Q&A: Ask The Yes Men

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The Yes Men is a group of culture jamming activists who practice what they call “identity correction” by pretending to be powerful people and spokespersons for prominent organizations. From their offices in Milwaukee, they create and maintain fake websites similar to ones they want to spoof, and then they accept invitations received on their websites to appear at conferences, symposia, and TV shows. Their newfound, self-proclaimed authority to express the idea that corporations and governmental organizations often act in dehumanizing ways toward the public has met both positively and negatively with political overtones. Elaborate props are sometimes part of the ruse, as shown in their 2003 DVD release The Yes Men.

Their method is often satire: posing as corporate or government spokespeople, they often make shocking comments yes_men_fix_the_world.jpgwhich they believe to be the real meaning of the organisation’s ideology being hidden by spin, or extrapolate what they feel is the organisation’s ideology in a ‘reductio ad absurdum‘ to come out with outrageous conclusions, such as that it should be possible to sell your vote or that the poor should eat recycled human waste. On most occasions no shock or anger has been registered in the response to their prank, with no one realizing they were imposters. Sometimes, the Yes Men’s phony spokesperson makes announcements that represent dream scenarios for the anti-globalization movement or opponents of corporate crime. The result is false news reports of the demise of the WTO, or Dow paying for a Union Carbide cleanup, which the Yes Men intend to provide publicity for what they see as problems in the current situation.

The Yes Men have posed as spokespeople for The World Trade Organization, McDonalds, Dow Chemical, and the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. The two leading members of The Yes Men are known by a number of aliases, most recently, and in film, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno. Their real names are Jacque Servin and Igor Vamos, respectively. Servin is an author of experimental fiction, and was known for being the man who inserted images of men kissing in the computer game SimCopter. Vamos is an associate professor of media arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York. They are assisted by numerous people across the globe. Their experiences were documented in the film The Yes Men, distributed by United Artists, the film documentary info wars, and the book The Yes Men: The True Story of the End of the World Trade Organization. Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno also directed a 2009 film entitled The Yes Men Fix the World, which premiered at Sundance. [via WIKIPEDIA]

THE YES MEN WILL SCREEN THE YES MEN FIX THE WORLD AT 8:30 PM TONITE AT THE PAINTED BRIDE AS PART OF THE FIRST PERSON ARTS FESTIVAL

PHAWKER: Explain in your own words what the Yes Men are?

ANDY BICHLBAUM: We are a group who use humor and bizarre interventions to highlight important issues. the-yes-men.thumbnail.jpgWhat we think are important issues. It gives journalists an excuse to write about essential issues that they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to write about. We do that mainly by getting ourselves invited to big corporate conferences. So yeah, that’s what we are.

PHAWKER: OK,  you show up at corporate conferences posing as executives from mythical corporations, correct?

ANDY BICHLBAUM: No, no absolutely not. What we do it as executives or spokespeople for real corporations. At the conferences we give ridiculous or excessively clear presentations that are kind of a mirror on what the real corporation is about or the real industry is about or system is about.

PHAWKER: So you’re essentially using a false premise to reveal a truth. Would that be accurate?

ANDY BICHLBAUM: Absolutely.

PHAWKER: OK. Tell me a little about the evolution of this. How this started out, how this got going.

ANDY BICHLBAUM: November ’99 we couldn’t make it to the Seattle protests against the WTO and so we set up a fake WTO website making fun of the WTO and it’s policies and the people behind it and put it up on the web and the-yes-men.thumbnail.jpgthought of it as our statement, kind of a funny thing that might get people, it might be a bit viral. I think it was before the word ‘viral’ and things like that. To our surprise, we started getting email intended for the WTO and then we started getting invitations to conferences. People wanted the WTO to come speak at a conference or another and we were getting emails instead, so we replied. OK, we’ll go. So, we went and gave increasingly absurd presentations and found that we couldn’t actually get any reactions from the audiences. We couldn’t get them to actually see what we were trying say, which was the WTO policies are inhuman and that people couldn’t see that. They just sort of applauded, they didn’t seem to see that. So, at a certain point when we were doing this we realized this was a big serious point we were kind of discovering and we invited a couple of filmmakers who had wanted to make a movie about us for a while. We invited them to come along and they filmed and it turned into a movie called The Yes Men.  Since then we’ve continued doing stuff, a lot more kind of tied to ongoing media activist struggles, like the struggle of the people of Bhopal to force Dow Chemical to take responsibility for the Bhopal catastrophe, and the New Orleans thing that we did. So that’s our new movie. We talk to victims and documented the whole thing. That’s called The Yes Men Fix the World.

PHAWKER: I’m looking at your Wikipedia entry here and it says here that you’re real name is Jacque Servin. Is that correct?

ANDY BICHLBAUM: That is correct.

PHAWKER: And you are an author of experimental fiction.

ANDY BICHLBAUM: Oh well, I was.

PHAWKER: OK. So now you are teaching at Parsons?the-yes-men.thumbnail.jpg

ANDY BICHLBAUM: Mmhmm.

PHAWKER: You are a prof?

ANDY BICHLBAUM: Yep, that’s true.

PHAWKER: You’re partner there, his real name is Igor Vamos?

ANDY BICHLBAUM: Weird, yeah I know.

PHAWKER: Your real names are a lot more colorful than your aliases.

