During the 2000 Presidential campaign, the mysterious, satirical website www.gwbush.com appeared on the web. The criticisms of George W. Bush on it gained media attention worldwide, culminating in a mention by the Presidential candidate at a press conference. The Yes Men were born. Since then, Andy Bichlbaum (real name: Jacques Servin), Mike Bonanno (Igor Vamos), and an ever-revolving gang of comrades have created amusing actions like printing a fake edition of The New York Times in hopes of calling out entities ranging from Dow Chemical and ExxonMobil to the WTO and the United States Chamber of Commerce. They build websites, pose as company executives, and do anything else they can to draw media attention and point out hypocrisy while having fun doing so.
Some of these actions prompted change in policies. They also spawned two documentaries that showed would-be activists how to make an impact. After nearly a decade and a half, the Yes Men want to go further. They recently launched a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $100,000 and counting to fund a new documentary and something called the "Action Switchboard," an ambitious attempt to help the 100,000-person database get more involved. In Yes Men spirit, USB secret decoder rings are also prominently involved.
Andy Bichlbaum spoke with The Verge about the rejuvenating effects of the Occupy movement, how social media changes the game plan, and the vital role of having fun in activism. As they say, "It's certainly better than sitting on our asses waiting for the world to change on its own. Don't you think?"
"What we do is galvanize people who are already on our side."
This is an exciting time for the Yes Men.
I'm excited about the moment. What we're doing is basically just giving away our techniques as much as we possibly can.
The Action Switchboard sounds like the next step for the Yes Men: "Here are the things we've learned, and here is how you can use it." Is that a fair assessment?
I think so. It has the capacity to really take off. There have been quite a few projects that we've done recently that took off for themselves. All we have to do is give a few pats on the back and a little bit of advice here and there, but not much. Those things take off. Recently, some students at Middlebury College created a fake official welcoming committee for the Dalai Lama, and announced on behalf of the university that it was going to divest in anything related to war. We helped them a bit. They emailed us to ask how [the idea] seemed, and we gave them little pieces of advice about the press release. They had some legal questions. They wanted to know if they would be in big trouble, and we said no. So, they went and did it. It was a tremendous success. It got a ton of press. The university reacted in a really stupid way, and it all worked out. It got a lot of attention for the idea that universities can or should divest.
But for every project like that, we get a dozen emails that we can't attend to. The Action Switchboard will be a way of systematically attending to these project ideas. People can contribute and help organize.
One of your goals is to develop and stage "media-getting actions." That focus, the understanding that you need to actively court media, seems very prescient. If there's no media there – if no one is paying attention – your action is not going to matter. Was the decision to focus on media-getting a conscious thing?
Sort of. It's not really our idea. The Civil Rights movement was fully conscious of that. That's what they did. They organized these things so there would be media. Gandhi first pioneered that. He did Salt March actions with media along knowing exactly what the result would be. It wasn't so much the action itself that was really important, but media noticing that it was happening and reporting on it. The target, Britain in that case, was susceptible to public opinions and people thinking they were beasts. It's a very old thing.
My initiation to this kind of work happened entirely by accident. I was a programmer on a video game, and I inserted some different boys into a video game on a lark. I made it so hundreds of boys in swimsuits would appear on the screen kissing each other. It was shipped to store shelves, and it became a big story. I didn't really have a purpose in doing it, but when it happened, I got really fired up about doing that kind of activism. I really enjoyed seeing something I had done go out there and find an audience.
I think a lot of people feel that excitement about this kind of work. It's not only that we should get attention for these kinds of things, but it's really fun. But it's just one way of doing activism. I don't think that you need press for everything. Even organizing doesn't require press, doesn't require media attention. That just requires workers who change their minds. That's kind of the meat and potatoes of activism. What we do is galvanize people who are already on our side. Changing the minds of people on the other side is something this work can do, and does do in extraordinary moments, but doing that is more of a face-to-face kind of thing. This is just one piece of the activism puzzle. It's not the whole thing at all.
I would imagine that some people could be turned off by your antics as well.
Yeah, that does happen. At the same time, we've been getting emails from Republicans who say, 'I disagree with everything you stand for but I appreciate the way you do things.' Occasionally, we have changed minds. We have gotten people thinking about things they weren't thinking about before. Students routinely come up to us and say that seeing "The Yes Men Fix The World" or the first movie opened their eyes to these issues, the fact that things were really messed up, and the fact that they could do something about it. On the other hand, students are predisposed to having those ideas. It's one thing to get a student active, and it's another thing to get a Republican blogger somewhere to change his or her mind. [Laughs]
How, if at all, has the rise of social media changed what you're doing?
Not that much, really. It's changed a few of details, but I really don't think that it's all that revolutionary. It's another tool, but people have done really cool, fun projects in all kinds of ways. Before social media, there were pamphlets. In between pamphlets and social media, there were emails. [Twitter] is just short emails that reach a lot of people, instead of only the people they are addressed to. We've used it. We did a Shell project with Greenpeace that relied almost entirely on social media. It wouldn't have happened without social media. Social media has permitted some new projects, but I don't think there's a difference in the amount of time projects take or anything.
Can social media make your job more difficult because there are more things out there, and you have to work harder to get through the noise.
Yeah, I suppose so. It's really hard to tell what's interesting if there is nobody curating it. If I read something by Paul Krugman in The New York Times, I know it's interesting. The purpose of traditional media is to curate and help me find out what's interesting.
Do you see yourself as facilitators who are trying to give people the tools to create their own movements?
