UNDER THE RADAR
The Yes Men’s Camouflaged Artful Politics
So, somehow I wound up teaching a couple of Modern Art History classes, right? I’m not exactly thrilled with the default textbooks, so I’m keeping my eyes open for a replacement. So when Thames & Hudson recently issued the revised second edition of Art Since 1900 by the October magazine cadre—Rosalind Kraus, Ben Buchloh, Hal Foster, arguably the most powerful and influential voices in contemporary art criticism, the gang that splintered off from Artforum in 1976 because it wasn’t boring enough—I got it.
No, I’m not going to review a 900-page academic summation of Modernism and its discontents. Suffice it to say that I have chosen not to adopt it to my curriculum at this time. Its most remarkable feature for me remains in fact, its very last image: a screen grab of a talking head from a BBC newscast announcing “Breaking News: Dow accepts full responsibility,” but captioned: “The Yes Men, Dow Does the Right Thing, 2004, performance.” My agitprop media prankster pals had been anointed the ne plus ultra of Modern Art by the highest authorities in the field! Had the world gone crazy?
While they’re usually more pegged as cyber-terrorists or documentary filmmakers, I’ve always considered The Yes Men to be artists—alongside media-mimesis progenitors like Joey Skaggs and Alan Abel, fringe dwellers like Jeffrey Vallance, and full-blown demiurges like L. Ron Hubbard: artists whose practice consists of usurping the means of production from the Consent Manufacturing industry, and exposing what goes into and what gets left out of the lowest-common-denominator sausage that passes for reality.
Part of the difficulty in classifying this sort of activity as art is that its success depends on concealing its artistry for as long as possible. In the work cited by Foster, for example, The Yes Men had set up a website mimicking Dow Chemicals and were eventually invited by the BBC to comment—as Dow reps—on the 20th anniversary of subsidiary corporation Union Carbide’s disastrous industrial gas leak in Bhopal, India. Gussied up in a thrift store suit, Yes Man Andy Bichlbaum (aka Jacques Servin) appeared as “Jude Finisterra” and announced that Dow was taking full responsibility for the tragedy, dissolving Union Carbide and pledging $12 billion toward victim reparations and environmental remediation. The story went out, causing Dow’s stock to plunge. Its success as an artwork depends on its invisibility as an artwork.
Or maybe the opposite is true. Arguably, the only difference between The Yes Men and, say, Karl Rove, is the fact that The Yes Men inevitably pull aside the curtain and take credit (and blame) for the bizarre fictional realities they forge. To this end, over the course of the 00s, The Yes Men (Andy/Jacques and Mike Bonnano/Igor Vamos along with a band of fellow travelers) pieced together two feature-length documentaries of their interventionist antics—which made them unlikely Chomsky/Jackass hybrid stars to the Occupy Generation, (both are viewable on YouTube).
So it was with the same trepidation with which one approached Jackass 3D (2010) that I came to the newest installment in The Yes Men filmography, The Yes Men Are Revolting (2014)—can the boys keep the magic alive in the face of encroaching middle age and post-Bush tastefulness? I needn’t have worried, since this turns out to be the theme of the movie, resulting in the most nuanced and emotionally engaging entry in the trilogy.
Not that they don’t rack up the pranks. Picking up with the iconic visual prop of 2009’s The Yes Men Fix the World—the “Halliburton Survivaball,” an inflatable self-contained executive disaster-survival suit that just happens to resemble a bloated parasitical tick—Are Revolting opens with a popo-thwarted attempt to besiege the United Nations with a Survivaball flotilla during a climate change summit. With this opening salvo, The Yes Men neatly declare two things: their intensified focus on global warming and big oil and their desire to critically reexamine their first decade of actions to assess what, if anything, had been accomplished.
No prank spoilers, except to say that they are up to the collective’s usual standards of hilarity and revelation—including the seemingly inexhaustible gullibility of the public relations industry and their unflagging impermeability to Swiftian exaggeration. Entertaining as they are, The Yes Men’s performances begin to take on an air of desperation and futility. How many times do these people need to be embarrassed before they realize there’s something, well, embarrassing about their activities? On a species-wide level. Infinity times? An enervating prospect.
Which leads us to the surprising second theme of Are Revolting: Andy and Mike’s struggles with burnout. Delving into the history of their friendship and their personal lives outside The Yes Men (both, tellingly, are children of Holocaust survivors), the more personalized narrative serves to demystify them as heroic celebrity culture jammers, and rebrand them as regular fuckups —just like the waves of dispirited activists who have seen their concerns, demands, relevance and very existence questioned and erased from the mediascape.
Obviously, given the existence of this movie, The Yes Men make it through their dark night of the soul, and emerge as battered but unbowed role models. After the Bhopal kerfuffle, The Yes Men were raked over the coals for “giving false hope” to the thousands of victims who were momentarily transported to a parallel universe where power and ethics can occupy the same space—and they could be accused of the same crime in this instance—the victims being slightly closer to home, like on a million American parents’ basement couches. But I think one of the things The Yes Men have demonstrated in their art is that “false hope” doesn’t exist. Hope is the perception of the possible. And you can’t fake that.
Dates for screening in Los Angeles
June 9: Hammer Museum Gala, LA, Q&A with Laura, Mike and Andy, also premiering on itunes, vimeo, etc.
June 12: IFC center NY
June 18: LA theatrical opening event at Cinefamily
The Yes Men Are Revolting
Directed by Laura Nix and The Yes Men