The Yes Men are the kind of guys you wished you were. They have beliefs coupled with action. Thought coupled with compassion. Nerves of steel and skeletons of gold and giant balls... Survivaballs.
I was lucky enough to get a few minutes to talk to Mike Bonanno of the Yes Men, the funniest dudes on the most serious mission, on a particularly noisy Sunday afternoon.
Get mad as Hell and check out their newest movie, The Yes Men Fix The World.
Mike Bonanno: Hello?
J: Hi, this is Justin from Night of the Dead Living. How are you?
MB: Justin, excellent. I can hear you. How are you?
J: Good. I just saw the movie recently and I really – I was really happy with what you guys are doing and what you guys have done. I saw The Yes Men when that one first came out [street noise] – wait, where are you?
MB: I’m on the street in Brooklyn, hang on for a sec let me put my daughter down, she’s on my shoulders. [Talks to daughter]
Hello. Let’s talk.
J: The first thing I noticed about the movie was – I thought that you guys seemed very underwhelmed after each event, after each hoax. Were you displeased with what was happening, with the outcomes or was that just editing?
J: Yeah, there wasn’t too much high-fiving…
MB: I think that’s because after doing these things, for one thing it reflects a bit of an emotional low that happens anyway, you’re going through a bit of a postpartum moment [laughs]. You know after going through the process of getting all the adrenalin going and the energy and then afterwards, it’s a bit of an anticlimax afterwards. And I think it reflects that and it also reflects the reality of being an activist where you do things and you think they make a difference but you can never quite be sure and you feel almost cheated in your mission.
J: Are you constantly looking forward to the next thing or after each event are you done for a little bit or is it never done?
MB: Usually the events come to us, so sometimes we have two or three going at once and sometimes we have nothing for a while. I mean it would be a relief to have not have anything to do for a while to be totally honest. Because you know we’ve been at this as if it were a full time job for years now – without breaks – and we both have full time jobs at the same time. So you know how it is, it’s that kind of thing where you just get tired and so you need a break but then opportunities that you just can’t refuse keep coming up. You know, like the BBC – you think, Okay, now I’m really gonna take a break. Which the last time we released a movie we had just finished a series of pranks that took us years to pull off and that we’re working on really hard and then finally the movie’s out and we think, Now we’re gonna take six months off now, and then we get an email from the BBC asking us to be on their show – the opportunities present themselves and we feel a sense of obligation to our… craft [laughs]. To this sort of activist goal that we just keep doing it anyway. Hopefully we’ll be rested at some point but there’s always things coming up that you just have to – and it is fun, too - there are parts of it that are really restful. I mean even though we worked our asses off and we’re up 24/7 for weeks to do the New York Post project, it was really fun. It wasn’t a lot of really hard work banging your head against the wall like making a movie and getting it out there can be, because there’s just so much to do, there’s all kinds of weird legal work to do, there’s all kinds of – just working out the structure and working with a lot of people to make something happen. Raising money, it’s all very tedious and difficult.
J: You just called this a craft, are you worried about at one point getting too much press and you won’t be able to have this as your craft anymore? That you’ll be too recognizable?
MB: I’m not worried about that at all, because of all the other directions we can take it in. The newspapers are just one example of a kind of creative activist project that uses a lot of the same ideas that we’ve used in our lives. And the other thing is that we can – of course we can get other people involved. It doesn’t have to be us doing these things, it could be anyone. And there are certainly other people out there who are actually good at the types of things – they have the skills that would be necessary to do what we do even better, let’s put it that way. They were essentially working on the backend, and they were doing this sort of design work like the acting and that sort of thing and we were just working out sort of helping out with architecture… you know we might end up with a better result than we’ve gotten already. Because there’s nothing special about the way we act, me and Andy, we’re not good actors [laughs]. So when we go in front of an audience it’s not that we can pull it off because we’re incredible public speakers or something. It’s just because of the confidence of the people that’s been established and they think that you’re somebody important, so everybody hangs on your every word simply because they think that you’re super important.
J: How do you get something like a fake Dow Chemical web site up and running and not busted – how does that work?
