In the new movie “The Yes Men Fix the World,” Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno continue their performance infiltrations, which serve as political action with a sense of humor.
The film documents their recent exploits, including a fraudulent apology and promise of a clean-up from Dow Chemical for the 1984 chemical spill in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. It also includes a stage appearance as HUD spokesmen with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and an alternate edition of The New York Times with the headline “Iraq War Ends” that was distributed to 80,000 New Yorkers.
In 2003, the duo was featured in the Mass MoCA show “The Interventionists,” which highlighted guerilla-style political art — their absurd gold body suit for executives and video of their pro-slavery lecture while posing as representatives of the World Trade Organization were included.
Most recently, Bichlbaum and Bonanno have been in the news for several reasons. This September, they released a counterfeit edition of the New York Post with the headline “We’re screwed!” in order to address global warming. The next day, Bichlbaum was arrested for an outstanding parking ticket after leading two dozen other people into the East River in SurvivaBall costumes — ridiculous inflatable suits that also make an appearance in the new film.
Last month, the Yes Men held a press conference pretending to be spokesmen for the Chamber of Commerce and announcing a reversal in the organization’s policy on global warming. In the middle of that, an actual Chamber of Commerce official appeared to stop the event.
The Yes Men embody a style of political protest that includes performance as well as a form of prankishness. Bichlbaum — the Yes Man who does most of the talking on camera — says they refer to their work as “actions” in order not to trivialize the intent behind them.
“We don’t really like to call it pranking because it’s not about just about having fun; it’s about doing something for a purpose,” he said.
Calling something a prank implies that the perpetrators are trying to get away with something. The only the Yes Men are really trying to get away with is highlighting causes they feel deserve international attention. One of the most important components of the team’s work is getting caught — or at least having the situation revealed in some way, often by the Yes Men themselves. Usually, their appearances — no matter how outlandish — glide over the heads of the attendants.
“Pretty much every time people have sat through and not gotten it,” Bichlbaum said. “The Exxon case is the exception. Then we sent out press releases making it pretty clear to everybody.”
In the Exxon case — which is featured in the new film — the team posed as members of ExxonOil and the Canadian National Petroleum Council and addressed several hundred oilmen at a conference, announcing new research on expedited fossil fuel created from the flesh of a deceased janitor for the company.
There are some cases when attending members of the press might figure it all out — in the film, the Yes Men are cornered by one excited reporter during the action in New Orleans — which pleases them despite the confrontational discomfort inherent in the situation.
“They just sit through and let it happen because they wanted to see what would happen,” said Bichlbaum. “It is great when they figure it out. It’s certainly a big plus because we have less work to do. In New Orleans, when the guy asked why we had done it, it was great, because he was doing his job — and he found out why we had done it.”
Even after two films and some highly publicized cases, the press hasn’t become any quicker to recognize the duo. Bichlbaum alters his appearance skillfully, but to those who pay attention, he is noticeable. Thankfully for the team, not too many people are actually on the lookout for their brand of absurd social action.
“I think it’s been about the same on the amount of attention that the press gives to it or notices that there’s something up,” Bichlbaum said. “The perspicacity of the press has not increased with time. “
The duo began their actions in 1999, when they wanted to go to the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle but were unable to. Instead, they set up a fake Web site for the WTO — they called it a “corrected” Web site — which began to receive e-mails that invited them to be guest speakers for various groups. From the very beginning, Bichlbaum and Bonanno were in it for the attention.
“We knew it wouldn’t be in a bubble — we took a camera the first time we did something,” Bichlbaum said. “The whole goal is really to get attention for, in the beginning, against the WTO — to help publicize what was wrong with the WTO. So we went as the WTO, so the whole idea was to not do it in a bubble, but to make a big loud noise about it.
“I guess it’s always surprised us how much noise we were able to make, doing it so easily, but that was always the idea from the beginning: to do something that would have a lot of repercussions.”
Over time, the network of behind-the-scenes Yes Men has grown, creating a political action collective of sorts. One of the marvels of their work is the access they get to high-level organizations that most would assume are closed universes to the rest of us.
The team isn’t interested in keeping everything to themselves, however — they are more interested in spreading the knowledge and offering tips for others to follow in their footsteps. Bichlbaum envisions a future of DIY Yes Men offshoots, with people performing their own actions.
“That’s why we’re giving away all our secrets on our Web site,” he said. “We’re possibly starting a kind of Yes Tank, or a little hub, for this sort of thing. We’ll do little workshops and stuff. “
The integral component to getting the word out beyond press coverage is in film. Prior to the recent documentary, the team was featured in its 2003 self-titled film. Without their protest work, Bichlbaum and Bonanno would not choose to be in the movie world, but it’s a necessary evil in their recipe for effective and entertaining civil disobedience.
“Putting out a movie is a lot more work than the usual stuff we do,” Bichlbaum said. “Putting out a movie you have to keep up with a lot of crap. It’s stuff I’m not really that interested in doing, but the purpose of the whole thing is to get these ideas in front of a lot of people, so I just keep reminding myself of that.”