American activists Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno (pictured below), known collectively as The Yes Men, have got balls. Over the last decade the duo have taken on corporate and government foes with a unique strain of gonzo-activism they call identity correction. They set up fake websites that mimic their campaign targets and through them are invited to speak at conferences. Posing as legitimate representatives they give presentations that parody the outfits dastardly ethics and their catastrophic consequences.
To this end they've appeared at Canada's largest oil conference as Exxon Mobil representatives to showcase a new fuel made from climate change victims, have appeared on the BBC as Dow Chemicals to announce the company would compensate the victims of the 1984 Bhopal disaster, and held a press conference as the US Chamber Of Commerce to announce a u-turn on their appalling climate change policy, an act the Chamber are currently attempting to sue them for. Many of these hilarious turns - think Brass Eye meets Borak - are documented in films The Yes Men (2003) and The Yes Men Fix The World (2009).
But besides making thrilling viewing what do these stunts achieve? In an era where the billion dollar industries of spin and PR can make corporate criminals look like humanitarians their antics are a comparatively low-budget method of counter and a slap-in-the-face reality check. And more importantly the brazenness and theatre of their actions provide the press with a news hook to cover important issues. After the BBC hoax Bichlbaum was invited to explain his motives on Channel 4 news and the action was covered in over 600 US press articles.
The Yes Labs
I meet activisms number-one satirists in a beer and burgers bar-diner in Brooklyn. It feels odd no one recognises them. Their films have made them stars of the global activism movement but like most things counter-cultural outside this world they're virtually unknown. They've just come from their day jobs as college Professors (Bichlbaum lectures at the Parsons School of Art, Media and Technology and Bonanno at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) and are en-route to a meeting about a future action.
Over burgers they enthusiastically discuss issues such as Monsanto, the CIA and tar-sands. They're 'excited' about the recent triumph of people power in Egypt and Tunisia and they're impressed by British anti-tax dodging movement UkunCut and are involved in the recently established USunCut. The project that's currently taking up much of their energy are the Yes Labs. These are workshops that aim to help activist groups devise effective actions. 'It's about helping people to do the same things we do,' explains Bichlbaum. 'To have real impact on an issue you need strength in numbers. That's why we're focusing on connecting with other groups and sharing knowledge.'
Like many activists they're reluctant to talk about themselves. When asked about his background Bonanno launches into an amusing monologue of lies. They won't confirm whether their real names are Jacques Servin and Ivon Igor as listed on their wikipedia entry but given their propensity for tall tales it's safe to assume they're not. Given the public nature of their actions why bother with even this shard of secrecy. 'There's actually no reason,' Bichlbaum says. 'It's just habit. And fun.'
If the narrative of their book The Yes Men: The True Story of the End of the World Trade Organization is to be believed this marriage of fun and activism is what brought them together. In 1993, while still a student, Bonanno made headlines with his Barbie Liberation Organization (BLO) heist. He switched the voice boxes of GI Joe and Barbie dolls then returned them to toy stores. He also added customer complaints number that were actually those of TV news desks and the story was quickly seized by the media. Three years later Bichlbaum, then a games programmer, had his own taste of infamy. Bored with the narrative of action game SimCopter he'd been hired to work on he inserted a ‘feature' where men in swimsuits popped up to plant kisses on each other. Eighty thousand copies of the game were made before it was noticed. Soon after in 1996 mutual friends introduced them and they've worked together since.
Their first venture into identity correction proper was during the campaign period prior to the 2000 US Presidential elections. Using the URL GWBush.com they created a website for the politician to flag up alleged hypocrisies on his actual site. Where he trumpeted his credentials as Ecology Governor they highlighted the reality that Texas had become the most polluted state in the union while under his watch. But this wasn't to be the last time Bush was their target. Four years later during his 2004 re-election campaign they took their satire out of the digital and into the physical world. Aboard a bus with the slogan 'I'm telling the truth!' they joined Bush rallies pretending to be part of his campaign. The duo got staunch Republicans to agree to have a nuclear waste storage in their community and to sign their children up to fight in a war in North Korea. Bonnano commented, 'That's what's amazing about the discourse in this country. People are so used to complete absurdity that nothing surprises them anymore.'
When they pose as a powerful organisation the level of absurdity people accept is frightening. When they unveiled to bankers at the 2005 International Payments Conference an ‘Acceptable Risk Calculator' that saw the death of developing world citizens as an acceptable risk (pictured right) the audience failed to voice concern. Likewise when posing as Halliburton employees to present the SurvivaBall, an enormous inflatable suit that could supposedly act as a self-contained living system in the event of a disaster caused by global warming (pictured below), the corporate risk assessors watching missed the joke and requested business cards. 'You hope the message will sink in later,' says Bonanno. 'But it probably doesn't.'
Due to the US's robust freedom of speech laws until 2009 their escapades hadn't landed them in legal trouble. The duo acknowledge this is a 'double edged sword' that allows them 'to do what we do' but also justifies the recent Citizens United Ruling that allows corporations to fund political broadcasts during elections. Although other collectives have previously threatened legal action (and then backed out presumably to avoid a stream of negative media attention) the Chamber Of Commerce are the first to file a lawsuit. The case, which they're being representing for by digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is currently on hold. 'It's an attempt to squash freedom of speech,' says Bichlbaum. 'And that's unnerving.'
An ideal outcome will be that the Chamber drops the case given the onslaught of negative public attention it's already facing. A serendipitous spate of wikileaks has exposed the possibility the Chamber had been negotiating with ‘cyber security firms' to trash civil opponents such as US Chamber Watch and Change To Win through a campaign of disinformation. The pair have already written editorials about the leaks on the Huffington Post and Guardian websites but claim to not know details of any further actions.
As we wrap up the conversation I point out how what they do requires serious er, nerve. They look nonplussed. 'It's not like we put ourselves in any immediate danger,' shrugs Bichlbaum. 'Compared to what other activists do, it's actually very low risk.'
Yes Men's video channel on Babelgum
Sarah Bentley is a freelance journalist
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