Men behaving badly— for good
Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum— founders of The Yes Men— have been described as culture jammers, anti-globalization activists, social critics, pranksters, and liberal idealists. And while these labels are all appropriate, Bichlbaum and Bonanno prefer to describe their work as “identity correction.” Since 1999, The Yes Men have pulled off elaborate hoaxes, crashing and agitating organizations and corporations including theWorld Trade Organization, the Republican Party, ExxonMobil, and Dow Chemical and events like the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in an effort to shed light on the greed and backward-thinking policies that permeate free-market capitalism. In doing so, they hope to unveil the true and troubling nature of global commerce while facilitating changes in its broken systems. The weapon they wield is a blade of irony— and it’s sharper than ever.
On Monday, Feb. 22, the Santa Fe Art Institute presents Bichlbaum and Bonanno in a performance, discussion, and screening of their new documentary, The Yes Men Fix the World, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. The event is a fundraiser for SFAI in conjunction with the nonprofit’s 25th anniversary; and to help fund The Yes Men’s visit, the institute received assistance in the form of a $2500 grant contribution by the Santa Fe-based Kindle Project.
The Yes Men Fix the World is a follow-up to The Yes Men’s self-titled debut documentary, which had its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2003. In that film, the pair explained its reason for being: “Unlike identity theft, where a criminal uses your identity in order to steal something, we thought, We’re going to target the biggest criminals and we’re going to steal their identity to make them more honest.” Bichlbaum and Bonanno created a mock WTOWeb site. When people in the corporate world hit the site and mistook the pair for representatives of the WTO, The Yes Men suddenly found themselves answering e-mailed questions about globalized free trade. They also began to get invitations to speak at international conferences, which they gladly accepted.
What The Yes Men say in their presentations to corporate reps is certainly provocative, but the real cringe-worthy material in both films can be found in audience reactions. In the first film, the pair pose as WTO reps and deliver a presentation explaining how corporations can— and should— buy elections from citizens (a vote is just a mouse-click and a donation away). Expecting a shocked reaction from the crowd, The Yes Men instead find themselves pressing flesh with attendees and exchanging business cards. No outrage, no questioning the WTO’s exploitative motives— just silent agreement. This is even more disturbing today, in light of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that corporations no longer have limits on spending to back or oppose candidates for Congress or the office of the president.
The Yes Men also make a case in the original film that the CivilWar was a financial disaster and a waste of men and resources because, over time, “markets would have eventually replaced slavery with ‘ cleaner’ sources of labor anyhow.” And besides, they argue, similar slave labor has always been widely available in impoverished ThirdWorld countries. It just wasn’t being utilized properly.
When The Yes Men unveil the gaudy spandex Management Leisure Suit— which they claim will increase productivity because managers will be able to monitor their workforce (whose members have been tagged with subcutaneous electronic sensors) remotely, from a phallusshaped screen— they are met not with incredulity, but with applause. The only collective negative response Bonanno and Bichlbaum receive
is from a class of college students who are treated to an animation-assisted presentation on the benefits of turning human excrement into McDonald’s hamburgers for consumption in starving nations.
The Yes Men Fix the World is a similarly styled blend of guerrilla theater and shock-doc shenanigans, and the hoaxes have grown more elaborate. After the pair sets up a fakeWeb site for Dow Chemical, Bichlbaum, under the guise of being a spokesperson for the company, is invited onto BBC television, where he announces that Dow is ready to offer a $12 billion settlement to victims of the 1984 Bhopal chemical disaster in India. The announcement comes as a shock to Dow, whose stock value drops $2 billion after the television gag.
Posing as ExxonMobil and National Petroleum Council representatives, the pair attempt to persuade 300 oil reps at a Canadian oil summit that victims of global warming and natural and manmade disasters are a potentially bottomless fuel source. They demonstrate their point by passing out candles purportedly made from “Vivoleum,” a fuel that they claim was harvested from the flesh of an ExxonMobil employee who died from prolonged exposure to chemicals.
When they are invited as members of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to speak at the Gulf Coast Reconstruction Conference in New Orleans, The Yes Men announce that HUD will be re-opening housing projects in the NinthWard that were shut down after Hurricane Katrina. The crowd of real-estate developers claps nervously as big profits from redeveloping the area appear to be slipping away. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco stand awkwardly on the stage near The Yes Men; they’re stunned; and they’ve been duly duped and embarrassed.
The Yes Men’s appreciation for outrageous props and costumes continues in The Yes Men Fix the World. Bonanno and Bichlbaum create a fake HalliburtonWeb site and are invited to attend a “Catastrophic Loss” conference in Florida. There, they unveil to corporate reps the SurvivaBall Model X7 Climate Change Mitigation Unit, “a self-contained living system — truly, a gated community for one. If you have a SurvivaBall, even if everyone else is dying, at least you can weather all storms.”
The Yes Men are probably best known for their The New York Times hoax, which still stands as the act that best defines their overall intentions. In November 2008, 100,000 copies of a phony edition of The Times dated July 4, 2009, were given away on the streets of New York and L.A. Its headlines announced, among other things, the end of the war in Iraq, a cessation of corporate lobbying, a maximum wage for CEOs, a national oil fund to study climate change, and a recall notice for automobiles that run on gasoline.
Through the prank, they re-imagined the news of the day to reflect what should be on the front page instead of what is. To pull something off so large, the two men— who have real day jobs— couldn’t do it alone. Hundreds of volunteers, donations, film and book sales, media support (including fake media support), grant money, and appearance fees fan the flames of their ongoing social experiment.
The Yes Men family is growing; but to what end? How much global change can be instituted by a few merry pranksters who know how to write computer code and bring a decent hustle?
An argument could be made that some folks (like the Bhopal victims who were promised remuneration and the New Orleans residents who thought they would be able to go back to their homes) were given false hope, and that sometimes The Yes Men don’t fully consider victims’ reactions to their widely publicized hoaxes. Then again, the irreverent Bonanno and Bichlbaum remind viewers and critics through their work and the media attention it generates that such a sense of false hope — followed by a strong sentiment of betrayal— is exactly the kind of mental state they want to leave you in. To them, financial and political systems have been pulling a similar scam on you with little resistance. Perhaps the most effective thing a Yes Man can do is look closely at the current systems and say, “No. Not anymore.” ◀
WTO my: Andy Bichlbaum at the Gulf Coast Reconstruction Conference in New Orleans; top, Mike Bonanno creating “Gilda”
This is how we roll: costumed commentary from The Yes Men