The Yes Men Are Coming! The Yes Men Are Coming!

Filed under: Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Political Pranks, Pranksters

In the midst of their ‘Yes, Bush Can!’ campaign, the busy pranksters spread faux Republican cheer on their way to L.A. for the opening of their new movie. Reprinted from the LA Weekly, September 23, 2004, Photos by Dan Ollman.

Photos by Dan Ollman

“Bush stood right over there,” says Laurel. “They built a platform for him and three governors and the secretary of the interior, and surrounded them with firemen made up with fake soot to look like they”™d just been fighting fires.” Laurel, a member of ecological activist group the Oxygen Collective, is gesturing to a ridge overlooking a partially charred meadow on the outskirts of Medford, Oregon. “We had a busload of farmers and children with a few banners. They weren”™t expecting us, but they were prepared. The whole time, we were circled by Coast Guard helicopters with machine guns pointed at us. That”™s when Bush unveiled his Healthy Forests Initiative.”

This lesson in George Bush”™s poisonous environmental policies is actually a collateral benefit of our visit to this historical spot “” I”™m here as an embedded reporter with the Yes Men”™s “Yes, Bush Can!” campaign as they film a music video for “The Smokey the Log Theme.” Smokey the Log is the “Yes, Bush Can!” campaign”™s new pro-lumber mascot for the USDA Forest Service, replacing the obsolete namesake bear. Yes Man Mike Bonanno, looking like an escapee from a Syd and Marty Krofft production in a giant anthropomorphic latex log costume, clambers on top of a blackened stump. “Now dance!” commands his cohort, Andy Bichlbaum. “Dance and jump to the ground!” Able to see out only through one armhole, and constricted by faux log to well below the knees, Mike gamely jigs around the sawed-flat surface of the old-growth conifer, but when it comes time to dismount, he teeters and tumbles appropriately but painfully to the forest floor.

Dan Ollman, co-director (with Sarah Price and American Movie”™s Chris Smith) of the new Yes Men documentary, takes over: “Get up! Pull yourself up!” Mike the Log drags himself upright and resumes his jaunty capering but begins to stagger downhill, slamming to a halt when he makes contact with a metal gate. Impossibly, he hurls himself over the gate, rights himself, and continues out of sight.

“If the llamas approach you, don”™t provoke them,” yells Laurel. “Just play dead!”

The Yes Men

Hot on the heels of their appearances at the Republican National Convention and an aborted stump tour of Midwestern swing states, the Yes Men are winding their way south from Seattle for the premiere of their documentary at the ArcLight September 23. The eponymous film covers a three-year period during which Bonanno and Bichlbaum successfully passed themselves off as representatives of the World Trade Organization, in spite of their best efforts at self-sabotage. Inspiring, outrageously funny, suspenseful and surprisingly hopeful, The Yes Men movie is the latest installment in what has emerged as America”™s newest version of the town meeting “” theatrically released political documentaries. And while this West Coast jaunt is ostensibly a promotional tour for the film, the Yes Men, as usual, have another agenda hidden in plain view.

Rather than embark on a traditional promo tour for the film, Bonanno and Bichlbaum decided to stage the “Yes, Bush Can!” campaign “” a grassroots initiative to “explain Bush”™s policies more clearly and honestly than the official campaign ever could.” This is typical of the Yes Men”™s strategy of logical extremism, or, as they like to call it, identity correction, which, whereas identity theft hijacks citizens”™ personal data for criminal actions, instead involves assuming the identities of corporate and government criminals in order to accurately (and damningly) represent their actual intentions. The roots of the Yes Men are deeply intertwined with the Internet “” particularly the anti-corporate prankster brokerage of ®â„¢Ark, which sponsored the Yes Men”™s 1999 debut with the subversive decoy Web site, prompting the soon-to-be-wartime president to publicly opine, “There ought to be limits to, uh, to freedom.”

The resultant publicity storm led to a sympathetic activist”™s donation of the domain (GATT was a precursor of the WTO) and the escalating series of absurdist interventions at conferences for which the organizers thought they were booking speakers from the freedom-enforcing WTO. What they got were two nervous, thrift-store-besuited media jammers emitting a bizarre stream of neo-con gibberish, such as: Citizens should be able to sell their votes to the highest bidder; the main problem with the slave trade was its inefficiency (which market forces would have eventually ironed out); Gandhi was just a well-meaning buffoon who didn”™t understand free trade; world hunger will shortly be solved by feeding the Third World recycled McShitburgers; and the International Monetary Fund would give better loan terms to countries willing to put up their citizens”™ bodies (or parts thereof) as collateral.

Additionally, the Yes Men explained that sweatshop managers on vacation could administer electric shocks to lazy workers back home via a remote-controlled gold lamé suit with a giant video penis “” er “” Employee Visualization Appendage, an actual prototype of which Bichlbaum modeled.

The truly alarming thing, which over the course of the movie dawns on both the Yes Men and the audience, is that everyone “” lawyers, businessmen, even professional journalists “” falls for it hook, line and sinker. Every time. Perhaps we shouldn”™t be so surprised: The Yes Men are basically lifting a very successful page from the other team”™s playbook. Anyone remember COINTELPRO, where federal agent provocateurs infiltrated leftist groups and urged them on to absurd extremes? Worked real good.

While they themselves cite precedents ranging from Daniel Defoe to the protective mimicry of insects, the Yes Men are perhaps more accurately described as operating at a junction between leftist prankster traditions “” going back to the proto-yippie antics of Emmett Grogan and Paul Krassner “” and a convergent stream of similar hijinks perpetrated in and around the art world: the media pranks of Alan Abel and Joey Skaggs, the institutional mimicry of the Museum of Jurassic Technology and the Center for Land Use Interpretation, the gentle sedition of Jeffrey Vallance in works like The Nixon Museum, and the caustic copyright infringements of Negativland.

Andy & MikeThroughout the “™90s, thousands of disaffected youth, disenfranchised from materialist culture, found themselves unsupervised and at the controls of a panoply of new digital media. Almost overnight, billboard modification became a high art. Erotic glitches started to pop up in video games and DVDs. And the Internet hosted an explosion of parallel realities, political by default in their divergence from the narrowing strictures of corporate media agendas. Here was a new creative medium with unfathomable potential political impact, unconstrained by the reactionary dismissiveness and crypto-fascist academic hermeticism that have effectively eliminated politics from the art world since the mid-“™70s. Enter the Yes Men.

© 2004 Doug Harvey