In 2004, a man calling himself Jude Finisterra appeared on BBC World. The network had asked the man, who claimed to be a spokesman for Dow Chemical Company, to comment on the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, when thousands of Indians were killed and sickened by a gas leak at a pesticide factory.
For years, Dow Chemical, which in 2001 purchased Union Carbide, the company that owned the pesticide factory at the time of the accident, had maintained it had no obligation to clean up the site of the world’s worst industrial accident.
But in this interview, Finisterra said something quite different.
“Today is a great day for all of us at Dow, and I think for millions of people around the world as well,” Finisterra said. “It is 20 years since the disaster, and today I’m very, very happy to announce that for the first time, Dow is accepting full responsibility for the Bhopal catastrophe.” He then went on to describe a $12 billion plan to compensate the victims, “including the 120,000 who may need medical care for their entire lives, and to fully and swiftly remediate the Bhopal plant site.” He noted that shareholders would take a bit of a hit, “but I think, if they are anything like me, they will be ecstatic to be part of such a historic occasion, of doing right by those that we have wronged.”
The announcement was greeted with cheers from staff at the BBC.
But within hours, the BBC was forced to issue a correction. The interview was “inaccurate” and “part of a deception,” the network said. The person interviewed “didn’t represent the company. We want to make it clear that the information he gave was entirely inaccurate.” Dow Chemical had no plans to clean up the accident site after all.
It turns out that the BBC had been fooled by the Yes Men: two men who, with the aid of a network of friends, travel around the world impersonating members of corporations and government agencies. Their goal, they say, is to use humor to point out the absurdities of the free market system and suggest there might be a better way to do things, one that values people more than corporate profits. The duo’s approach is satirical and idealistic; an upcoming documentary is titled simply, “How to Fix the World.”
Spotlight on authority
One of the Yes Men, Mike Bonanno, is actually Igor Vamos, a media artist who teaches at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Last week, he showed clips from the new documentary — including footage of his partner, Jacques Servin, whose Yes Men alias is Andy Bichlbaum, talking about Bhopal on the BBC — to several hundred people at a talk sponsored by The Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy. Many of these people were familiar with the Yes Men through a well-received 2004 documentary, “The Yes Men,” that depicted Vamos and Servin, who teaches film, video and performance art at Parsons The New School for Design in New York City, impersonating spokesmen for the World Trade Organization at business conferences in locales such as Australia and Paris.
“We’re interested in criticizing those who hold power and use power to abuse those without it,” said Vamos, 39, in a recent interview in his office at RPI. “Not just people, but the system itself. ... For people who see business environments as basically impregnable, this is a way to kind of show that you can’t put anything on a pedestal. It’s just regular people like us doing these things.”
Vamos is serious when he talks about economics and what he perceives to be fatal flaws in the free market system. He is serious about challenging people in power and exposing what he considers corporate lies. But he isn’t didactic or hard to understand. Indeed, the film clips he showed last week at Christ Church United Methodist in Troy frequently elicited uproarious laughter from the audience. For the Yes Men, humor is a tool.
“There are a lot of ways people fight for justice,” Servin said. “When people laugh, they’re receptive to a message. We make people laugh at the absurd ideas of people in power.”
Asked whether he considers the Yes Men art, Vamos said, “You can classify it how you want to. It’s art, it’s theater, it’s storytelling, it’s activism.”
Humor, shock, sincerity
In the Yes Men’s first documentary, their pranks were directed at the WTO. In the late 1990s and early part of this decade, the international trade organization was the subject of massive anti-globalization protests, with critics accusing the WTO of supporting policies that benefited corporations but hurt poor countries.
A few years later, believing the WTO’s agenda had been successfully derailed, the Yes Men decided it was time to switch gears and focus on other issues, such as the responsibility of corporations to address climate change and the oil crisis.
“For the first time in our lives, we can see that in the future, there will be catastrophes,” Vamos said. “We had to reassess everything we were doing in light of these new facts.”
In the first film, almost every prank is an outrageous put-on; for the viewer, the most shocking part is often the air of indifference with which the Yes Men’s outrageous proposals are greeted. For instance, at the 2001 “Textiles of the Future” conference in Finland, Servin dons a gold lamé body suit with a phallus-like appendage; attached to the appendage is a screen through which he can monitor employees around the clock. This, he promises those in attendance, will allow managers to more effectively monitor workers at sweatshops in remote locations. At the end of the session, people applaud politely.
But sometimes, people in the audience are shocked by the Yes Men’s antics.
A presentation at an oil conference in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, for instance, received a much different reception. Posing as representatives from Exxon Mobil and the National Petroleum Council, the Yes Men distributed human-shaped candles to the audience. They then promised that the oil industry would be able to “keep fuel flowing” by transforming the billions of people who die as a result of the global calamities brought on by climate change into oil. This new product, they said, will be called vivoleum, and the candles were made from vivoleum obtained from the corpse of an Exxon janitor. At that point, security escorted the Yes Men off the stage; people in the audience began to express horror and outrage.
The more recent Yes Men pranks tend to be more pragmatic — and more sincere — than the ones featured in the first film.
In the Bhopal prank, for instance, the Yes Men, posing as Dow, describe what they think Dow should do: clean up the site and help the victims. At a conference on rebuilding the Gulf Coast post-Hurricane Katrina, while impersonating staff from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, they announce that the government will reopen public housing, create a national public health system and use oil revenues to rebuild wetlands.
