When Andy Bichlbaum Said Yes: How a Video Programmer Became an Activist and Filmmaker (Web Exclusive)
by Dan Lybarger
Increasingly, technology has enabled the high-spirited, the idealistic, and the frustrated to speak truth to platitudes by escorting satire from her perch onstage and on the page into the street with a practice some call "Impostorizational Comedy." This refers to a comic venture into ordinary life by actors who adopt personae and entice unsuspecting people to play along with their charades. In this brash vein, Allen Funt made himself a household word in the long ago 1960s with his television show Candid Camera. In front of his hidden cameras, people were lured into conversations with talking mailboxes and vending machines and into other situations that playfully shocked them out of their stock responses. Today Sacha Baron Cohen has achieved notoriety with his much more socially relevant disguises as Borat and Bruno, by means of which he hilariously preserves on film the anti-Semitism and homophobia of the unaware and the gullible. As "impostorizators," Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, also known as the Yes Men, have even more ambitious political goals. They have not yet attained widespread fame for their socially motivated pranks. But their audacity, yes, of hope, chronicled in their documentary film The Yes Men Fix the World (2009) takes to new quixotic heights the art of stripping naked the status quo, in all its absurdity and inhumanity, before a huge audience.
Bichlbaum and Bonanno do not target the “man in the street.” They entice into their webs of guerrilla theater people with the power to right the wrongs they or others have inflicted. With a breathtaking fearlessness they have posed as representatives from Dow Chemical and HUD, among others, searching for strategies to shock people into awareness of some disturbing truths about the way our socio-economic institutions function. In The Yes Men Fix the World they have caught on camera journalists, corporate leaders, businessmen, and politicians (such as former Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin) in the act of falling victim to their unique form of practical jokes, which the duo calls “identity corrections.”
The Yes Men Fix the World is a picaresque adventure in outrageously high-spirited “impostorization.” It begins with a 2004 stunt at the BBC, as they engineer Bichlbaum's appearance on the air as “Dow official Jude Finisterra,” who declares that the corporation will finally, after twenty years, clean up the environmental damage from the 1984 chemical leak in Bhopal, India. The immediate result of this prank was that Dow’s stock plummeted; the corporation lost two billion dollars twenty-three minutes after Bichlbaum went on the air. (Bichlbaum and Bonanno wonder why our economic system punishes people at the mere suspicion that they want to do good.) The hoax, however, was soon exposed—and might have been stopped earlier if the BBC had noticed that Jude is the patron saint of lost causes and “Finisterra” is Latin for the end of the earth. The long-term effects of the joke are imponderable. Dow was not inspired to repent. But did the Yes Men help in some small way by jolting audience complacency and shaming Dow? The BBC did not think so. It accused the Yes Men of committing a “cruel hoax” on Bhopal, of raising false hopes. Typically, Bichlbaum and Bonanno refused to take the word of the BBC that Bhopalis broke into tears when they learned Dow had authorized no reparation and set off for Bhopal, where they, as they claim, found that people were thrilled by their refusal to let the matter die.
The Yes Men Fix The World is filled with similar exposés of industrialists who have imbibed what Bichlbaum and Bonanno call “Free Market Kool-Aid,” a euphoric toxin that leads ordinary people to lose all concern for human life if there is a profit to be made. At a conference in Calgary, posing as ExxonMobil employees, they test whether the oil men there are willing to accrue financial gains by signing on to ExxonMobil’s proposed new fuel “Vivoleum,” which uses fresh human corpses as an energy source. While many in their audience exhibit disgust with the idea, no one seems to recognize the analogy with the present policy of oil for blood. In another sequence, posing as Halliburton employees, they present to a receptive audience a wearable environment they call the “SurvivaBall,” a parody of a protective suit that, in fact, insulates its owner from the very pollution created by Halliburton. To their shame, the auditors are more interested in turning themselves into something that resembles a cross between a Teletubby and a cartoon of a giant amoeba, in which a person can barely move or see what is around him/her, than in environmental cleanup or, better yet, clean industrial practices—a thought that apparently occurred to no one viewing the SurvivaBall demonstration. Yet the Yes Men also uncover the desire of people to do the right thing with a little leadership from the government, when they pose as HUD executives in New Orleans and are acclaimed (until their hoax is exposed) by real-estate wheeler dealers who are thrilled to be able to help with a “renewed government commitment” to affordable housing for working-class people.
