The truth is a threat

The Yes Men

It was a match just waiting to happen: Even before knowing each other, they were artists of the subtle, humorous unsettling of our generally accepted reality. Andy Bichlbaum, then employed by Maxis - but secretly acting on orders by Rtmark - was responsible for the virtual passers-by in the videogame-world of SimCopter turning into gay bodybuilders on certain dates. Mike Bonanno and the Barbie Liberation Organization bought talking Barbie- and G.I.Joe-Dolls, switched their voiceboxes and got them - via what they called "shopgiving" - back onto shelves, resulting in kids finding under their Christmas trees plastic soldiers squealing "I wanna go shopping with you!" or miniature blondes growling about dead men telling no tales.

When they had finally met, they turned their combined creative, subversive energy towards the Internet: They first got attention with a fake homepage for George W.Bush. And then they secured the domain name GATT, under which they built a fake website, allegedly ("GATT" being the basis for the World Trade Organization) belonging to the WTO - which turned out to be so convincing that pretty soon the first sincere enquiries addressed to the WTO arrived via e-mail.

Bichlbaum and Bonanno - now calling themselves The Yes Men - took advantage of the opportunity: Soon, they began to represent the WTO not only in virtual space, but accepted invitations to conferences in its name, or provided interviewees for TV-discussions. After a rather timid debut at a conference in Salzburg, they soon realized that, unlike expected, their fraud wasn't immediately exposed as soon as they started presenting certain ideas of the WTO in crass carricature. So their appearances became more and more daring and bizarre: They introduced audiences to a golden leisure suit for managers ("The Future of Textiles") that had a giant inflatable phallus, with a monitor screen at its tip that allowed remote supervision of the workers toiling in far away low-wage countries. They presented a project for recycling the feces of Western industrialized nations into second-generation McDonald's hamburgers for famined regions. And finally, they even proclaimed to the world's press that the WTO was dismantling itself.

Now Chris Smith, Dan Ollman and Sarah Price have made a documentary feature about The Yes Men that was shown to a widley enthusiastic audience at this year's Berlin film festival. There, telepolis-freelancer Thomas Willmann met Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno for the following interview.

How do I know that you're the real Yes Men and not someone from the WTO posing as The Yes Men?
Mike: I guess you don't. And neither do we, really. (Laugh) That's the problem. Usually we ask ourselves that question of each other.
Andy: It's very MATRIX...
I guess you're lucky that the people from the WTO aren't that creative. I mean, wouldn't that be a good way for them to get back at you?
Mike: It would be. But actually we find that they are incredibly creative. This idea that they have about the way the world economy functions is a very creative thing. It's very speculative and open, and no matter what kinds of bad results they seem to be getting, they manage to come up with creative solutions to make their policies and theories still hold water, you know... Like: "We haven't applied the austerity measures enough. It must be more austere. You must put on more golden straightjackets, and eventually we all reap the benefits and everyone will prosper." So, we think they're super-creative - unfortunately too creative...
Andy: Creative with the wrong material...
Mike: Yeah. It's sad.
How big of a threat are you to them in their perception?
Andy: They were worried a bit. We're of course not any sort of a threat at all, really. Other people are.
Mike: The kind of popularization of the idea that they've created an illusion IS a threat to them. It's not us in particular, but it's all of these different groups that are beginning to suddenly look at the facts - or that have been looking at the facts for many years... As more and more people begin to familiarize themselves with the facts of how these policies are affecting people - then it's a threat.
Andy: In fact there are some documents that were leaked to the World Development Movement, they talk about the World Development Movement and speak about specific campaigns they are having and how to counter these campaigns. Because they perceive those as a very real threat. So they definitely do perceive THAT as a threat.
Mike: The truth is a threat.
Andy: The truth. Anybody how is like systematically examining the facts of the last forty years and revealing them, where their theories were wrong.
How much theory do YOU have behind what you're doing?
Andy: We have other people's theory.
Mike: No, we don't actually have any.
Andy: There's the theory that truth is important...
Mike: We haven't needed to look at theory, because we have these facts that we can go in armed with. And since we're not in the position of power... The people in power are the ones who are operating under this theoretical veil. We can simply say: Look at what's happening. And: Look at what you're doing. And they use their theories to defend themselves, but we can just say, in a kind of tactical way, we need to tear this thing down.
Andy: It is a theory that, like, "Fact matters". That's a theory, you know.
Mike: (laughs)
Andy: I mean, you can always say that you haven't bled the patient enough. That, if you'd have bled him a little more, then he would have recovered, you know. Argentina would have been okay if they had really 100% instead of 99% followed the IMF prescriptions, but they didn't. So that's a theory. But of course it's a theory to say that, no, that's not true, that the fact is that they followed these prescriptions and that's what... That's a theory.
