving noises.

After about ten minutes they stripped down further, revealing bras, panties, and bellies painted with more slogans. A few potential customers entered the store, looked around uncomfortably, took flyers, and walked out the door. A few others lingered over the flyers, actually reading what they said before sticking them in their handbags. A man in a trench coat peered in through the window and laughed. After 15 minutes the group took their frolicking outside. Then the police showed up.

"They're ruining my business," the manager told an officer. The cop asked the protesters to stand away from the building, then stepped back to take in the rest of the show. A small crowd of male onlookers started to gather, staring and grinning, while women on cell phones or with strollers hurried past the scene.

"I talked with one woman who said she was going to cancel her account with Victoria's Secret," says ForestEthics field organizer Karen Ganey. "Three others said they'd call and ask them to shift to recycled paper."

The whole thing kind of disintegrated after 25 minutes, when a street person in lumberjack-chic flannel and an arm cast asked to join the fun. Since the protesters were trying to "encourage public participation," a cameraman told me, they weren't gonna say no. So the homeless guy put on a pink camisole and had a gay ol' time slurring along to the chant, sniffing his armpit when the word smelly came up.

One canceled account and three phone calls probably isn't going to scare anyone at VS's parent company, Limited Brands, too much. Unfortunately, the only person ForestEthics seemed to have stirred to action that day didn't look like he'd shop at Victoria's Secret anyway.

Last year I was part of the 12-person group that took Ed Marszewski's Select Media Festival--a series of film screenings, gallery shows, and parties celebrating technology, art, and political dissent--to Europe. Modesty aside, I was also the reigning champ of Laptronica, in which teams performing laptop music battle each other to wow a panel of judges with their musical prowess and showmanship. This year I stayed out of it until closing night, when they asked me to be a Laptronica judge.

When Liz MacLean-Knight and her friend Logan Bay started Laptronica in January 2002, it was pretty innocent: the rules called for no fire, no animals, no water, and no interfering with the equipment of the opposing team. But it's since degenerated into a dizzying mix of gratuitous offensiveness, over-the-top judge-bribing, and actual violence, involving Tasers, cocaine, lap dances, spray paint, an electric saw, and vomit--at least when it's good.

Last Friday night at Buddy gallery, inside a cave made of chicken wire and foam insulation, six teams (all of whose members were Select organizers, which was sort of weird) battled for three rounds, two teams per round, so judges and audience members could declare one winner each time. The other judges on the panel were Professor Magicpantz (aka Mike Finch), who hosts a variety show called Herc; Lisa Flores, who runs the gallery and performance space High School; Joe Proulx, a Select organizer; and Elisa Harkins, a Select curator.

First Bay, dressed as an unga-bunga caveman and tearing into a rotisserie chicken (which he later used to bribe the judges) was up against his former business partner Joel Bruner (they used to run a gallery in Pilsen), who was armed with a laser pen and dressed in a futuristic jumpsuit and a gas mask. The judges voted for the man from the future; the audience preferred the man from the past. I'm still unclear on who won. Next, a Homeland Security guard and a unicorn fought an insect and terrorists from the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Before it was all over we judges were covered in fake heroin, the Homeland Security guard's hand had been brutally chopped off, and the unicorn had been slaughtered and dragged away bloody.

The last match was between Bruner, dressed as George Bush, and Bay, dressed as John Kerry. Each came out waving, then shook audience members' hands. Then they danced around and gestured to samples from the debates--they may have been lip-synching, but they were wearing masks--played over hip-hop and electro beats. But in a strange turn of events, the Taliban and Al Qaeda guys came back out, forcing Kerry and Bush to join forces. Finally both candidates were ritualistically beheaded; when all was said and done the terrorists won--a conclusion that pointed to the despair lots of us are feeling this year about our lackluster choices for president.

Speaking of being frustrated with the election, have you seen fucking 7-Eleven lately? Their new campaign calls the convenience store "7-Election," where "every cup counts." What? Is democracy no more than a fun slogan to sell bad coffee? For that matter, just who is gonna count my cup? The current Popeyes campaign orders us to "Vote for Flavor." Equating picking a candidate with buying fried chicken and political campaigning with crass marketing, the company's ads ask, "What's your favorite flavor? Mild or spicy?" Which, come to think of it, feels a lot like the choice we'll be making on November 2. If you live in Illinois, your presidential vote barely counts anyway--we're not one of those adorable undecided states onto which everyone's heaping their love and affection. But there's a lot you can do, beyond voting, to get involved.

"The crisis of our democracy did not start with Bush and won't end with Kerry" states the Web site of a national campaign called, natch, Beyond Voting. This and a similar campaign called Don't Just Vote sidestep the mild-or-spicy question by calling for direct action outside the voting booth. The groups' suggestions include street theater, community gardening, and community police monitoring. "This is our chance to emphasize the political power everyone wields in their daily lives," says a newsletter from Don't Just Vote.

In Chicago, Halloween marks the first Don't Just Vote activity: Capitalism Gives Me the Creeps, a parade and march in which participants are asked to dress like a demon for Bush or a ghoul for Kerry, will begin at 2:30 PM at the intersection of North, Damen, and Milwaukee. On Election Day, says DontJustVote.com, "neighborhoods around Chicago and the suburbs are organizing open forums and town hall meetings," which sounds pretty iffy, but on November 3 there's a rally opposing the U.S. occupation of Iraq at 5 PM at Federal Plaza.

The morning of November 3, says that Web site, "we will likely have learned which enormously wealthy white man will be ruling America for the next four years; which son of dizzying privilege will wield the overwhelming military force and economic influence of the world's superpower. . . . This is an invitation to everyone outraged not just with the lesser-of-two-evils nature of presidential campaigns, but with the whole farcical architecture of concentrated power."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Beno.

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