The Yes Men use humor to attack corporate greed


The Yes Men, Andy Bichlbaum, right, and Mike Bonnano have made careers out of punking corporate giants. (Jon Vachon/For The Washington Post)
October 20, 2011

The revolution will not be led. But it will be mentored.

We’re in a conference room at New York University with about four dozen slightly starstruck activists, artists, students and professors. A couple young people from Occupy Wall Street have temporarily left the occupation to be here. A leader of the frolicsome 1990s student uprising against Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic is present.

The Yes Lab is in session — presided over by the Yes Men, the dynamic prankster art duo who specialize in impersonating corporate lackeys and fooling journalists.

Stripped of their spoofy personas and pinstripe suits from the Salvation Army on Fourth Avenue, the Yes Men are winsomely sheepish. Jacques Servin, 48, is unshaven in an untucked button-down shirt. Igor Vamos, 43, wears a T-shirt from a Tunisian graffiti artist that says, in Arabic, “Need My History.”

Never mind the slogan of their 2009 documentary, “The Yes Men Fix the World” — “Sometimes it takes a lie to expose the truth.” Today the Yes Men promise to tell the truth. Expose merry tricks of satiric political activism. Invite us behind the scenes of the street theater.

And something more: On their latest and craziest mission of all, the Yes Men propose to catch the new creative spark of revolution — from Tunisia to Wall Street to Washington — and coach it into bigger headlines and better buzz. Like radical Johnny Appleseeds, their goal is to sow the land with scores of activists schooled in how to practice what Servin calls “using humor to attack the powerful.”

“We’ll first do a full group brainstorm for Occupy Wall Street and come up with a list of actions they can do to enjoy themselves and keep themselves busy,” Servin tells the lab participants.

Folks around the table riff on possible slogans and stunts. The occupiers seem to like what they hear, and take notes.

“There’s a danger of over-thinking,” Servin counsels. “It’s more important to do something and enjoy it and have fun and meet people and get the word out there by any stupid means possible. And just do it.”

He speaks from experience. Famous in left-wing activist circles, the Yes Men periodically break into mainstream consciousness with comic book hero flair — the Yes Men strike again!

Punk the Establishment

In their most celebrated stunt, in 2004, Servin was interviewed on BBC World posing as a spokesman for Dow Chemical. He announced that Dow would take responsibility for the deadly 1984 Bhopal chemical spill and pay $12 billion to survivors. Dow was forced to respond it would do no such thing.

In 2009, the Yes Men and environmentalists staged a press conference in the name of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce at the National Press Club in Washington. Servin announced that the chamber had suddenly decided to support tough climate change legislation.

In this way, the Yes Men take credit for sparking hundreds of newspaper and television stories over the last decade on issues that the Yes Men say would not have received as much coverage if not for the media catnip of their stunts.

Critics say the Yes Men are merely con artists and publicity hounds. The chamber filed a lawsuit accusing them of “commercial identity theft masquerading as social activism.” They’ve never been criminally charged for a stunt.

The art world gingerly embraces them, and the progressive activist community hails them for re-energizing the anti-corporate, pro-powerless causes.

“We crave Yes Men-style activism,” says Justin Wedes, 25, a part-time public high school teacher in New York, who works with Occupy Wall Street and who was advised by the Yes Men this past spring when his group, US Uncut, perpetrated the hoax claiming General Electric would return a $3.2 billion tax refund. “There’s a certain sense of frustration and powerlessness in protest actions today. You don’t feel like you’re reaching anyone.” (GE says it received no refund but paid lower taxes because of business losses.)

Yes Men on campus

Now, after a career of infiltrating institutions and videotaping the results, the Yes Men have gained admittance to the ivory tower without any subterfuge at all. Servin is stepping into the real role of “visiting associate arts professor” in the performance studies department at NYU.

