Listen to an audio excerpt from this interview:
The Yes Men are America’s foremost impostors. Since the mid-’90s the duo has bluffed their way into corporate conferences and television interviews in the guise of top-level executives. Waltzing though security in thrift–store suits, they restitute the injustices and corruption of corporate and governmental power elites. After they’re escorted out, the future they’ve forecast is injected into the evening news.
Their work as unauthorized spokespeople has found Yes Man Andy Bichlbaum declaring on BBC television—as a Dow Chemical representative—that the chemical manufacturer would dedicate $12 billion in reparations to victims of the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India. In 2006, they arrived in New Orleans as HUD representatives to announce that 5,000 units of affordable public housing slated for demolition would be maintained.
Absurdist mischief-makers or utopian visionaries? A little of both; the Yes Men select their targets because they propagate economic imbalance—or worse—deprive citizens of a voice with corporate smokescreens. Their slant toward collective utopia has dovetailed into and influenced my own art. For the past five years we’ve been working on parallel paths: turning real situations into temporary utopias. When we found ourselves at the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center together in 2007, it didn’t take long to hatch a plan. Between February and November of 2008, Bichlbaum and I coordinated the New York Times Special Edition. In November, our mock version of the Times was distributed around the country, announcing the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a maximum wage, a new national public transit system, and 14 more pages of good news. I spoke to Bichlbaum and fellow Yes Man Mike Bonanno as they were preparing for the premiere of their second film, The Yes Men Fix the World, at Sundance.
Steve Lambert I suppose we should start by saying that you’re at the Sundance Film Festival and I’m in my pajamas in Brooklyn.
Andy Bichlbaum Right, that’s the situation.
SL What are you guys doing at Sundance?
AB Trying to find the festival headquarters! But I guess in the bigger sense. . . wait, let me actually ask these people. (Addresses strangers.) Do you guys happen to know which direction the headquarters is? It’s that way? It’s not that way. Yeah, maybe, maybe not. Anyway, Steve, our film is premiering here. It’s the world premiere of The Yes Men Fix the World in like, a few hours.
Mike Bonanno Minor detail.
SL I was thinking we could start in left field. Has Sacha Baron Cohen’s success affected either the way that you work or the subjects you go after?
AB Not really.
SL What about how your work is received and understood? Did it become a reference point? Do people see your stuff and say “Oh, this is like Borat?”
MB After seeing clips of ours recently one guy told us we were “a thinking man’s Borat,” and another said we were “Borat with balls.” So what does that make us?
AB It’s an easy analogy to make if someone totally doesn’t get it, but I think there’s a big difference between what we do and what Sacha Baron Cohen does. Everything we do is for the message; it’s the message above all, and comical techniques can convey it. Borat obviously has a message, but it’s not always clear what it is. You get the feeling it’s really not the main thing about the movie. Even when there’s a message about racism and intolerance, the ways of communicating the message are very different.
SL United Artists put out your movie The Yes Men in 2003; that’s quite an accomplishment.
AB Wait, let me stand up and ask where I am. (Addresses the bus driver.) Have we passed the Sundance Festival Headquarters at the Marriott?
Bus Driver We haven’t, but we will very soon.
AB Okay, good. What was your question?
SL You had mixed feelings about how The Yes Men movie was supported, right? Maybe United didn’t back you quite as much as you’d hoped. At the same time, you’re also at every Blockbuster in every red state across the country. So, what are you hoping for with the new film?
AB It would be great to have it picked up by a big distributor. But we’re also going to try to control its distribution. We’re going to try to be more in charge of how it’s actually put out there. There’s so much work involved in making a movie and putting it out there. It’s kind of nonstop, just a humongous enterprise. And if you don’t have money, like we don’t, then it’s really difficult. So if someone picks it up and goes with it, that will be a relief even if they don’t do the job we’re hoping they will.
SL If it’s so much work then why do it? It seems like your forte is the action part of it, right? Why even bother with the movie?
AB Well, it’s the logical outcome. Honestly, if I’d known how much work it was going to be, I probably wouldn’t have done it.
SL But you had already made a feature-length movie before.
AB No, the first film was made by Chris Smith, Sarah Price, and Dan Olman. The reason to do a movie is because it can have even more of an impact than media stories do. People pay attention to media stories for a few minutes or an hour and maybe remember them a couple days later, if you’re lucky. But a movie can stick with you for life. When people pay attention to something for an hour and a half . . . (Trails off distractedly.) I just want to see what time it is. Oh, God. I hope the bus gets there.
SL I’m sure it will.
AB We’re meeting people for brunch and then I have to run back to the place and get ready for the premiere.
MB That’s why we’re carrying this huge load of the fake New York Times newspapers we made with you, Steve. The brunch is being hosted by the real New York Times, and we want people to be able to read a real message of hope instead of business as usual.
SL Excellent. So you’ve printed up another run of the newspapers. Are you going to hand those out at the festival?