MB: That is actually really pretty – in that particular case it was more complicated than usual. The usual way that it happens is Andy uses paint software or one of those other softwares to just rip off a website and then change the text where appropriate or change a few photos and then repost it at a domain of our choosing, one that’s usually similar to the corporate domain. So that’s the usual way – he also wrote a piece of software a few years back with another person – another group called plagiarist.org and that software is called Reamweaver, and it was like a way of automating that process. It’s basically a software you could set up – you could point it at the website and then it would automatically critique that…
J: Do you think, now recently the ACORN thing that just happened, do you think this is the new journalism or do you think people have been doing this all along or do you think you guys are perfecting it?
J: Is there a line between altruism and for yourself, where you want credit for this, or for helping things like this along? Is there a line there?
MB: Not really, you know, the credit thing we don’t really care about. If it makes a difference that’s what matters. One example of a place where we kind of didn’t give a shit about credit is in the case of the acts we did with Dow taking responsibility for the Bhopal catastrophe, we realized before we did it that it was going to create this kind of bad press for us, because of the false hopes issue. The idea that we’d be raising false hopes with the Bhopal victims was something we were easily aware of, but we did it anyway because we realized that through the activist goals of the project it didn’t matter what people thought of us – if they’d thought that what we’d done was bad or if they hated us because we did it, because the goal there was to get in the news the fact that the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal catastrophe was happening and that Dow Chemical should be held responsible for cleaning up the mess there. So, in a way it should have been pretty clear, pretty straightforward.
J: It seems a lot of the press - even though you guys are bringing these things to light - they want to make you the bad guys for these things…
MB: They do, they do, and that’s their choice you know a lot of times they’ll either have editorial pressure or they’re writing things to fit – you know, they’ve written the story in advance. That happened in New Orleans where we were reported as having created more false hopes among the victims there even though none of the victims had heard about the prank as a real thing, none of them thought the Department of Housing was actually going to be fixing public housing again at all and we knew there was no reason for them to think otherwise because we raided a conference full of contractors not full of public housing residents. And it wasn’t carried live in the media and reported on so it was just reported on as a prank. Even though the media reported that public housing residents were outraged, it worked because they were there on the site while we were doing the mock reopening of it and they were applauding it. So, yeah sometimes people have written their stories already and sometimes they already know what they want to write and they just write it anyway.
J: How do you feel about those words, “Prank” and “Prankster”? To me it just seems so minute compared to what you guys are doing, how do you feel about that?
MB: Well thank you, I appreciate that and we do need a new word. And I don’t know what it is exactly we talked about using other words like “Hacktivism” – I like the word Hacktivism, generally you think of computer hacking instead it’s like reality hacking. And then there’s culture jamming, and culture jamming is also quite specific and I think in some ways because of Adbusters’ influence it began to develop a bit of – there’s often this kind of attitude that goes with it that’s kind of too cool for school. So we’re trying to avoid that one as well because it’s sort of – we use it still because it’s a good term and I like that sentiment and I think that it does describe pretty well some of the things that we do, but at the same time we need a new term, you’re right, and there’s got to be a better term than prank.
J: Prank sounds too cutesy like you guys are putting a whoopee cushion under somebody, and it’s all over the press release too, and it just doesn’t fit to me at all…
MB: That’s a great point and we’re not going to do it anymore now that you mention that it’s all over the press release, I think we now need to come up with something else.
J: That struck me as very odd and very ill fitting.
MB: Thank you, I appreciate hearing that, we gotta fix that.
J: Hacktivism, is that preferred? Will that do for now?
MB: Yeah, I think recently I’m beginning to see what we do as - trading terms - the world of direct action protest, it’s just that our direct action protest isn’t what you typically think of like with a blockade where you lock down and when you go and sit in a tree to keep it from being cut down, but still more of direct action. What we’re doing when we release this film is to really try to encourage as many people as possible to really get active. Especially young people who are frustrated with the idea that they’re going to inherit this mass of problems that the generation before them is creating, and the generation before them isn’t changing the laws to help keep those problems from happening at an accelerated rate like weather change… so they should be really pissed off.