Today’s seven-hour workshop is the opening session of the Yes Lab, a weekly extracurricular practicum where activists will hatch Yes Men-inspired protest stunts, and then go out and do them. The theme for the first batch of actions in the coming months will be the problem of income disparity.

Servin and Vamos have been professors before. Servin taught at Parsons the New School for Design, and Vamos is on the art faculty of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Next semester at NYU, Servin will teach a graduate seminar on revolution and an undergraduate course on “the design principles for activism.”

What’s novel is the Yes Lab, which formalizes and institutionalizes their mentoring of young activists. It’s just one notable new example of seasoned left-wing activists systematically trying to propagate a creative, arts-inflected style of subversion. Several groups, including the Yes Men, are collaborating on “Beautiful Trouble: Toolbox for the Next Revolution,” a printed manual and Web site .

The Yes Lab is housed at the NYU-supported Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, a consortium of universities in Latin and North America exploring the crossroads of art, activism and scholarship. Servin is also curating a weekly lecture series on “creative activism.”

NYU administrators draw a distinction between Servin’s academic perch as a professor and the edgier pursuits of the Yes Lab. The Yes Lab is not in the university curriculum, is not supported with tuition money and is open to pretty much anyone inside or outside the university. The lab is chartered as a non-profit to raise its own funds.

“People can choose to participate in the Yes Lab but it’s nobody’s job or obligation or course work to participate,” says Diana Taylor, founding director of the institute.

‘Who are you really, sir?’

Servin and Vamos each had grandfathers who were killed in the Holocaust — family histories, they say, that form a root of their mistrust of authority and sensitivity to what they consider official propaganda.

Servin grew up in Tucson; Vamos near Albany, N.Y. They met in the mid-1990s at the behest of mutual friends after each had gained underground notoriety for a stunt:

Working as a computer game programmer, Servin buried rogue code in the SimCopter game so that scantily clad men would suddenly appear and start kissing wildly. Thousands of doctored games were shipped; Servin was fired. Vamos and some cohorts switched the vocal packages of talking Barbies with those of talking G.I. Joe dolls, and put them back on store shelves, leading to a rash of confused children being interviewed on television. Their Barbies said things such as “Vengeance is mine.” The G.I. Joes said, “It’s so much fun to shop with you.” In interviews at the time, Vamos and his cohorts said the prank was a critique of gender stereotyping and violence inherent in toys.

Servin and Vamos created a techno activist art project that made it into the Whitney Biennial in 2000, using invented corporate-style Web sites and press releases to proclaim the existence of a secret network of pranksters embedded across corporate America. The Yes Men were born when, after further experiments with fake Web sites, they were surprised that some journalists and officials took the Web sites seriously, clicked on “contact,” and sought interview subjects and speakers. The Yes Men obliged these requests.

Their real names sound like aliases, so as the Yes Men they devised the more “normal” monikers Andy Bichlbaum (Servin) and Mike Bonanno (Vamos).

The 2004 romp on BBC prompted the world media to put the debate over corporate responsibility in the news on the 20th anniversary of the disaster at a Union Carbide pesticide plant that killed thousands. (Carbide had paid $470 million to the Indian government. Dow later acquired Carbide. The Bhopal site remains contaminated and survivors say they are sick.)

The BBC declined to comment for this story; Dow did not respond to several requests for comment.

Over the years, the Yes Men have talked gibberish on behalf of the World Trade Organization; distributed candles they said were prototypes made by Exxon to recycle the body fat of victims of climate change; and demonstrated the bogus SurvivaBall spherical body suit they said was created by Halliburton to allow a person to withstand any disaster.

During the fake 2009 Chamber of Commerce news conference — attended by real reporters, including one from The Washington Post — Servin posed as the fictional spokesman “Hingo Sembra.” A real chamber official burst into the room and created a scene that guaranteed widespread, snickering media coverage.

“This is a fraudulent press activity and a stunt,” said the real chamber official, Eric Wohlschlegel.

