“I’m shitting bricks, thinking he’s onto me.”
Whether you see them as merry pranksters for moral justice or asinine hoaxsters with a hard-on for anti-globalist propaganda, there’s no question that Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, better known as the Yes Men, know how to goose the news media and middleminded corporate enterprisers with straight-faced impersonations of legitimate (often nonexistent) Big Biz types. Phony aliases, outlandish PowerPoint presentations, and giant-prop-assisted demos are all in a day’s work for these culture-jamming wags, who’ve punked everyone from Exxon and the World Trade Organization to Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans, targeting the logic of free-market capitalism with an eye to boosting a greener, more idealistic society. In September, for instance, on the eve of the U.N. summits on climate change, the satirical activists distributed a fake “Special Climate Edition” of the New York Post with the Rupe-worthy headline WE’RE SCREWED.
In their latest film, The Yes Men Fix the World (co-directed by Kurt Engfehr), the duo create one of their most elaborate stunts, appearing on BBC World in the guise of Dow Chemical who, on the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, issues an unheard-of mea culpa and announces a $12 billion aid plan to the people sickened long ago by the chemical spillage. Within half an hour, Dow’s stock has plummeted. By the time Bichlbaum (appearing as the ludicrously named rep) has been unmasked, the message about corporate responsibility has filtered through world news outlets, taking on a life of its own. Elsewhere, they impersonate HUD, interview proponents of econo-meister Milton Friedman’s theories, and mass-distribute copies of an “alternative” New York Times with the utopian headline “IRAQ WAR ENDS.” This is progressive activism, Yes Men-style. Not all the gags may be equally funny or effective, but there is courage to their conviction. If Naomi Klein has brains, the Yes Men have Survivaballs.
I sat down with Bichlbaum and Bonanno following the Sundance premiere of The Yes Men Fix the World in January 2009, just a few hours after Barack Obama’s inauguration speech, to talk about satire, political stunt-making, and the correct way to infiltrate a World Economic Forum summit.
DAMON SMITH: You really invert the logic of the hoax, in a way, by revealing how corporate greed and market interest perpetuates a hoax of its own by disregarding human life, the common interest, while pretending to serve it. A progressive theorist called this kind of corporate behavior “sociopathic.” Is this at the root of what you’re getting at with your stunts?
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Yeah. But the root is really why they’re sociopathic. And the reason why is because they have to make profit at any cost, and it’s us who’ve decided that. We’ve got this system that basically demands that they make profits no matter what. In the film, when we did the right thing on behalf of Dow Chemical and took responsibility for the Bhopal catastrophe, the stock market actually punished Dow to the tune of $2 billion in 23 minutes, which shows why companies don’t do the right thing, and why they are psychopathic.
So how does one get into the game of prankstering?
MIKE BONANNO: It’s simply a matter of recognizing opportunities and making the best of them. When it comes down to it, it’s fairly simple, it’s all things we know how to do, like talking . . . walking . . . responding to phone calls, writing emails. You have to stretch the truth a little, weasel your way in the door often, but once you’re in there and people think you’re somebody important, you don’t have to be a very good actor. There’s no need to suspend disbelief. You are who you say you are. So if your acting is bad, it only serves to enhance your character.
Tell me a little about the history of the Yes Men. Did it grow out of activism that you guys were doing, or did it come from a different place?
AB: Well, the first thing we did basically came out of the anti-globalization movement in 1999. Everybody knew that 30,000 activists were heading to Seattle to shut down the World Trade Organization there, and we knew we couldn’t make it. As the second best thing, we set up a website that mocked the WTO, and it looked just like the real thing. But it was full of ridiculous content that pushed the WTO logic a little too far. And to our surprise, we started getting invitations to conferences. People who thought they were inviting the WTO ended up inviting us instead, and we went, just to see what would happen if, say, we proposed privatizing democracy and selling off votes to the highest corporate bidder. Basically, we thought, well, that’s kind of the ultimate result of campaign finance, you know, corporations buy the vote indirectly, let’s just make it direct. And we [presented] this to a group of lawyers, and they just applauded. We brought a camera along and filmed it because we figured something dramatic would happen. And nothing dramatic happened. Subsequently, we got lots of invitations to conferences the same way, and started setting up other websites for Exxon, Halliburton, various things, and kept filming until the present.
And is this a full-time operation then?
MB: We both have regular day jobs, so it can’t be full time, because we have to make money, so we both teach at schools.
It seems like we’re living at a time when satire — and particularly political satire — is very popular and is delivering messages to people, especially younger people, that traditional news outlets have had a difficult time doing. I see Stephen Colbert, for instance, as one of your news-world analogues. Is that something you’ve noticed as well in doing this work over the years, that there’s more of an audience for the kinds of projects that you’re working on?
AB: There’s more of a need and more of an audience. As the news media have failed to do their job, there’s more of a need for Stephen Colbert and The Daily Show. And what we and a bunch of documentarians do — which is cover the real news, sometimes in creative, funny ways — is basically just revealing the truth of what’s going on. Sometimes it takes a bit of extra work to get that stuff covered these days. Like when we appeared on the BBC as Dow Chemical [representatives], the result was 900 articles in the U.S. press that journalists were able to write about the Bhopal catastrophe, and about Dow’s responsibility for it. They wouldn’t have been able to write them otherwise. So we basically collaborate with news media to overcome the editorial stupidity of their outlets. There’s more of a need [for that] as journalism becomes more and more distant from reality.
Do you see film as the most convenient outlet for you to expose people to these pranks, and the messages behind them, or do you have a deeper relationship to cinema?
