Last week, employees at a Walmart in Corsicana discovered that a 14-year-old boy had been living in makeshift campsites tucked behind baby products or stacks of paper products for two days. Police say the teenager was a runaway who has history of fleeing his home and holing up in creeks and abandoned houses. I have a different theory: the boy is Dallas’ best performance artist. Here’s why.
The teenager’s “performance” took Walmart, a store that ostensibly provides everything one needs for life, and turned it into a setting where life, itself, is lived. It’s easy to recognize the absurdity of this – after all, it’s that absurdity which made the story perfect fodder for local television news. But what, exactly, makes the act absurd? I would argue that it exposes an aesthetic disconnect between the place of commerce and the life which this commerce purportedly supports. Walmart is not just a store, it is a store which has absorbed all other stores, which seeks to be the single source of everything we need to sustain life. And yet, while Walmart is ingrained in our daily lives, who would consider it as an essential part of or setting for what we consider our “life?”
The teenager’s stunt reminded me of that Seinfeld episode when the cast gets lost in a mall parking garage. The functionality of the parking lot makes it a kind of unconsidered, invisible space, necessary to how we live and frequently used. And yet, as soon as the cast becomes aware of the parking lot as a space, they suddenly become aware of how alien it is to what life actual is. The teenager’s performance does the same thing, interrupting the brute commercial functionality of Walmart with a gesture that exposes Walmart as a kind of alien environment.
Walmart, however, is not a simple parking lot, and so the teen’s performance is even richer with meaning. Walmart is both emblematic and the agent of a revolution in the way life is lived in America. We all know how Walmart affected small town and neighborhood shopping districts, but this performance draws our attention to the fact that we have not merely lost stores, but also the social setting they helped describe – the physical manifestation of the public realm. When Holden Caulfield flees the myopic world of his youth in search of the real “world,” he goes to New York. When a teenager from Corsicana flees home in search of the “world,” he goes to Walmart. However absurd this parallel may sound, the teenager’s Walmart “live-in” is an act that exposes the reality that the commercial homogenization of the kind which Walmart both invented and is the master of – with its ingenious distribution networks – has also replaced what was the setting of public life with the brightly lit banality of the big box. Put more simply, if Walmart is the new town center, what does that say about the health of the town?
The fact that the boy was able to go undiscovered for a few days, eating food off the shelves and urinating in diapers so as not to arouse suspicion by making frequent trips to the bathroom (a very Beuys-ian gesture, or perhaps a nod to Vito Acconci), only further exposes Walmart as both a “world” and an intrinsically inhuman environment. The teenager’s performance conflates these two identities. He exposes Walmart not as merely a microcosm of a social world, but as society in actuality, while simultaneously revealing this world as inhuman and dissociated. Through his act we see Walmart not just as a store, but as society itself, a place where someone can both sustain life and realize a kind of public invisibility.