“Who are you really, sir?” asked Sembra/Servin.

“I work there, and you do not look familiar to me at all,” Wohlschlegel said.

“You can’t barge in here and interrupt our press conference,” Sembra/Servin said.

“This is a fraud! He’s lying!” Wohlschlegel said.

The chamber declined to comment for this story. In a brief supporting the 2009 lawsuit, still pending in U.S. District Court in Washington, the chamber’s lawyers wrote: “Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos are con artists who have operated under many aliases to perpetrate their schemes. They characterize their business as ‘identity correction’ — posing as other persons for the purpose of misrepresenting their positions to the public. This is just another way to say ‘identity theft.’”

The Yes Men’s pro bono legal team, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, responded that the stunt was constitutionally protected parody and political speech.

Critics sometimes see the humor but not the point.

“Candles made from human bodies? It was grotesque; at least it was funny. But there again, what’s the point?” says Marlo Lewis Jr., senior fellow on energy and environmental policy at the free-market-advocating Competitive Enterprise Institute, who has a cameo in “The Yes Men Fix the World.” “They’re pretty good at self-promotion. How have they advanced public understanding of any issue?”

Despite their reliance on deception, Servin and Vamos say they never allow a lie to linger. The Dow, Chamber and GE hoaxes were revealed in less than an hour. The point, they say, is never the lie; the point is the momentary disoriented pause when — they hope — reporters and the public will ask, What if the lie were true?

“It’s keeping the ideas alive that things can be different, and that there’s something dramatically wrong with the world,” Servin says. “So that when change is possible, those ideas are there. And now is a time when change is really possible.”

Young activists see them as role models.

“They make me feel like any of these big issues will be able to be fixed with a positive outlook and a creative approach,” says Jessica Assaf, 21, a senior at NYU majoring in public health and social activism, who worked with the Yes Men on a recent project to place official-looking stickers on water fountains in New York saying, “This water is most likely safe,” as part of an anti-fracking campaign.

Last month Servin gave a guest-artist lecture at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, where he urged the students: “Figure out how you really might want to change the world, and don’t worry about the [art] gallery.”

With BFF’s like these . . .

Back in the Yes Lab, Servin gives a brief illustrated tour of the history of political pranktivism, from Abbie Hoffman throwing money in the New York Stock Exchange to Iraq Veterans Against the War performing a mock “patrol” through downtown D.C.

Ivan Marovic, a former leader of the Otpor anti-Milosevic youth movement in Serbia, discusses the role of art and humor in creating “dilemma actions,” where no matter how the authorities react, they look ridiculous or worse.

The lab participants divide into working groups to focus on issues within the theme of income disparity, including corporate tax avoidance, military spending and immigration. The working groups report back with possible stunts, which the larger group critiques.

(We can’t be more specific because all Yes Lab participants must agree not to reveal details of specific actions, and a reporter is allowed to attend under the same ground rules.)

One Occupy Wall Street-related action that went public Oct. 17 invites activists to become “best friends forever” — via phone, e-mail or personal visits — with some of the “1% who have wrecked the economy,” accompanied by a list of corporate chieftains to befriend.

The inner workings of a good stunt are subtler than they might appear. “The idea,” the Yes Men explain in their tip sheet, “is to make funny stuff that a secondary audience (viewing the video of the action, or reading your press releases) will enjoy and understand, but that will not clobber the primary audience over the head so that they chase you into the parking lot. (That happened to us once.)”

Homework for the next session is to crank out 80 percent of the plan of each project.

For the Yes Men, this work is not academic.

“The whole thing is meant to be a machine for action,” Vamos says. “People are participating in actions, and that’s how they learn. If an action doesn’t come from it, then it’s traditional school.”

David Montgomery joined The Washington Post in 1993. He currently writes general features and profiles for the Sunday Magazine, Sunday Style and Sunday Arts, with a focus on the Latino community and Latino arts.
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