Can ridiculous inflatable costumes and anti-corporate publicity stunts save the world? The PR guerillas known as the Yes Men hope so. In Berlin to promote their new film, the duo sat down with SPIEGEL ONLINE to talk about their unique form of political activism.
A group of businessmen sit in a hotel conference room in Florida and nod eagerly while two supposed Halliburton representatives don ridiculous inflatable suits that they have dubbed the “SurvivaBall.” The company has supposedly designed this advanced survival suit to protect executives from the ravages of climate change and global warming, as well as epidemics and social unrest. “It’s essentially a gated community for one,” the speakers explain.
But these are no Halliburton representatives. They are the Yes Men, twoto turn the logic of big business on its head.
The prank is one of several featured in their new documentary, “The Yes Men Fix the World,” which the duo, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, showed at the Berlinale this week. The film takes up where their previous offering “The Yes Men” left off. SPIEGEL ONLINE caught up with the Yes Men in Berlin this week to talk about how they manage to pull off their pranks and exactly how they plan to fix the world.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How did you come up with the idea for the Yes Men?
Andy Bichlbaum: It came up with us. We wanted to go to the big Seattle protests in 1999 but we couldn’t so we set up a satirical Web site to make fun of the World Trade Organization and kind of pushed their logic a little too far. Before long, we found ourselves getting invited to conferences, people would just come to this Web site and would think they were inviting the real WTO people. And so we went. That’s how it started.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Were you surprised that they didn’t really look into your credentials? You use all these bizarre names and yet they seemed to take you at face value.
Bichlbaum: At first we were surprised and then we got used to it. And then we were no longer surprised.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What was the reaction you were looking for initially? Were you expecting them to come and kick you out when they realized you were impostors?
Mike Bonanno: Absolutely. That was all we expected. We brought a camera with us but we only meant it to be something that would be used to witness the arrest. We didn’t really expect to be making a movie out of any of this stuff. And then when we found out that people didn’t react, it became that much weirder and that much more fun to try to understand. That’s what really set us off.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: It seems you began trying to take it to another level and do things that were even more shocking until someone would react?
Bonanno: Yes. Always trying to amplify, to turn it up to 11 as they say in “Spinal Tap.”
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you see yourself as anti-globalization activists?
Bichlbaum: Well there is a different globalization that’s possible. But yes we see ourselves as part of that movement. It’s about creating a world agreement on how to do things to make life better instead of just making more money.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is there a wider team of people behind the Yes Men?
Bonanno: We are just the puppet heads and there are people who control everything beneath us. The puppet masters — who are all women by the way.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: There are Yes Women too?
Bonanno: Yes, there are a few dozen friends who really help us out a lot on these things that you will see in the movie. We’re not paying anyone, everyone is just volunteering. … Ideally we will figure out a way in the future to expand the efforts. Not necessarily to do the things that we are doing now exactly but to contribute to the movement in the most dramatic way that we can.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: When you decided to make the two films was it a way to inspire more people to get involved?
Bichlbaum: Yes. It’s basically to get attention to the issues. When we do the actions themselves they get attention for the issues in the press. After the BBC thing on Bhopal there were 600 or 900 articles or something like that in the US press about the action, which brought attention to the issue as well. And with the film we feel that the potential is bigger.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Should it really be seen as a documentary? The second film seemed to change tone a lot from the first one. In the first film you seem to be more yourselves and in the second one it’s much more like you are acting. Was that deliberate?
Bichlbaum: It happened. It wasn’t so deliberate. But then it ended up being good, I think, because the point is really the actions and the issues and the victims and the content of what we are doing. Basically, all the audience really needs to know about us is that we are odd and hapless and only kind of good at what we do, not great. And if you know that, that’s enough. It’s basically to communicate that you can do it too. Anyone can do it probably better than we can.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You mainly go after corporations, while former US President George W. Bush wasn’t mentioned at all in the film. For anti-globalization activists such as yourselves, aren’t governments also a target?
Bonanno: We have to pressure government to make the laws that regulate corporations. And government needs to create incentives for corporations to do the right thing and laws to punish corporations should they do the wrong thing. It’s not rocket science. But for the last 30 years, the prevailing ideology has been to let corporations do whatever the hell they want and that’s just not working out. The idea is that the invisible hand will somehow help everyone but I’m a little bit more concerned with the visible hand that’s been spanking us for years.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you at all optimistic about the fact that Barack Obama has now moved into the White House or do you think he’s going to turn out to be just another politician?
Bichlbaum: He’ll be able to do a lot. I think his recent moves are really encouraging and he’s delivered on a lot of his campaign promises already. But he is encircled by these people who are pressuring him and saying you have to do things a certain way. If we aren’t out there ready to burn the place down if things suck, like during the Great Depression, then he won’t be able to do anything. Roosevelt was only able to ever do something because there were people rioting and demanding change. So it’s hopeful if we remain active.
Originally published on SPIEGEL ONLINE International: