BWW Interviews: THE YES MEN ARE REVOLTING
THE YES MEN, Mike Bonnano and Andy Bichlbaum (not their real names) met about ten years ago when they were introduced by mutual friends. "They felt we were on a similar path and might be interested in working together," explained Mike when I met with him before the duo's appearance at the Lensic Performing Arts Center in Santa Fe. Little did those friends know what they had started.
The 'similar path' can be summed up by two memorable and gleefully original stunts these guys had pulled off, both with social implications that went way beyond the pranks themselves.
Mike was so offended by the words coming out of the mouth of the new, talking Barbie doll hitting the shelves shortly before Christmas in 1993, that he formed the Barbie Liberation Organization. With the help of friends in 17 different locations around the country, he collected several hundred of these dolls, together with an equal number of talking GI Joes, which were released about the same time. He then carefully performed 'surgery', switching their voice boxes, before returning them to the store shelves.
On Christmas Day, children were surprised to find they had been given Barbie dolls that uttered phrases like, 'Dead men don't talk' and 'Vengeance is mine,' and GI Joes that said sweetly, 'I like to go shopping with you' and 'The beach is the place for summer.'
"They were little Trojan horses, if you like," explains Mike, "intended as a protest against cultural gender stereotypes. And judging from the feedback, the kids really liked them - they felt they had been given something special. And, hopefully, it gave the adults something to think about."
Andy, a computer programmer, expressed his social discontent in a way that was different , but similar in spirit. He was working, at the time, with a company that created video games and surreptitiously inserted into the final scene a bunch of scantily clad gay men, joyously dancing around and kissing. The games were duly distributed and it wasn't until his boss decided to check out the final product, that his cheeky chicanery was discovered. He was promptly fired. "I needed some time off anyway," he says with a grin, "and I really wanted to draw attention to the fact that there was little or no gay content in video games at the time."
The rest, as they say, is history. Increasingly incensed by the powerful and misleading corporate messaging that dominates so much of our mainstream culture, the two launched an anti-corporate crusade, to try and subvert the damage being done to the public good, the environment, the planet and to the very foundations of democracy. "When powerful forces, interested only in furthering their own narrow self- interests, can basically buy politicians, influence the writing of laws, crush dissent and never get prosecuted, we're in big trouble," declares Mike. "The problem is, you can't fight fire with fire, because these corporations are just too powerful. It's a David and Goliath situation and you have to somehow go around them."
THE YES MEN have been coming up with imaginative ways to go around them for over a decade now. Combining their talents (Andy's computer skills and Mike's background in visual arts and film) they began by creating look-alike corporate websites, but with satirical content, and were astonished to find themselves being taken seriously, to the point of being invited to speak as official representatives of the organization they were parodying. Needless to say, they graciously accepted.
Some of their most memorable escapades can be seen in their two movies, THE YES MEN and THE YES MEN FIX THE WORLD. They include an invitation to appear on BBC television, as a representative of Dow Chemical. The company had taken over Union Carbide, which had been responsible for a devastating leak of toxic gas from a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, killing thousands of people and destroying the lives of many more. Dow, a multi-national, multi-billion dollar corporation and one of the biggest chemical companies in the world, had resolutely refused to accept any responsibility for the disaster and had refused to pay any kind of compensation to its victims.
Appearing on national television as a company executive, Mike announced a complete reversal of Dow's previous policy, accepting full responsibility and expressing profound regret for the disaster. He solemnly promised that the victims would finally be offered generous compensation. The story instantly became headline news.
Then, of course, the company was forced to come out and admit that none of it was true. "That was clearly an admission that they were refusing to do the right and decent thing," points out Mike. What's messed up is that, when I delivered my message about doing what was morally and ethically right, Dow's share price tanked and when the company came out with its denial, the price shot back up again. How fucked up is that."
THE YES MEN have since partnered with Greenpeace on a number of different projects, including preventing oil drilling in the Arctic. For this they staged a 'welcome, Shell Oil' event, featuring a drink dispenser in the shape of an oil rig, which promptly exploded. The resulting havoc subsequently went viral on the internet. ("If they weren't able to cope with an exploding drink dispenser, how on earth could they hope to deal with a real disaster?") A statement from Shell, announcing the company's intention to sue, turned out to be yet another hoax from THE YES MEN. "We really wish one of the companies would sue us," declares Mike. "We'd love to see them attempting to defend their position in court."
So far no-one has come forward to grant that wish. "Any law suit would have to be filed as a civil, not criminal, suit," explains Mike. "Only fraud, carried out with the intention of making money, can be prosecuted and that's clearly not what we're doing. We're engaging in political speech."
THE YES MEN are now focusing their attention primarily on the threat of global warming. "We want to do whatever we can to raise awareness and bring social action to climate change," says Mike. "How many people are aware of the fact that about 30% of the stock market is invested in fossil fuel energy?"
With this in mind, the YES MEN are now partnering with like-minded organizations, such as Greenpeace, to set up workshops and facilitate creative and effective actions by activists around the world. Details can be found on their website, www.yeslab.org. They also have a new movie in the works, to be released next year, called, appropriately, 'THE YES MEN ARE REVOLTING.' "And that's just what we need," declares Mike, "a non-violent revolution to bring about positive change and secure the planet for future generations. We believe that, if given the chance, most people would do the right thing."