Many of their gags can be construed as sophomoric, but a more serious reservation about their work is whether the people from New Orleans and Bhopal whom they record on film really do represent the majority of the people in those locations in their praise of the Yes Men. Were there also a significant number of Bhopalis and New Orleans residents who found their humor cruel rather than liberating? What are the full range of results of such street theater? Does their irrepressibility make up for what they lack in self-criticism?
In any case, the Yes Men are a wild and wooly fact. Bichlbaum and Bonanno have had a long history of impostorizing. Before they took on harmful corporate and government practices, they publicly assumed the identities of Jacques Servin, a computer-game programmer who got fired because he included in a SimCopter computer game some hunky men in swimsuits who would kiss on certain dates, and Igor Vamos, an Instructor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Bonanno was also a member of the Barbie Liberation Organization, a group devoted to substituting much more interesting voice boxes in Barbies and G.I. Joes than the ones with which they were “born,” altering a Malibu Barbie, for example, to scream, “Vengeance is mine!” Their Yes Men adventures began in 1999, with a series of satirical Web sites created by Bichlbaum and Bonanno that look remarkably like the official sites they lampoon. It was their faux Dow Web site that gained them their invitation to speak on the BBC on the occasion of the Bhopal anniversary, and their other Web sites have similarly resulted in invitations to speak at conferences or on television. In 2004, they made a documentary called The Yes Men, to which The Yes Men Fix the World is a successor. The sequel, which is set for theatrical release in New York City on October 7, shows the Yes Men reaching larger audiences with their pranks than in the 2004 film, but their stunts are similarly irreverent and relevant.
Cineaste caught up with Bichlbaum this past spring at the True/False Documentary Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri, where he was presenting The Yes Men Fix the World. The film played to a full house and a standing ovation, unsurprising considering that it took the Audience Prize at this year’s Berlinale. In person, Bichlbaum looks nothing like the corporate shills he often impersonates with eerie accuracy. Instead of the suits he wears on duty, he was sporting a worn sweater over his shirt. And, for a fellow who’s usually in disguise, Bichlbaum was surprisingly open about his views and about how jokes might indeed fix the world.—Dan Lybarger and Martha Nochimson
Cineaste: How did you and Mike Bonanno start doing this?
Andy Bichlbaum: Friends put us in touch a long time ago. I did the swimsuit thing in SimCopter, and he did the Barbie thing.
Cineaste: How did you get into the pranks?
Bichlbaum: We didn’t choose it. It chose us. It started in 1999 when we wanted to go to the anti-World Trade Organization mobilization in Seattle and couldn’t make it. So we set up a fake WTO Web site and found ourselves getting invitations to appear as the WTO.
We don’t think this is more valuable than any other thing we could have done. We stumbled into it, and we both have mischievous streaks and enjoy this sort of thing. There’s tons of more valuable activism going on around the world. It’s just our little contribution.
Cineaste: Do you have any problems with attorneys contacting you?
Bichlbaum: We have no problem with it. They can contact us all they want. It gives us fodder. We get these e-mails and then recycle them. How we’ve done everything we’ve done is thanks to attorneys contacting us. Nobody noticed the fake WTO Web site until the WTO wrote us and said, “Look what you’ve done. You’ve made us write a press release about your stupid Web site.” And nobody had read it until we blasted [the e-mail] out to a bunch of journalists, and people saw it and made fun of the WTO, drawing attention to us instead of all the protestors. And that made it get into the search engine rankings, and that’s why we started getting invitations. We had the Bush Web site (www.gwbush.com), which led George W. Bush to declare, “There ought to be limits to freedom.” We drove a lot of press to that. Whenever they do that, we try to use it. Nobody’s ever tried to sue us or do anything like that. Are there any attorneys around?
