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Praxis Makes Perfect: The Yes Men
Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, aka anticapitalist pranksters The Yes Men, speak about "laughtivism", their lesser-known stunts, and the need for a 'theory of change'.
Once again, Praxis Makes Perfect has provided me with a legit reason to send fawning emails to my cultural heroes, and trust me: if they aren’t already, The Yes Men are about to become your heroes too.
(If you are dying to find out what I do with The Tired Meta Joke this week, I’m afraid I’m going back to some very simple basics. I’m just going to say that its OG Call To Action—“Begin by getting to know the people already doing the work, and following their lead. This will help you find your lane.”—couldn’t be more apt for this interview. The Yes Men website is essentially a manual for activists [more on that later]. And doing the work—in the most weird, wonderful, and unique ways—is their core, mantle, and crust.)
Multi-pseudonymed activists ‘Mike Bonanno’ and ‘Andy Bichlbaum’ are the face[s] of a collective of culture jammers, who have not only infiltrated hugely high-profile conferences, press events, and live broadcasts to subvert corporate messaging but have also made a number of excellent films documenting the process.
For a demonstration of how wild and crucial their work is, see this, the prank that opens 2009’s The Yes Men Fix the World: Andy—who is, for this moment ‘Dow Chemical spokesman, Jude Finesterra’—tells an actual news anchor on the actual BBC World Service that Dow will be compensating victims of the Bhopal disaster to the tune of billions of dollars, and pressing the US government “to extradite Warren Anderson who fled India after being arrested in 1984 […] on multiple homicide charges”.
Later in the film, The Yes Men visit said victims and discuss the prank with them. They find it hilarious.
(Edited for brevity and clarity.)
Introduce yourself however you wish, and give an overview of your career!
We were just two guys, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, who decided it would be amazing fun to stick it to the man—and then, thanks to a network of ultra-capable friends and allies, managed to infiltrate a bunch of conferences, produce some fake newspapers, and otherwise expose the wrongdoings of miscellaneous, mostly corporate evildoers.
Although our name contained the word "Men," that doesn't describe who we were, it describes what we did: use any means necessary to agree our way into the fortified compounds of commerce, ask questions, and smuggle out the stories of our undercover escapades to provide a public glimpse at the behind-the-scenes world of business.
Now we're an ever-expanding, increasingly diverse group who, through the Yes School, partner with activist groups on creative tactics to further campaigns, and train new Yes people in the process.
The last we saw of you on film was The Yes Men Are Revolting in 2015. Do you have plans to make more films?
Andy: We're working on one now...
WHAT?! Can you tell me ANYTHING about it?!
Andy: Ah, might be good actually to keep hush-hush on that one...
**Pause while I try and calm down, and consider whether to keep the above exchange in the piece or not. I decide it’s too exciting to delete, but wonder if this might make them hate me.**
Okay - talk about the make-up of The Yes Men collective/Trickster Academy/whatever you'd like to call the team of people you work with. Are the two of you running it with others? What's the day-to-day (or...year-to-year) running like now?
Andy: Huge crowd!
Mike: This is one of those things where we put the chicken before the egg. A funder asked us to make a school and so we did. And then the funder decided that they didn’t want to fund the school, so now we have a school and no money.
Since we still have to put food on the table, we are doing other things and have little time to teach the courses. Still, we are doing a few here and there: we have some project-based trainings coming up and some courses affiliated with other schools. We did a brief training with some kids from Fridays for Future and they pulled off a great little project that embarrassed the financial industry for their support of fossil fuel industries. So, if organizations come to us and have enough funding to allow us to take time off of work to teach the school sessions, we can do it! But in general we are kind of stuck in the grind.
Were there any specific moments that radicalised you? (Was it the WTO stuff in the 90s? I long to know more about that! I was a child.)
Andy: Mike and I are both so old that we were radicalized by events in the 1940s. The events happened to our fathers: mine hid out from the Nazis on farms, disguised as a juvenile delinquent by the Belgian Catholic church (thanks!); Mike's hid out in Budapest.
