THE YES MEN ARE COMING! THE YES MEN ARE COMING!
by Doug Harvey
"Bush stood right over there," says Laurel. "They built a platform for him and three governors and the secretary of the interior, and surrounded them with firemen made up with fake soot to look like they'd just been fighting fires." Laurel, a member of ecological activist group the Oxygen Collective, is gesturing to a ridge overlooking a partially charred meadow on the outskirts of Medford, Oregon. "We had a busload of farmers and children with a few banners. They weren't expecting us, but they were prepared. The whole time, we were circled by Coast Guard helicopters with machine guns pointed at us. That's when Bush unveiled his Healthy Forests Initiative."
This lesson in George Bush's poisonous environmental policies is actually a collateral benefit of our visit to this historical spot — I'm here as an embedded reporter with the Yes Men's "Yes, Bush Can!" campaign as they film a music video for "The Smokey the Log Theme." Smokey the Log is the "Yes, Bush Can!" campaign's new pro-lumber mascot for the USDA Forest Service, replacing the obsolete namesake bear. Yes Man Mike Bonanno, looking like an escapee from a Syd and Marty Krofft production in a giant anthropomorphic latex log costume, clambers on top of a blackened stump. "Now dance!" commands his cohort, Andy Bichlbaum. "Dance and jump to the ground!" Able to see out only through one armhole, and constricted by faux log to well below the knees, Mike gamely jigs around the sawed-flat surface of the old-growth conifer, but when it comes time to dismount, he teeters and tumbles appropriately but painfully to the forest floor.
Dan Ollman, co-director (with Sarah Price and American Movie's Chris Smith) of the new Yes Men documentary, takes over: "Get up! Pull yourself up!" Mike the Log drags himself upright and resumes his jaunty capering but begins to stagger downhill, slamming to a halt when he makes contact with a metal gate. Impossibly, he hurls himself over the gate, rights himself, and continues out of sight.
"If the llamas approach you, don't provoke them," yells Laurel. "Just play dead!"
Hot on the heels of their appearances at the Republican National Convention and an aborted stump tour of Midwestern swing states, the Yes Men are winding their way south from Seattle for the premiere of their documentary at Hollywood’s prestige ArcLight Cinemas on September 23. The eponymous film covers a three-year period during which Bonanno and Bichlbaum successfully passed themselves off as representatives of the World Trade Organization, in spite of their best efforts at self-sabotage. Inspiring, outrageously funny, suspenseful and surprisingly hopeful, The Yes Men movie is the latest installment in what has emerged as America's newest version of the town meeting — theatrically released political documentaries. And while this West Coast jaunt is ostensibly a promotional tour for the film, the Yes Men, as usual, have another agenda hidden in plain view.
Rather than embark on a traditional promo tour for the film, Bonanno and Bichlbaum decided to stage the “Yes, Bush Can!” campaign — a grassroots initiative to “explain Bush’s policies more clearly and honestly than the official campaign ever could.” This is typical of the Yes Men’s strategy of logical extremism, or, as they like to call it, identity correction. Where identity theft hijacks citizens’ personal data for criminal actions, identity correction involves assuming the profiles of corporate and government criminals in order to accurately (and damningly) represent their actual intentions. The roots of the Yes Men are deeply intertwined with the Internet — particularly the anti-corporate prankster brokerage of ®™Ark, which sponsored the Yes Men’s 1999 debut with the subversive decoy Web site GWBush.com, prompting the soon-to-be-wartime president to publicly opine, “There ought to be limits to, uh, to freedom.”
The resultant publicity storm led to a sympathetic activist’s donation of the Gatt.org domain (GATT was a precursor of the WTO) and the escalating series of absurdist interventions at conferences for which the organizers thought they were booking speakers from the freedom-enforcing WTO. What they got were two nervous, thrift-store-besuited media jammers emitting a bizarre stream of neo-con gibberish, such as: Citizens should be able to sell their votes to the highest bidder; the main problem with the slave trade was its inefficiency (which market forces would have eventually ironed out); Gandhi was just a well-meaning buffoon who didn’t understand free trade; world hunger will shortly be solved by feeding the Third World recycled McShitburgers; and the International Monetary Fund would give better loan terms to countries willing to put up their citizens’ bodies (or parts thereof) as collateral.
