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Unmasking the Yes Men

By Matthew Arnoldi - Posted on 22 February 2005

Undercover saboteurs Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonnano, aka The Yes Men, set up a controversial Bush website that the Administration tried to shut down, embarrassed the WTO by parading unethical global trade practices that the WTO should be addressing, and on a lighter note, they've caused gender mayhem in U.S. toy shops by switching over the voice boxes of Barbies and GI Joes. And now they've got a film out, The Yes Men, documenting their spoofs.

MA: Firstly your film was recording your activities in 2002: what were you up to during the US elections?

Bonnano: We were driving around the country campaigning for Bush in a giant campaign truck - it cost us $5,000 and it was a used truck that we dressed up. We campaigned for Bush in the most obscene transparent ways we could think of, hoping people would get how obscene what we were talking about was. But that never happened, so we had to abandon that idea and in the end go door-to-door in Florida.

MA: So you were trying to target pro-Bush supporters more to get at them?

Bonnano: Well, what we ended up doing was trying to ensure those who were not Bush supporters were going to go and vote, but we also wanted to highlight one or two issues. There is a report by the Pentagon suggesting that... although global warming could be a problem, the answer to it is simply to fortify the U.S.'s borders, because global warming might eventually lead to a new Ice Age, which would much more adversely affect Europe, China and Japan. So the solution is not to cut down on our emissions, but to fortify our borders. And that is a real Pentagon report. So we took that, made it a platform of the Bush campaign... but it didn't work in terms of making people think twice.

MA: There's a danger isn't there, that some of the best ideas go over people's heads, they don't get that it's a joke. That must be pretty frustrating?

Bichlbaum: It is, especially when you're trying to accomplish something quickly. That's been one of our main exercises actually, trying to find that main tipping point when people will stop believing what you say if you're in a position of authority. It seems like it's pretty extreme for a lot of people; we couldn't even find it with Bush. We couldn't find the end-point, you know, what people would accept. We tried everything. We eventually had to abandon our ideas because people just kept on believing and lapping up whatever crazy ideas we came up with.

MA: What's been the reaction of World Trade Organisation officials to your film. Have they seen it yet?

Bonnano: They haven't spoken about the film at all. They've spoken about us and denounced our spoof website and they've sent us legal letters to stop. When asked by hacks about our activities, they've just said that they frowned upon them. Their anger towards us has gone down. Our last action in Australia prompted the response of "we've addressed their criticisms and have included those points now as a part of our plan." So they've tried to be less adversarial in the hope of getting better press. It's worked, being congenial has made it less of a story. It would be much better for us if we were at each others' throats.

MA: Have they tried to establish dialogue with you, ever?

Bonnano: No. We'd like maybe to show the film to them in Geneva though... maybe find a way into tricking them into going. That would be nice. Maybe telling them it was a documentary about the WTO, and see how many stay and what they say afterwards. It would be fun. We must talk to the Swiss distributor about that.

MA: Have you ever faced stiff legal warnings about such things as impersonation?

Bichlbaum: Not about impersonation, no. They've tried to shut down our sites on the net.

Bonnano: The Bush administration did that in 2000, when we set up the website "GW". They wrote us a "cease and desist" letter for copyright violation, and complained to the Federal Elections Commission that we should have to reveal the source of our funding, which was $50 for a domain name. There was also the time when we set up the Dow site two years ago, and they reacted heavy-handedly, complaining to the upstream provider and they got all the websites of the host shut down including our's through an extra legal action, although the provider can refuse to do anything. It's just a hassle... we eventually cloned the site to stop them, so anyone could download the site and set it up anywhere they chose to.

MA: Since the release of the film, have you come across other 'Yes men'? Any potential new recruits?

Bonnano: Yes actually. There's a group of Danes who have been attending arms fairs. They went to China, for example, in order to present a new weapon, and they went on to other Arms Fairs in Qatar and Abu Dhabi, and they also went around the United States as "Danes for Bush". There's a lot of people globally doing similar things and we all trade information. We didn't start anything ourselves. Stuff like this has been going on forever.

Bichlbaum: Since the seventh day...