Mike: It seems more likely. To a non-specialist. (laughs)
Andy: Certainly what worked in the 19th century - or the 18th century - for medicine, is being applied today. Leeches were actually used in the Soviet Union. You could go to a pharmacy, and there'd be a tub of leeches there. So...
Leeches are still in use. They have something in their saliva that acts as an anti-coagulant and actually has beneficial effects.
Mike: Yeah, they're back in now. Especially for bruises, getting rid of blood clots...
Andy: Wow, so maybe. So you think the IMF-policies may have some beneficial effect that is just mysteriously undiscovered so far...?
Mike: It could be, it could be. Well, the thing is: It's not like ALL of the theories that they have are wrong, and in some cases, the theory applied in just the right circumstances might be just the thing to help people. And that's the case with leeches, too. If there is a certain kind of blood clot, yes, it does produce a desirable result.
Andy: Well, the US and England are a perfect example of that. The theory applied at just the right moment. AFTER the US and English economies had developed to the point where they could defend themselves against global competition - then the theory of free markets was great, because, you know, we controlled the markets, so we could apply it and it would help us develop even more.
Mike: But applying it universally without looking at... and discounting effects of what happens on the ground, to individuals, and certain places, is the problem. It's like saying: Okay, leeches work to get rid of blood clots, so let's use them all over this person's body...
Andy: ...on ANY person's body, under any conditions...
Mike: ...and then this person's sucked dry.
Now there is that cool documentary about you. Isn't there a problem with that: The more publicity you get, the more easily you'll be recognized?
Mike: Of course there is a double edged sword. One of the goals of doing this is to get as much publicity as possible for the causes. If we ever get recognizable, we can always send other people to do it. It doesn't need to be us.
What might help the popularity of the movie here in Germany, if it should be picked up by a German distributor, is that you have this brief interview with Michael Moore in it, who is very popular here.
Mike: Michael Moore is in the movie because Chris, the director, had contacted him and had actually shot films for him before - he shot THE BIG ONE. So it was less us and more him that was able to get him to do an interview, but we're really happy that he did, because we always loved his books and movies and TV-shows.
Do you see what you're doing as being in a similar tradition?
Mike: Yeah, it's definitely in a related tradition.
Andy: We don't SEE what we do, period. Most of the time. (Laughter) But, yeah... We spend a lot of the time unconscious, just plowing forward...
Mike: Interesting.
Andy: No? I don't think we spend a lot of the time looking back and saying "Are we similar to that, or that...?".
Before, when I was asking about the theory behind what you're doing, I was thinking more along the lines of the political activism of the late '60s and '70s, which had lots and lots of theoretical background behind it. With people reading all these Marxist thinkers and very much applying them to what they were doing. Don't you have anything like that?
Andy: I'm sure we're influenced by that. I've read a lot of the situationists, absurdists and surrealists and stuff for years. But I don't consciously think: "Oh, this is..." I don't know. I'm sure it gets in there somehow...
Mike: There's a lot of stuff that I've looked into and studied. And I think we've both been familiar with satirists, you know, like Jonathan Swift. Even going back further: I mean, I find stuff in Aristophanes to be really compelling. Like "The Clouds", were the women take over the Acropolis and defend it against their men...
Andy: And Indian mythology. I remember meeting an Apache medicine man as a child who'd rearrange the furniture in his blind uncle's house just to see what would happen. He discovered that blind people can see! (Laughter) So it's things like that. All kinds of little experiences...
So you're not dogmatic about anything, like the political activism of the '60s was?
Andy: Well: Facts matter!
Mike: About that we're absolutely dogmatic.
Yet Homer Simpson says: "Facts are meaningless. You can prove anything that's remotely true with facts."
The Yes Men: (Laughter)
Mike: There is this funny way right now in American politics where facts really don't matter. It just matters how loudly you can speak. Bush, the other day - even though it's documented that he never showed up for his National Guard service in the sixties during the Vietnam War - the other day he made a televised address where he said: "I was there!" And then his spokesperson said: Well, he says he was there - he was there. And that's all that people are gonna need to hear - and CNN covered it that way, apparently, right?
Andy: Yeah, it just broadcast that and no critical voice about that, anybody saying: "So was he there or not? We don't know." This was just his spokesperson speaking.
Mike: There's already been lots of newspaper articles a long time ago that pretty much proved that he WASN'T there, by interviewing all the people who were his superiors. But if he can say it loudly, it's just, you know... People aren't getting that much critical opinion.
