When a man or woman in an expensive business suit from a big company voices their opinion, many listen and believe their words. This seems to be a growing global problem with the people of today. Too many people sit back and do not raise questions or challenge authority just because the representatives are wearing an Armani suit. The Yes Men are known for pointing out issues in our society, and in one of their identity correction projects in August of 2001, they demonstrated firsthand the extent of society’s problem with challenging authority.
The Yes Men consist of two anti-globalization protesters, Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlaum (Lawrenson). They both have a long history of creative activism, and their main goal is to expose the problems that lie within various areas of our society (Kingsnorth). Mike Bonanno’s first experiment involved switching the voice-boxes of Barbie dolls and GI Joes and secretly putting them on store shelves. It made news headlines and got many Americans thinking about what Barbie dolls and GI Joes convey to our children. Andy Bichlaum has impersonated a World Trade Organization spokesman on numerous occasions. One occasion was a live interview on CNBC, which made the World Trade Organization look like fools by agreeing with their anti-globalization opponent (Lawrenson). With this idea of impersonation and identity correction Mike and Andy say they “steal [the biggest criminal’s] identity to make them more honest” (Schwarzbaum). They target big corporations and leaders who put profit before anything else.
These projects have turned into a kind of new genre of media art; they get a very large amount of coverage in newspapers, television, and the internet. Most, if not all, of their endeavors have been centralized around the media coverage to spread their message. With help from the media and identity correction, they hope to draw attention to problems in America’s society and societies across the globe.
One of the Yes Men’s most famous project is the mockery website for the WTO, gatt.org. It was first created as satire site in the hopes that people would accidentally end up at gatt.org instead of the real WTO site. Close attention to the content of the site will reveal that it is a mere mocker. However, the website was able to fool many people. They even received email invitations from many professionals to speak at conferences and meetings across the world, which were meant for actual WTO members. They ignored the first few but then decided make something of these emails and actually attend the events. One of the emails was an invitation to a textiles conference at Tampere University of Technology in Finland in August 2001 (Kingsnorth).
At the conference, Andy Bichlaum posed as Hank Hardy Unruh and Mike Bonanno was his assistant. They spent months planning and preparing for the conference. The key component to this project was their take on the WTO’s solution “to the problems of maintaining rapport with distant workers and maintaining one’s own mental health as a manager with the proper amount of leisure” (Beyond the Golden Parachute). It was called the Management Leisure Suit which was a gold leotard that had the Employee Visualization Appendage. The EVA was a hands free appendage mounted on the hip that would instantly deploy to allow the manager to receive data and have visual with his employees. Workers would be fitted with a small chip that could transmit data, like physical labor, to the manager through electronic channels implanted directly into him or her (Beyond the Golden Parachute).
With this opportunity to speak out against globalization, Mike and Andy decided to turn this WTO project into a documentary film. The documentary’s “value [was] not as a record of history, but simply as a means of communication, a means by which meaning is generated” (Critical Art Ensemble 40-41). It was there to help viewers see that we as a society have a hard time stepping up to authority and questioning their ideas. Through the film the audience was also able to see each step of creating an effective protest: preproduction, production, and post production. There were months of preplanning for everything from the basic idea to the speech to the making of the leisure suit. Viewers of the documentary got to see the conferences as Andy was giving his speech and the reactions of the professionals attending the conference. What is most important about the documentary was the post production: there was none. There was no reaction to their outrageous proposal. The professionals who attended the conference gave a polite applause, some nervous smiles, and it ended. They were not kicked out or arrested. There was no reaction.
Even the highly educated participants, some with PhDs and some with law degrees, sat back and took what Andy had to say even though it was an absurd idea. They did not question him because he was in a fancy suit and from an important organization (Kingsnorth). They assumed that just because this idea is coming from the WTO that it is an acceptable one. This is where society makes a turn for the worst. We need to challenge authorities even if they are bigger and more powerful than an individual person.
Although they uncovered a deeper problem with society as a whole, The Yes Men’s original goal was to point out how problematic liberal economics can be. With this leisure suit project and previous projects, what they say “is merely market logic taken to its most extreme… The whole premise is that [they] exaggerat[e] and [mirror] what the people [they are] talking to are already saying” (Kingsnorth). In Andy’s speech at the textile conference in Finland, he presents all of these extreme ideas that can be seen as true according to the WTO. For example, Gandhi’s efforts and homespun village economy would absolutely be illegal according to the WTO’s current rules, which prevent countries from protecting, subsidizing, or promoting their own industries when faced with foreign competition. He also points out if the North didn’t try to take away the South’s freedom to trade with who they wanted, then there would have never been a Civil War. He completely mystifies and knowingly disregards the fact about all the slaves in the South with no freedom (Beyond the Golden Parachute). In far-fetched ways, these points can be seen as true, but the fact is Gandhi was right in his actions to help his people from Britain, and the North completely had the right to go to war with the South to help free slaves. Andy brought up these ideas in ridiculous ways to show the dangers and mindset that globalization advocates could have.
Even though the Yes Men stole the identities of WTO members and presented them in a negative light by coming up with outrageous ideas, they did not suffer one serious penalty. They were never arrested, fined, or persecuted in any way. They continued to launch numerous other identity correction projects on behalf of the WTO with little to no penalty. Gatt.org is still up and running, and they are still receiving emails meant for the real WTO (Kingsnorth). Obviously they did not want to be arrested, but the Yes Men were hoping for some sort of reaction from their participants. It would have shown that their mockery actually had an effect on those whom the mocking was directed towards. Through the documentary film, the audience understood their point but the mockery demonstration was originally meant for the convention attendees.
From their reactions on the documentary, The Yes Men were not happy with the results of their WTO project, but, nevertheless, the project can be seen as an effective piece of art. Art should be one that shocks viewers while containing disruption and ambiguity (Kester 18). After watching The Yes Men, viewers most likely would have been shocked just by the leisure suit let alone the abstract ideas that were said in the actual presentation. The golden leotard with an appendage attached to the pelvic region was meant to disrupt. The project also had hopes to evoke ambiguity in the WTO. The Yes Men wanted the viewers to question their actual intentions and motivations.
As a piece of media art, the Yes Men were successful because they got their viewers of the documentary to see the societal flaw of not being willing to challenge authority. Although their message of globalization being potentially dangerous was not apparent to the participants at the conference, the audience was able to see this along with the flaw of society. The participants did not yell or remove them from the conference, but hopefully in the future viewers of the film will challenge globalization and other authorities. At the time of the conference, the Yes Men were not successful but through the film they were.
From the beginning, viewers of the documentary are fully aware of the absurd ideas the Yes Men would be presenting at the conference, but the participants at the conference did not even question the outrageous ideas all. This was because the information was coming from people in fancy suits from a big corporation who hold some type of authority in the field. The Yes Men were able to demonstrate society’s tendency to sit back and let big corporations take control. Globalization and the WTO are just one example of an area which people should raise issues of their uncertainties. The idea of questioning authority can be applied in almost every area of our society.