Additionally, the Yes Men explained that sweatshop managers on vacation could administer electric shocks to lazy workers back home via a remote-controlled gold lamé suit with a giant video penis — er — Employee Visualization Appendage, an actual prototype of which Bichlbaum modeled.
The truly alarming thing, which over the course of the movie dawns on both the Yes Men and the audience, is that everyone — lawyers, businessmen, even professional journalists — falls for it hook, line and sinker. Every time. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised: The Yes Men are basically lifting a very successful page from the other team’s playbook. Anyone remember COINTELPRO, where federal agent provocateurs infiltrated leftist groups and urged them on to absurd extremes? Worked real good.
While they themselves cite precedents ranging from Daniel Defoe to the protective mimicry of insects, the Yes Men are perhaps more accurately described as operating at a junction between leftist prankster traditions — going back to the proto-yippie antics of Emmett Grogan and Paul Krassner — and a convergent stream of similar hijinks perpetrated in and around the art world: the media pranks of Alan Abel and Joey Skaggs, the institutional mimicry of the Museum of Jurassic Technology and the Center for Land Use Interpretation, the gentle sedition of Jeffrey Vallance in works like The Nixon Museum, and the caustic copyright infringements of Negativland.
Throughout the ’90s, thousands of disaffected youth, disenfranchised from materialist culture, found themselves unsupervised and at the controls of a panoply of new digital media. Almost overnight, billboard modification became a high art. Erotic glitches started to pop up in video games and DVDs. And the Internet hosted an explosion of parallel realities, political by default in their divergence from the narrowing strictures of corporate media agendas. Here was a new creative medium with unfathomable potential political impact, unconstrained by the reactionary dismissiveness and crypto-fascist academic hermeticism that have effectively eliminated politics from the art world since the mid-’70s. Enter the Yes Men.
Neither Bonanno, a wired and wiry East Coast native, nor Bichlbaum, the pop-eyed Continental type, have any formal training in economics, political science or acting, though both did stints at CalArts. “It’s actually the reverse of acting,” says Bichlbaum. “The people you’re speaking in front of believe you are the person you’re pretending to be, and they convince you of it. They suspend your disbelief.” A quintessential cybernomad who spent the dot-com boom years in San Francisco, Bichlbaum funded his Yes Men activities with intermittent straight jobs in the digital domain. Bonanno got a graduate degree in art from UC San Diego, where he stumbled onto his calling through his involvement with the Barbie Liberation Organization, the group behind the now-classic media prank involving dozens of the perennial dream girl’s voice boxes switched out with those of GI Joes and reshelved in toy stores just in time for Christmas. Both men now live in New York and are, more or less, full-time Yes Men.
Given the amount of publicity they have received, it’s remarkable the Yes Men are able to continue operating unrecognized. That may well change with the release of the movie, but in the meantime they’ve been able to add their particular flavor of corrective boosterism to President Bush’s re-election stab. Refitting a “Zenith Mobile Television Test Lab” as the official “Yes, Bush Can! ’04” campaign bus (replete with wraparound graphics, an extendable oil derrick that gushes black party streamers, and a sound system to blast songs like “George Bush Has the Beat To Make Your Booty Go ‘Bush’”), they took their show on the road in late August. They made it from Chicago to somewhere in rural Ohio before the engine conked out.
