Men be­hav­ing badly— for good

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words -

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

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