Representing the World Trade Organization at an international trade law conference in Salzburg, Austria, Yes Man Andy Bichlbaum seemed totally composed despite the fact that he had no professional law training and was not an actual employee of the W.T.O.
Posing as fictional spokesman Dr. Andreas Bichlbauer, he proposed streamlining elections in the U.S. by auctioning votes and outlawing such impediments to free-market efficiency as siestas in Spain and the long lunch in Italy.
While the 150-person crowd watching the video clip in Lisser Theater last Thursday evening laughed at the satirical suggestions and photos of napping Italians, the room full of experts in the video remained shockingly calm.
As depicted in the 2003 documentary The Yes Men, donning thrift store suits and flying around the globe impersonating powerful organizations like the W.T.O. may seem intimidating. But Bichlbaum’s cohort Mike Bonanno, of the anti-corporate art-activist group the Yes Men, was at Mills to explain how participating in such political theater is not only possible, but important.
“We call what we do identity correction… Identity correction is when honest people target big time criminals and try to simply tell the truth about them,” explained Bonanno to an evenly mixed-crowd of Mills and non-Mills-affiliated fans.
The Yes Men’s other main weapon is “tactical embarrassment.” “By creating a condition in which it would be more embarrassing for a corporation or an entity in power to go after us than it would be worth their while, then we could prevent them from doing that and could in fact play on that power relationship,” Bonanno said.
With only four short bullet points sketched on a slip of paper, the casual Bonanno, who hadn’t eaten anything in about five days due to a stomach virus, managed to alternate between relaxed Q&A with the audience and video clips documenting several of the Yes Men’s hoaxes as well as pre-Yes Men pranks.
This lesson in identity correction and tactical embarrassment was no dull academic lecture.
The videos included such memorable moments as a Barbie doll wielding a soldering iron and computer animated men in swim trunks kissing each other in the macho video game SimCopter.
The audience was engaged and laughing along with Bonanno during the discussion and almost every sentence he spoke was punctuated by hoots and hollers from a particularly enthusiastic crowd member in the back.
“It almost felt like there was a rock star at Mills. People were so excited,” said MFA student Jessea Perry.
Bonanno’s visit was the closing act of the ACT ART events, a multi-disciplinary, multi-cultural series which examined the relationship between art and activism. Open to the public, the series was also a requirement for Juliana Spahr’s class Activating the Local.
Concerned with the autobiographical focus of writing programs, Spahr wanted to inspire class discussions on the tools people use when they stop talking about themselves.
“We’re looking at the Yes Men as a larger, more global perspective. There’s always that dialog between local and global.”
“In some ways it seems – just because they’re so famous – like it’s almost less helpful, because they seem so far beyond where any of us are,” said Perry. “I don’t think that I could ever pull off anything like what they have done. They take a lot risks.”
In an interview after the event, Bonanno said that attitude is just a “cop out.”
“We mean to tell people that it’s actually easy and simple and a lot of people have stupid ideas like we do and just don’t ever follow through on them. And that’s really what it requires – following through. And sometimes it’s not that complicated. Yes, it did cost us some money to get where we were going but you can also do things locally, and it’s cheap.”
And for those determined to take their political action farther from home, Bonanno had this advice. “If you smoke or drink a few beers now and then, if you just quit doing that you could probably afford to take one vacation every year for the purpose of impersonating whatever entity of your choice. And if you need support, you can work through the Yes Men network. E-mail us.”
Activating the Local class member Dillon Westbrook liked the way Bonanno “treated their logic in assuming these false identities and impersonating the W.T.O. or Dow Chemical as obvious – like anyone in their position would do that. I like thinking about how these are very regular guys whose personal politics and artistry demand of them that they do this,” he said.
Bonanno said he hoped the crowd Thursday left with “the idea that change is obtainable, that it’s actually at our finger tips. If those in power could just agree on a different consensus, we could have a different world that was much more fair and equitable and happy.”