MB Yeah. So people can read “all the news we hope to print.” After the fake New York Times was distributed in New York, there were thousands of requests for copies, so we saw there was a huge demand. We thought Sundance would be a good place to keep the dreams alive. Especially since the Times is a major Sundance sponsor and they have newspaper dispensers everywhere. We also plan to hand them out at every one of their functions.
AB At our own functions, too. Spread the joy. We’re going to give them to everybody leaving the theater. The movie ends with the newspapers, so it sort of acts as a coda. It’s nice to have the things printed so people can look at them afterward. You’re in the movie, Steve.
SL Yeah, yeah—not really.
AB (laughter) Go figure.
MB But the actual newspaper does give people a feeling. Holding it makes people feel like the good news in it really is possible.
SL I know, it’s like when it’s in print, then it’s real. Like when people read this interview, they’ll believe we really had this conversation. Anyway, would you say that’s a goal of what you do: making people see what is possible?
AB Yeah. That’s it. We have been conditioned to think that change can’t happen. But it can. Like when I went on the BBC impersonating a representative from Dow Chemical and announced that, finally, after 20 years without doing a thing, they were going to clean up the site of the world’s worst industrial accident.
MB The Bhopal catastrophe.
AB Right. Just by making that announcement, people would have to think “Why doesn’t Dow do that? Why isn’t it possible?”
SL But you caught a lot of flack for that didn’t you? People accusing you of creating “false hopes,” arguing that the victims of the accident heard the announcement and were devastated when they learned it wasn’t true.
MB Yes, we got accused of being very bad boys by people who thought that we had created false hopes among the victims. But we actually went to India to meet the victims, and found out that it wasn’t that simple.
SL What do you mean?
MB You will have to see the movie for that. Let’s just say The Yes Men Fix the World has the most joyful strangulation you will ever see in a documentary.
AB In reality, we got tons of press for their causes—around 1,000 pieces in US press. That was the goal, to put pressure on Dow.
SL It was hugely embarrassing for them. I know you guys were working on how to present a year’s worth of public stunts in the film. How did you create a narrative that connects them all?
AB Five years, actually. The narrative is about our thing, trying to fix the world. The Dow Chemical one was an early piece—2004—and we set out to show that a corporation could behave well by taking responsibility for a disaster of that magnitude. The best way to do this was impersonating a Dow executive on BBC television and announcing that we’re actually going to do what we should do in Bhopal . . . (Trails off.) Oh shit, I’ve made a mistake. Hold on, I’m going deal with this while you’re on the line. Let me see if I can get this bus. Oh, I guess not. Oops. Running . . . running . . . (Catches breath.) Anyway, after the BBC segment, we found out that the stock value of the company plunged.
SL Yes, capitalism doesn’t seem to inherently favor honesty and responsibility, does it?
MB We’ve realized that what we really need to do is change the rules of the system. So we interview people at the core of the free market system who happen to be destroying the planet. Eventually, we end up realizing that we all really have to make change happen.
SL In New Orleans you did something similar and that same “false hopes” claim came up again. Impersonating HUD representatives, you announced that a huge amount of public housing that was supposed to be demolished would be kept. I think Mayor Nagin actually spoke out against you. Were the “hopes” you were proposing in New Orleans really that far from the realm of possibility?
MB What we proposed was just what any sane person would, if they saw what was going on down there. After Katrina, public-housing residents tried to return home and found themselves locked out by the government—even though the buildings they lived in had almost no damage. What do you do when you see people locked out of their homes? It’s a no-brainer. So on the first anniversary of Katrina we weaseled our way into a big conference and announced that the government was going to take the locks off. We announced a bunch of other things too, like a plan to fix schools, the reopening of the public hospital, and restoration of the wetlands that used to protect New Orleans from storms. All of these things are not only possible, they are the only sane things to do.
SL The idea of presenting what should happen as normal and letting the reaction against it demonstrate the point that the world we have is actually what’s out of whack . . . I think you two have really mastered that tactic. It’s one of the big ideas I had taken from your work and it influences a lot of my projects. I think for all of us, the newspaper became almost like a thesis for testing that idea.
AB That’s why we wanted to work on it. And to communicate that we all have to make sure that change happens; that electing Obama isn’t enough. It’s great, but it’s not enough. We just have to make sure that we actually make the change happen that we elected him to make.
SL Yes. Part of that is reminding people of what, hopefully, they already know—that change comes from popular pressure. That, collectively, we have power.
MB Yes, seven whoops and a holler for that.
SL It’s great that your very serious ideas can be incorporated into something that can be fun and make people laugh. Every once in a while people will call what I do “pranks.” I’m okay with it, but it’s not the right word, and I was wondering what you think when people call what you guys do a prank or a hoax.
AB I don’t like it, either. But I don’t know what a better word is. We’re basically trying to change the world using creative techniques, trying to do something creative to make an impact in the media or in the world. I don’t see how that’s really a prank. A prank seems like something you do just for the hell of it. I have a real problem with that. And the commercial prank system thinks it’s something you do for profit. A hoax is all about fooling people; what you do and what we do isn’t about fooling people—it’s actually about informing them.