Cineaste: How do you get away with it?
Bichlbaum: The trick is being ready to make a big noise about it afterwards. The law is unclear about these things. We used to ask lawyers before we’d do these things, actually. We were kind of nervous, and we would ask people we knew who had studied law, and depending on which school they went to and what course they had taken, they’d answer something else. We ended up just listening to the ones we wanted to listen to, and they turned out to be right. Nothing was going to happen to us. Really, the law is pretty flexible and based on precedent in this country. If you do it, they can sue you regardless of whether it’s legal. And if it’s a bit illegal, they can choose not to sue you.
Cineaste: But how did you do New Orleans? Did HUD invite you?
Bichlbaum: How did we do it technically? We wanted to go to New Orleans to do some filming with Katrina because it fit into the theme of the movie with global warming and all that. So we thought as long as we’re there, we might as well do something like we do. We talked with some people there who were trying to protect public housing through the grapevine, just friends of friends, and said, “Look, we’re coming. What should we do?” They said, “Why don’t you do something like you did on the BBC with Bhopal? Do the right thing in the name of the government.” And they found the conference. That was one year after Katrina.
The way we got invited was to pose as a public-relations company and say that our client was HUD and wanted to come speak at their conference, but please keep it secret. We told them to keep it quiet, and this is something that isn’t in the current version of the movie, but they didn’t keep it quiet. They told the Governor’s office and the Mayor’s office that the Secretary of HUD was likely to be speaking at the conference. So that’s why the Mayor [Ray Nagin] and the [former] Governor [Kathleen Blanco] showed up. I think they were disappointed when it was just me.
Sometimes it’s simpler. Sometimes it’s just people stumbling on to our Web sites. Sometimes it’s searching on Google for speaking opportunities and getting a bunch of Web forms you can fill out. If there’s a particular conference you’re interested in speaking at, you can say you’re with a company and go. You have to pay the money, but you can film it. They never balk at cameras.
Cineaste: Are you worried about having your faces on an America’s Most Wanted poster?
Bichlbaum: If only. So far it hasn’t impeded things. There was a movie about us a few years ago, and for the last four conferences we’ve done, the Exxon one, the HUD one, not the Halliburton one, but a couple that aren’t in the movie, there have been people who recognized us or me on stage, but they haven’t disrupted us. They just asked for business cards afterwards and congratulated us basically.
Hopefully, this will just continue. There’s no rocket science to this. Anybody can do it, and if you go to these conferences, it seems like everybody else is already doing it. You learn about things like “an indifference curve about language.” But they go off on these crazy things that are obviously made up. Anybody can do it. It’s a fun form of tourism; it’s no more expensive than other forms of tourism.
Cineaste: When I see the footage that you show of other reporters covering you, it seems that few of the reporters ask you why you’re doing the prank. Instead the story focuses more on the hoax.
Bichlbaum: That’s just the footage that we’ve put in there because it’s dramatic. One thing we do each time we do a prank is send out a press release to a big list of journalists, like 80,000. They circulate in the media or among people. The press releases get out there and focus attention when they’re reprinted in articles. They have to explain what happened. With the BBC thing, something like 900 articles appeared in the U.S. press. And they all had to explain that Dow had bought Union Carbide and is responsible for the situation. To explain the hoax, they had to explain that. It’s not all as vacuous as what we’ve chosen.
Cineaste: How did you get the funding for this?
Bichlbaum: Mainly ourselves, although the Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation helped a lot. They funded us early on, and quickly. But we basically funded it out of our pockets. We have jobs. It kind of replaced vacationing for a while. It’s no more expensive than flying to Mexico, and all the help was volunteer.
Cineaste: What role does humor play in your activism?
Bichlbaum: People like to laugh. A lot of journalists want to write about these things and would write about these things—like the twentieth anniversary of the Bhopal catastrophe—if they had a choice. But the organs they’re a part of won’t let them or don’t think it’s important just because it’s a huge anniversary and there’s still a struggle to get reparations and get the site cleaned up. They won’t cover it unless there’s something else. We provide that something else. Our choices are humor or violence, I guess, and humor’s funnier.
