YES, THEY CAN

RPI professor is part of a team that continues to expose corporate and government wrongdoing

STEVE BARNES SENIOR WRITER
Section: Scene,  Page: E1

Date: Friday, July 24, 2009

Outrage fuels the art and activism of The Yes Men.


Led by a pair of subversives, the performance artists/social agitators known as The Yes Men combat and comment on corporate greed, government malfeasance and the misdeeds of other powerful organizations by staging stunts that call attention to outrages about which they believe most of the public has become complacent.


A chronicle of their last six years of work, the new documentary "The Yes Men Fix the World," will premiere at 9 p.m. Monday on HBO and likely will be shown theatrically in the Capital Region in the fall.


"The stakes keep getting higher," says Mike Bonanno, 41, half of The Yes Men and an associate professor of arts at RPI in Troy, explaining what keeps the pair energized.


Their next project, about global warming, is expected to be carried out at the United Nations climate-change conference being held in Copenhagen in December. The details of the action are still a secret, but Bonanno says this of the subject: "If we believe scientists instead of the no-global-warming PR campaign, the entire future of the planet is at stake now. We can either choose to make the right decision or ignore it, and if we ignore it, hundreds of millions of people will die."


So far their most famous action, as they prefer to call the stunts, came in December 2003 on the 20th anniversary of the Union Carbide chemical disaster in Bhopal, India, that killed about 16,000 people and left up to 10 times that number with lifelong medical problems. After being contacted by the BBC through a fake Web site The Yes Men created for Dow Chemical, owner of Union Carbide, Bonanno's partner, Andy Bichlbaum, said in a BBC interview broadcast worldwide that Dow was finally accepting responsibility and would liquidate Union Carbide to fund a $12 billion compensation fund for victims.


Although the fraud was exposed within hours, the value of Dow's stock fell by $2 billion.


As shown in the film, corporate executives, government officials and members of the media excoriated the deception, saying The Yes Men had cruelly given false hope to the disaster victims.


Perhaps, The Yes Men say, but any false hope they might have engendered lasted just a few hours -- infinitessimal in comparison with 20 years' worth of fruitless waiting for Dow to pay for compensation, cleanup and medical care. Further, they say, and as a visit to Bhopal in the documentary shows, the victims and their advocates quickly got over their disappointment and celebrated the trickery for bringing renewed international attention to their suffering. As The Yes Men say on their Web site, "If the deaths, debilities, organ failure, brain damage, tumors, breathing problems, and sundry other forms of permanent damage caused by Dow and Union Carbide aren't enough to arouse your pity, and the hour of 'false hopes' we caused is (enough) -- fantastic, we won! Go straight to Bhopal.net and make a donation."


Other Yes Men actions in the 90-minute film include posing as representatives of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, as officials of the military-industrial conglomerate Halliburton and as analysts bragging about their new "acceptable risk calculator" that weighs the loss of human life against monetary profit.


In each case, The Yes Men's intent is to take corporate or government attitudes or actions to their logical, if exaggerated, conclusions. In one stunt, they tell a roomful of believing energy executives about a renewable fuel oil made from the human remains of victims of global warming. In that moment, their audacious performance-art activism is more akin to Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," wherein the Irish satirist proposed poor people unable to support their children should sell them to the rich as food, than it is to the comedic outrageousness perpetrated by Sacha Baron Cohen in his movies "Borat" and the new "Bruno."


While Bonanno sees similarities between The Yes Men's actions and Baron Cohen's satire, he draws an important distinction: He and Bichlbaum have an overtly political agenda when they go after corporations and governments; Baron Cohen sets his sights lower, in most cases to expose bigotry in everyday people. Comparing an earlier Baron Cohen character to an incident from "Borat," Bonanno recently told London's The Guardian newspaper, "The best stuff is Ali G, where he was so successful at hitting powerful people. It's a little bit pathetic when the target is a bunch of privileged college kids in an RV."


Bonanno's and Bichlbaum's joint pranks date back a decade. Before they met, Bonanno made a name for himself in 1993 by swapping voice boxes between Barbie dolls and G.I. Joes and returning them to store shelves, resulting in solders that said, "Let's go shopping" and Barbies asserting, "Vengeance is mine." A few years later, Bichlbaum was fired by a computer-game developer after he was found to have inserted code in the computer game "SimCopter" that caused hordes of "himbos" (male bimbos) in skimpy swim trunks to engage in mass kissing at certain times.


Somehow, through it all, neither Bonanno nor Bichlbaum has been arrested. And they've rarely even been stopped while carrying out their impersonations: "The Yes Men Fix the World" has repeated scenes of audiences not reacting badly -- and sometimes applauding -- to the seemingly outrageous things they're saying.


"If you're introduced as the most important person in the room, people are very reluctant to call you out, no matter how extreme what you're saying seems," says Bonanno. Audience reaction in the film is classic satirical exaggeration of what The Yes Men believe happens daily, when an unquestioning populace lets governments and corporations get away with villainy.


Says Bonanno, "What you're seeing is a fun-house mirror of the existing situation -- we just amplify what's already going on."


The pair will need to be sneakier to carry out their upcoming global-warming action undetected. Last week, they and activists from Bhopal attempted to deliver to Dow Chemical's London headquarters a bottle of contaminated Bhopal water, packed in a cut-glass bottle complete with fancy label reading "B'Eau Pal." Dow officials had gotten wind they were coming; when they arrived, the entire building was empty, all the employees having been dismissed early.


"They ran away," Bonanno says. "Rather than deal with it, they wanted nothing to do with us and just sent everybody home."


Steve Barnes can be reached at 454-5489 or by e-mail at sbarnes@timesunion.com.


BOX:


Artists and activists


"The Yes Men Fix The World"


Premieres: 9 p.m. Monday on HBO


Running time: 90 minutes


Repeats: 9 a.m. Aug. 2, 12:05 a.m. Aug. 6, 2:30 p.m. Aug. 8, 12:30 p.m. Aug. 11 and 11 a.m. Aug. 14.


Note: A theatrical run in the Capital Region likely will happen in the fall; a benefit screening in Troy is also planned.