It’s been a weird couple of weeks for me in terms of the Philosophy of Art. Following the energetic but unadventurous fall openings weekend, I flew off to Chicago to participate in the Stone Summer Theory Institute’s seminar, “What Do Artists Know?” No definitive conclusions were forthcoming. Although the other participants — career academics for the most part — were intelligent, creative and funny, there was an enormous gap between our respective assumptions underlying this question: What is art? Who is and who is not an artist? What constitutes knowledge? There seemed to be a prepackaged consensus on these issues, most of which coincidentally conspired to ratify academia as the exclusive locus of artistic innovation and integrity.
A week later I was at the grand re-opening of Blum & Poe — L.A.’s preeminent high-end contemporary art dealership — in the gallery’s museum-quality 21,000-square-foot converted warehouse on La Cienega. Again, I found myself in the midst of bright and charming company, experiencing a state of profound cognitive dissonance over what we were supposed to have in common. Market protocol obliges you to maintain a positive prognosis no matter what the numbers say, but the scale of the denial in this case brought to mind the image of Tim and Jeff’s Art Ark, stocked (in this inaugural show at least) with two of each variety, ready to ride out the coming deluge. Or maybe they’re rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It’s a hell of a boat in either case.
One of the major points of disjuncture in both of these self-contained art-world bubbles is a missing sense of social and political urgency — an urgency that has been rattling through the lives and work of most of the artists I know, at least since 9/11, and longer for many. Integrating this sense of urgency in a way that isn’t numbingly literal is a hard enough challenge for most political artists, but the hierarchical structures of the various art worlds that can lend authority and visibility to the work tend to dilute its potency to a crippling degree: As individual panic about the imminent apocalypse trickles upward into the realms of discourse and commodity, it becomes defanged — a dialogue on issues of sustainability perhaps, or a colloquium on relational aesthetics.
In the early 1980s — an era when the current schisms between art theory, art practice and the marketplace first became pronounced — I came across an artifact that remains one of the most successful simultaneous expressions of art and politics I’ve ever encountered: an LP cover with a photo of a melted radio, and the title “Voice of America.” On the two side-long performances, emerging from an improvised mélange of Fred Frith’s inimitable string-plunking, Phil Minton’s avant-warbling, and his own primitive burbling-synth drones, audio collagist Bob Ostertag’s lo-fi tape loops of news reports about the death of Salvador Allende and Ronald Reagan’s Inauguration jostled with field recordings of folk songs and political rallies in Nicaragua. The sampled politics were just there, no more or less challenging than the other “difficult” components of the piece, yet equally essential and essentially undeniable.
As his friends and collaborators became stars of the New York avant-garde, Ostertag seemed to vanish from the scene. It turns out that immediately after “VoA” he dropped out of music entirely and spent most of the following decade as an activist in the gnarly, heartbreaking world of Central American politics. His newly released patchwork memoir Creative Life (University of Illinois Press) recounts his struggle to bring his artistic skills to bear in the political arena during a disillusioning long haul with the Sandanistas, his subsequent return to music, queer activism and a painfully funny tour diary from Serbia.
Ostertag details his unfashionable but well-articulated idea of an “art of insurgent politics,” which owes much to the aesthetics of improvisation and collage — a constant “testing, examining, expanding, breaking and restructuring” of the “limits of the social and physical world.” He explains the groundbreaking anticorporate gesture of making all of his recordings available for free download (atbobostertag.com) as “one manifestation of a much bigger struggle” but curiously doesn’t mention (apart from a couple of footnotes) his involvement with a considerably more high-profile manifestation — as collaborator with the Yes Men in their “corporate-identity correction” pranksterism and anonymous co-author of the 2004 Disinformation book bearing their name.