But the point is we're both very old. What was the question?
Mike: Ditto. I mean mimeograph. I mean… what is it called now?
Your culture jamming work is legendary. Are there any stunts/actions you think were underrated, and wish people were more aware of?
There are a ton of projects where we lacked the resources to make a good video telling the story of what happened. Which was sad! Sometimes we even shot a bunch of material but then didn’t have the time/money to edit something. I only just finished cutting a thing from a year and a half ago! And it’s good, it should get out -- it’s called the Peace Pipeline. Another one that I wanted to finish but haven’t is this oddball thing where we helped a singer “infiltrate” an APEC dinner party at an Army base that had 20 World Leaders in attendance (including heads of state from most Pacific Ring countries… )
The page on your website 'Having An Effect' is an excellent, detailed resource for activists to avoid simply 'raising awareness'. Which of your campaigns/actions do you consider most effective?
Andy: The point of that page is that you should have some theory of how your action might work to effect change - not that your theory must be correct. If you have a good theory of how "raising awareness" might actually lead to change, then please. Many "artist-activists" don't think past "raising awareness", which is annoying as fuck.
I believe our Chevron action was effective insofar as it contributed to the Cofán campaign against Chevron, with "raised awareness" of what that campaign was about. That was our theory. That campaign was effective in that it resulted in a $9.5 billion judgment against some of the fuckiest fuckers in the world.
But look what chevron is doing now: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/mar/28/chevron-lawyer-steven-donziger-ecuador-house-arrest
Struggle is ongoing and unending, so most of all, you've got to enjoy the fight.
Mike: Nothing to add to that!
It seems to me you’re on the left, politically. Am I right in that impression? Do you have strong feelings about being labeled ‘on the left’?
Andy: "Left" means believing in the basic goodness of people. Any other belief is madness, so yes, we're on the left.
Mike: Yes, and left and right seem so 20th century. We should boil down to: help the victims, hinder the perpetrators. We learn this stuff when we are small children, how come education teaches us to forget this basic shit?
Do you like the song Kyoto Now by Bad Religion, or is punk rock about climate change just weird?
Mike: I don’t know the song! But punk rock about climate change is clearly good, sight unseen, if it is about fighting for a sane climate policy that attempts to preserve a future for all species.
Have you come across any problems in getting employers, for example, to trust that you're using your real names, and that you're not joining as part of an elaborate prank?
Andy: No, why?
Which organisations do you think are doing the most important activism work currently?
Andy: Extinction Rebellion, Fridays for Future, Sunrise Movement, The Center for Biological Diversity, and 400 other organizations of that ilk are doing great climate change work. No More Deaths, Samaritans, and others are doing great border work. The list is endless.
Mike: Andy’s answer is right on.
Do you do any form(s) of activism other than your pranks and films?
Andy: As part of a group called the Creative Resistance, I have worked on a number of local political videos, some of which may have played a critical role in the 2018 New York state elections. We had a theory of change, at the least! Again, it's a good idea to have one.
Mike: I’ve been teaching for a long time, so I suppose my day job is a form of slow activism. I also have at times run a bit of a local community gathering space for freaks in my hometown. So I guess that is also something, on a local level. Oh yeah, and I am on the boards of a few non-profits too.
If you could boil it down to three political changes that need to happen in the US, what would they be?
Andy: No more corporate lobbying, no more corporate lobbying, and no more corporate lobbying.
Mike: I would say get money out of politics but that seems like a different version of what Andy said, and that also doesn’t necessarily fix it all at the moment since we have such a strange education gap in the US. It’s a strange moment—we need to find a solution to the education gap—and that includes the destructive forces of social media and the division that it brings.
Education needs to be turned on its head… the curriculum in schools is still not much more than indoctrination to a culture of capitalism with colonial foundations. It’s very dangerous—and it’s invisible because it’s our culture. But that is going to need to change, it needs rebuilding. An informed and educated public is needed for democracy to work. And we have reached a moment in history where we arguably have neither!
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