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The Yes Men: Pranksters Out to Fix the World

The Yes Men pose as spokespeople for major companies or bodies like the World Trade Organization, and give presentations that highlight the logic of corporate greed.

Over the past 10 years, the Yes Men have emerged as an infamously daring and creative duo of anti-corporate pranksters. In their new movie, The Yes Men Fix the World, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno (known in their non-activist lives as Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos) explain their methodology: "What we do is pass ourselves off as representatives of big corporations we don't like," they say. "We make fake websites, then wait for people to accidentally invite us to conferences."

When they are invited, the Yes Men pose as spokespeople for companies such as Halliburton and Exxon, or bodies such as the World Trade Organization, and they give presentations that highlight the logic of corporate greed.

In one instance, on the 20th anniversary of the notorious chemical plant disaster in Bhopal, India, Bichlbaum appeared on the BBC as a representative of Dow Chemical, which now owns Union Carbide, the company responsible for the 1984 calamity. He announced a $12 billion plan to provide medical care to the 120,000 victims of the disaster and to fully remediate the factory site. The company's market value dropped $2 billion in 23 minutes before the hoax was discovered and Dow rushed to explain that it was still refusing to meet the victims' demands for justice.

The Yes Men Fix the World opened in New York City on October 7 and begins showing in cities around the country on October 23. Shortly after the start of the New York run, the perpetually mischievous Bichlbaum spoke with Foreign Policy In Focus senior analyst Mark Engler.

MARK ENGLER: How have you felt about the reception of the film so far?

ANDY BICHLBAUM: Great. People have loved it. They've taken to the streets. Every day last week, they left the theater and stormed to a nearby destination. [Laughs.]

Of course we had people encouraging that. On Wednesday, somebody from Rainforest Action Network showed up after the film and told the audience about a nearby bank, Chase Bank, which is the last big bank financing mountaintop removal coal mining. Pretty much the entire audience went over and used coal to deface a branch of Chase Bank. We drew all over the sidewalk in front of it, on the bank itself -- messages about how we felt about mountaintop removal. Hopefully at least a few people saw that and understood the messages that we were trying to send.

Making the film, we wanted it to be active. It was great to see that all the organizers had to do was say to the audience, "yeah, come," and the audience went. It feels great; it feels logical.

ENGLER: The idea of walking out of the theater with the audience reminds me of Steve Martin's memoir, Born Standing Up, where he's experimenting with stand-up comedy in the 1970s. At a certain point, he takes people out of the club at the end of his act and continues the show by walking around with them. I wonder if there are antecedents like this that have been significant for you?

BICHLBAUM: Well, we kind of stumbled into what we do. Since then, we've discovered lots of people doing similar things. We've been inspired by them. But what we do as the Yes Men didn't happen because we looked at other people and thought, "Oh, we'll do that." In our case it just sort of happened.

We wanted to go to the big Seattle protests in 1999, protests against the World Trade Organization, and we couldn't make it. So we set up a fake website that looked like the real WTO website. It didn't occur to us that people would actually mistake the site for the real thing and write to us, but they did. We eventually got invited to business conferences, and we decided to go.

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