12:41 pm Oct. 25, 20121
Knowing the sort of stuff The Yes Men do, such as distributing 80,000 copies of a fake New York Times that announced the end of the Iraq War, you might expect them to operate out of an undisclosed, possibly underground location on the outskirts of New York City.
But on Tuesday afternoon, Igor Vamos, one of the group’s two core members, was sitting in broad daylight on the 5th floor of 20 Cooper Square in downtown Manhattan. As of last year, the gonzo pranksters and their half a dozen coworkers have occupied a long desk in a spacious, cubicle-filled office owned by New York University’s Hemispheric Institute for Performance and Politics.
Seated beside Vamos, Mary Notari, a Yes Men employee (“I’m the Yes Ma’am,” she joked), was vocally brainstorming ways to incorporate Obama’s “horses and bayonettes” quip into a clever Yes Men Tweet. Vamos and Notari were both in full promotion mode, having launched a Kickstarter campaign for a new documentary, The Yes Men Are Revolting, at 9 p.m. on Monday night.
That specific date and time may seem arbitrary, but Vamos, who goes by the Yes Men alias Mike Bonanno, explained the greater significance.
“We’ve got an astrologist friend who suggested we launch last night,” he said, looking tired but content in a red plaid button-down that exposed a rakish swirl of chest hair. “There’s a lot of conventional logic on Kickstarter about when to do it. But we thought: Why not be in sync with the universe?”
Since the late ‘90s, the Yes Men have pulled off dozens of stunts that demonstrate their gift for building media attention around cases of geopolitical corruption. Their enduring popularity suggests that, if nothing else, their actions are in sync with the sentiments of a large and left-leaning portion of the country.
So far, Vamos and his coconspirator Jacques Servin, a.k.a. Andy Bichlbaum—who on Tuesday afternoon was in San Francisco pitching the film to potential investors—have impersonated spokesmen for Dow Chemical, Halliburton, McDonald’s, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The amusing fallout of these spoofs has a tendency to wind up on the websites of CNN, the Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal.
In one of their funniest and best-known pranks, Servin, acting as a representative of the World Trade Organization, delivered a keynote speech at a conference in Finland dedicated to “Textiles of the Future.” After blithely endorsing the cost-effectiveness of sweatshop labor, Servin strips of his suit to reveal a golden leotard accented with a three-foot golden phallus. This phallus, he explains, could allow managers of the future to remotely monitor their employees via an implanted video screen.
Oddly, no one in the crowd protests.
The WTO incident became the centerpiece of the group’s first documentary, The Yes Men, released in 2004. A follow-up to that film, TheYes Men Fix the World, came out in 2009, and involved a series of mischievous exploits that examine the consequences of corporate dominance in America.
But while those films portrayed Vamos and Servin as essentially one-dimensional comic superheroes fighting crime with smartly conceived gags, the new film sets out to expose their human side. In the process, they hope to cast some light on the daily struggles inherent in any activist enterprise.
“Making our last movie was incredibly stressful,” Vamos said. “But more than that, so many people had worked so hard to elect Obama. We kind of knew things weren’t going to change, but at the same time we wanted to believe that the stranglehold on corporate money would roll back. Instead we saw it tightening even more.”
What resulted, he said, “was a perfect storm of political ineffectuality, the corruption of democracy, and social-environmental crisis.”
By late 2009, Vamos and Servin's relationship had started to fray. To afford their hijinks, the two continued to hold day jobs as university professors—Vamos as an associate professor of media arts at Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute, Servin as an assistant professor of communication, design, and technology at Parson’s New School for Design—but the growing responsibilities of middle age had taken their toll.
“I’ve got kids now,” Vamos said, laughing softly at the idea. “Andy doesn’t, but he’s had a string of relationships that have crashed and burned as a result of his workaholism and dedication to our form of activism.”
The Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street brought them back from the brink. Inspired by the ouster of Hosni Mubarak and the encampment at Zuccotti Park, the Yes Men began taking part in general assemblies and foreclosure actions to help spread the message of the Occupy movement. In all they launched a number of actions affiliated with Occupy. Among the more humorous were "Bloomberg's Drum Circle," "Bull Fight on Wall Street," and "Become BFFs with a Banker."
“Seeing people rise up and take to the streets here made us realize, ‘Oh yeah, the stuff we’ve been doing all along is working, it’s just been impossible to see the effects,’” he said. “Suddenly, things didn’t seem quite so hopeless.”
