Cut to the Choir

Another one of those sudden New York rainfalls briefly threatened to bring down the concluding act of the Storefront for Art and Architecture’s Direct Action exhibition. Back in June, I attended the rousing kick-off event, which highlighted the vocal talents of Francisca Benítez and Reverend Billy and The Stop Shopping Choir. That rainbow ensemble returned to the ’front Saturday evening, only this time dressed in somber prisonlike attire. Just as before, gospel music worked to generate a collective emotional response among attendees, who spilled out into the street when the rain abated. Reverend Billy, of the Lower East Side institution Earth Church, called for a change in the way we describe climate events, howling that “the word disaster…is dead” and compelling the audience “to look for a [replacement] word that is alive.” His backing choir belted out verses like “a tree is the opposite of a cop!” and “I am a snake, I am a lake.” (In addition to organizing the Direct Action series, Benítez served as an alto in the choral.) The spirited musical offering turned the environmental crisis on its head: rather than be steered by top-down solutions tuned to financial markets, the fight for the Earth would stem from an empathetic recognition of every living thing’s “need to breathe.” After an hour, the performers themselves stepped out onto the sidewalk and began parading to an unknown location, marking the closing of the exhibition but the beginning of a movement. That’s how it felt in the moment, anyway.