Undaunted, they left the bus in the hands of a mechanic and headed to New York for the RNC, where they offered make-overs to activists wanting to pass as “RNC Official Tour Guides” (with a suggested itinerary of public emergency rooms and budget-closed fire stations). They also passed out thousands of copies of “The USA Patriot Pledge,” which allows true Americans to voluntarily surrender extra civil liberties for the war on terrorism, pre-enlist their children in the armed forces, store nuclear waste in their communities, give up their Social Security benefits to clear the national debt, even “help generate more greenhouse gases if it results in a competitive edge for my country.” And they sneaked into the convention hall after-hours and dumpster-dived a master script for Day 3 — Arnold’s day — which revealed that every ad lib, every recollection of the Communist occupation of Austria and every audience response were meticulously predetermined.
As the convention petered out, the “Yes, Bush Can!” bus was still in the shop, and the Yes Men decided to go with their backup plan of proceeding to L.A., where they outfitted a van with a bare-bones set of agitprop tools and headed north for Seattle. I’d heard rumors about what was in store — interventions of Bush rallies, congratulatory cakes delivered to the homes of big-money donors, and petitions in support of global warming, restoring the draft and tax cuts for the rich. When I spoke to Bonanno, he would only confirm the latter as well as the unveiling of a pro-lumber replacement mascot for that bleeding-heart Luddite bear. “Smokey the Log is a hit. This Republican running for Congress really liked Smokey — let me read this to you: ‘Jim Feldkamp has the right stuff: Naval flight officer, former FBI special agent — counterterrorism, Eagle Scout, NRA member.’ He posed for a photo. We got a lot of people to sing ‘The Smokey the Log Song.’ They were kind of easy prey because it was a football game, and they were all a little drunk. But next week we’re going to be doing some interesting things. You should really come up.” Who did they think I am, Hunter S. Thompson? Fear and loathing in the back of a media prankster van?
I’m met at the airport by Dan Ollman — Bonanno’s being interviewed for NPR, and Bichlbaum’s at a local cybercafe drafting a press release. The plan for that morning had been to converge on the Medford courthouse, where a mediation process over attempts to convert the partially burned Siskiyou wilderness region into tree farms was scheduled to begin. Perhaps sensing the potential for disruption, the powers that be had pulled a double whammy — first the hearing had a last-minute change of venue to Eugene, and then Republican junior Senator Gordon Smith had announced that if the environmental activists failed to make acceptable concessions, he would attach a rider to must-pass legislation (Florida hurricane relief, probably) that would remove the discussion from the courts.
The Yes Men, on their way to Medford when the announcement was made, had improvised a Healthy Forestry Award and appeared at Senator Smith’s office to make a presentation. The senator was not at his desk, but nearby they found a boatful of Republicans attending a Boy Scout fund-raiser. Smokey was again a hit, earning an endorsement from Oregon’s Reagan-era governor, Victor Atiyeh, who said Smokey’s pro–global warming discourse was “preaching to the choir.” With further opportunities for guerrilla theater unforthcoming, the Yes Men had to fall back on their second virtual line of offense — sending out 60,000 e-mail press releases announcing Smith’s prize and unveiling Smokey as the first among a new generation of woodsy mascots.
After the Republican switcheroos, the Yes Men learned that the planned Sacramento leg of their press junket had been consolidated with the following day’s San Francisco events — the entire operation has been a test of the group’s improvisational aplomb — so once the video shoot wraps, we pile into the van and head south for the city by the bay. We finally hit our hotel beds around 4 a.m., and are back in action around 10. The next few days are to include numerous media interviews, some cakes for RNC-donor visitations, and a preview screening of the documentary at UC Berkeley. But first it’s time to visit Castro Street to unveil another nouveau Republican mascot — “Diversity Compassion Orangutan, an orange primate with a great deal of street cred, and symbolizing the acceptance of this administration for the rainbow of tastes and practices that makes up our great country.” Diversity Compassion Orangutan, a.k.a. Mike Bonanno in a suit of foam rubber, gold lamé and fun fur, valiantly attempts to get locals to sign a petition annulling their same-sex marriages and encouraging them to download ANUL@home software to dedicate their home computer to calculating every permutational potential same-sex marriage in America and pre-emptively annulling each one. I put on my blue suit and a “Yes, Bush Can!” name tag. I am “Ruben Lesar.”
