"Well, Foucault seems to have figured many things out. But indeed we do need to look at how the power is being used -- in the case of late capitalism, we’ve let money take over. That is an historical anomaly and it’s got to stop soon or we’re screwed!"
Andy and I were introduced to each other by friends after pulling off similar mischievous media projects in the mid 1990’s. We started working together on a project called RTMark.com, which was an “anti-corporate corporation” that supported subversive activism. While we were doing that, Andy was putting up fake websites for our favorite companies. One of them was a fake site for the World Trade Organization. People started going to that site and even began inviting us to conferences thinking we were the WTO. We said “yes” to the invitations, and that is how we got our start.
Satire is a common way to poke fun, and in many ways we were already engaged in that kind of thing with our previous projects. Likewise, parody websites were not a new thing either – for example the net artist Heath Bunting had been in a legal dispute with 7-11 over just that. But on a practical level, we did it because a guy gave us the domain gatt.org (at that time many people still thought of the WTO as its predecessor organization, the GATT.) But beyond that, the idea was inspired by activists worldwide who were rising up against the unfair trade rules that were being implemented by the WTO - it was the wave of activism that inspired us to act in solidarity.
Yes - the goals were to show that another world is possible.
The Yes Lab is a series of brainstorms and trainings to help activist groups carry out media-getting creative actions, focused on their own campaign goals. It's a way for social justice organizations to take advantage of all that we Yes Men have learned-not only about our own ways of doing things, but those we've come in contact with over the decade and a half we've been doing this sort of thing.
In a typical Yes Lab project, an activist organization will come to the Yes Lab with a target—a particular company, politician, corporate front group, bad government policy, or even an abstract idea—as well as a campaign goal: to affect public debate, push for legislation, or embarrass an evildoer, for instance. The Yes Men will work with the group remotely (by phone or Skype) to help them refine campaign goals, define the "ask," organize action teams, and so on. We'll then lead an in-person brainstorm (one, two, or three days, in a location convenient to the group) to develop the smartest, most effective actions around those goals, and then conduct trainings on the tactics we'll decide to use to reach our goal. Afterwards, we'll check in on the project until it's successful.
The Action Switchboard is a platform that helps activists find each other, come up with direct action ideas, and get the resources they need to pull them off. Sometimes we need mass protests to make our point. We love that kind of activism, and it’s important. But we can’t all get out in the streets together every single day. Ongoing, sustained creative actions are vital for keeping movements strong in between the big moments when we take to the streets. That's exactly why we built the Action Switchboard.
We like art that serves a progressive purpose. The art market is repulsive, and ambition to be a part of that can be pretty ugly and useless. Art can be really annoying when it becomes part of creating a backdrop for the rich and powerful.
That’s why we usually avoid calling what we do art - we don’t want people to get confused with useless or damaging creativity. The world is burning and it’s the only one we’ve got, so making some nice looking things is not going to help.
We have many times thought to do things in Turkey! We spent time in Istanbul last year and we have a small text and photo essay being published by the Boğaziçi Chronicles. We also ran a short workshop that had many great ideas for media events, even in the repressive Turkish context!
We’ve been threatened a bunch of times, but only with legal letters that we ignored! Once we were sued by the US Chamber of Commerce. That is in our newest movie! But all of those threats were through the legal system and none were dangerous to us in any way. That might be different if we had done our work in other countries - but it is hard to know until one tries! Everyone told us that what we were doing was dangerous in the USA… and 20 years later we can say with some conviction that it is not!
We think that humor is a great way to reach more people and build solidarity with allies who are already hard at work in the movement. With social media, people also love to share things that are funny - so in an era of anemic journalism budgets, it’s not a bad approach for spreading the word.
Well, Foucault seems to have figured many things out. But indeed we do need to look at how the power is being used -- in the case of late capitalism, we’ve let money take over. That is an historical anomaly and it’s got to stop soon or we’re screwed!