Not coincidentally, the collapse of the financial system coincided with the shrinking bank accounts of independent film distributors. So, like many filmmakers, Vamos and Servin have turned to Kickstarter to fund their next film.
“The Yes Men came out at a high point for indie documentaries,” Vamos said. “Bowling for Columbine had busted all the records a few years before, and we came out right after Fahrenheit 911, which blew the lid off.”
Fahrenheit 911 grossed $119,194,771, making it the highest earning documentary of all time. The Yes Men, despite grossing a comparatively puny $190,000, got picked up by MGM, and received a splashy L.A. premiere and a wide theatrical release.
By 2009, though, distributors were wary of buying anything without obvious Oscar potential. After flirting with TV producers in France and Germany, Vamos and Servin finally premiered The Yes Men Fix the World on HBO. The film went on to a limited release at indie theaters like Film Forum.
Today, Vamos said, the situation is worse than ever.
“The distributors are paying a fraction of what they were paying in 2009,” he said. “But the price of producing a film hasn’t gone down. I mean, it’s gone down if you’re super low-budget, because the cost of cameras has dropped. But we’d like to pay the people we work with.”
Thus, the Yes Men, along with producer Laura Nix, are requesting $100,000 to finish the film in what Vamos calls a “bare-bones way.” He estimates that $700,000 will eventually be needed to cover the costs of editing, insurance, rights clearance, and shooting additional scenes. But the $100,000 represents a critical part of the overall budget—the bait needed to attract support from foundations, organizations, broadcasters, and equity investors.
Fortunately, the Yes Men excel at crowdfunding. By noon on Tuesday, the campaign had already raised more than $16,000, and funds were pouring in at a rate of more than $1,000 an hour. As of early Thursday, total pledges exceeded $36,000.
This isn't the first time the Yes Men have taken to Kickstarter. Earlier this year, they raised $14,000 to fund Yes Lab, a nonprofit that trains students and activists to stage their own media-generating interventions. The organization officially launched on October 13, and workshops, sponsored and hosted by N.Y.U., take place once a week.
Still, their success in the fundraising realm reflects their history of putting donations to use.
“Before Kickstarter,” Vamos said, “we’d just send out an email to our list and say: ‘Hey, we’ve got this really cool thing coming up. We can’t tell you what it is, but can you kick in a little money?’”
In this way, they raised the $11,000 required to print 80,000 copies of the fake New York Times.
A glimpse of what to expect from the film can be seen in the video currently on Kickstarter. In the clip, Servin, boldly impersonating a representative of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce at a 2009 press conference, announces that the Chamber has reversed its opposition to climate change legislation. Major media outlets, including Fox News, immediately picked up the story, before the Chamber’s actual P.R. rep burst in to the conference to declare the whole thing a hoax.
“The Chamber sued us over that, but it’s gotten caught up in the system’s bureaucracy,” Vamos explained with a sly grin. “Hopefully it’ll go to trial, and we can put them on trial in the court of public opinion in the process. It’s like, ‘Go ahead, Chamber. Make our day.’”
Over the course of the Kickstarter campaign, Vamos and Servin plan to release some raw footage, including clips of various actions they undertook in connection with Occupy Wall Street.
Of particular note is a cameraphone video of Makana, the Hawaiian slack-key guitarist, who, with the Yes Men’s encouragement, sang a rendition of his Occupy-influenced ballad “We Are The Many” before 20 unsuspecting world leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Honolulu last year.
Servin, reached over the phone in San Francisco, said the film is partly an attempt to embolden activists by offering an honest, intimate portrayal of their own daily lives. By way of example, perhaps, Servin noted that he was currently wearing a Survivaball suit—a spherical-shaped pod designed (with tongues firmly in cheeks) to protect the wealthy from the ravages of climate change. He was considering wearing the suit for his pitch later that afternoon.
In another departure from the previous films, the release of The Yes Men Are Revolting will coincide with the launch of what the directors are calling an “Action Switchboard.” The online Switchboard will act as a “human-staffed platform,” Servin said, offering specific advice to interested parties on how to get more involved in direct action.
“It’s basically a Match.com for social change, built in collaboration with engineers from Mozilla,” Servin said, before running off to the pitch meeting in his Survivaball. “In order to take our democracy back, we need people involved, not just excited.”
Back at their desk, Natori and Vamos had pulled up a photo of Servin in the suit, his face flanked by whirring fans.
“It’s one of those things where he might go ahead and do it,” Vamos said. “It could be a good idea, but then again it might not.”
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