Andy: Or the idea that it was a fault of the Intelligence Agencies that no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq. That somehow the intelligence was wrong. Like there is something wrong with the CIA. As if! I mean, it's so proved in black and white on paper that the White House founded the Office of Special Plans in the Pentagon to sift through intelligence in their own way because the CIA wasn't doing it right. To come to the right conclusions. But they can just say, "Well, the CIA wasn't doing their job", and it's the Office of Strategic Plans who could say it wasn't actually examining direct intelligence. They just repeat it loudly enough...
When watching your movie, this was an aspect I found most fascinating: How realities are manufactured. Which is an aspect on a level that is even bigger than specific political activism.
Mike: We're in this field where all these fictions are being spun all the time. And so we end up getting a little creative about how WE create fictions in order to get at a truth. It's like the idea of "identity correction": Of assuming somebody's identity - which involves falsifying information - and impersonating somebody, which in the end has the goal of revealing something about those people. So it's about getting at a truth, but using the same sort of weapons of fiction that the people IN power use all the time.
Andy: Just using the press release, which is a form of fiction, in a way. And so much of the news IS corporate press releases or video news releases; everyone's using that.
How many people actually believed your press release about the WTO dismantling itself?
Andy: That was actually our only false press release that we've ever written. Everybody believed it. Well, not everybody. But a lot of people believed it. Because it was just so eminently reasonable.
Mike: The thing about that one was that people wanted to believe it. There were a lot of people who recognized that it was fake when they saw it, but they actually... You know, they wrote back to us and they said things like: "Well, I can't really believe this is true, but I wish it was."
In the movie, you speculate that people didn't get mad at your presentations because they were just what they expected from the WTO, or they consented with it. But sometimes I get the feeling that it also just says something about group behavior, and how politeness works in our society...
Mike: It's good to look at the Milgram experiment as a sort of clinical version of this phenomenon. Of people going along with authority. And then in a group, of course there are all kinds of group behavior experiments that show that as a group, people are even more willing... Not just experiments, but certain events in history, that have demonstrated that pretty clearly. Especially here...
Andy: It's hard to disentangle, but whatever the mechanisms are, the results are the same - it's happening there, and we're saying these things and they're going along with it. It might be because they're polite, but maybe that's why they go along with WTO policies, too, because they're polite. You know, like in Australia, when we told them the opposite and everything we really believed, they all very sincerely spoke up about having the same feelings and worrying about these things, too. So they ARE being polite when they go along with WTO policies, when they deal with it and just live with it.
Mike: The scary thing is: We're seeing that on a global level right now. We're seeing all of us kind of going along with this thing - many of us. In the places where those decisions are being made, kind of going along with it and considering it somehow vaguely acceptable, when in fact it's NOT acceptable at all.
Andy: On all kinds of levels, every day: Just going around cities, accepting things that are clearly horrific, like homelessness or chainstores. All these things...
Mike: ...that contain a level of violence within them, even you don't see it directly.
Andy: Or directly. With homelessness you see it directly. But the politeness maybe consists in not commiting violence against the chainstore...
Mike: There is this amazing thing like when we went to Australia and where able to, with the authority of the WTO, empower everybody to embrace a change and try to deal with these things in a way that was certainly more positive, or had as a bottom line the interests of humans and people, they were really enthusiastic. I think that was encouraging.
About that conference in Finland, where you basically defended slavery and presented that bizarre "leisure suit" for managers. It's obvious from your movie that you stayed at the conference after your presentation and talked to people there, but we don't get to see how that went. Did you get the feeling that people actually believed you were from the WTO?
Andy: My feeling is that they recognized that there was something funny about the inflation of a giant phallus, and they realized that maybe we weren't REALLY proposing that people should walk around with these things. But there were few people that I spoke to that said that... Like, one guy was kind of irritated by it, very serious-minded guy who just thought: "Why are you bothering to do this? We're not children." But then I prodded hiMike: "Well, okay, besides that, was there anything offensive in what I said?" - "No, not at all." He was a chemist...
Mike: And there was an Estonian guy who did actually totally get it, but he still assumed we were from the WTO. He said: "No, no, I understand this very well. I'm from Estonia - we lived with this under communism, we live with this today - there's a new person in charge and they take the golden phallus and they go "Bonk!" over your head with it." He just totally understood it, he was like: "Okay, this represents power. And you're just saying WE are under your boot. Okay. It's like that, that's the way it's been since I've been alive. I'm under your boot." And he joked about it. He said: "At least this is funny."
Andy: And then there was this guy from Holland who said, that... - well, he went beyond and off the subject completely, but he was saying: "Oh, you know, all these people who come to protest, they just shouldn't be there. I mean, you should be able to have your meetings in secret, undisturbed by public interaction," and he just kept going on and on. Maybe he was an impostor... (Laughs)
Was there a point at which the whole thing took on an aspect of you just trying to see what you could get away with?
