Corporate Aesthetics: The Yes Men Revolt

Still from documentary film The Yes Men Fix the World, 2009.


In conjunction with a special section in Art in America‘s April issue (select articles available herehere and here) A.i.A. presents a series of Web interviews exploring the role of corporations in contemporary art, architecture and design.

There is justice in the world of the Yes Men. A spokesman for Dow Chemical accepted responsibility for the 1984 Bhopal disaster live on the BBC, the New York Times announced that the Iraq war ended in November 2008, and the New York Post editorial board finally responded to the reality of climate change with the screaming headline: “We’re Screwed.”  

Of course, none of this really happened. The Yes Men are imposters extraordinaire who create a parallel media universe by posing as corporate functionaries, or by aping mastheads and distributing whatever news they see fit to print. It may be wishful thinking, but rendered in a bold typeface or broadcast around the world on satellite television, the world of the Yes Men appears attainable. And perhaps it is.

Jacques Servin, aka Andy Bichlbaum, and Igor Vamos, aka Michael Bonanno, formed the Yes Men following the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. As their two feature films document, the Yes Men made a name for themselves in activist circles and beyond by infiltrating stodgy corporate conferences to introduce modest proposals. They solemnly announced the WTO’s decision to privatize democracy once and for all. They introduced Halliburton’s Survivaball—an inflatable pod designed for the oil executive seeking personal refuge from the ravages of global warming.

The Yes Men are masters of a certain kind of corporate aesthetic. Their purview is not the slick imagery of advertising and branding, but a drearier vision of hotel conference centers, ill-fitting suits and expense account-funded affability. Their work hammers home the point that beneath the slick veneer of capitalist media culture, those who hold the real levers of power basically look like shit.

Though firmly identifying as activists—their new website is a clearinghouse for mobilizing opposition to stop and frisk, climate change and the Keystone pipeline—the Yes Men often find themselves in a space that overlaps with the art world. A dissertation is waiting to be written on how their tactics sit in a genealogy of raucous street theater, social practice art and Situationist hijinks.

A.i.A. caught up with Andy Bichlbaum following a conference organized by New York’s Art in General at the New School’s Vera List Center. The Yes Men had just participated in a panel with artists Robert Sember and Tercerunquinto.

WILLIAM S. SMITH You said on the panel discussion that you aren’t interested in the word “art” or calling yourself an artist, but you are interested in aesthetics. Could you talk about that distinction?

ANDY BICHLBAUM Art as a category is not important to what we do. If we actually talk about what we do to a larger public we never refer to ourselves as artists. There’s no political utility to that. People in America, especially, dismiss art. There’s no reason to call ourselves artists other than to encourage young artists to eschew the art gallery system. And for fundraising—there’s funding we can get if we call ourselves artists.

The panel got me thinking about Gran Fury. They were artists, but in their work for ACT UP they absolutely cut themselves off from the art world. Their work was aesthetically powerful and extremely well crafted—they were great artists—but they were doing it deliberately for a political purpose and deliberately away from the art world. They didn’t want to denature the political intent of their work.

SMITH There is a strong aesthetic component to what you do, a very particular kind of corporate conference aesthetic. Was that something you had to work at? 

BICHLBAUM It was just intuitive. It’s easy to blend into some stupid, schlocky, random corporate conference. The PowerPoints are bad. The hotel or whatever has potted plants in the wrong places. The suits are not especially nice. People behave in awkward ways with excessive friendliness. And when the Yes Men mimic that and broadcast it, instantly everyone can get it: you’re making fun of that corporate world. It helps to remind you that the whole corporate world is ridiculous. Laughing at it can be powerful.

SMITH When was the first time you were able to pass as a corporate functionary?

BICHLBAUM Well, the very first time was, I was invited to a conference in Holland as myself, and I was doing a project called RTMark, before the Yes Men. A guy from Greenpeace was there and a guy from Shell was supposed to show up. It was supposed to be kind of a debate: The Greenpeace guy was an expert on the Shell issue but the Shell guy didn’t show up. So I just impersonated him—with the knowledge of the conference organizers. I just started laying into the environmentalists in his voice. And people believed it. It went on for 10-15 minutes before the audience figured it out.

The first time [Igor and I] did it as the Yes Men was in early 2000; we had set up a fake WTO website. The real WTO reacted to our fake website with a press release denouncing it; no one noticed the press release, so we publicized it. Journalists found it funny that the WTO was reacting to our website instead of the 30,000 people who were headed to Seattle. Websites picked it up, search engines started picking it up, and so we started getting a lot of email intended for the real World Trade Organization.

We got an invitation to a conference in Salzburg, Austria—a law conference that lawyers pay to attend and pay to speak at as a professional development thing. They had a panel on international something or other. They wanted the WTO to come and they ended up on our site. So we went. And I gave this talk as a WTO representative—taking it all the way—to describe how we have to privatize democracy. I used diagrams to show how we could do that by allowing corporations to bid on votes directly—to pay citizens to vote directly for candidates they wanted rather than go through campaign finance mechanisms.

