By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
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.Andy and Mike (A.K.A. Smokey the Log), above, push Bush’s forest policies in Oregon.
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?