Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno of the activist group the Yes Men gave a Cooper Series lecture in LPAC Cinema on Thursday. The Yes Men have famously impersonated members of corporations and governments in order to highlight what they believe to be detrimental political and environmental policies. To an audience of 300 students, faculty, and staff, the Yes Men showcased several examples of their own work and the work they collaborated with others and fielded questions from the audience.
One of the Yes Men’s most infamous pranks involved pretending to be members of the Canadian government giving a press release announcing drastically changes to their stance on climate change policy during the Copenhagen talks last year. Blaine O’Neill ’11 and Zach Postone ’11 were both part of this action; they were brought up in front of the audience to explain their involvement.
O’Neill was called up again to discuss a pending project regarding mountaintop removal in Appalachia, an issue which will be addressed in a workshop run by the Yes Men on Friday. The Yes Men also run the up and coming Yes Lab, an organization devoted to collaborating with groups on performing this sort of work.
The lecture featured a lot of interaction with the audience, including an exercise where Bichlbaum and Bonanno asked everyone in the audience to call the White House switchboard and the Attorney General’s office on their cell phones, to report that the government was breaking its own laws pertaining to massive ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. O’Neill and others also discussed Swarthmore’s relationship with PNC Bank, currently among the largest financiers of mountaintop removal.
Bichlbaum and Bonanno also showed numerous videos, including news reports and footage of past pranks performed by the Yes Men. Perhaps most memorably, they showed footage of Bichlbaum posing as a representative of the US Chamber of Commerce (scroll down for video) and announcing in a press conference to real reporters that the Chamber had reversed their stance on climate change legislation.
You can read more about the Yes Men’s work on their website.
After the lecture, the Gazette spoke to Bonanno for a few moments.
DG: Could you briefly mention what the Yes Men do for those who weren’t at the lecture?
Mike Bonanno: We impersonate people and corporations that have a lot of power, and then we ridicule them for their nasty policies: anti-environmental, anti-human policies.
DG: Things got a little rushed at the end of the lecture. Could you talk about what the Yes Lab is again?
MB: The Yes Lab is a way for us to collaborate with organizations to try to help people that try to do projects like we do. If an activist organization sees something we do and wants to do something similar, we get emails like that all the time, it’s a way for us to have a framework so we can go in and do a workshop with them. That’s what the Yes Lab is. It’s like a Yes Men school for creative activism.
DG: Other than those mentioned in the lecture, are there any highlights you’d like to share of projects done by groups affiliated with the Yes Lab?
MB: Well right now it’s just started up, so we’ve got a lot of projects that are kind of happening now but haven’t come to fruition. The two things that we showed today, which included this impersonation of the Canadian government in Copenhagen at the COP15 conference, and also the impersonation of the US Chamber of Commerce, both of those followed that model where we collaborated with an activist organization, sometimes more than one, and came up with an idea together and went forward and executed the idea. The idea with the Yes Lab is that we train people to do it without our help, but we stayed along for the process in those instances. But, we’re refining our methods and techniques, and trying to make it work as well as possible.
DG: Your movies have touched on some of the positive and negative effects of your pranks. Are there pranks you wish had gone differently or that you regret?
MB: Well there’s always things that you would like to go better, but we don’t have many regrets. One of the nice things about what we do is that if something doesn’t go very well, or isn’t very interesting, we can choose not to release it, because for a lot of what we do if it doesn’t go well it isn’t getting on news stations unless we really push it hard, and if it’s not going well we’re not going to do that. It’s been overall really positive, we haven’t had things go astronomically wrong ever. It has all gone well.
DG: I guess this next question is on my mind since I’m graduating soon. Do you have any advice for jobseekers or those stepping into the real world for the first time for how to stay involved or help out?
MB: Just find something that you think is really cool or interesting, and just walk through the door and make yourself indispensable. Basically, if you can afford to volunteer somewhere on a part-time basis…get a job bartending or whatever it is, flipping veggie burgers, and then go and volunteer 20 hours a week. Walk into the coolest place you can find, and start volunteering for them for free. Make yourself indispensable, and they’ll find a way to pay you if there’s any way possible to do that. The only thing I can say is to people who are finishing college: you’ve got your whole life ahead of you, especially if you don’t have kids or anything like that. You still have the freedom to not be tied down to the yolk of being a wage earner. You can live frugally and do what you think is right.
DG: I know you probably can’t talk about specific future pranks, but are there any issues that you didn’t discuss in the lecture that you’ll be trying to draw attention to in the near future?
MB: Well, there are tons of different issues. There’s an unlimited number. One of the pressing ones right now that is ongoing is climate change. There are environmental fires to put out all over the globe. Right now, that’s where the zeitgeist is. If you look at something like the climate justice movement, it’s become a kind of umbrella for other kinds of issues. If you can’t fix that, you can’t fix social justice issues. The disparity between rich and poor increases, everything exaggerates if you can’t fix that initial problem. But, for now we work on whatever issue an organization delegates and that they are trying to carry out a campaign on, and we try to work with them.
DG: Are you moving exclusively toward Yes Lab-related things, or are you still doing the “old fashioned” pranks that you became famous for?
MB: We’re kind of moving exclusively toward Yes Lab stuff, but if something really catches our fancy you never know, we may be completely immersed.