MB: Well, film for us is another way to get the message out there. We love beautiful, amazing films, you know, poetic films. We’re making a film that’s a little more bare-bones in terms of its style and how we go about making it, and we’re fairly mercenary about our needs [laughs], which are political. But at the same time, we try to make it entertaining and fun — because the better the film is, the more people will watch it. The film works differently on the audiences we have. We have these immediate audiences when we go and do a conference, a few dozen people, maybe a few hundred, and we don’t care that much how they react to, you know, a three-foot-long golden phallus. But the people who read the news stories about that are a more important audience for us, perhaps the most important. For the people who see the film, it just seems to work in a different way. It’s a slower-burning thing, more people see it and talk about it. In terms of changing people’s consciousness in a slow and subtle way, it really has an effect. We see high school students, for example, who see The Yes Men and show it to their friends and so on. It makes a difference.
At one point in The Yes Men Fix the World, Andy, we see you being escorted out of a town-hall meeting by a sheriff or some other municipal authority.
AB: That was a security guard, actually. And I think that’s the only time that’s happened. [To Mike] Am I forgetting something?
MB: We’ve been chased by people who are fake cops. Basically, it’s only fake cops who’ve ever chased us, like the international Web police. We did a conference where they chased us out, screaming at us, clawing away at our cameras. But they were actually an organization of people pretending to be police. And they ended up getting shut down, ironically, as a result of reporting us to the police.
AB: We did once get arrested and put into a cell in Davos, Switzerland. We thought we were climbing under just any fence and pretending to sneak into the World Economic Forum.
MB: [Smiles] Only for the camera . . .
AB: Yeah, it was just for the camera, and it turned out to be the real fence. So I was pretending to jog and trying to get in, and then a bunch of soldiers arrived and intercepted me.
MB: They came running out of the woods, it was ridiculous.
AB: [Mike] came and met me, and they put both of us in jail.
How are you equipped to handle the different legal entanglements that might or might not arise?
MB: We usually crumple them up and throw them in the trash. They aren’t really entanglements until they manage to entangle you. I think most of the way the legal system works here is through baseless threats. They don’t know if what we’re doing is legal or not, they’d have to take us to court and try us to find out. So far, despite how much we ask them to, they don’t want to do it.
What’s the most nerve-wracking thing about pulling off these stunts?
AB: Everything. But, you know, that’s also the most exciting thing about it. It’s just doing it, getting up there at the moment when you have to seem convincing. That’s the moment when it could all fall apart — or it feels like it could. It’s just an illusion, though, because once you’re in the system and they think you’re someone else, there’s pretty much nothing you can do to shake their belief that you are that person. But it feels like there’s danger. We have to amuse ourselves somehow, so we just pretend like it’s risky. We’ve actually gone to conferences by searching the Web for speaking opportunities, filling out the form, getting invited and going. Then you’re completely legitimate at that point, you give the talk. It’s very straightforward, but it always feels precarious.
MB: Almost every time, there’s something that the conference organizer says that we have to take as a double read and [interpret] in a way that means they’ve figured out who we are.
AB: At one point in The Yes Men Fix the World, I’m onstage with Mayor Ray Nagin in New Orleans, and he starts talking about how truth and lies can’t exist in the same place at the same time, and we’re standing right next to each other. And I’m shitting bricks, thinking that he’s onto me and the next thing he’s going to say is [pointing at Mike], “And that is a fraud!” But he was just doing some political blah-blah, and it meant nothing.
These schemes are pretty elaborate. They involve a lot of research, a lot of artistic design in the sense that you have props that need to be built. You have a team, obviously, that you’re working with. How do you fund all these trips overseas along with everything else?
AB: You figure that this last film took four years and we made eight to ten different journeys. If you average it out, it’s not unlike people taking vacations a couple of times a year. We have regular jobs, and a lot of money we’d use for vacation goes to this. It’s our version of extreme eco-tourism.
MB: [Laughs] We got a lot of help from friends, too. Building costumes and stuff, it’s not expensive because we have friends who are pretty talented and they’re excited about this and want to participate. Cameras, camera crews, producers, everything that we’ve done has been volunteer work, friends just helping us out. And when we have spent a bit of money, we’ve sent out emails to our mailing list and said, Help! We want to do something nasty, give us a little money!, and people do.
Tell me about the New York Times project and the impact that you wanted to have with that.
MB: We wanted people to see a different world and realize that they had to make it happen. We figured Obama was going to get elected, and we planned the publication for a week after the election to say to people, Wake up, you’re not done! Of course, lots of people had this goal as well — MoveOn, and so on. Everyone wants to avoid complacency, including Obama himself, and we wanted to contribute to that. We worked with a dozen or so activist organizations and individuals to convey this message in the funnest and most entertaining way we could manage, which was to show the news as it could be six months in the future, if we get moving and push Obama to do something he should. When Roosevelt was elected — I like to think about this — it was actually mass movements that made him do what we did, the New Deal and all that. Some progressives were thinking about that sort of thing too, but he probably wouldn’t have done any of it if people weren’t rioting in the streets and making demands.
Following up on that, what do you see is the future of progressive politics in the Obama era? How do you think that’s going to help shape some of those efforts?
AB: Hopefully, there’s more work than ever. Because the idea is to not have to be working oppositionally, not having to do damage control for a psychopathic government, but rather to do the work we need to do to push things forward, to actually make the change we have been unable to realize for the last thirty years. It’s really exciting, but there’s more work than ever to do.
MB: Yeah, the really exciting thing about Obama is that he gives us courage to fight for change. It’s not that he’s going to make the change happen, but I think it’s very helpful.