Culture jamming activist duo Yes Men have been pulling off anti-corporate hoaxes and making the world of big money look ridiculous for ten years. They want to take the fight against heartless free-market rule off the screen and onto the streets.
In the newly Obama-fied America, the work of the multifaceted anti-globalisation movement is far from over. While the world economy tailspins, corporate excess shows no sign of abating, companies are rewarded for bad behaviour by the markets and governments stand idly by as greed and negligence ravage our planet and destroy the climate. Someone ought to teach the powers that be a lesson.
That’s exactly what the Yes Men Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno have been doing for a full decade. They call their particular form of activism “identity correction”: Donning thrift-store suits, the duo hustle their way into high level meetings pretending to be spokesmen of big companies they don’t like. The corporate drones they target are surprisingly prone to take the bait and go along with their outrageous schemes, illustrating that big business can literally get away with murder.
The daring duo first gained worldwide notoriety with their eponymous 2003 documentary. They’ve not stood idle since then, and now their strikes over the past five years have been compiled into a second movie, The Yes Men Fix The World, which will be screened at the Lens Politica festival in Helsinki.
The Lens Politica festival of political film and media art is held for the fourth time this year. The programme representing the full spectrum of visual arts is complemented by a range of public discussions, seminars and clubs. The Yes Men Fix The World will open this year’s festival. The extensive film programme is slanted towards documentaries but does not exclude fiction films, says the festival’s producer Nina Toppila.
So how exactly does one define political art?
“We look for films that tackle current themes and political topics of the day. The point is to generate discussion,” explains Toppila.
There seems to be renewed interest towards social commenary in cinema. Documentaries have entered the multiplexes with Michael Moore leading the way. On a smaller scale, events like the Doc Lounge clubs bring the documentaries and debates to the pubs. Where does Lens Politica fit into all this?
“We want to bring the artists and film makers to talk about their works and the social issues they deal with,” Toppila says. “I don’t think there’s any other programme offering the kind of discussion forum we aim to organise.”
Wed 11 to Sun 15 November
Lens Politica Film and Media Art Festival
In the new film they target huge corporations, and even the United States government. In one of the film’s most hilarious pranks they launch the Halliburton Survivaball, a giant beach ball suit that supposedly protects its wealthy wearer from the effects of climate change and terrorist attacks. This “gated community for one” has become something of a mascot for the Yes Men’s climate campaign.
Special attention is given to Dow Chemicals, who now own Union Carbide, the culprit of the largest ever industrial disaster in Bhopal, India. Posing as a Dow spokesman, Bichlbaum announces on a live broadcast on BBC World that Dow would finally compensate the victims of Bhopal. The result, an investor panic and a two billion dollar dent in Dow stock.
Swindling their way into the fortified compounds of corporate rule, spreading misinformation and generally creating mayhem and mischief – it can’t all be legal, can it?
“We don’t really know, we’ve never been in serious trouble,” explains Bonanno over the phone. “I mean, we would love to be in serious legal trouble, especially if we were sued by a major corporation! It would be great if they did. Maybe that’s why it hasn’t happened.”
Recently Bichlbaum did manage to get himself arrested in New York during the Yes Men’s “Balls across America” campaign stunt. Activists in Survivaball outfits were about to float down the Hudson River and surround the UN headquarters, where world leaders were discussing climate change. The police rolled in and Andy was picked up – for unpaid bicycle parking tickets.
The hoaxes the Yes Men orchestrate are the core of the group’s activities, but none of it would make much sense without extensive media coverage, and they certainly know how to create a spectacle. In their films they bring their A material to a wider audience. The gonzo-documentaries bear resemblance to the works of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, but Bonanno and Bichlbaum’s own performances tend to be low-key in comparison. Soon after the film runs out you start to forget what they even look like. This, of course, suits what they do perfectly. In fact even Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum are assumed names.
“We had already been using false identities with another project and when we started doing this we didn’t realise that we could actually use our own names. Also, our real names are just too silly for most Americans to believe,” says Bonanno, real name Igor Vamos.
There’s always the risk that the satirical reductio ad absurdum approach often adopted by the Yes Men and other culture jamming groups may feed into the kind of popular apathy and negativity they’re fighting against. While theirs is certainly not the most efficient way to enact reform in the world economy, it’s important to work on all fronts, Bonanno notes. Ultimately, the message the Yes Men want to get across is that everybody should get up off their butts and start doing their part.
“Culture jamming is often entertaining and engaging in ways that lecturing people might not be,” Bonanno asserts. “It can contribute to a culture that is already making a difference using other methods. What we do wouldn’t really make sense unless there was a movement that was actually working on a very serious level to promote change.”
Bonanno will be in attendance at the Lens Politica screening of The Yes Men Fix The World. The last time the Yes Men were in Finland, at a textile conference in Tampere, they unveiled a futuristic golden jumpsuit with a giant phallic protrusion for remotely controlling workforces in third world countries. Watch out for Survivaballs, Helsinki.
What is it actually like inside a Survivaball? “It’s incredibly luxurious,” Bonanno chuckles.