From short experimental videos (Third Known Nest) to installations and live performances of music and film (My Silent One) to feature-length narratives (Swoon, Savage Grace), Tom Kalin’s award-winning work has been screened throughout the world. A producer of the films I Shot Andy Warhol and Go Fish, he was also a member of the AIDS activist collective Gran Fury. He is a Columbia University Professor in film, teaching directing.
“Identity correction” sounds excruciating, perhaps even Kubrickian, like a state-sponsored procedure carried out by chilly, sadistic doctors in some dystopian future, but in the hands of political pranksters the Yes Men, it is something entirely more zippy, transgressive and fun. In their own words, identity correction means “impersonating big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them, and otherwise giving journalists excuses to cover important issues.”
In The Yes Men Are Revolting, Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum (aka Igor Vamos and Jacques Servin) pick up where their previous films The Yes Men Fix the World and The Yes Men left off, while also delving more deeply into their own complicated mythologies and autobiographies. Co-directed with Laura Nix, the new movie briskly revisits some of their “culture jamming” actions, starting with the launch of a flotilla of humans wearing supposed disaster-proof “SurvivaBalls,” bobbing like deranged corks in the East River, across from the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference. (Until the cops came and the Coast Guard fished them out of the water.)
In 2004, on BBC World News, Bichlbaum posed as “Jude Finisterra,” a Dow Chemical spokesman now taking responsibility for the infamous 1984 Bhopal gas leak disaster (over half a million people in India were exposed to toxic chemicals and thousands died). On a decoy Dow Chemical website, the Yes Men simultaneously posted this intentionally contradictory message to whip things up further:
As a publicly owned corporation, Dow is unable, due to share-price concerns, to accept any responsibility for the Bhopal catastrophe caused by our fully owned subsidiary, Union Carbide. As an individual, however, you can help as your conscience dictates: visit Bhopal.net or Bhopal.org.
As a result of this escalating media nightmare, Dow’s stock price fell 4.24 percent in Frankfurt, temporarily obliterating two billion dollars of its market value. Wall Street was still sleeping – and by the time New York was awake, the Yes-hoax was up. In the aftermath, 24-hour talking heads yammered about the ethics of the stunt.
The Yes Men have “corrected” an impressive range of government and corporate identities, the WTO, HUD, Halliburton, Shell Oil and the Canadian environment minister being among their growing army of targets. In the movie, we watch them stage fake press conferences, deftly assembling useless, camera-ready microphones with kitchen sponges and straws. At the National Press Club, they call for a universal carbon tax, masquerading as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – which sounds like a governmental agency but is actually a lobbyist organization for Big Oil. (This provokes a lawsuit from the Chamber, later dropped.) And while the film highlights their successes, it doesn’t hide the duds under the bed, either.
In one baroquely miscalculated piece of theater, the Yes Men join forces with Greenpeace to target the unholy alliance between Shell and the Russian oil company Gazprom. (Prompted by their failure to secure a permit for drilling in U.S. waters, and with the blessing of Putin, Shell had teamed up with Gazprom to drill in the Russian Arctic.) Exactly how a river barge loaded with a realistic polar bear puppet, a marching band, a child singer and a hammy Russian actor would shed light on this Big Oil crisis is anyone’s guess. Sometimes Yes-missions spectacularly fizzle out.
The cult of personality inevitably rears its head in the work of such nimble, shape-shifting activists, and though some might find their personal focus here indulgent or uninteresting, I was intrigued to see the Yes Men depict the impact such long-term work has on life, love and sanity. (I could have done without the too-tugging-on-the-heartstrings score, however.) On a trip to Uganda to work with activist Benadette Chandia Kodili for an action at a U.N. climate change summit in Copenhagen, Bichlbaum (who is gay) squirms a bit at questions about his marital status and answers an incredulous Ugandan man’s question about what exactly gay sex is by bumping two beer bottles together and shyly shrugging. (His reticence is understandable; the Ugandan government tried to outlaw homosexuality, and unofficial reactions can be life threatening.) Later in the film, Bonanno, worried about Bichlbaum’s disapproval, hides the fact that his wife is pregnant with a third child.
Andy frets over whether his new boyfriend’s a keeper, while Mike considers the temptations of rural, domestic tranquility. Shining light into the interpersonal nooks and crannies of these activist-geek soul mates, the movie risks sentimentality but mostly emerges unscathed. Before they met, Bichlbaum worked for Maxis, designing code for video games; just for the hell of it, he embedded an animation of a kissing gay couple periodically triggered by unsuspecting players. Bonanno was the mastermind of the “Barbie Liberation Organization,” which switched the voice boxes of Barbie and G.I. Joe so that Joe would helpfully volunteer, “Let’s go shopping,” while Barbie would grunt, “Vengeance is mine!” No wonder these two inspired nutjobs found each other. The world’s a more interesting place with these two mad geniuses in it.
There’s a long history of colliding humor and political protest, and the Yes Men wisely draw on these pioneers. I grew up the youngest of eleven kids in the ’60s and ’70s and lived vicariously through the exploits of some of my older siblings. Watching this movie about political pranksters the Yes Men, I couldn’t help but think of Abbie Hoffman’s notorious Steal This Book, and I remembered poring over a dog-eared copy when I finally got my grubby hands on one. A primer on how to fight the power and live for free, the book was divided into three parts (Survive! Fight! Liberate!), chock full of scams now impossible in our infinitely more distrustful, NSA-surveyed world. Though I never forged an airline ticket (too young to pull that one off), I did successfully learn to use slugs in payphones and vending machines.
In 1967, shortly before the Yippies took their name (and declared Pigasus, a real pig, their candidate for president), Abbie Hoffman, Anita Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Nancy Kurshan and others hurled money from the visitor’s gallery of the New York Stock Exchange onto the traders below. Twenty-two years later, my friends did the same thing to protest the slow response of the pharmaceutical industry to the early wave of AIDS deaths. I was a member of both ACT UP and the smaller collective Gran Fury, which created a series of public projects that used outrageous humor and the element of surprise to grab the attention of an unsuspecting audience. With our 1989 project, The New York Crimes, we printed thousands of copies of the front page of the Times, but this time with an AIDS activist version of the news printed front and center.
In the middle of the night, we went out in groups and dropped quarters in newspaper boxes. Instead of taking a single paper, we pulled out the entire stack. In the back of waiting vans, we stripped the papers of their real front page and replaced them with ours. And in the morning, commuters dropped their quarters and read our front page instead. The Yes Men wisely draw on these pioneers. Twenty years later, in 2009, the Yes Men and the Anti-Advertising Agency turned up the heat and printed more than 80,000 copies of a radically re-imagined Times: “All The News We Hope to Print.”