Cineaste: Who’s next on your hit list?
Bichlbaum: It’s basically all of us. With The New York Times thing [a prank in late 2008 involving the distribution of a fake edition of The New York Times], we basically tried to communicate that electing Obama, for example, or clamping down on particular targets, is not enough at all. Real change has only ever happened when we’ve all risen up and made it happen. Historically, that’s the only way change has happened, regardless of who’s elected. Roosevelt wouldn’t have done what he did. Lincoln wouldn’t have done what he did. He wouldn’t have abolished slavery if there hadn’t already been a massive movement demanding it and that got stronger as he got elected, taking courage from the election. It’s really changing the structures of things and figuring out ways to mobilize people that’s going to get things done.
Cineaste: Where did you get your information about the situation in New Orleans? Because most of the people didn’t know that adequate public housing was being destroyed, and that people who were living there and who could rebuild the city were being kicked out.
Bichlbaum: They needed a workforce, and they had thousands of people wanting to work, right? And they said, no, you can’t come. We’re not going to give you your housing back. It was pretty shocking. It was pretty pathetic that it wasn’t covered in the media. But we learned about it through friends of friends involved in activist struggles of various sorts. Among activists it was known that that was what was going on. The right of return was being fought for.
Cineaste: This is the first film you have made yourselves.
Bichlbaum: This is our first film. We kept getting these invitations, and at a certain point decided to make a film ourselves about it. Our angle was to give a voice to these victims of the policies that we’re talking about and give a direction for people to go, if they want to get involved. And we wanted to make it very funny, so we just did it.
Cineaste: You two actually went to Bhopal instead of merely pulling the prank.
Bichlbaum: Yeah, that’s right, because it just seemed like the obvious thing to do. The media had reported that there were false hopes. We actually knew before we went to Bhopal that that was false. But we met some activists who told us that, no, they’d been thrilled by it. It still seemed like the right thing to do to go to the place.
We wanted to see what it was like. We knew that it was a very exciting struggle that they were engaged in. These people have been fighting for twenty years to redress this wrong and not just for themselves, because they don’t have any illusion that Dow is going to pay up any time soon. But they want to keep the spotlight on Dow, and they want to keep the spotlight on this issue where a company can kill 20,000 or more people.
Cineaste: We’re not talking about the first few weeks? We’re talking about long-term, as a result of the chemicals in the water?
Bichlbaum: If you talk about that, the number goes up. There are around 120,000 people who need life-long medical care. Over the weeks and months following the catastrophe, there were 20,000 people dead from the ground water and all those various things. The estimates vary because the people who died were overwhelmingly extremely poor.
It’s hard to keep track of people who don’t use phones. In fact, these people settled around Bhopal’s Union Carbide plant. They were living in shantytowns surrounding the plant. Those were the people who died—they actually ended up in those shantytowns because they were kicked off their land. They had been farmers and made their living in an agrarian economy that was destroyed by Union Carbide, among other companies. The very technology that they had at that plant, which was part of the “green revolution” industrializing agriculture, resulted in a lot of farmers getting kicked off their land. So where did they go? They settled wherever they could, and one of the places was surrounding that plant.
Cineaste: A lot of that is happening in Central America. Is that correct?
Bichlbaum: Yeah, everywhere in the world. In India, it’s really dramatic. You hear about this rising middle class, which does exist. I don’t know what the numbers are, but it’s in the tens of millions, certainly. But the country has 1.2 billion people, and overwhelmingly it’s been bad for them.
Cineaste: These folks can’t even farm anymore.
Bichlbaum: They can’t do that. It’s all industrial. It’s a money economy now. So you’re expected to make a living somehow, and spend the money to get stuff.
Cineaste: Since your earlier anti-World Trade Organization campaigns, has it been easier or harder to pull off your events?
Bichlbaum: It’s become easier because we’ve gotten the hang of it and realized what the steps are. “Oh, here’s an invitation. Here’s what we do.” It’s always exciting and surprising.
