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On Aug. 24, 1967, political activist Abbie Hoffman and an entourage walked into the New York Stock Exchange and showered the day traders below them with dollar bills (most were fake). The businessmen dove for the free money, halting trading for a short while. Hoffman, a co-founder of the Youth International Party, viewed the prank as a way of exposing the truth: that the employees on Wall Street were slaves to the dollar.
In the same grand tradition of the Yippies, a couple of political pranksters who call themselves The Yes Men hope to expose the true—and oftentimes hypocritical—nature of big business and politics.
They have been most successful at doing this by impersonating people in power. Their most notorious stunt—captured in the 2004 documentary The Yes Men, which will be shown at CSUMB’s World Theater this Monday at 7pm—was posing as spokesman for the World Trade Organization at various international conferences.
Before impersonating members of the WTO and forming The Yes Men, the organization’s principal players, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, were already known for shaking up society. Bonanno made it onto national media outlets like 60 Minutes for forming the Barbie Liberation Organization. He switched the voice boxes of talking GI Joes and Barbies before returning them to toy stores, where consumers were purchasing the dolls with muddled gender.
Meanwhile, Bichlbaum had made a name for himself as a computer programmer for SimCopter, a computer game about a helicopter attempting to rescue needy city residents. There, he secretly added swimsuit-clad men kissing each other to the program’s characters.
After combining their skills as The Yes Men, Bichlbaum and Bonanno (false name alert) created a parody Web site for candidate George W. Bush prior to the 2000 election. With information on the mock Web site revealing Bush’s real environmental record and referencing alleged drug use, The Yes Men stirred up the candidate so much that he referred to them as “garbagemen” on television.
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The Yes Men documentary follows the two after they set up a Web site that looks very similar to that of the World Trade Organization. Bonnano explains the prank to the camera: “We steal their identities to present a more honest face,” he says.
What surprised The Yes Men was that people started to accept their mock Web site as the real thing. In 2000, the two men, through the Web site, were invited to give a speech at an international trade law conference in Salzburg, Austria. There, Bichlbaum, posing as a Dr. Bichlbauer, gave a speech proposing, among other things, that Spain get rid of siestas so that international business hours would be uniform.
The documentary focuses on preparations for a prank in Finland where The Yes Men were invited (as “WTO officials”) to speak at a conference titled “Textiles of the Future.” There, the duo and their accomplices deliver a lecture about managing workers in developing countries, and pretend, straight-faced, to introduce a newly invented uniform—an over-the-top gold skin-hugging number with what appears to be a large phallus sticking out in front of the wearer’s face.
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Needless to say, there is a danger in pulling a prank on a potentially hostile crowd like this one. From his home in France, Bichlbaum, in an interview with the Weekly conducted via e-mail, explains how he mentally prepares for a prank of this nature. “Whiskey,” he says.
Since the prank in Finland, The Yes Men have also pulled several other stunts as phony WTO officials, the biggest being announcing the fictional disbanding of the WTO at an Australian agribusiness conference for failing to improve the lives of residents of Third World countries. There, like other places, The Yes Men’s pranks got what Bichlbaum calls an unexpected response. “Acceptance.” he says. “It’s always extremely surprising.”
Since the filming of the documentary, The Yes Men have taken up a new cause: trying to get The Dow Chemical Company to compensate the victims of the Bhopal disaster. The Yes Men have succeeded in keeping the event in the news by posing as Dow officials on BBC World TV and audaciously appearing at a Dow annual shareholder meeting.
In addition to trying to seek reparations for the tragedy’s survivors, Bichlbaum says The Yes Men have another purpose. “We are your standard-issue revolutionaries,” he says. “For example, we would hope that our impostures so shame Messrs. Cheney and Bush that they crumble into regime dust along with their motley assortment of clever-ass thugs.”
When asked whether he has observed any changes prompted by The Yes Men’s stunts, Bichlbaum admits that he can only “guesstimate” any shifts in attitude. Yet it seems he will continue to pull pranks revealing society’s injustices anyway.
“At least it’s better than sitting on our asses waiting for the world to change on its own,” he says.
YES MAN Andy Bichlbaum will appear and The Yes Men will be screened at CSUMB’s World Theater, Sixth Avenue in Seaside, this Monday at 7pm. Free. 582-4665 or 582-4580.