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Yes Means No!

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Issue: 23 Section: Arts Topics: trade agreements, social movements, comedy, film

November 6, 2004

Yes Means No!

The Yes Men dish up artistic critique to straight-faced corporate audiences

by Max Liboiron

Yes-man Andy pitches his golden “leisure suit” control centre to textile executives. Visit the Yes Men website.
Batman and Robin have been replaced. Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonnano have updated crime fighting to fit the times: they steal the identities of the rich and deliver crap burgers to the poor. They call themselves the Yes Men and they have been making some of the freshest, most effective art I’ve ever seen.

The Yes Men started out as an unanticipated addition to their Web site, GATT.org., which is a parody of the World Trade Organization's main Web site. As a result, unobservant people looking to contact representatives of the WTO for public appearances reached the Yes Men instead. And the Yes Men gave them exactly what they wanted: two men in business attire delivering PowerPoint presentations and debates expounding the benefits of an ultra-capitalist world economy.

They state: "Small-time criminals impersonate honest people in order to steal their money. Targets are ordinary folks whose ID numbers fell into the wrong hands. Honest people impersonate big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them. Targets are leaders and big corporations who put profits ahead of everything else."

In Tampere, Finland, Andy posed as the intended speaker and delivered the keynote address originally intended for GSO textiles representative Hank Hardy Unruh. He claimed that the American Civil War was history's most unprofitable and avoidable war, since slave labour would have eventually and naturally been replaced by cheap sweatshop labour. Andy delivered the lecture wearing a gold unitard "leisure suit," complete with a giant inflatable penis containing a monitor for the control of remote workers. The audience was polite and asked no questions.

In fact, even the most uncompromisingly fascist statements made by the Yes Men in various presentations received little more than well-bred applause. Despite a presentation about selling votes to the highest bidder, a petition to expedite the onset of global warming, and a comment during a debate about how private education will cause the children of anti-globalization protesters to think along the lines of the WTO, no mouths dropped. It seems that political rhetoric, especially in North America, has become perverted so that even an outright call for dictatorship, couched in appropriate corporate lingo, is accepted in stride. Mike and Andy set out to shock their audiences with the WTO's uncensored ideology, but instead were shocked themselves when audience members revealed their Orwellian acceptance.

The only presentation that was heard rather than swallowed by audiences was delivered to a group of economic students in Plattsburg, New York. The crux of the presentation was the WTO's partnership with MacDonald's to end world hunger by recycling Western consumers' feces into new burgers in developing nations. The students recognized the idea as racist, classist and disgusting. The session ended with the budding economists throwing things at the Yes Men. The Yes Men were proud.

In most cases, the Yes Men reveal their "true" identities in press releases following public appearances. After an address in Sydney, Australia, in which Andy informed a roomful of reporters that the WTO had decided to disband because it was doing more harm than good, several thousand notices went to media all over the world. Alliance MP John Duncan even brought the WTO's "newest development" to the floor in Parliament.

Mike Bonnano is a professor of Tactical Art Media in the United States. He has been performing his Identity Correction interventions since the 1990's. An earlier "piece" you might remember was the 1993 Barbie Liberation Organization, in which the BLO bought three hundred talking Barbies and G.I. Joes and switched their voice boxes. On Christmas day, youngsters found their Barbies saying "Dead men don't tell lies," and their G.I. Joe's confessing, "I love to shop!" If the goal of art is to reach the viewer in such as way as to prompt new thoughts and initiate change, then this type of interventionist performance is perhaps the most effective art form currently in use. Most art "sits on its ass in a gallery" and preaches to the converted, whereas the Yes Men present their work to the general public where political art is most needed. This type of art is like an interactive form of graffiti.

Their current target for Identity Correction is, appropriately, the Bush administration, an administration that solicits its support mainly through words and presentations (not to mention tax cuts). The spoof Web site accompanying the campaign against Bush is www.GWBush.com, with the tag line "drug free since 1974." As in their WTO presentations, the rhetoric on their Web sites is not easily identified as parody, since much of the language employed by international businessmen and politicians is empty of real meaning (for example, the concept of pre-emptive self-defense). In a press conference, George W. Bush responded to a question about the Web site by saying "There should be limits to freedom." It seems that the Yes Men are already scripting for the President of the United States.

Many of the Yes Men's adventures and appearances are well-documented on their Web site, www.theyesmen.org. They have also been featured in a new film called The Yes Men, directed by Dan Olman, Sarah Price, and Chris Smith, whose previous credits include the 1999 Sundance Winner American Movie. The film has been viewed by audiences in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver, as well as those in a number of American cities. If you are able to catch the film, please do - it is both hilarious and deeply disturbing; my favourite artistic combination.

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