SL But you fool people for a minute in order to get them to analyze or change their perspective. There is always a part of what we’re doing that has some humor, right? Maybe that’s why it’s so often interpreted as a hoax. But there doesn’t seem to be a word for it. You guys came up with . . . what was it? Oh, “identity correction.”
AB Yeah, we tried that. It’s okay, just a bit artificial. People actually started using it, though. I just fall back on the word “action.” Fortunately, when people are watching things or hearing about them, they don’t think about what it’s called.
SL And when they can’t figure it out, it makes them think about it a little bit longer. In a way, naming something is a way to file it away and stop thinking about it. Maybe that works in our favor. Another thing I wanted to ask is how much can you plan what you do? At the beginning of the year do you think, “We should really go after these people and set goals?” Or are you more like fishermen, with all these lines cast through your websites, just waiting for something to bite?
AB Honestly, it just sort of happens. Like when you and I came up with the newspaper idea, it was just spontaneous. For example, we got invited by an activist group to give a talk up in Alberta. We did a bit of research and found out about the oil industry there. They’re extracting oil from the sand in a way that’s incredibly polluting, three times more than regular oil extraction. So we thought, Well, instead of just giving a talk, let’s do a conference thing, an action. So we did that.
SL Did what?
AB You know what we did, Steve.
SL Yeah but, you know, this is for a magazine.
AB For a magazine!? I retract everything I said earlier.
MB I’ll settle this. We impersonated ExxonMobil and got ourselves invited to give the keynote address at the largest oil conference in Canada. At the conference we unveiled a new product called “Vivoleum” that was a biofuel made from the human victims of climate change.
AB This time we really wanted to shock them, so we made sure that when they found out about the new product every one of them was already holding a lit candle made from the stuff. They were really made from regular wax with a bunch of human hair in it for the smell. They were also watching a video tribute to Reggie Watts, who we told them was an Exxon janitor who gave his life to make the candles.
MB Reggie is actually an amazing stand-up comedian and musician. If you haven’t seen his act, you have to.
SL How much can you plan once a fish is on the line? I mean, there’s probably a lot of research you have to do before you go give this speech in front of hundreds of people. How quickly are you turning around Halliburton Surviv-a-Balls and Reggie Watts candles?
MB It all depends on the situation. For the Dow thing on the BBC we had about five days. But usually we have a couple of months or more before a conference. And we always seem to take as long as we have.
SL So you do try to get invited to certain conferences. You don’t always wait for them to invite you.
AB No, we don’t usually wait like we used to. Now we actually scam our way in.
SL How do you do that?
AB Con job, basically. We call up and we say we’re a public-relations firm whose client really wants to talk at this thing: you know, “Exxon would like to address your conference.” We’ll say we’re a very high-profile person. But at the last moment we’ll call and say that person can’t go. That’s been the most common way recently. Once we actually just Googled “speaking opportunities.”
SL (laughter) It’s that easy?
AB It’s that easy, yeah. You can fill out a form. Sometimes you have to pay to talk at these conferences.
SL Have you ever paid?
AB Once. We were ashamed. (laughter)
SL So, when you two are doing these speaking gigs, do you basically play the same character each time? I know for each one you have to use different names, but as “actors” do you imagine them to be the same people? What goes into creating these businessmen characters?
MB If you look at someone like Jack Nicholson, he always seems like he is sort of the same even when he is playing different characters. I think we must be something like that.
AB Except that we can’t act.
MB Right. What I meant was that if we were actors, it might be like that. The fact is that we have no clue what we are doing when we are up there. Luckily, the audiences think we really are who we say we are, so there is no need to act at all. And our character development has no particular method. It’s there in some intuitive way, but we don’t think too much about it.
SL Are the projects that have been big in the media—Dow Chemical and New Orleans, most obviously—are those working against a secondary message you are trying to communicate to activists? Which is that this strategy might be worth considering, and that it’s totally within reach? Neither of you have any real formal training as “imposters” and from what I have gathered hanging around y’all for the past year is that this is very much a seat-of-the-pants operation.
MB Yeah, we barely have pants at all, really. Anyone could do stuff like this, and in our movies that comes through, I think.
AB Which encourages a lot of activists, not necessarily because they want to use the same methods, but because they see how the world of big business is not a fortress . . . it’s a house of cards.
SL Now that the movie is done, have you guys been thinking about where you want your work to go next?
AB Not coherently, no . . . Main Street? We’re back at Main Street? This is insane. The conditions here just turned south. This is ridiculous.
SL Yeah, but all the noise and confusion! It sounds exciting! I’m just looking down at a garbage truck here in Brooklyn.
AB Yeah, but we’d better try to figure out where the fuck we are.
SL Well, try to have fun today.
AB Okay, we’ll try.
MB Don’t forget to take out the garbage!
—Steve Lambert is an artist based in Brooklyn. A senior Fellow at Eyebeam Center for Art and Technology in New York, Lambert teaches at Parsons/the New School and Hunter College.