PUTNEY—Andy Bichlbaum, half of the culture-jamming activist duo The Yes Men, brought his skill for storytelling and “making meaningful mischief” to Landmark College last month as part of the college’s Academic Speaker Series.
Bichlbaum and Mike Bonnano (né Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos), as they are known when acting as The Yes Men, bring performance art to political activism, using much-needed humor to draw attention to dehumanizing government and corporate practices.
As their website says, part of their mission is “impersonating big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them."
Some of their past capers include printing and distributing fake editions of The New York Times and the New York Post, posing as a Dow Chemical spokesperson on BBC World to announce Dow would sell Union Carbide to fund reimbursing victims of the 1984 Bhopal disaster, and creating a fake World Trade Organization website that led to the duo advocating slavery to international corporate leaders.
During Bichlbaum’s March 28 evening presentation at Landmark, he told the story of his accidental entry into activism. It all started when he tried to get vacation time from his job as senior programmer — a job he said he got by “forging a resume."
Bichlbaum knew his boss wouldn’t grant him time off, so he tried a creative approach. Bichlbaum wrote some code for SimCopter, the violent computer game he was working on. At random points in the game, the screen would fill with hunky men in swimsuits, kissing each other.
“I was fired in about a week,” Bichlbaum told the audience at Landmark, but “I wasn’t traumatized from being fired. It was sort of the object of the game."
Although Bichlbaum said he didn’t intend the prank as a political action, the press quickly viewed it as one. This was during the late-1990s, when ACT-UP staged AIDS-awareness events such as enveloping Senator Jesse Helms’ house in a giant condom.
“I started thinking of ways to do this more,” Bichlbaum said.
Shortly after the SimCopter episode, friends introduced Bichlbaum to Bonnano, a member of the Barbie Liberation Organization (BLO), the group responsible for the early-1990s prank of switching the voice-boxes in talking Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls and then surreptitiously placing them back on store shelves.
Since then, Bichlbaum said, he and Bonnano have been “enjoying ourselves with mischief and politics and trying to make it useful."
The pair have released three documentaries, and other films and a book have documented their projects. These days, The Yes Men’s website says they are focusing their energies on The Yes Lab (yeslab.org), “to help progressive organizations build Yes Men-style actions into their campaigns."
In addition to the opportunity to tell funny stories about political pranks, this is what brought Bichlbaum to Landmark.
Hours before the evening presentation, Bichlbaum, as The Yes Lab, led Landmark students in a workshop on civic action.
Ben Somin, the event’s associate producer and a student at Landmark, said the workshop gave him an opportunity to learn “another layer... that I didn’t already know” about how the media works.
From Bichlbaum, Somin said the group learned “there is a lot about protest and politics that is performance, that is theater."
“What Andy conveyed was you don’t need a traditional protest” to make a difference, Somin said, adding, “one person can do an action."
He characterized Bichlbaum as “curious about people, and Landmark and its academic mission."
The Commons asked Bichlbaum if, based on his experience with college students, he agrees with the notion that younger generations are apathetic and selfish.
“In the last five years, [young] people want to get into politics. I see them letting go of this promise of a comfortable lifestyle ‘if you play by the rules.’ The Occupy movement and Arab Spring made activism sexier and more interesting,” Bichlbaum said.
“I’m excited to see what happens in the next few years,” he said.
He also mentioned the popularity of the “activist media,” naming members such as Naomi Klein and Michael Moore.
The Commons asked if there is anything in Vermont Bichlbaum would like to see receive The Yes Men treatment.
In response, he suggested citizens pay close attention to local issues, calling them “crucial."
During the evening presentation — and afterward, in casual hallway chats with students — Bichlbaum fielded a number of questions from attendees.
To a query about how one lives in a world where many actions cause the exploitation of others, Bichlbaum said, “we’re all compromised."
“There are no good solutions to some things,” he said, adding that one “can’t be a purist — we all wear clothes, use fuel, and eat meat."
In response to a question about whether The Yes Men’s work has become more difficult “as technology catches up to you,” Bichlbaum said, “yes. “
“Some of the old techniques still work, though,” he said, offering the examples of fake press releases and hoax websites the duo have created, such as coalcares.com. Under the guise of a site sponsored by Chevron, Westmoreland Coal, and other petroleum and coal companies, childhood asthma is presented as “cool."
“For kids who have no choice but to use an inhaler, Coal Cares lets them inhale with pride,” the website says. It offers a free inhaler, with images of teen pop stars and popular cartoons printed on the barrels, to any family living within 200 miles of a coal plant.
One attendee asked Bichlbaum if, due to the precarious nature of satire and how easily it can backfire, he and Bonnano ever have to “break the schtick” to get the point across?
He said yes, and when that happened, “at first we were disappointed: We went to all this trouble and you didn’t even notice!” But then the duo realized the audience became the actors. Since the cameras were rolling, Bichlbaum said the best solution was to try “coming up with the most obnoxious thing within a hair’s breadth of the truth."
In the end, “we always reveal the falsity, unlike COINTELPRO, right-wing activists, and the PR machine,” Bichlbaum said.
The Occupy movement inspired some back-and-forth. Bichlbaum asserts that although some believe Occupy was unsuccessful in its mission, he disagrees.
Bichlbaum offered the Occupy movement in response to a question about morale, as in, how do you keep it going when The Yes Men are not achieving their desired effect?
“Even failed actions do something — they get the message across,” he said, noting the media attention from Occupy likely inspired the election of New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio and the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.
He noted the movement “really lifted up” his and Bonnano’s spirits. “They helped us see the relevance” of The Yes Men, Bichlbaum said.
“It takes a long time for things to change,” Bichlbaum said, noting that by itself, sometimes an action or protest does not win, “but every major movement — the end of slavery, women’s rights, gay rights — eventually wins."