MA: What ideas have ended up on the 'cutting-room floor' so to speak, due to reasons of practicality or plain irrationality?

Bonnano: Andy wanted to make a giant hamburger. You wanted to make a giant hamburger out of meat, and I was like, "How the hell are we going to make a giant meat hamburger?" I was going, "We can't make a giant hamburger, think about how much meat and bread you'd need!" And Andy was going, "Well, we'll make an inflatable one then." To which I replied, "Well how big is big?" And we had this really crazy argument about whether to make a giant hamburger or not.

Bichlbaum: We could have if we'd put our minds to it. (pauses) I mean we should've got a giant piece of stryofoam and coated it with meat.

Bonnano: See what I mean? See what I mean? You've started him off again! I mean have you ever tried to model meat around anything?

Bichlbaum: I have! I've done it dozens of times!

Bonnano: What did you shape meat around?

Bichlbaum: A model of Venus De Milo! (explosion of laughter)

Bonnano: The original of Venus De Milo was made out of meat...? I've heard it all now!

Bichlbaum: Seriously though, you're not allowed to use stickier meats like Haggis or Black Pudding ..

Bonnano: You're not?

Bichlbaum: No, hamburger only! (more laughter) and what would have been really fun, we could have gone for the Guinness Book of Records at the same time for the creation of the largest hamburger in history, and then got the WTO to announce it.

Bonnano: OK, let's go back and make it. Finally the WTO will achieve world renown.

MA: Coming back to reality... have you ever harboured bigger ambitions, say to break into a G8 summit or the European Parliament?

Bichlbaum: Absolutely. We tried to break into some Republican conventions this Summer and some other people did manage it. One girl got in and unveiled something, and she caused a big stir.

MA: Will you not become more well known as a result of the film? Will that make it more difficult to get past security...?

Bichlbaum: Perhaps... probably only in the UK. But we could always find people to do things. There's no shortage of people willing to execute our ideas. Or, we could go bandaged up as a result of some terrible accident. Giving lectures as a mummy, that would be funny... or we could have plastic surgery!

MA: What would be your five-point plan to anyone wanting to become a Yes Man?

Bichlbaum: Let's see .. One: choose your target. Must be powerful. Two: an organization rather than an individual. Then you can pass yourself off as a representative of it. Three: learn about your target and figure out a way to get in. If it's a website, can you infiltrate it or pass a copy of it with a similar domain name. Four: get a reaction. And five: talk about it and get the story into the media. Simple.

Bonnano: And don't forget: publish the results of your research on our website,

MA: Have you got any plans for any mass forms of action?

Bichlbaum: Those sort of things happen spontaneously. We've thought about mobilising the flash mobs, yes, it should be done, shouldn't it? I mean you often don't need passes to get into these things.

Bonnano: We went to one, didn't we? The Heritage Foundation, one of these right-wing think-tanks, they asked for 250 right-wing think-tanks to come for a weekend and volunteer ideas and figure out how to get them into law, and we got in and stood up and caused an intervention.

MA: Have you got any future targets?

Bonnano: There's so many institutions out there causing grave injustices it would be criminal not to take on some of them. There's no shortage, really. We've just seen a film actually called "Darwin's Nightmare". It was showing at the IDFA in Amsterdam. It was an incredible portrait of the global arms trade. It's about arms and fish, and it's about globalisation and its effect in Africa. It's really intense.

Bichlbaum: Ninety five percent of the arms trade is legal: 95%. There's very little that is illegalised.

MA: Finally, what's been your most dangerous assignment to date?

Bichlbaum: Probably the one last Friday at Dow Chemical. Dangerous in tactical terms because it was so easy to get wrong, but we felt after, we'd got it right because it got into the U.S. media. It sort of backfired a bit in the UK perhaps. It was also dangerous because it felt like there was a real danger of getting into legal trouble there. It's not the WTO, it's a much more heavyweight target and they have greater legal resources at their disposal. Ultimately though, it's not that dangerous. It's mostly in our heads that we perceive a danger.

The Yes Men were interviewed at the London Film Festival 2004. Yes Men web site (Includes footage of Dow spoof screened on the BBC).