SMITH How do you judge the success of a project?

BICHLBAUM Press, basically. That’s been our main thing, how much press it gets. How much people laugh at it influences how much press it gets, so that’s why it’s important for these things to be funny.

SMITH So you’re also using the corporate media?

BICHLBAUM You can’t really escape it. We’re working with the devil—what are you going to do? We choose our battles. Our gambit is that the mainstream media is utterly corrupt, but that there are individual journalists within that machine who want to do the right thing. And so we are essentially collaborating with journalists to give them a way to communicate things that they wouldn’t normally be able to communicate.

Recently we helped an activist group do a parody of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program—their press release said the cops were collaborating with McDonald’s to reward citizens who were frisked multiple times, like frequent flyers. ABC’s news anchor, understanding that it was all fake, did a very funny little news piece about it. The anchor was clearly sympathetic to the cause but he needed the material—and we gave it to him.

SMITH Your new website is all about organizing collective action. It may sound obvious, but I wonder if you could talk about what distinguishes collective, politically motivated organizations from corporate entities?

BICHLBAUM Well, there’s obviously overlap. It depends on what kind of collective organization you’re talking about. If you’re talking about an NGO, like a Greenpeace, structurally they’re very similar to a corporation: there are hierarchies, decision-making structures. There’s a diffusion of responsibility. There are lots of flaws to that model and a lot of failings that have been written about extensively, although there are a lot of great people working in those groups, too.

The most effective thing that changes history is not so much an NGO. Greenpeace doing a few actions is going to help, but not nearly enough. Sometimes we can diffuse our responsibility too much. “Oh, okay, I’ll give some money to Greenpeace or whatever and they’ll do the fight for me.” It does help, but really what we need is several orders of magnitude more than that. Collective action, mass action, revolutionary action. We need to stop these fuckers—the actually evil people who are trying to fuck our planet.

The way that happens is by moving away from the model of corporations, of NGOs. It involves swarms of people doing stuff, getting active. Maybe the best recent example is ACT UP. There was an NGO world that existed before them that was addressing the AIDS issue. Then ACT UP came along and said, “Fuck it, let’s get radical and let’s get enraged.” And they took to the street and did work with the gay population and transformed feelings of grief, suffering and shame into rage. It produced this massively rageful movement that got shit done. It was incredibly sophisticated, too. It wasn’t just people on the streets taking over CDC offices, smashing up pharma companies. It was also people working on the other side, within those structures. There was no NGO for that. That was not a corporate model. That was a bunch of people being badass. Their meetings were horizontal. It was a completely different way of doing things, and that’s the kind of action we need around climate change.

SMITH But impersonating a corporate functionary is pretty cool and detached. And humor can also deflect the sensibility you’re describing.

BICHLBAUM No, what we’re doing can’t substitute for the core rage. What we do is a little part of a movement. What we do is help spread information in the interest of a future when people are taking mass action in a direct way. People have to know stuff. And we also do stuff that could be called cheerleading. We go out there and show the corporate world in all its flaws and stupidity. It’s flimsy and easy to make fun of. That can also be a way of communicating, “You know what? We can take this down. We can dismantle this.”

SMITH Do you interact at all with social practice artists? Does that term mean anything to you?

BICHLBAUM Not really. It seems to me a little bit like a patch. It’s great to do stuff to help the communities, but it’s a little bit like diverting the resources of the art world to people who need the money. Sure, great, there’s a trickle of money from the wealthiest of the wealthy that goes to this art thing that’s about entertaining what Robert Sember just now called petite bourgeoisie. And then you can divert maybe a little trickle of that trickle into a community that needs it, and that’s called social practice art, I guess. Or maybe there’s more to it, but I think what we need is transformation, starting from social practices that exist already. There are social practices. As Robert said, we have them already! We don’t need artists to give them to anyone. We have to think: how can that be transformational? What can we do to help that be transformational? But I’m not sure the Yes Men are a good example of that example, either.

SMITH Do you see any movement in the art world, or can you imagine an art that would help this?

BICHLBAUM There’s lots of art, I just don’t know that it’s in the art world so much. The Interference Archive in Brooklyn collects ephemeral art from protests. There was an effusion of creativity at Occupy Wall Street. A lot of artists were involved in Occupy. Paul Chan. 16 Beaver’s space was a big part of it. It was all very clear in its message, very interesting and sometimes very funny. The 1 percent meme could be seen as art.

SMITH A lot of artists became involved in Occupy Wall Street very quickly. It’s almost like all of these art world networks that had formed at openings and discussions suddenly snapped into action and became radicalized.

BICHLBAUM That’s interesting. And it had nothing to do with the art world anymore, it was just those networks being used for another purpose. Networks can radically shift, like when Occupy turned around and mobilized for Sandy. As my student Lucy Parks has noted, the time people spend bonding is key—if you know you share certain values with someone, even if they emerge in discussions of art and aesthetics, suddenly your shared commitments can be refocused. That’s really powerful.