Who are the Yes Men? Andy Bichlbaum (Jacques Servin) and Mike Bonanno (Igor Vamos) have been performing anti-consumerist and anti-corporate activist interventions since before their first film The Yes Men premiered back in 2003. From impersonating corporate spokespeople with absurd proposals to producing and giving out 80, 000 fake copies of the New York Times (with titles such Iraq War Ends), they continually reveal corporate transgressions to raise awareness about problematic social issues. Their new film, The Yes Men Are Revolting, releases on iTunes June 9th and in theatres June 9th-12th, and may be their most head-turning and ambitious project to date. The following interview touches upon global activism, wikileaks, how to get involved with activist initiatives, and much more.
All of your previous films have included your impersonation of various big-business employees and a subsequent presentation of an almost-unbelievably nonsensical project. During your interventions, the audience seems to have an obvious group-mentality of acceptance. They hardly (if ever) realize your true intentions or even become conscientious of how ludicrous your proposals are, often demonstrating a submissiveness and willing compliance during these business presentations. Why do you think it is so hard for this audience to become conscious of the situation?
It’s great to have a psychology magazine to talk about this with – because maybe your readers actually can tell us the answers! We have some suspicions. First of all, nobody wants to disrupt this kind of event, its just so impolite to do so! We’re wearing the suits, after all. And we are usually perceived to be among the most important people in the room. We are like the guy in the lab coat in the Milgram experiment – we represent authority, and people are reluctant to question that. They also often are there simply to get business cards and make contact with potential allies – regardless of what we say! Business is business. And as we know, people in groups are less likely to intervene.
But there is also one thing that we should point out: people are willing to accept the nightmarish scenarios we present. But, if we use our imaginary power and authority to present a good dream – one that fits into the audiences idea of what is right rather than what is wrong, they do not just accept it, they get up and dance. In our newest movie, The Yes Men are Revolting, we end with a whole bunch of defense contractors doing a circle dance together for renewable energy. You have to see it to believe it.
Wikipedia describes “participatory art” as:
… an approach to making art in which the audience is engaged directly in the creative process, allowing them to become co-authors, editors, and observers of the work. Therefore, this type of art is incomplete without the viewers physical interaction.
Due to the unknowing participation of spectators that become involved with your work, from your business conference audiences to the general public (New York Times Special Edition), how do you feel your work situates in “participatory art” practice (if at all)?
Well according to that definition we are not doing participatory art – because it seems the audience would have to know that they are participating. We do most definitely collaborate with journalists though. They in a sense share authorship of finished stories about the actions.
Your works specifically recalls the theorist and artist Oscar Masotta’s “Group of Mass Media Art” (Argentina, 1966–68) in which he created a press release, documentation, and other formal documents to disseminated them to the press about an artistic “happening” event. After the media picked up and ran with the story, Oscar and his group later released a statement saying that this event had never occurred. The Yes Men’s efforts are analogous towards Mascotta’s demonstration on the fragility of media narratives. But do you think art’s activism or participatory art has the ability to shift global discourse about media if its seen in a purely artistic context? It seems the institutionalization of radical/subversive art tends to blunt its effect instead of broadening its ability for engagement. As well, there is apprehension for the archivization and documentation of participatory art, with some fearful that it placates these initiatives. How would you feel in framing your work as high “art”? Is that something you’re excited or wary about?
Wow, thanks for that! What a great reference, that Mascotta. There are lots of amazing examples of mischief from the 60’s, and I am so glad to know of a new one for me. As for art: it all depends who is the audience. Sometimes we are in Europe where art is still respected to a degree and then we can be called that. But in the United States it does pull your teeth with most audiences: it is easy to discount that which is not considered so respectable, or is already perceived to be politically aligned.
In regards to your practice, The Yes Men’s projects sometimes involve the deception of not only eagerly-listening, conference-attending corporate individuals, but also the mass media, who sometimes inadvertently regard your fabricated announcements as truth. Subsequently, your work provokes viewership to be skeptical and suspicious of these news sources and have a critical eye regarding their content. But afterwards, one may be wondering where (if any all exist) a better-situated and credible media channel lives. What do you recommend as good outlets and platforms that headline important economic, social, cultural, and environmental issues that people are looking for a different “news” alternative?
Our work is not really so much about pointing out what is wrong with the media – the media does not have problems because they occasionally fall for our lies. The big problem is that they are part of a commercial mechanism to tell lies and spread the pseudo-lies of advertising on a massive scale. This kinds of lies are never meant to be revealed, they are about obscuring forever. Whereas we always reveal within hours.
That having been said, there are some great outlets out there. Democracy Now, for example. We also love Juice Rap News and Submedia.tv.