Definitely. We've been moving that way for about three years since we founded the Yes Lab. There are some projects where the structure has helped organizations or individuals carry out projects on their own without our assistance or with only a little bit of assistance. We were doing that before Occupy came onto the scene, and then when Occupy showed up, it just seemed like, 'Wow, that's really, really important.'
We tried to participate in the Occupy movement however we could. We were kind of told how to participate five days after Zuccotti [Park] was occupied. I run a speaker series at NYU with revolutionary speakers and the speaker for the first one of the semester, which was on September 22, was Ivan Marovic, a leader of Otpor!, the Serbian movement that overthrew Slobodan Milosevic. Afterward, we all went to Zuccotti. He looked around, and after a few minutes he said, 'Yes, this looks familiar, but these people are too worried about the police. These people need to have more fun. That's how we overthrew Milosevic: We stopped worrying about the police and we just started having fun. You guys should try to help them have fun.' [Laughs] We did do a few actions [with Occupy], and they were fun, but I don't think they really needed our help at all. We tried.
That's a good mandate: to try to help people have fun.
That's an idea in itself, sometimes, especially with stodgy old activists, like ourselves. [Laughs]
"Before social media, there were pamphlets. In between pamphlets and social media, there were emails. Twitter is just short emails that reach a lot of people."
Now you have a Kickstarter for a documentary and the Switchboard.
The documentary is called The Yes Men Are Revolting. It's going to feature a number of actions that we have done with the Yes Lab and some that we have done separately. It's going to be different from our previous films in that it will follow revolutionary people and their evolution as activists. It will show us doing what activists often do, like despairing and wondering if what we're doing matters. Then, we discover that the things we do do matter. However absurd they might seem at the moment, and however enormous the obstacles, they actually do matter.
When I first showed up at Occupy, a couple people came up to me and said we were part of it. I wondered what they meant. Over the summer, when we were hearing rumors that people might try to occupy Wall Street, we just thought those people were crazy. [Laughs] We didn't do anything to support them. Then, it really took off to our surprise and a lot of other peoples' surprise. But what the Occupiers meant when they came up to me was that they had seen us and our films. The ideas entered their heads and entered the culture. We put across the idea that you can do something, that there was a place for this type of activism.
The film shows us despairing and then finding a place. It's pretty autobiographical. It's real. We think our story will be inspiring to viewers, and maybe to viewers who haven't taken action yet because they don't think it really matters. That's why we are doing the Action Switchboard, to give those viewers who have been spurred to action a way to follow that impulse and get involved. After the last movie, we got a lot of emails from people who wanted to do stuff, but we couldn't do anything about them. This time, it's going to be different.
"When Occupy showed up, it just seemed like, 'Wow, that's really, really important.'"
Can you give me a moment when there was that despair?
I would say pretty much non-stop for a year or so when we were doing a lot of actions around climate change. We impersonated the Chamber of Commerce, which happens to be the largest lobbying body in the world. We were spreading the news that the Chamber would no longer oppose any climate legislation. The real Chamber spokesman burst in and the drama was seen by tens of millions of people in the mainstream media. It may have been part of what led to the Chamber of Commerce reversing its opposition to the cap and trade bill a couple of weeks later, but even if that action did contribute to that reversal, it didn't feel very important. That trade bill sucked. What we actually need is a carbon tax or something like that, and we need it fast. We were doing this big action, and many other people were doing actions, and it resulted in the Chamber reserving its position, but it didn't really matter because the position was on this bill that was awful. The bill was a step above horrible. [Laughs] If we want to have a hope of seeing a good future, we need to really take action.
During that same time period, there were a bunch of other actions that were successful in that they got attention, but the underlying situation is so bleak that it's hard to feel optimistic. We went to the tar sands in Alberta, and it's just incredible. People are literally dying. The culture is dying. There are enormous cancer rates. The landscape is permanently destroyed. There's no way to fix it. At all. It's a wasteland. It's a great place to shoot a scene in Mordor for Lord of the Rings, but it's not a great place to do anything else. That kind of fills you with despair. Even if we get everybody to leave the tar sands, which is a tall order, the bad guys win. They permanently disfigured the landscape, not to mention sent all that carbon into the atmosphere where it's going to stay for a while. You look at all that and you despair. But then you look at previous struggles, and you think about how daunting things must have looked to people like the Egyptians. There was a highly entrenched regime that hadn't changed in decades. Suddenly, it's gone. Or for people in the U.S.S.R. Or, for that matter, the Civil Rights struggle in this country or slavery. For all of these things, it was people power that effected change. People took action, sometimes unexpectedly, at moments when you wouldn't have thought they would. You remember that and things get much better. They feel a little bit more hopeful.
Where does all this movement go?
There are a lot of lines all over the place that are optimism-inducing. I think the kind of thing that we are doing will be more and more popular. It feeds on itself. Also, unions can make a difference if they get organized and do stuff instead of supporting the status quo or their own salaries. If they start to fight for ordinary workers, that could change things dramatically. Nobody really knows what's going to happen. That's why I have hope.
There are a lot of people right now who want to make a difference and think they can, partially because of examples like you.
There's so much hope out there that it's hard not to have hope. And this stuff actually works. That's the thing. As people do it, it catches on, and people start to do it more. In real life, action can change things. Then, there's a lot of hope. If human organizers can actually get a majority of people who want progressive change in this country, it's definitely plausible. That could change things.
"People took action at moments when you wouldn't have thought they would. You remember that and things get much better."