Cineaste: But you’ve been caught at various stages during your campaign?
Bichlbaum: No! Caught? No. No. Never!
The honest truth is that on the Exxon one we were caught, right towards the end. You see it in the film, actually. The security guards took us off and kept us in a cell for a while. They detained us in the stadium complex, and then when the cops arrived, they actually laughed.
Cineaste: Is the fact that people do fall for this stuff disturbing to you?
Bichlbaum: Oh, sure. It’s always disturbing, but at the same time it’s natural. It isn’t so much disturbing that people fall for it or that people believe it. It’s that they don’t reject it once they believe it. I go to the theater, and I sit there, and I forget that it’s a movie. That’s why we have movies. So it’s great that we can do that. But if you’re seeing something that you think is true, and it’s evil, you should probably stand up and do something about it. What’s disturbing is that people don’t do that. That’s kind of a known problem. [laughs]
Cineaste: What really got to me when I saw the first Yes Men film was that the only audience members who objected to some of the horrible things you were saying were the college students. All of the adults just nodded their heads when you said, “Slavery had advantages for management.”
Bichlbaum: Students are kind of in the business of thinking, right? As they get older, it gets much less lucrative to think and to doubt the system that you’re part of. We kind of find that the higher the education level, the less they tend to question.
What we propose in these things is often just a variant of what people already believe. From the outside, it’s definitely horrible. But it’s not so obvious sometimes if you’re in the middle of it. That’s what we want to show: these awful things that are actually what they [the targets of the pranks] already think.
Cineaste: It led me to think that the “Invisible Hand” is invisible because it doesn’t exist.
Bichlbaum: It exists, all right, and it is invisible. But you can feel it. For the last thirty years we’ve felt the invisible hand of the market spanking us. It’s hurt. We’ve seen a decline in our standard of living in the United States, and in other parts of the world we’ve seen excruciating poverty and inequality rising. And now we’re seeing the looming potential destruction of the earth. We’ve seen the destruction of all kinds of ways of life around the world. That’s the hand of the free, unregulated market.
Cineaste: And some free marketers have received government support.
Bichlbaum: It’s heavily subsidized. They only want it to be free so far. Regardless, the whole idea of a free market is preposterous. Everybody knows the government has to do stuff first for stuff to happen. Why do we have the Internet? Why do we have what little health care we do have? Education? None of that stuff would happen without it. The problem is that the government just serves to help corporations get richer.
Cineaste: As you point out in the film, one of the government officials overseeing petroleum was a former ExxonMobil CEO.
Bichlbaum: That’s the system we’re stuck with right now. Exxon CEOs become advisors to the government on energy. I think Obama’s made some moves toward making that sort of thing illegal, which is great and definitely has to happen. Change really has to happen that way. There are evil companies, like Exxon and Halliburton, but really it’s the system that has to change.
Cineaste: As a viewer of the film, I caught on to the ruse right away, while the audience within the film just sits there and nods. Do you think a cinema viewer has an advantage over the crowd you’re speaking to?
Bichlbaum: Of course. It’s all for the viewer. We couldn’t care less about the audience there. We originally did it thinking it might enlighten people. We might do this ridiculous thing, and people would go, “Oh, I get it. You’re saying that what we believe is stupid.” It’s kind of crazy.
Cineaste: Are either you or Mike Bonanno professional performers?
Bichlbaum: No. I was actually kicked out of a play in college. I got the role, I guess, by auditioning pretty well. But then I couldn’t actually keep it up, and I got kicked out.
Cineaste: But as Granwyth Hulatberi, you sound like a typical CNBC talking head.
Bichlbaum: We all know that stuff. We know how to do it because we see it so much. You can just turn it on. You have to enjoy the idea of doing that. It’s not that hard. There are so many hundreds and thousands of people who do that for a living. You learn the basic techniques. You can figure it out. You just answer any question however you want. That’s the main technique. You figure out what you want to say and just answer it. You know it; I know it. We all can do it.
Dan Lybarger is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Kansas City Star, Filmfax, and the online version of Script.
To Buy The Yes Men, click here.