ANDY BICHLBAUM: We used them because nobody would believe them. We gotta make up fake ones that are more believable.

PHAWKER: Why don’t we talk about the most recent spoof you guys pulled off. That was masquerading as the spokesperson for the Chamber of Commerce.

ANDY BICHLBAUM: Well, actually I’m not supposed to talk about that too much.the-yes-men.thumbnail.jpg

PHAWKER: Why is that?

ANDY BICHLBAUM: Well, the law suit.

PHAWKER: Did the Chamber of Commerce file a lawsuit against you guys?

ANDY BICHLBAUM: Yeah, check it out. You can search Chamber of Commerce lawsuit and you’ll see it.

PHAWKER: What are they alleging? Defamation? Impersonation?

ANDY BICHLBAUM: They post the whole complaint online and honestly I haven’t read it through, but yeah something like that. You can check it out.

PHAWKER: OK. Well can we just explain what happened or are you not even supposed to talk about that?

ANDY BICHLBAUM: You know, I don’t know. That’s a good question though, I’ll ask. But yeah, I’d rather not right now. I mean it’s all massively written about, so you can find out about it pretty easily.the-yes-men.thumbnail.jpg

PHAWKER: Yeah, I’m actually looking at this right now…They’re asking you to take down your Chamber of Commerce website?

ANDY BICHLBAUM: Yeah they seem to be doing that.

PHAWKER: I see it’s still up.

ANDY BICHLBAUM: Yeah, it’s still up.

PHAWKER: Can we go through some of the other… What do you call these? An action? Do you call them a prank? How do you refer them?

ANDY BICHLBAUM: We just call them actions.

PHAWKER: Actions. OK.

ANDY BICHLBAUM: We prefer not to use the word prank, but other people do and that’s OK. We don’t control it. We don’t try to stop people from calling them whatever they want.the-yes-men.thumbnail.jpg

PHAWKER: For the time being we’ll avoid the Chamber of Commerce incident, but I’d like to go through some of the other…

ANDY BICHLBAUM: That would take a long time and I really only have like five minutes left. I said like 15 minutes and that’s about all I have today really. I can direct you to the FAQ has a lot of stuff. Our website, www.theyesmen.org has a whole lot of stuff about each of the one in too much detail. Also, the www.theyesmenfixtheworld.com has the same sort of stuff, maybe a little more easily digestible.

PHAWKER: OK. Well, let me ask you really quickly, how do The Yes Men fix the world’

ANDY BICHLBAUM: Oh well, by contributing to a movement that is changing the rules of the game. We’re obviously, with our things, we’re not changing the rules directly but we’re trying to, we’re pushing towards that. We’re trying to get people, we’re trying to contribute to activism basically and action, people taking action. It’s about changing the rules of the game, changing the laws to suit people rather than big corporations.

PHAWKER: Do you feel that this is sort of an evolution of a new kind of protest model whereas the old standing in the street with signs and things like that is perhaps exhausted in terms of its effectiveness?the-yes-men.thumbnail.jpg

ANDY BICHLBAUM: Absolutely not. No, what we do is also a very old kind of protest that’s been around for hundreds of years. Certainly in the 60’s it was enormous. The kind of things we do were done 40 years ago, 50 years ago, let me see 40 years ago. In the 60s it was quite prevalent to pull funny pranks, but they didn’t call them that either.

PHAWKER: Throwing money on the floor of the Stock Exchange.

ANDY BICHLBAUM: For example, yes or levitating the Pentagon or running a pig for President or doing any number of things. Burning the dog, I don’t know if you know of that one?

PHAWKER: No, I don’t know.

ANDY BICHLBAUM: On college campuses, they would advertise public dog burning, and of course there was a lot of outrage and people would arrive and ready to kill and the protesters would say ‘we’re doing this in Vietnam, except it’s not dogs, it’s humans.’ Stuff like that, there were all kinds of…

PHAWKER: But no dogs, just to clarify, were hurt in the protest.the-yes-men.thumbnail.jpg

ANDY BICHLBAUM: Absolutely not.

PHAWKER: I wanted to ask you to weigh in on the whole ACORN hooker sting video thing because I suppose some people can make the case those kind of actions are sort of the right wing analogue to what you guys do. Do you agree with that and what are your thoughts in general on this?

ANDY BICHLBAUM: I guess you could argue that. To my mind it’s basic private dick kind of stings sort of thing more like on Dateline NBC where they catch somebody on hidden camera doing something illegal or unethical or whatever. It’s not really the same. Again, these things are all out there in our culture, they’ve been around for a long time. I guess what we do is different. I mean, getting ourselves invited to state conferences and onto television under false pretenses that I guess is different. I would be extremely surprised if that was inspired by this or anything like that. I think it reprehensible too, it’s stupid, mean-spirited, and awful of them to use whatever talents they have or whatever energy they have to go after an organization that’s basically not helping poor people. That’s absolutely, the-yes-men.thumbnail.jpghilariously stupid. We go after extremely powerful entities like the Chamber of Commerce, Dell, Exxon, etcetera, etcetera . Who are definitely, distinctly hurting people and have a proven track record of hurting people. If you go after an organization that gets something like $3 million in funding from the U.S. Government or whatever it is and who’s entire purpose is to help poor people find housing or whatever and I mean I just have no respect for that.

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