MB: I think always, there is always room to sit down and talk but basically you also need to find where the edge is so that you can find the middle. And right now the middle of the debate as it’s expressed in the United States is actually oblivion. The middle commits us to genocide for a major part of the world’s population. And we feel responsible for showing that. And if they can sell campaigns by corporations on the far right who pull the wool over our eyes and do not allow people to have the tools to make a decision about whether we want a future in which billions of people die – right now the latest reports say that we can expect a four degree rise in temperature in the next 50 years – and that doesn’t sound like much, you think, Oh it’ll be 90 instead of 86, that’s the way it feels, but when you actually look at the science there what it means is that there’s a lot of growth and massive things that are happening, things that are occurring that are going to wipe out a certain segment of the population’s homes and their food supply – it’s not like everyone’s going to die in tsunamis although their will be more of them apparently because the earth’s crust is so relatively unstable, despite what we might think about rock. I read an article in The New Scientist yesterday about this, so we’ve gotta start predicting that billions of people will be displaced with resulting wars and death on a massive scale. By not acting we’re complicit in a kind of – it’s not genocide – it’s just mass murder. If we know that this is going to happen and we don’t stop it, we’re accessories to this huge crime. That’s why I’m saying the time for defining the middle - we better define a pretty extreme edge in order to determine where the middle actually is because the middle has been corrupted by the people in power right now – the corporations with deep pockets - who just want to keep exploiting things at everybody else's expense.
Of course there are plenty of people who are true believers that climate change isn’t happening and we get emails from them everyday, and if they’re right then Hallelujah, that’s fantastic, but there’s a preponderance of evidence to suggest that they’re not and if we don’t work to prevent this than the consequences are so much more dramatic than just letting it happen.
I guess that’s a very long winded answer but in the 60s would there have been such popularity for Martin Luther King if there hadn’t been other people further over like the Black Panthers and Malcolm X, who were defining the edge of the civil rights movement. So in order for white people to embrace Martin Luther King they needed some people further over who – other voices that enabled them to determine where they could find accessible middle ground.
J: How do you feel about irony?
MB: I enjoy it, I think my generation was probably the Irony Generation, you went to college in the late 80s early 90s and everybody was in super-ironic mode [laughs].
J: Do you feel that irony is the new apathy?
MB: I do feel like it was apathetic and I actually think there’s a lot more chance now of making a change because I think post 9-11 that irony was out and that people were severe. Now I think irony isn’t acceptable anymore. It can be funny. But maybe it’s too simple for this moment. I mean The Onion is awesome; don’t we need to laugh while we’re doing these things? But at the same time irony alone doesn’t work. You need ironic elements with a sincere sentiment to work.
J: What was one of your first glimpses that you would be doing this, when did you see that this would be in your future?
MB: That’s a really, really interesting question, nobody’s asked that before… Well, I mean… yeah, I don’t know. When I was in high school I never imagined I would be doing similar things now, in high school me and my friends were sort of rebelling against the monotony of suburban living. We would do things at the mall to interrupt, we set up a restaurant one day in the parking lot where we got this big red carpet and rolled it out and served food in, we wore really shitty tuxedoes that we got at a second-hand store and we tried to serve people flaming Cabbage Patch dolls, that was the food that we had. We would light them on fire, pour lighter fluid on them and get people that were going to the mall to come to our restaurant. And of course we got kicked out, every time we would go to the mall we would get either – they would call the police or the security would kick us out. But, I mean I didn’t know why we were doing it, we were doing it because we were having fun, but it’s only now that I look back and I say, Oh yeah there was nothing else to do in that town because I live in this suburban wasteland and there’s nothing for teenage kids to do. We weren’t of drinking age, but we could drive and end up finding some way to interrupt that environment because we certainly weren’t going to go shopping at the mall and we weren’t going to really hang out there either because it’s too boring. In a way it was like – at that point I wasn’t going to look ahead and say that, Oh yeah, I’m going to make a career out of doing things like that and now I actually understand why I’m doing them, but now I can look back and say there was definitely a twinkle in my eye for what the future held NOTDL