A revolting voice speaking to revolting authority: The Yes Men visit UCR

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Courtesy of The Yes Men.
Courtesy of The Yes Men.

Laughing at the apocalypse is hard work. Fortunately, we have people who make that work a little easier.

The Yes Men are a pair of professional pranksters (“professional” in the sense that they pull pranks all the time, and they’re quick to stress at being non-experts in what they do). The type of pranks they pull aren’t typical, and wouldn’t be associated with a local high schooler egging a car or TP-ing a house. Co-founder Andy Bichlbaum likens their work to “plagiarism” and it can often land them in legal trouble, though not exactly for that reason. Imagine someone trolling a hollow ceremony or institution in order to point out its ridiculousness, like Trey Parker and Matt Stone dropping acid and wearing dresses at the 2000 Academy Award ceremony.

Now imagine something similar, but instead of the Academy Awards it’s multi-billion dollar corporations and federal departments.

Bichlbaum and co-founder Mike Bonanno had the idea of The Yes Men around 15 years ago, in the late ‘90s. At that time, they created a fake website parading as the World Trade Organization and detailing the organization’s demise. They initially didn’t take their creation too seriously and thought it was something most people would immediately be in on and laugh alongside them. But to their complete surprise, this “factual” event was picked up and reported on by the mainstream media. Realizing that there was some legitimate cultural power to be harnessed within this level of tricksterism, the duo took that base idea — trolling the media with tongue-in-cheek hoaxes — and created The Yes Men. But instead of merely joking around just for its own sake, they started using The Yes Men as an outlet for political activism and social awareness.

Bichlbaum and Bonanno visited UCR on October 6 to present their screening of their latest documentary “The Yes Men Are Revolting” in ARTS 335. It was organized by Matthew Snyder and John C. Cook, sponsored by the 28ers and Sustainability UCR and was funded by GCAP. The documentary brings to life the pair’s biggest challenge to date: bringing awareness to climate change.

Reflecting back on the movie and the screening’s Q-and-A session, I’m fascinated by The Yes Men’s popularity and influence in the anti-globalization movement. Bichlbaum and Bonnano’s life stories are very rich, and their upbringing — which was brought up in the movie and is a huge part of its heart — helped establish their anti-authoritarian beliefs. For starters, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno aren’t their real names (they’re Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos). Right off of first impressions, this establishes their light-hearted “take my ideas more seriously than my words” personas.

They’re both of Jewish descent and the offspring of immigrants; Bichlbaum’s father hid in Belgium from Nazi occupiers, while Bonanno’s mother hid her father in Holland for fear of conscription and his father survived the Holocaust by fleeing Hungary at age seven. They’re no strangers to adversity. With this background in mind, it’s exciting to think about their authenticity. While typical protester iconography includes privileged middle class hipsters listening to a guest speaker who’s always some politician (who are always either too much of a nobody to make a difference or too corrupted by the system, or both), Bichlbaum and Bonanno, simply by being born who they are, are automatically outsiders politically, socially and culturally speaking. Whenever they attend a protest, they’re not just attempting to speak for a movement. They’re also speaking for themselves.

Or to put it in the words of the stereotypical valley girl tweeting how angry she is about her pumpkin spice latte not being sweet enough: the struggle truly is real for them.

“The Yes Men Are Revolting” brings together several different highlights of their career in pulling media hoaxes. For example, one of their best hoaxes planned invited the entire Seattle business community to a faux corporate meeting where a hired actor (impersonating a corporate speaker) introduced the “widow” of Shell’s oil rig designer. Played by Dorli Rainey, the 84-year-old activist who was pepper-sprayed in a 2011 Occupy Seattle protest, she had the ceremonial first drink out of a model oil rig, but the model (according to plan) spilled all of its contents onto her (simulating an oil spill). The Yes Men’s typical tongue-in-cheek commentary was present, with the speaker saying “climate change is scary. The end of civilization, that’s bad. But as in life and business, pragmatism trumps all. Drilling in the Arctic: we’re pumped,” while pointing to burly men sporting shirts with the Shell logo and “we’re pumped” written on them.

However, their best media hoax involved Bichlbaum impersonating Ernest Moniz (the U.S. Secretary of Energy) in a fake PR meeting with other higher-ups in the U.S. government as well as members of the mainstream media. At this event, they got everybody in the room to form a dance train and shout and dance about combating climate change. I think at that point, most people there had to assume that this was a fake event, but Bichlbaum and Bonanno considered the entire thing a success (most likely due to the fact that they weren’t arrested for impersonating a member of Obama’s cabinet).

A Q-and-A was held after the documentary was over, with several students asking about how they could get more involved in the anti-globalization fight. One of the pressing concerns brought up was how to keep up the hope and energy about protesting the powers that be. Bichlbaum’s response revealed yet again just how legitimate The Yes Men are in that movement. “Just remember: we don’t consider ourselves to be experts on what we do,” Bichlbaum stated, keeping up the populist ideals of their pranks. “And a lot of the times you don’t win. Failure will happen a lot. You just have to remember to keep on getting back up because you’re not the only person thinking or fighting for our future. We bring awareness to something everybody should be in on.”

A small lecture (dubbed an “Action Lab”) was held the next day for students to attend, where The Yes Men gave students valuable tips and insight into protesting against climate change.

While most social and political activists often take themselves too seriously, it was highly refreshing to experience this talented pair lightly touch upon serious issues with comedy. If an Onion article ever existed as a person, it’d be The Yes Men.

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