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Reverend Billy Headshot

Running in Great Cities

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Today I jogged through Amsterdam from the Royal Palace on Dam Square to the mouth of the river. Like many European city centers, Amsterdam has evolved into a super mall, an old surface covered with the images of models posing with products, often in gigantic proportions. There is a spell cast on me, regardless of how much outright disgust I have for corporate marketing. By the end of the run, I've had thousands of these mannequin-humans stare into my eyes...

The expressions in the models' faces are the whole range of human experience, from giddy to aghast. Whatever the emotion, they are intense. They make an emotional zone on the sidewalks or plaza before them. We are in the "view shed" of the eyes of these actors, who seem to see something unspeakably mesmerizing, shocking, threatening...

This is now the basic psychological rhythm of our great capitals. Public space is spotted with the reverse gravity of these emotional traps. And there is one look that is most common in 2010, these models are coached to make the same general "acting beat." They are told to convey a look of primal surprise, like the first news of death, the startled moment of seduction, the leading edge of something unthinkable.

These dramatic eyes hit me again and again during my run. Then it becomes clear that the drama that emblazons each set of eyes, eyes in the surf with a watch, eyes at the opera with a car -- these eyes stare out from the same stage. They share the same laws and symbols, the same millions of barrels of liquefied fossils, the same international speculative money systems -- now crashing. It is as if there is a single city inhabited by these smooth-skinned staring young people -- behind all the great cities of the world. And they are all see a single horrifying thing out here where we're running in our small-scale everyday lives. The earth is warping us into the sky, killing the little pedestrians they depend on for their sales. The models see it. A slow motion earthquake, like a great shoulder lifting, is burying us.

A few decades ago advertising actors were smiling and relaxed, and there were far fewer of them. That was when Vienna was Vienna and Barcelona was Barcelona. Now these cultures are consumerizing themselves, de-volving from history into identical shopping experiences. The young smooth-skinned movers of products tower over sculpted heroes and goddesses, but their beauty is startled by real horror. The earth is facing them down, the horizons buckling, the tides rising and rising, the wind whirling into killing shapes.

As I run out of breath, I appreciate that there are these lonely paths through public space by which we wind our way between these beautiful, stranded giants and the earth they have affronted. The scale of these two opponents -- and the earth must and will win - is so massive. Can we save ourselves by how we live? When I stop running, I am tempted to shop.

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