The Yes Men give a lesson in activism in Paris

During a workshop on January 27–28 in Paris, The Yes Men, masters of hoax, shared their recipes for staging peaceful acts of protest and poking fun at the media. Here are some of the ingredients.

Published 31 January 2017 in by Carine Claude

Activists, yes! But all in good fun. Over the course of their 20 years of subversive interventions in public space and the media, The Yes Men have turned political hoax into an art. Multinationals, politicians, bankers… no one is safe from this duo of experts in spoof and satire, who torpedo institutions with fake conferences and ridicule the lobbyists. On January 27–28, they gave a (two) lesson(s) in peaceful and whimsical activism at La Gaîté Lyrique in Paris. Makery attended the first lesson, a workshop (well worth the cost) for the Whistleblowers festival.

“It’s time to open the black boxes”, installation by Danae Stratou at “Whistleblowers”. © Carine Claude

In contrast to the austere installations of the eponymous exhibition, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno–The Yes Men–hosted a whimsical three-hour Yes Lab, an offbeat workshop during which some 30 participants gave free reign to their desire for urban revolt and non-violent political activism. The goal was to develop impactful yet peaceful strategies on sensitive topics in order to strike chords and convey messages through the media using their proven recipes. While it was new to the dozen students from Simplon coding school, it was almost routine for the few members of ZAD in Notre-Dame-des-Landes who also joined the workshop.

Masters of hoax

“Clearly, we’re not doing anything unique or new,” says Mike, as he cites the actions of the suffragettes, Rosa Parks, Act Up and the Canvas Core Curriculum, a guide for non-violent resistance used by peaceful Serbian collectives during the Bulldozer Revolution, which precipitated the downfall of Slobodan Milošević.

“In order for an action to stay in people’s minds, you need to create something with a strong visual impact. So you need to think beforehand about building the image, imagine the headlines, the article that will be picked up by the media, and there’s your script.”

Mike Bonanno

The Yes Men’s solution for protecting CEOs from global warming. © Human Race LLC

No strangers to self-deprecation, the two accomplices have widely commented on their visual hagiographies, from their live intervention on the BBC, to their march supporting the police during Occupy Wall Street, to their trick interview with French politician Patrick Balkany, to the spectacular publication of 1.2 million fake but real-looking New York Times, distributed throughout the United States to announce the (premature) end of the war in Iraq.

“These hoaxes are complicated set-ups, except for Occupy Wall Street,” says Andy. “The demonstration was under high surveillance. We just had the idea to hold up these pizza boxes on which we had scribbled the slogan ‘Brokers and Police for the Occupation’. The police were already out there in force, might as well use them!” As a result, the photo was picked up by the media, including some newspapers that took it at face value, believing that policemen and traders were actually marching to protest the system:

“The more simple and direct the action, the better. The goal is already to do something…»

Andy Bichlbaum

The Yes Men’s prank on Occupy Wall Street taken at face value by a Long Island tabloid in 2011. © DR

Fake refugee drownings and pro-Trump walls

After viewing the examples, it was time for the brainstorming. Among the participants, there was no shortage of causes to defend and promote. How to raise awareness of the plight of refugees? How to coordinate a nationwide action in case the ZAD in Notre-Dame-des-Landes is evacuated? What actions can block France’s extreme right party, the Front National, or simply ridicule Trump? Andy and Mike were all ears, while the participants regrouped according to affinity for just causes before moving on to the pitch.

“Our actions are the exact opposite of fake news–our goal is to make information as transparent as possible. That’s why the hoax must be revealed as soon as the action is finished.”

Andy Bichlbaum

Mobilization around a possible evacuation of the ZAD near Nantes attracted a group of seven people: three women and four men. Preferring to remain anonymous–“Call us Camille”–they spent an hour thinking of actions to provoke public opinion in the event that the controversial airport project goes into effect. “You could call it Illegitimacy Day, as the government is indeed illegitimate,” says one Camille member. Briefly considered, leads to throw paper airplanes in the hemicycles and plug up the toilets of French Parliament with tritons were abandoned. Camille prefers to organize a flash mob in which fake stewards invade public transportation or to invade social media with the ghost of Leonardo da Vinci and his hashtag “Not in my name”, a wink at the other Vinci, the construction giant that serves the project of airport in Notre-Dame-des-Landes.

“The Yes Men are revolting” (2014), documentary film screened at La Gaîté Lyrique during the festival. © Human Race LLC

The Yes Men spent some time on an idea by another group, a petition to build a wall of solidarity with the United States on the border of Luxembourg, before leaning toward organizing a fake drowning of refugees in the Seine. Heavy stuff. “If it offends, it’s a good idea!” exclaim in chorus the two agitators in chief.

“The first question to ask yourself, is what image you want to see on the front page of Le Monde the next day. The second thing is to think of something simple that you can implement even if it goes wrong.” In terms of simple, a life raft on the Seine doesn’t quite cut it. But The Yes Men encourage their enthusiasm: “Think about having a few fake tourists on hand. And don’t forget to make a press list and prepare the equipment to shoot footage. With big actions, the risk is that everyone wants to be an actor, but somebody has to assume the less glamorous task of contacting the journalists and posting on social media.”

“For those who risk being arrested, don’t forget to prepare your true-fake declaration to the media! And don’t forget to memorize a telephone number if your cell phone is confiscated.”

Andy Bichlbaum

If The Yes Men have a secret, it’s storytelling. Behind their troublemaking attitude, the duo is also engaged in more theoretical and tactical areas, somewhere between artistic performance and crazy political activism. As sharp observers of U.S. political life, they lead workshops to examine the historical and contemporary strategies of political movements at the Hemispheric Institute’s Critical Tactics Lab. But mediatized satire is still their favorite toy. “If they arrest you, just say you’re doing a street performance.” You heard it from The Yes Men.

Watch the film «The Yes Men Are Revolting» (2014)

The Yes Men website

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