“People are locked out of their housing,” Vamos explained. “The government has spent millions on locks. The rationale they used was that the property was damaged and that they couldn’t let people in until it was safe.”
In reality, he said, the New Orleans public housing is in good condition.
“The government is using the disaster as a way to privatize the area and sell it,” he said.
Doing the right thing
Vamos is cynical about the motives of business and government, but he believes people want to do the right thing and will respond if presented with an alternative vision of the world that’s more compassionate than they one they live in.
“People nod in uneasy or seeming agreement when they’re presented with satirical dystopia, but when they’re presented with a utopic solution, they will want to help,” he told the audience in Troy.
In New Orleans, people who watched their presentation “applauded heartily. They supported the concept.
“It goes back to the very simple common sense ethical ideas you learn as a child,” Vamos said. “People generally know what right and wrong is. All you have to do is look at what right is and do it. I think the prevailing belief is that we can’t do anything, we can’t change the way things work. ... Everybody knows that if you make a mess, you should clean it up. You can’t find a person who says, ‘That’s a bad thing, I want children to drink contaminated water.’ ”
The Yes Men began around 1999, when Vamos and Servin created Web sites, meant to be satirical, falsely representing groups such as the WTO. But not everyone got the joke, and soon, they began receiving invitations to speak at conferences. They adopted their aliases, Bonanno and Bichlbaum, “just so it wouldn’t be so much about our egos,” Servin said. Indeed, in the films and interviews, they are presented as Andy and Mike, and they refer to each other as Andy and Mike, as do their friends. In one interview, on Democracy Now!, Servin — appearing as Bichlbaum — responds to a question from host Amy Goodman about whether that’s his real name with “Oh, sure. As close as it gets.”
The Yes Men’s methods have been criticized. With the Bhopal stunt, they were accused of raising the hopes of the accident victims. One local journalist wrote, “Attention is more on these self-appointed vigilantes than on the victims of Bhopal. Ego was gratified more than the cause was advanced. In a self-created question-and-answer session on their Web site, their response to the question of raising false hopes with their stunts resulted in this little conceit: ‘All hopes are false until they are realized.’ ”
Vamos said he welcomes questions about ethics.
“What we’re concerned about is maintaining the ethical high ground, and I think we’ve been able to do that,” said Vamos, a 1986 Shaker High School graduate. “We tell tall tales to get into conferences. We do it to criticize people who are hurting other people. ... Maybe it’s a little cutthroat, but it’s ethical.”
He said they eventually visited Bhopal to hear what the people there thought of the stunt; he said residents appreciated what they had done because it brought attention to the fact that the site had never been cleaned and people were still suffering.
Steve Pierce, who runs The Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy, uses the Bhopal video in a course he teaches at RPI called “Ethics for Engineers.” His engineering students, Pierce said, have never heard of Bhopal, one of the worst engineering disasters in history.
“One of the basic precepts of the class is that in order to make informed decisions, you have to be informed,” Pierce said. The engineering students are “very smart and very educated within a very narrow niche. They do what they’re told. They follow authority. [The video] makes them think about basic issues of equity.
“What the Yes Men do is bring issues out in a way that’s compelling and fun but also deadly serious,” Pierce said. “It’s all about making people self-reflect without being shrill. That’s what art is about. Art is about making you think about things without telling you what to think.”
“The Yes Men are very courageous,” said filmmaker Penny Lane, who got to know Vamos when she was a graduate student at RPI. “They’re literally putting themselves out there. They’re putting their bodies and faces on the line.”
Subverting the system
The Yes Men are currently editing their new film; the duo received no financing for the project but plan to have it shown at the Toronto Film Festival in September. While the first movie was a traditional documentary, this one will be a little different; Servin compared it to the hit comedy “Borat” and the work of documentarian/provocateur Michael Moore.
“We’re trying to make it entertaining,” Servin said. “We’re trying to build an argument about this free-market ideology and how it’s proceeding to wreck the world.”
Vamos first gained international attention in 1994 for a project called the Barbie Liberation Organization, where he swapped the electronic voice boxes of hundreds of Barbie dolls and G.I. Joe action figures. As a result, the Barbies said things like, “Dead men tell no lies,” and G.I. Joe said things like, “Math is hard.”
In 1996, Servin pulled a similar type of stunt while working as a video game programmer at Maxis Inc.: He added code into the game “SimCopter” that caused men in swim trunks to appear on screen and kiss each other. For this, Servin was fired, which, he said, was his goal.
“I was sick of my job, and I wanted to do something fun and goofy,” he said.
Bhopal remains the Yes Men’s biggest stunt.
They created a Web site, DowEthics.com, after a friend who worked for the environmental organization Greenpeace called, worried that the legacy of Bhopal would be forgotten, and asked them to pull some kind of prank. Eventually, they were contacted by the BBC, and Servin agreed to appear on the show.
After his announcement, Dow’s stock price dropped several percentage points. This, Vamos said, illustrates a basic fact about the free-market system: it rewards bad behavior and punishes good behavior.
“What we learned is that there is no one who can do the right thing, given the system that exists,” he said.
“The system has gotten so absurd it can’t last,” Vamos said. “It’s a system designed to destroy itself. At some point in the future, people will look back at this system and see it as being as strange and bizarre as building heads on Easter Island.”