On Monday, the Yes Men visited Yale.
Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, principal members of the self-described “nebulous activist group,” have worked for nearly two decades in the business of “identity correction,” using satire and careful mimicry to challenge preconceived notions about the ethics of large businesses and organizations like Dow Chemical, Shell and the World Trade Organization. In conjunction with the Digital Media Center for the Arts, the duo hosted a collaborative workshop in the Loria Center, “Making Meaningful Mischief with the Yes Men,” during which Bichlbaum and Bonanno gave students advice on designing and publicizing activist campaigns for their own causes. At the talk, held as part of the School of Art’s Monday Night Lecture Series, the duo discussed their history and body of work, in addition to answering questions from the audience and screening clips from their three movies.
School of Art DUS Lisa Kereszi ART ’00 said that she thinks the Yes Men’s work responds to pressing needs in contemporary art, adding that their diverse roles as activists, filmmakers and performance artists allow them to appeal to audiences across a wide variety of disciplines.
“Right now, I see a need in activist art that [the Yes Men] fill,” Kereszi said. “They’re activists, film makers, performance artists … The list goes on.”
During their talk, Bichlbaum and Bonanno explained that their work as contemporary artist-activists began in 1999, when they set up a satirical website posing as the World Trade Organization. Soon, Bichlbaum said, the Yes Men began receiving requests to speak at conferences — as the WTO. Initially, audience members at these conferences were used as “unsuspecting members of theatrical productions,” but once the pair realized that people truly believed them, they began to see their productions’ activist potential. From that point forward, Bichlbaum said, they started to identify more fully as activists, realizing that they could harness their satire for various causes.
The duo said their medium of choice is identity correction, a multidimensional performance that may include creating misleading press releases and ad campaigns, launching fake websites that believably mimic a company or organization’s online presence and impersonating company representatives. In “fooling” viewers, the Yes Men said, they seek to implicate their participation in the satire and, by extension, help hold big businesses and organizations accountable for their flawed practices.
“We wanted to say something nice and get people behind it, maybe change something,” Bichlbaum said.
The movements the Yes Men are involved in often receive widespread media attention, and may involve collaboration with larger activist organizations. During their talk, the duo mentioned a partnership they began with Greenpeace, with the two groups launching a campaign against Shell’s choice to drill in the Arctic. As a result of that campaign, the oil conglomerate eventually withdrew from the area.
Students who attended the Yes Men’s events at Yale praised their collaborative, discussion-heavy approach.
Indrani Lukomski ’15, who participated in the workshop, said she appreciated the opportunity to brainstorm outside of a traditional academic setting. She added that she thinks more mainstream Yale courses, while not unsupportive, do not always encourage her or her classmates to pursue their own activist projects, and that the workshop provided an opportunity to consider how they might be able to engage in such initiatives themselves.
“We all came out with the sense that we could do something,” Lukomski said.
Bichlbaum added that he thinks anything accomplished by his and Bonanno’s work is part of a collective effort.
“We contribute, but in the end, it takes many activists, many people and an entire movement to achieve something,” he said.
The Yes Men’s visit to Yale was sponsored by the School of Art, the Digital Media Center for the Arts and the Film and Media Studies Program.