Interview by Laura Gottesdiener
A press-release reveals a new website apparently from Bank of America, YourBofA.com, followed by another, seemingly hastily-written response imploring readers to ignore the “malicious website (YourBofA.com) that is representing itself as a Bank of America’s re-branding effort.” The second release insists that “Bank of America is not making plans to enter into federal receivership.”
The “malicious website” (and both press releases) are another creation of the pranksters The Yes Men. To learn how laughter can [rekindle people power], I sat down with Andy Bichlbaum, one of the founders of The Yes Men at Scratcher Bar in the East Village. Now, in addition to The Yes Men, The Yes Lab and teaching at New York University, he has been involved in developing the www.PlusBrigades.org.
What was your goal with the YourBofA.com?
I thought it would be good to get people thinking about what happens when you bail out a bank. I’m presuming that when you bail out a bank, there’s probably a lot of different ways to do it. One way would be just to give it a lot of money. But another way would be to give it that money and say, “Okay, now we own you.” In general, when you pay for things you own them. But, surprisingly, in 2008 we gave them money but gained no control. And they just kept doing the same old [stuff].
What was your favorite part of the action?
The phishing was pretty nice. Bank of America complained, so Google put a big phishing warning on the site. But then we emailed all our friends and told them to complain to Google, so the search engine took off the phishing warning. That was a pretty good example of people power.
Let’s get to the basics: What’s the point of these fun, creative actions?
You want a reason to have fun? That’s pretty easy: Because it’s fun. It galvanizes people. There’s that famous video of that guy dancing at Sasquatch [Music Festival] and he’s dancing alone on a hill and beckoning people to join him. At first two or three people join him, and then after a while thousands of people have joined.
What makes people join in, besides the fact that dancing is fun?
I think it starts with having rules that are simple to follow. The other day, a PlusBrigades.org clowning action at a Chase Bank was really well-directed. These kids happened to be passing by on the sidewalk, and one of them asked, “So, we just fall down? Is that the rule?” They totally wanted to play along. I think that’s when it’s infectious. Fun is really useful politically — first, for the prefigurative reason, because it shows people that life can be fun. Second, you can communicate a simple message pretty powerfully using fun, so it’s good for getting messages into the media.
Does using fun also change the way the message is communicated?
Definitely. If you’re angry about something, you rant. But pushing facts down people’s throats doesn’t work. Humor can really sideswipe this problem. It’s like there’s a wall between you and a person, and if you make a joke, it’s a crack in the wall.
Well, why do oppressed people have such great jokes? The pat explanation is that they need solace, they need to laugh because they are suffering. But it also might be that they constantly need to be inventive, to reinvent their relationship to reality because it’s so inimical to them.
You know when you laugh so hard your sides are splitting? It’s because everything you thought was true is not true anymore. And then you’re left with nothing, which is hilarious in just the sheer hopelessness of it. When we create jokes about society and the way reality is and how it can be, it’s a way of getting past this reality and recreating the world.
Do you think power structures are derived from people believing in that power?
Of course. No one can govern without the consent of the governed. So making fun of power enables people to see in themselves how they are the power, and how they are propping it up — how we are all propping it up. And the more you can laugh at that, the more you stop doing it.
So, if you recognize the power and how you reinforce it, and if the power wouldn’t exist unless you reinforce it, then…
Then you just go, Hey! You collapse on the ground laughing because you are the one making these crazy decisions.
You do both on-the-ground [stuff] and send out a lot of fake press releases. Why bother with the real world if we all sit in front of our computers for the majority of our lives anyway?
Because the real world is real, and the virtual world doesn’t really exist. Computers are only good for communicating simple information from one point to another, and yes they’re an improvement over the telephone, or town criers, or smoke signals, but they’re not categorically different.
And the smoke signal, or the computer thing, has to reference something visceral. In Egypt, Facebook was supposedly so important, but it was really useful only to tell everyone to go to Tahrir Square, and that only worked because everyone knew there was a reason to. Facebook didn’t give the reason; everyone knew why because of [real] life.
Laura Gottesdiener is a freelance journalist, and a contributor to WagingNonviolence.org, where this interview first appeared.
The Yes Men are activist duo Jacques Servin (aka Andy Bichlbaum) and Igor Vamos (aka Mike Bonanno) and a network of supporters creating actions of tactical media (aka humorous pranks) that aim to expose and raise awareness of corporate and government wrongdoing. Employing their brand of “identity correction”, to date the duo has produced two films: The Yes Men (2003) and The Yes Men Fix the World (2009).