Unsurprisingly, the proposal is met with some hostility. What is surprising is how few recognize the situation as satirical. Isn’t this the home of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which pioneered this sort of jape? But somehow America’s most progressive sample population is as blind to faux Republican absurdity as the Republicans themselves are, and even less welcoming. Ninety percent of Diversity Compassion Orangutan’s contacts brush by him without comment. Others offer terse capsule observations. “Fuck Bush!” opine several. “You’ve got big balls coming here!” screams one gentleman. An hour inside an orangutan suit is plenty, and as Bonanno sheds its layers, the mood is slightly dispirited. “Why couldn’t we get anyone to interact?” asks Bichlbaum.
“I think people just don’t like signing petitions,” offers Katy, a local 15-year-old Yesette sporting an “I ♥ Karl Rove” T-shirt. Other theories are put forward — the pitch was too convoluted, the community too isolated from the possibility of actual Republican engagement. “Maybe Diversity Compassion Orangutan should have just hugged people to show them they’re welcome in the Big Tent, and then tell them the conditions later,” I offer. The Yes Men nod. “That’s good. We’ll try that tomorrow.” I’m beaming. For an embedded reporter, it’s like surviving the first Scud attack. I’ve got the right stuff. I’m part of the team.
On the drive to Berkeley, Mike reports that the Diversity Compassion Orangutan costume has somehow destroyed all sensation in his right index finger. The frustration of the Castro adventure has dissipated, though — Yes Men events are experimental in nature, so there’s no real failure. McLuhanesque probes into the Matrix-like zone between media representation and subjective experiential reality, their “failures” are often more valuable than their “successes,” rendering more profitable and surprising information than would a seamless hoax.
A case in point is the final, anticlimactic intervention chronicled in The Yes Men movie. We arrive at the Shattuck Cinema just in time and huddle in the back. I’ve only seen a screener tape, by myself, and though confident in the authority of my professional opinion, I’m reassured that the audience finds The Yes Men as riotously funny and righteously kick-ass as I do. But their enthusiastic outbursts taper off as the film winds down during the final episode in which the Yes Men travel to Sydney, where, as their alter egos, they announce the dissolution of the WTO because they finally recognized that they were hurting poor people instead of helping them.
As usual, the trade representatives and reporters in the Sydney audience are oblivious to the ruse, but what’s startling is how happy and relieved they all seem, as if they had been silently praying that the vast global corporate mechanism in which they play their coggish roles would somehow come to its senses and play fair. It’s a profoundly bittersweet moment and one that ultimately refutes any intimation that the Yes Men’s mission is frivolous or cynical. Because it seems to demonstrate, against conventional wisdom from both ends of the political spectrum, that there is no “them,” just lapses in the communication of information — and perhaps courage.
Certainly the Yes Men can’t be accused of that. “I see you have five lawyers listed in the credits,” observes one Berkeley radical during the Q&A. “How much were they involved in planning your actions?”
“Well, they were mostly there after the fact because of McDonald’s. In case someone might think that the reBurger [recycled-shit hamburger] program was real and tell someone else about it,” laughs Bichlbaum. “When we actually did this stuff, we didn’t look into the legal aspects, except out of curiosity — what might happen to us.”
“I think it’s great what you do,” says a 20-something woman from a middle row. “But what can I do?”
“Just find something to do,” answers Bonanno, “and do it.” He pauses. “We don’t have any special talents for doing these things. Imagine what professional actors could do. There’s all kind of opportunities, on both the right and left, of sincere, dedicated groups of people working to bring about political change. And it’s easy to meet them and learn from them and maybe affect how they think. If they accept you.”
What more is there to say? Except, of course, “Yes.”
The Yes Men premiered at the Silver Lake Film Festival on September 23, 2004 and opened at the ArcLight and Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex on September 24.
Originally published in LA Weekly, Thursday, September 23, 2004