Even if you’ve heard of the Yes Men, “high profile” might seem a stretch for a pair of media hackers with a healthy Internet following and a moderately successful documentary to their names (or their pseudonyms). But just moments into their new film, The Yes Men Fix the World (previewing at the Hammer on October 21), you are jolted into a different perspective — as Yes Man Andy Bichlbaum nervously prepares to go live on BBC television in front of 300 million viewers, posing as a representative of Dow Chemicals, to announce long-overdue reparations to the victims of the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India, in 1984. Within a couple hours, Dow’s stock value had plunged $2 billion.
Fix the World documents several more of the group’s two-pronged subterfuge — taking exploitative commodification to logical extremes, grisly (Vivoleum — a new energy source) or ridiculous (the Halliburton Survivaball, an inflatable disaster-survival suit resembling a bloated tick); or using their mistaken identities to demonstrate the concrete possibility that corporations can “Dow the right thing.” Which is, of course, an impossibility. No matter what the Supreme Court says, corporations are not people, and they don’t have consciences. Recent findings indicate that corporations are, in fact, a malevolent, parasitical, conceptual organism from a nearby star system, bent on the destruction of the human body, mind and spirit. The hapless primates that organize themselves into corporate enclaves are helpless pawns — if only corporations didn’t dangle such shiny things just out of our reach!
Beneath the hilarity and satirical incisiveness of the Yes Men’s antics lurks an awareness of this reality. Audience reaction shots focus on bored lackies breaking out in relieved, conspiratorial grins. By the time New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin responds to the Yes-Men-as-HUD with a rambling allegory about “a well-dressed lie chasing the naked truth,” it seems like everyone’s in on the gag — they just don’t know how to get out. The best art is always about dislocation, whether it’s a picture of a bison on the wall of a cave or an upside-down urinal rejected by an avowedly unjuried art show.
The Yes Men aren’t documentary filmmakers, they are artists “testing, examining, expanding, breaking and restructuring” the matrix of greed, cowardice and plausible deniability in which our species is caught. They employ Web design, video press releases, performance, props and costumes (many designed by local artist Sal Salamone), brilliant animation sequences by Patrick Lichty, and a plethora of other formal means, but their arena of action is the blind spot in the corporate and media consciousness: no acknowledgement of one, fundamental truth: “Art is a lie,” as Pablo Picasso insisted “that makes us realize truth.”
Humanity and corporate media’s shared love for a good prank is one of the last open spaces for artistic political activism, in no small part because it circumvents the denaturing filtration of the academy and marketplace. As Fix the World ends, we see the Yes Men pulling off their most substantial and labor-intensive switcheroo by printing thousands of copies of a fake New York Times dated six months into the future, with headlines proclaiming, “Iraq War Ends,” “Maximum Wage Law Succeeds,” “USA Patriot Act Repealed” and other common sense fantasies. A couple of weeks ago, they revisited this ambitious strategy by publishing a faux New York Post filled with dire (and unfortunately more accurate) stories about the global climate crisis, then took to the East River with a fleet of 21 Survivaball-clad protestors to storm the U.N. and demand greenhouse emission–control legislation.
As we go to press, the Yes Men are amping up their direct-action quotient, with their “Balls Across America” initiative, set to strike in cities nationwide, and instigators gearing up to fan the widespread rioting that will result from screenings of their new documentary. Whether or not the glitch in the Matrix that lets them get away with insubordination is, in fact, a G spot that will send the People into paroxysms of anarcho-syndicalist communality is yet to be seen. I’m just relieved that I’ve found a community that shares a few of my ideas about what art is and is capable of — and I did it by sitting at home, watching my TV, reading and surfing the Internet!
THE YES MEN FIX THE WORLD | Preview at Hammer Museum on Wednesday, October 21, 7 p.m. | 10899 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. | Opens at Laemmle Sunset 5 on Friday, November 6
CREATIVE LIFE: MUSIC, POLITICS, PEOPLE, AND MACHINES | Bob Ostertag | University of Illinois Press | 208 pages | $20 softcover