The New York Public Library and Creative Time, a “public arts organization that works with artists to contribute to the dialogues, debates and dreams of our times,[i]” are working together on a current site-specific series of conversations “paring leading artists and public intellectuals to address critical topics of our time[ii]” called In Situ. I attended one of these events on March 16th, 2017 in Manhattan at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, the topic being: ‘How to Reasonably Believe in God.’
The conversation paired prominent//provocative “intellectual”, Slavoj Zizek and visual artist, Janine Antoni, with Sister Helen Prejean as moderator. An unlikely pair, Zizek and Antoni did not seem to be on the same page at all during the one hour conversation—making it feel a lot more like three hours. Sister Helen tried her best to moderate the discourse into some sort of dialogue of back and forth, but it seemed that confusion from Antoni—in regards to Zizek’s thick Slovenian accent, and a general lack of understanding of his key points and counter arguments—was the downfall of the conversation.
Janine Antoni was not the original scheduled participant for the event; Shirin Neshat, an Iran-born New York City visual artist, was originally scheduled to be in conversation with Slavoj Zizek but had to cancel at last minute. Because of Janine’s unfulfilling participation in the event, I wondered constantly if it would have been a better time, had Neshat not had to cancel. I spent a great deal of time frustrated by Antoni’s lack of participation and seeming disinterest of what Sister Helen or Zizek had to say throughout the night. I do not think this is something to blame the New York Public Library or Creative Time for, as an email was sent out promptly before the event, explaining the sudden change-of-participant—though, I do wish their understudy was someone who ‘fit the bill’ more properly.
‘How to Reasonably Believe in God’ began with a short introduction from Reverend Patrick Malloy, PhD; Paul Holdengraber, Director of Public Programming at NYPL; and Nato Thompson, Artistic Director of Creative Time. The remarks given by Reverend Malloy were thoughtful, substantial, and relevant; he spoke of inclusiveness in a time of division, giving your neighbor the benefit of the doubt, and learning to listen to those that do not believe/worship in the way that you do. He held the audience in the palm of his hand upon every word, though delivered just a short enough speech that I’m sure he was overshadowed by the events of the night, for some listeners. For me: the power of his concise and beautiful words ruminated with me throughout the night and onto many days later.
Paul Holdengraber and Nato Thompson were not as elegant in their speaking as Reverend Malloy. The couple tripped upon their words and did not speak very elegantly, as if they had forgotten they were in a church and not a college auditorium. The two repeated the same things, apologized for their under-preparedness, and left me hoping that it was not to be a reflection of the night to come.
Between the opening remarks and the conversation was a performance from Reverend Billy and The Stop Shopping Choir. This was a marvelous act that left me yearning to applaud and participate—which was offered in the call-and-response form of ‘Amen’ and ‘Hallelujah.’ Reverend Billy and his band left a lasting impression on the audience as they finished their final song, slowly walking down the aisle, chanting in whisper “black lives matter” and “standing rock”—in response to the current Black Lives Matter movement that is so prominently erupting throughout the world, and the Standing Rock Native American Reservation where people have been protesting the installation of the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline since the Summer of 2016.
Reverend Billy and The Stop Shopping Choir are a well-known musical group that have been protesting and addressing key issues through their music and their presence for over 13 years. The band describes themselves as a “radical performance community” of “wild anti-consumerist gospel shouters and Earth loving urban activists,[iii]” advocating against Militarization and Consumerism in the modern world. Their performance at In Situ was heartbreakingly short; with only three songs, they most certainly left the audience longing for an encore. The Stop Shopping Choir and Reverend Billy spoke and sang of: environmental justice, President Trump’s travel ban, Corporate Greed, and the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. It was a performance unlike any other, topped with expressiveness, inclusiveness, and many choir members dressed in drag. This performance was perhaps my favorite part of the event.
The moderator, Sister Helen Prejean, is an inspiration to many. Through her moderating of the night she made it known that she had a lot more she could’ve said on the subject, but continuously, and graciously, fell victim to the statement, “it’s not my time to talk.” Sister Helen is most known for her “instrumental sparking [of] a national dialogue on the death penalty, [and for] helping to shape the Catholic Church’s newly vigorous opposition to state executions.ii” She is the author of Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States and The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions. Sister Helen is a one-of-a-kind human; she spends most of her time counseling death row prisoners and educating citizens about the death penalty and is currently writing her third book.
And so it began, after the opening remarks, the musical performance, and a short introduction from Sister Helen: Janine Antoni, a self-proclaimed Buddhist, and Slavoj Zizek, a self-proclaimed Agnostic, started a discussion on How to Reasonably Believe in God…but not really. Slavoj Zizek is a very eccentric man, with what seems to be hundreds of ideas flowing from his mouth a mile a minute. Janine, on the other hand, conducts herself in a more slow-talking, thoughtful kind of way. The two did not mesh well—which was, admittedly, some of the point of the conversation to begin with.
We do not get to a conversation about believing in God, without the anticipation of some ‘stirring of the pot’, yet at times it seemed Antoni was completely ignoring Zizek’s counter-points, and perhaps not understanding what he was speaking about (verbally—because of his thick accent, but also conceptually, as it was clear he was much more intelligent than her). It is not always important, when in conversation with someone, to have the same brain capacity, or to necessarily share the same beliefs—in fact, this night it was specifically chosen that the two participants came from a different backgrounds of thinking—yet Antoni’s sheer impudence during the conversation began to undermine her credibility as an opposing voice for how Zizek could/should reasonably believe in God.
Throughout the night, Antoni responded to many of Zizek’s accusations and key points by meditating and dancing. Even Sister Helen seemed to be a bit confused about her actions, as Janine strutted across the stage, banged on the floor with her feet, and swirled her long black hair in the air. She referenced much of her art throughout the talk, but did not give examples as to how these pieces fit into the discussion. At times it felt almost as if the NYPL was in a complete bind when Shirin Neshat cancelled and ended up choosing the only artist that would participate on such short notice. There was definitely an air throughout the audience when she would counter-act Zizek’s thought-out, serious accusations and topics with completely one-sided conversations about how she believes in her God—not trying at the least bit to debate the topic with him.
Though Janine Antoni’s participation was at times strenuous to sit through, her hubris did not overshadow the pure intellect of Slavoj Zizek. Some of the key points he made, which were chiefly ignored by Antoni—though some were addressed by Sister Helen—had great resonance with me.
He spoke of “faking it till you make it”—in terms of people pretending to believe in God, or believing in God/worshiping only when they need something or it is convenient for them. He gave the assertion that “When we want something, we also want the obstacle of gaining it”—in regards to devout religious persons dedicating their lives to the possibility of an afterlife and forgetting and/or undermining the importance of a life on earth. Quoting an international proverb, “an enemy is [someone] whose story you weren’t ready to listen,” Zizek intentionally set up Antoni at this point of the conversation only to have her, once again, ignore the allegation.
I attended this event for a few reasons: 1.) to support the New York Public Library, 2.) out of a deep respect for Slavoj Zizek and Sister Helen Prejean’s work in their respective fields, and 3.) to perhaps gain insight on How to Reasonably Believe in God. Unfortunately, I did not gain much understanding into the latter. Though there was not much discussion on the topic, I did not leave the event feeling my attention could’ve been better utilized somewhere else that night. I made a friend in Reverend Billy and The Stop Shopping Choir, was graced with the amazing presence of two people I deeply admire, and—when all else failed—was captivated by the architecture of Saint John the Divine, a structure throughout the night referred to as “this hollowed mountain.”
[i] Creative Time. Creative Time, n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2017. <http://creativetime.org/>.
[ii] New York Public Library. 16 Mar. 2017. How to Reasonably Believe in God [Brochure]. Creative Time.
[iii] Mar 16 • By Reverend Billy Talen • Share, and Mar 15 • By Reverend Billy Talen • Share. “Reverend Billy & the Stop Shopping Choir.” Reverend Billy & the Stop Shopping Choir. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2017. http://www.revbilly.com/.
Sister Helen Prejean. Ministry Against the Death Penalty, n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2017. <http://www.sisterhelen.org/>.
“In Situ at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine: How to Reasonably Believe in God.” The New York Public Library. The New York Public Library, 16 Mar. 2017. Web. 27 Mar. 2017. <https://www.nypl.org/audiovideo/situ-cathedral-st-john-divine-how-reasonably-believe-god>.