A video of The Yes Men’s most famous prank- appearing on BBC as Dow Chemical and assuming full responsibility (and legal liability) for the Bhopal Chemical Disaster. The prank caused Dow’s stock to drop by Billions in a single day.
This is two-part interview we conducted with some of the world’s most famous and destructive pranksters – The Yes Men! Long before Banksy, The Yes Men were (and still are!) using art and satire to take on the world’s largest organizations, governments and corporations.
We spoke with Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, the two main minds behind the Yes Men. Our chat is below!
Asia Art Tours: Next, I’d like to examine your prank against Dow Chemicals (the fake apology to Bhopal and fake dissolving of Union Carbide) Could you describe some of the preparations that went into making this stunt?
The Yes Men: Well, it was both years in the making and one week in the making depending on how you look at it. Two years before we had the invite to go on the BBC, we had made a fake Dow website that got lots of attention – including a NY times story. But we didn’t expect that two years later a BBC researcher would think it was the real Dow site and invite us to appear on their premier global news program. When that happened we only had a week to prepare – and that was kind of easy because we just had to re-familiarize ourself with the demands that activists had of Dow, and to recast them in Dow’s own voice.
AAT: How did you prepare yourself mentally for legal & physical punishment?
YM: We didn’t really prepare… we would just get nervous! As it happened the physical punishment never happened, and the legal punishment was very limited… we only actually got sued once. And that suit was eventually withdraw, much to our chagrin.
AAT: What does it say about the Capitalist system that your stunt (of ostensibly doing the right thing with an apology and restitution) caused Dow’s stock to lose billions? But then revealing that it was the hoax, caused billions of dollars in profit to return to Dow?
YM: That is one of the big lessons learned in our second movie – The Yes Men Fix the World. The marketplace has no moral compass, and it will reward repugnant actions if they are profitable. We learned that doing the right thing, for a corporate manager, is basically impossible. If the manager knows that doing the right thing loses money, then its often even illegal! This tells us we need to change the system… regulate against the bad things.
(Credit Rolling Stone- The Yes Men in recent years have focused extensively on Climate Change. Here is a video of the Yes Men as “Shell Executives” selling sno-cones from the last icebergs of the melting North Pole).
AAT: This dovetails into the last prank I wanted to discuss: your fake campaign for George W. Bush Jr. who was one of the most parodied presidencies in living memory. But these parodies did nothing to stop his policies or politics.
What does the diminishing power of parody for figures like Bush or Trump tell us and what lessons have you learned from your parody of the Bush campaign that you would wish to pass along to current activists working against neoliberal or far-right politicians?
YM: Indeed, its questionable whether parody can be an effective tactic against a Trump. It certainly has not been for us. That is why we have focused more on trying to work with electoral politics to change things for the moment. There may be useful things that we can do outside of this – we are working on that! If you read Gene Sharp for example, then the way to kicking him out is eroding his pillars of support… he is more slippery than teflon but not everyone he works with is.
(One of the Yes Men’s darkest pranks was the “Acceptable Risk Calculator” they unveiled a mascot called “Gilda the Golden Skeleton” at a corporate conference, then proceed to discuss how deaths were acceptable, so long as the payout for corporate liability was less than the profit made. Numerous corporations use this model when making decisions today, though they don’t put it out in the open with a Golden Skeleton!)
AAT: Turning now to the present, what current structural weaknesses within political /capitalist organizations do you recommend activists target? And are there starting to appear new technologies to assist in the activism of future generations of Yes Men? (For example: Have you become interested in Deep Fake technology (as evidenced by recent parody videos of Mark Zuckerberg)?)
YM: Sadly, social media has for the most part been anti-social. Surely there are ways to harness it but I’m not sure yet how! If you know please do tell us. We have been interested in the Deepfake videos, but we’re not sure yet how to use them ethically. There is something not very fun about them. Compare them to actually sneaking into somewhere with a Zuckerberg impersonator… and having that guy taken as real. That seems really much more sporting. And then what it always comes down to with any tool is what you do with it. like, what does Zuckerberg actually say???
AAT: If we win, who is the WE and what do we WIN? Are the Yes Men fighting against the excesses of capitalism because they believe capitalism can be saved? or do they believe we need to go beyond capitalism? And if so where?
YM: We definitely need something different than capitalism. There are many great ideas. Zillions! Some are already working pretty well. At this moment it seems like we need to try to patch shit up fast with a post-ideological approach. Before the environmental collapse accelerates, we need to start dealing with it. Building a bunch of walls does not solve the problem – but if we deal with the reasons people have to migrate, we might start solving it.
(The Yes Men early on were active supporters of Occupy Wall Street. Activists and academics are still exploring this protest event for all the incredible art that it produced. Like this set piece “The Bull, The Matador and The 99%” from the Yes Men)
AAT: Lastly to end on a note for activists, what works of art (museum or otherwise) have inspired or continued to inspire your satiric sensibilities? And in your own words, why is art critical to protest?
YM: I’ve always liked the movements that are highly political – like Dada, for example, or Situationism. And there are always great things being made. Some of the stuff that Banksy does is just off the charts. There is lots of great public stuff – interventions, etc. But the galleries and institutions are mostly dead. I don’t even much care about institutional critique anymore – as far as criticizing the art world goes that is. I mean, Hans Haacke’s stuff about ownership in art was absolutely brilliant, but forty years on we are looking at a landscape in which the commercial art world seems so disconnected from reality – and so much just another facet of capitalism – that its unredeemable.
But, art is critical to protest in the expanded sense because it is the symbolic actions of social movements that are remembered and re-told. It is these stories that become the memory and contribute momentum to movements, which in turn bring change. So art — creative practices – have some heavy lifting to do when it comes to change. Art enables the expression dreams that can be goals — an imagined better future that with enough planning and cooperation can actually be our destination.
We end with The Ted Talk the Yes Men gave at Cal Arts. Talking about how anyone can be a protester, anyone can be an activist, and anyone can creatively disobey the rules. I highly recommend that if you can only watch one video, make it this one!
For more information on amazing artists, satirists, thinkers and activists in Asia, contact us! Email Matt@asiaarttours.com today to meet the Yes Men and Women of Asia.