Andy: The whole time, yeah. Each time it was: "When will they notice?" Yeah, I guess the immediate emotional experience was more like: How much can we get away with? But also it was: "What will these people put up with?"
Mike: And what does it take to actually create satire? For an audience that doesn't know that it's satire. Is it possible? And it turned out NOT to BE possible.
Andy: Intellectually we discovered that afterwards, yes.
Mike: At least for us it wasn't. I mean, we probably could have come up with something that was a straight-up parody. But to create something that was somewhat clever and satirical, it turned out to be very impossible - I mean, for that audience.
It just never, ever happend?
Mike: Well, it happend when we talked to the students, who hadn't been trained in economics. (Laughs)
But they were in an environment where it was expected of them to be critical and to argue.
Mike: Yeah, yeah. And some of them showed up TO protest. Some of the people in the audience showed up because they heard the WTO was going to be there and they wanted to say something against it. Somebody came with a big homemade sign that said "K.O. the WTO"...
But none of the students realized that you weren't actually from the WTO? Not even when you showed this computer animation of "1st world"-shit being pressed into hamburger-patties for the "3rd world"?
Andy: Maybe half of them realized that this couldn't possibly be the WTO.
Did you tell them afterwards?
Andy: Yes, the ones who asked. And then their professors told them. So it was a momentary trick.
Very different question: You're probably not paid by the WTO as well as their real representatives are. So how do you earn a living?
: A[Mike]: I work at a university, teaching. And so I get by. Andy: And I've done that before, I've taught at universities. And now I just live off grant money that we've been lucky to get. A few limited grants...
Is it really true what you say in the movie, that Herb Alpert, of "Herb Alpert and his Tijuana Brass"-fame, gave you a grant?
Andy: It's his foundation. He set up a foundation with money he made and set up an independent board of people just deciding in various categories, various arts what to give money to. It comes off kind of strangely in the film.
Mike: It was an art grant. We got a few other ones, too, from Creative Capital Foundation, and some other private foundations, like the Lyn Blumenthal Fund for Independet Film and Video,
Will your next projects be more stuff that involves going out into the world ans perform something, or is it more stuff on the internet?
Andy: Going out and performing.
So the whole internet aspect of it isn't that important for you anymore?
Andy: It is for getting invitations. That's all.
Mike: And there's a scary law that they're trying to pass in congress in the United States right now to put people away for an automatic sentence of seven years for falsifying "Who is"-information when they register a website. (The Fraudulent Online Identity Sanctions Act.)So if you register under an assumed name, supposedly you can automatically be sentenced to seven years in jail.
What are the chances of this law actually passing?
Mike: I don't really know. There are a bunch of civil liberties groups fighting it, because the claim is that it's the last place you can have public speech anonymously at a scale that allows people to receive it. And so the question they're really basing their arguments on is the question of the value of anonymous speech and what it means in culture and whether it's important to have it...
Andy: It's not unthinkable, though, because already in the U.S. you can't register a P.O. box anonymously.
Mike: Yeah, there's a good chance, unfortunately. It's thinkable. They're doing crazy things right now; like really, really crazy, stupid things, so this would just add to the list. In congress, people seem to be willing to pass anything.
And the problem is: Even if the hysteria will be gone some day, these laws won't be gone for a long time...
Mike: Yeah, that's a BIG problem.
Andy: Some of them are temporary, because they're so... Like, the USA Patriot Act is temporary, because nobody would accept these things as a permanent law, but the danger is that they'll get extended. And I think actually there was one that already has been extended that was supposed to expire quickly. Wasn't there?
Mike: I don't know... I know that they're there. They're on the books now. And you can still be taken away and put in the jail without any trial and without any knowledge of your charges. And that was upheld by the Supreme Court! Of the United States. A few months ago. They said: It's okay. Sure, you can lock up anybody who's a "suspected terrorist".
Andy: We don't have a good word for that in English. But we're looking for words. Because you can't use the word "concentration camp", or "gulag" for that, even though that's the closest thing to that. So we need a new word - for what Guantanamo Bay is.
How about "freedom camp"?
Andy: A freedom camp!
Mike: They also have them in New York, "freedom camps". There's more than just Guantnamo Bay - there's more "freedom camps".
Andy: Oh yeah, they're all over the world. There's actually one in Afghanistan.
Mike: Lots of "freedom camps". Let's just call them "French camps". (Laughter)
So, what specifically will be your next target?
Andy: Can't tell you...
Can you hint in a basic direction?
Andy: Evil...
Mike: Evildoers. We're going after the evildoers.
Andy: Even worse than the WTO...
Are you going to get involved in the elections somehow?
Andy: SOMEhow! (Laughter) Guess we could safely say that.
Well, I'll be looking forward to that. Thank you for the interview. (Thomas Willmann)