The Yes Men: Interview With Andy Bichlbaum (VIDEO)
Andy Bichlbaum is having himself a busy week. With the help of a cadre of dedicated volunteers, he and his partner in crime, Mike Bonnano -- who form the culture jamming, "identity correcting" satirists known as The Yes Men -- produced and distributed a spoofed copy of the New York Post, filled with critical news and information on climate change and environmental issues. Ten months prior, they pulled off a similar stunt, distributing a facsimile of the New York Times. Later in the week, Bichlbaum and Bonnano followed up their Post prank by unveiling the Survivaball -- the essential global survival device for the modern plutocrat -- down by the East River. During the unveiling, Bichlbaum was arrested by the NYPD on an outstanding warrant. He ended up spending a day in the stir. Despite a busy and arduous week, one thing is clear: Andy Bichlbaum is having fun.
But beneath his good cheer and easy laughs lies a deep concern, which emerged readily over the course of an interview with The Huffington Post. It revealed itself through his vocabulary: One word that Bichlbaum uses again and again is "catastrophe," and various forms thereof. He applies this term to all manner of ills: environmental degradation, the decline of the media. And this is actually reassuring: The Yes Men are not laughing in the face of catastrophe. The laughter they generate is an energy, intended to avert catastrophe. We spoke to Bichlbaum by phone.
THE HUFFINGTON POST: What inspired you to go green with this recent action?
ANDY BICHLBAUM: Well, half of our movie [The Yes Men Fix The World] is about global warming. The movie documents a number of actions we did from 2004 to, basically, the present. We start by posing as Dow reps on the BBC and take responsibility for the Bhopal catastrophe, as they should. We found that the stock market actually punishes the Dow for doing that.
And then the question that comes out of that is: well, if companies can't do the right thing because there's a stock market making them do the wrong thing, how far can that go? How bad can that get? And the answer is: Climate change and the destruction of the planet.
THE HUFFINGTON POST: So, pretty bad, as it turns out.
BICHLBAUM: It's a net negative. So, that's how we got into it. And Bhopal is also a green issue. Companies toxify the environment. The WTO. It's all the same issue. But it's an issue that affects everybody and that everyone is aware of.
THE HUFFINGTON POST: Was this an easier undertaking, having pulled off the NYT parody?
BICHLBAUM: Yes. Much. Once we knew how to do it, it was much easier. It's still hard. But it wasn't anywhere near as hard and there weren't as many questions. We had some really amazing collaborators that made it work. We did it all in a month, instead of six months, and even that one month wasn't as hard.
THE HUFFINGTON POST: I saw that some of your volunteers were detained outside the News Corp. building, and that you were arrested during the subsequent demonstration of the Survivaball. Is everyone safe and out of custody right now? Do you expect any further action by authorities or from the NYPD?
BICHLBAUM: Yeah. I got out yesterday around noon, after 26 hours in the clink. All charges were dismissed for me. It was an outstanding bicycle ticket, that's the problem there. It was really excellent, excellent timing! I couldn't have engineered it if I wanted to, I just happened to have this warrant, and so instead of giving me a ticket to be dismissed -- and all the charges will be dismissed -- in my case, they couldn't do that because they had this warrant for my arrest because I was bicycling through Washington Square Park, which is under this rather intense gentrification process, so they don't want anyone doing anything bad in the park.
THE HUFFINGTON POST: We live in such an attention-grabbing culture, and creative agit-prop is no different. The Post parody played out alongside the release of Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story, in which Moore does things like wrap Wall Street in police tape and attempt to make citizens' arrests. But, going back to the stuff you did in the first "Yes Men" movie, and through these two newspaper parodies, it strikes me that you all make a clear choice to hide your work in plain sight. I was wondering if you could talk about what led you to make that aesthetic choice.
BICHLBAUM: That's a really difficult and good question that I've never answered before. You know, I don't think it was a choice. I don't think we made a choice to do this the way we do it. It all just fell together, and happened to us. For a while, we were kind of sneaky. We had a website set up that pretended to be a subversive clearinghouse for what we called "sabotage." Like, people working at corporations might screw with a product they were producing, to make a political point that way, and kind of give them a safety net. It was all fictional, but at a certain point, we set up another fake website about the WTO, and when we got an invitation to a conference, we went. And then it became something else. But we didn't set out to do that, it just kind of happened.
THE HUFFINGTON POST: Do you see any different quality in the results you garner for operating in this manner? Does this methodology give you an advantage? Does it allow for a deeper connection?
BICHLBAUM: I think the main power that we try to exploit is the humor. Doing things that make people laugh. It's the sugarcoating that gets people in the door to see the movie. It's a hilarious movie and people want to see it. And then they learn a lot of scary, awful things and hopefully they want to change them. That is part of the aesthetic choice we make. We show ourselves stumbling along as we do it, show what happens, and it sort of sends the message: anyone can do it. We never got any training, and yet, here we are.
THE HUFFINGTON POST: Have you gotten any feedback from people about the awareness you raised with the Post parody?
BICHLBAUM: Yeah! And some of the stories in it, some of the stories that we exposed in it have been picked up by the mainstream media. Things that were hidden in plain sight, like you said, like the cover story: The Mayor's Office commissioned a Blue Ribbon panel of scientists to determine what would happen to New York if the climate scientists' predictions come true. And it's pretty catastrophic. We outline the terrible things that will happen. And a couple of media outlets actually took that up and reported it, many months after the study was completed. In February, when the study was released, nobody covered it. And it's actually pretty big news. So we broke that story.
And another story that's gotten a little bit of traction in the press is the Deutsche Bank one, about their giant carbon counter. And we discovered that they've begun recently trading in coal. That was the whole purpose. To report real news for once.
THE HUFFINGTON POST: You've gone directly at the press now on two occasions. And one of the things I think the New York Post parody demonstrates is just how it doesn't take a titanic effort to provide the public with information on what's happening in the environment. That information can be reported on, distributed, consumed, enjoyed... What do you think of the job the traditional press is doing, covering important events, informing the public on critical issues, and requiring you to afford them the opportunity to take a second bite at the apple on stories like this Bloomberg blue ribbon study?
BICHLBAUM: Well, they're doing a terrible job. And it's not necessarily the journalists' fault, though by and large they could be doing a better job, it's the structure they're a part of. It's increasingly getting streamlined and made a part of the market economy, where profit is the only value that matters. So papers are closing, and journalists are being laid off, bloggers are replacing journalists because they're willing to do it for free. It's really catastrophic. When you have comedy shows providing news for people, it's a really bad situation.
THE HUFFINGTON POST: You guys are going to be honored with the Creative Time Prize for Art and Social Change. What does that sort of recognition mean to you?
BICHLBAUM: Great! You know, it's nice, obviously. It's flattering. It also means we have the chance to tell young artists who are wondering what they should do with their talents that this is a good thing to do with them, and get them involved. It's a way to recruit creative people to use their art for change, instead of a gallery art career of dubious value.
THE YES MEN FIX THE WORLD will open at Film Forum in New York City on October 7 and will open nationally on October 23. Also on the 23rd, The Yes Men will receive the Creative Time Prize for Art and Social Change at the Creative Time Summit. During that time, The Yes Men will treat attendees to a special presentation. Bichlbaum says that the plans are still coming together, but that it's likely to be a mix of previewing what's to come and offering instruction and advice to other artists on how they can put their creative energy to work for social change. Perhaps they could teach the assembled on how to put out a newspaper that actually reports news! Tickets are only $35, which makes it a pretty cost-effective alternative to journalism school.