In an auditorium somewhere in the suburbs of Philadelphia, a man says of the protagonist in Steven Spielberg’s famous Schindler’s List: “You know, he was such a fucking liar. What an asshole. Liar, liar, pants on fire, Schindler.” This man isn’t some radical World War II fanatic or an anti-Semitic film critic. His name is Mike Bonanno, partner in the performance-art duo called the Yes Men, a culture-jamming activist group that creates mischief in order to reveal corporate corruption.
The duo, comprised of Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum (although rumor has it those aren’t their real names), is speaking at a recent lecture at Swarthmore College, and Bonanno’s point is that sometimes you have to tell a few white lies in order to effectively enact justice. “The classic good lie is like that asshole Schindler who lied to the Nazis and saved those Jews … I don’t think there are many people in the world, aside from complete nutcases, psychopaths, who wouldn’t agree that it was a good thing to do.”
The guys look like professors maybe, dressed in jeans and tucked-in shirts—a far cry from many of the costumes they have been known to use during their acts of civil dosobedience.
The Yes Men are responsible for all manner of performances and social actions, like producing fictitious newspapers and inserting queer soldiers as characters in a video game, but their main shtick is to impersonate corporate representatives and other head honchos of capitalism dispersing misinformation. And yes, a lot of what they do entails lying, breaking the law, fraud and all kinds of questionable acts. They send emails, attend conferences and infiltrate news broadcasts—they appeared on CNN posing as representatives for DOW chemicals and the Canadian delegates to a U.N. conference on climate change, to name a few.
“There’s this whole industry, public relations, that’s about churning out lies. And they don’t usually reveal them right away—it’s usually never revealed,” Bichlbaum says. “Ours are always revealed immediately, and that’s kind of a key thing for us.”
The tag team has been around since the late ’90s, when they famously created the website gwbush.com, where they posted a “modified” version of the Bush campaign’s website explaining “the real reasons Bush wants to be President: to help the rich at the expense of the poor and the environment.” Their civil disobedience garnered a lot of press coverage, and the Bush campaign sent a cease-and-desist letter to the makers, but to little effect. While the fake website remained a Yes Men staple for years, the duo moved on to bigger things, including taking their impersonations on the road.
They went after the World Trade Organization next, in a series of appearances that culminated at a conference in Finland, where they gave a presentation as WTO representatives. The finale to the presentation included revealing a gold leotard with a giant inflatable phallus—an “employee visualization appendage” for monitoring sweatshops. In recent years, they’ve targeted Halliburton, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Obama administration. The first two they attacked in similar ways, by posing as representatives and releasing troublesome statements, but they’ve gone after the government in more creative ways, including releasing a very convincing fake edition of the New York Times with the headline: “Iraq War Ends.”
Many of their recent antics have also involved their newest costume, the “Survivaball,” a farcical solution to climate change that the pair termed “a gated community for one.” It basically looks like a giant bloated tick, a spherical figure with six stubby arms on its belly and protrusions on top that look like either an eye or ears; but it’s actually a protective suit that guards corporate managers from climate change—or at least that’s what a “representative” from Halliburton said, otherwise known as Bonanno.
The Yes Men’s method of mischief has garnered a lot of attention for the issues they advocate. Their antics have been featured on the Rachel Maddow Show and the Fox Business Network. Their Chamber of Commerce hoax—in which they posed as spokespeople at the National Press Club and announced that the Chamber was going to reverse its policy on climate change—was revealed quickly by a standoff between Bichlbaum and a real Chamber of Commerce spokesman, and lawsuit ensued for trademark infringement, among other things. But Bonanno says they aren’t worried about getting in trouble; their main concern is garnering a larger activist community. In his words, “It has to be a world of many yeses and one no.”
The heart of the Yes Men’s moral code is “about the power relationships, not the method,” says Bonanno. He claims that when people use strategic methods like their own to “reinforce existing, abusive power relationships” rather than to question them, more than often they come out looking worse for it, particularly when the methods are revealed. Bonanno’s recalls conservative activist James O’Keefe, famous for his “exposure” of the ACORN scandal and a big fan of pranks and hidden cameras. “A guy like James O’Keefe is actually an abusive asshole,” Bonanno says. “He’s using techniques in a way that’s abusive, but you can also use them in a way that supports people who are being abused.”
For Erin Mee, a theater professor at Swarthmore and a performance director in her own right, there is no ethical question to the Yes Men’s use of misleading performance for social change. She says, “I always combine performance with social issues … because I think the only reason to do performance is to change the world. Otherwise, what would be the point?”
The Yes Men are currently focused on the Democratic Republic of Congo, where conflicts heavily embedded with the exploitation of natural resources are ravaging the nation. The Yes Men have discovered a law passed in 2008 – bill S.2125 of the 109th Congress—that obliges the Obama administration to take action to end the conflict in Congo. The thing is, the vast majority of the provisions called for in the bill haven’t taken place, like the formation of a special envoy to help coordinate efforts to resolve conflict and promote security in the Great Lakes region of the nation. “We’re breaking our own laws,” Bichlbaum says.
At the end of the lecture/performance at Swarthmore, the auditorium was abuzz with student and faculty responses. So the next day, Bichlbaum and Bonanno held a workshop with students in order to brainstorm ways to harness motivation for social change.
Blaine O’Neill, a student, activist and co-organizer of the workshop, says: “I think the Yes Men are really great for college students because they’re clever, and to a certain extent nuanced.” He cites the Yes Men’s use of irony and nontraditional methods as the source of their appeal. “I feel like they can reach out to a lot more people who would otherwise not be acting on their belief or passions.”