Profile: Yes Men and Yes Lab

The Yes Men's First Movie

It is the opinion of this blog (me) that organizing and activism could be a lot funnier. And I don’t just mean witty slogans, with creative plays on words — I mean laugh-out-loud funny. Maybe it’s the influence of being married to a comedian, but as I’ve argued in a prior post, comedy has long been a subversive medium, and it is highly under-utilized in working for progressive change. That’s why I’m excited by the work of the Yes Men and their more recently formed Yes Lab, through which they are sharing their skills and knowledge with the broader activist community.

The Yes Men are Igor Vamos and Jacques Servin (or, more recently, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno), two white men who have become famous for impersonating corporate executives, and subverting mass media in order to uncover lies and abuses perpetuated by international corporations. They began their “laughtivism” career in 1999, during the Seattle anti-globalization protests, when they created a fake World Trade Organization website satirizing the international group. Since then, they have posed as executives from Exxon Mobil, a Canadian environmental minister, and campaigners for Bush and Cheney. They have put out a fake paper edition of the New York Times and as corporate businessmen have been selling “Survivaballs,” live-in body suits to protect people from global warming. They’ve put out two movies that document their antics, the most recent one being The Yes Men Fix the World.

The Yes Men call what they do “identity correction,” or “Impersonating big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them.” The larger genre of activism they are a part of is often referred to as “culture jamming.” Mark Dery explains it this way:

Part artistic terrorists, part vernacular critics, culture jammers, like Eco’s “communications guerrillas,” introduce noise into the signal as it passes from transmitter to receiver, encouraging idiosyncratic, unintended interpretations. Intruding on the intruders, they invest ads, newscasts, and other media artifacts with subversive meanings; simultaneously, they decrypt them, rendering their seductions impotent. Jammers offer irrefutable evidence that the right has no copyright on war waged with incantations and simulations. And, like Ewen’s cultural cryptographers, they refuse the role of passive shoppers, renewing the notion of a public discourse.

Finally, and just as importantly, culture jammers are Groucho Marxists, ever mindful of the fun to be had in the joyful demolition of oppressive ideologies. As the inveterate prankster and former Dead Kennedy singer Jello Biafra once observed, “There’s a big difference between ‘simple crime’ like holding up a 7-11, and ‘creative crime’ as a form of expression…Creative crime is…uplifting to the soul…What better way to survive our anthill society than by abusing the very mass media that sedates the public?…A prank a day keeps the dog leash away!”

More recently, the Yes Men have stepped up their game by creating the Yes Lab. Through the Yes Lab, the Yes Men collaborate with activist groups across the country to share their knowledge, skills, and experience in identity correction. With this work, the Yes Men are helping to explicitly link their style of cultural work with organizing and advocacy campaigns — a powerful combination. For instance, earlier this year they partnered with Coal is Killing Kids to create the hilarious and disturbing Coal Cares campaign, purportedly run by James River Coal, which is proudly offering free kid-friendly inhalers to “make asthma cool.”

This fall the Yes Men are putting together an online tool so that users can come up with their own identity correction ideas, and network with collaborators. But you don’t have to wait to take action. The newest project from the Yes Lab? Become BFF’s with a Banker today and take on the 1%.