By: Elise Barbin
Walking into north campus’ Hemphill Park on a September afternoon, it’s not surprising to see the group of college-aged guys surrounding a keg playing kickball, but in a farther corner of the park, Elijah Olson ushers in a more unorthodox gathering. Eli, clad in a serape blanket, is perched in a tree poised to read the unabridged text of Dr. Bronner’s lavender soap label to an eager audience.
The 32-ounce label contains around 3,000 words, all pertaining to Dr. Bronner’s pseudo-religious philosophy called The Moral ABCs, with quotations from Rabbi Hillel, Thomas Paine and Confucius, to name a few. Bronner’s moral text combines a healthy dose of Judaism and new age philosophy with a purpose to “unite all mankind free on God’s spaceship earth” via 18-in-1 use soap.
One week later, Eli finds himself reading Dr. Bronner’s eucalyptus soap label underneath the purple lights of Cheer Up Charlie’s outside stage to a full patio audience. There’s some noise competition from a pop-punk concert next door, but the performer endures. The crowd, about half returners and half newcomers, enthusiastically repeats the label’s unifying chorus of “All-one!” each time it comes up in the recital. When they finish a section of the label, Eli stops to toss free sample sized soaps into the audience like Mardi Gras beads. After the entire label has been read aloud, from the directions on diluting soap to Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If,” the reading is over.
I sat down with Eli after their performance and chatted over a tub of movie theater popcorn gifted by one of their loyal soap fans to discuss their emerging cult following as a performance artist.
Smear: How did you come up with the idea for a recital of the Dr. Bronner’s soap label?
Eli: It had very humble origins. There’s actually not anything more to it than I was just in the shower and thought it would be kind of funny. At first, it started out as a joke. The funny part, to me, was that I was saying that I’d be doing it and then actually doing it. Sort of against all the other Facebook groups where they say they’re going to do things, I think it’s funny to make it more real.
S: Do you see this as performance art at all or is it just something funny that you decided to do?
E: Oh, it’s totally performance art. It started out as something funny but the whole thing, the fact that it got so viral, the fact that nobody believed it, the fact that it was just soap and there was still such a spiritual experience. Yeah, there’s an artistic quality to it. I think it says a lot about irony and sincerity today and how you can still have a religious experience with a bottle of soap. I think it also says a lot about what we think of brands and how we let brands affect us. I don’t see this as any different than like, watching Super Bowl commercials obsessively.
S: The official Dr. Bronner’s social media page posted about the events several times. How do you feel about the corporate endorsement?
E: I mean, I think that just comes with the territory. I didn’t expect for them to reach out and contact me. It’s like free advertisement for them. I feel pretty neutral about it. I’m definitely not doing it for Dr. Bronner’s recognition and I don’t think that it helps it any but it’s part of the art, you know?
S: Is there anything about the company or the content on the label that made you want to pursue this, to the extent that you have so far?
E: The fact that it’s pseudo-religious took me to it. The reputation the soap bottle has is sort of this hippy-dippy, not really hippy-dippy but slightly bougie brand of soap that is also just really good soap. I think mainly though that it was pseudo-religious, that it was almost a sermon that you’re reading off of a soap bottle I thought was really funny. There’s also just directions on diluting soap.
S: There’s been an overwhelming response to the two Facebook events. What has been your reaction to so much interest? Do you have any theories about why people’s reactions to the readings have been so positive?
E: Surprise more than anything else. Incredulity. It was very surreal, the whole experience, the fact that it got such a Facebook following. I was just happy about it all. I didn’t expect it to get like this. I think that people like a good joke more than anything else. I think that Dr. Bronner’s social reputation had a lot to do with it. The whole history of Facebook memes also had a lot to do with it.
S: Do you have any future plans for readings?
E: I plan on doing a reading every equinox at Hemphill Park. I want it to be this thing that’s connected to natural cycles, that happens multiple times. Like, I think the second time [at Hemphill Park] would be even cooler, because everyone’s coming back together.