Often, from reality television shows to participatory art, the affected audience/individuals that appear ignorant to their situation are unable to take a step backwards and interpret their position with a critical eye. Your films provide the ability for the viewing audience to be prefaced about the farcical satire, coupled with selective editing to provide an easy way to reframe your constructed situations as parody. Interestingly, this parallels the news’ capability to edit, cut-up, reform, and deconstruct their stories to present the information with any spin they please. What do you find the most powerful tool is, in this digital age, to subvert these constructed narratives, similar to what you do? Specifically, do you think the democratization of media-creation tools positions more people to create and therefore be critical of, story telling? Does filmmaking (or docu-storytelling) provides an alternative to certain stories, or does it further establishes the ability for any author to create any fiction they please?
Hm. Hard one! The democratization of media is great because — well that should be obvious. What has not been obvious is how that comes while the realm of professional writers and storytellers can find less and less work doing real news and investigation. So we get more, and we get some great amateurs, but there are less great investigative reporters out there who are being paid to do the kind of thing that we need for democracy to function.
The only hope, in recent years, to bridge that gap has really been Wikileaks. The idea of a publisher that crowdsources the investigations to the very source is amazing and has made history. But in the end, they have to also find the right journalists to collaborate with on the releases. Because its not just getting the information, its getting it to the public. That is the role of media in democracy… informing people so that we can at least in theory make decent decisions about government.
Your previous films share the satirization of big business practices that your upcoming film The Yes Men are Revolting also displays. But it seems that the new film presents the most urgent plea for people to become involved and start actively shaping the future. The title’s inclusion of the word “revolting” insinuates a direness of our current situation. How does this film differ in terms of approaching the future and what are some of the most important issues it addresses that you feel we need to start to become conscious and take seriously?
We made this film about climate change and revolution because there is such urgency right now to address these things. Governments are failing, our so-called democracies are proving useless to our future, and therefore we can only think of revolution as a way forward. Not armed revolution, mind you, but a real massive change in the system that puts short term profits above all else. According to anthropologists the era of profit and growth as a prime directive is a fairly recent development in human civilization: it is not our natural state and we must not accept it any longer.
With the release of your new movie also comes the further growth of your new site, Action Switchboard. The site connects willing activists who propose subversive scenarios that disrupt big business practices with people who want to fund them. Could you please develop how you want the new Action Switchboard to help instigate change on a small-to-large scale? These creative and unique initiatives give the opportunity for a global society to interact in the name of social change. How do you feel the Action Switchboard would be most effectively put to use by both funders and project facilitators? Do you have any specific projects on the Switchboard that you’re excited to see happen?
Indeed the Action Switchboard is meant to service all sorts of creative activist projects at any scale. People used to ask for our help all the time but there were only two of us – we were the bottleneck. Now we’re observers and people can help each other. We can give advice, but the success or failure does not rely on us. There are some fun projects on there now… my current favorite has something to do with Gyrocopters! Enough said, not sure if the publication date for this blows its cover!
Overall, how successful do you feel this radical activism can be in helping change the future for better? Do you feel that people’s energies would be best spent going through the bureaucratic process of bills and law passing, or more radical action? There is a traditional theory that measures the success of a project by reified results (if an issue regards, lets say hunger, feeds actual mouths vs. just raising awareness about the hungry). To your credit, your previous projects have done a great deal of both. But going forward, where do you feel is the highest chance of success for the public to work within?
We need every kind of action. The hard work of changing laws must continue. But the kind of work we do, that is about contributing to the pressures that allow for a public mandate has a role too. But we need it all! No one method is best. The important thing is that everyone bring everything that they can to the movement and we work together. We definitely need more radicals too, because the radicals are what define where the middle is, and the middle has been pushed so far into the camp that worships capital that most people become blind to alternatives.
Finally, after this film, what do you feel are the next steps for the Yes Men? With a growing recognizability, do you think you will need to stay behind the scenes more in order to still be effective? Will you have others take the torch to perform these interventions?
We will continue to advise projects on the Action Switchboard, make new actions ourselves, and we will also do evangelical speaking tours! Please book us for your next fire-and-brimstone sermon. Most of all, we will try to motivate people to get on the streets for the UN climate conference in Paris 2015. Its do or die… and I think that may unfortunately be quite literal.
Matthew Kyba is an independent curator currently situated in Portland, OR. His curatorial interests focus on exploring unique exhibition strategies and alternative spaces. He recently graduated from OCAD University with an MFA from the Criticism and Curatorial Practice Program.
Title is appropriated from an Andre Malraux quote
(All images are courtesy of the Yes Men)