Years ago, when I was a graduate student in the London Consortium program at Birkbeck College in London, I attended a talk by one of my professors I highly esteemed, Steven Connor. On his way to making a more expansive point about something I’ve since forgotten (perhaps the general assumptions of pedagogy), he talked about another professor writing that their students “should be made aware of …” whatever it was. He queried that assumption and used his skepticism to bore right into the question of whether anyone can really be made aware of anything.
I think of this lesson when I visit the Carriage Trade Gallery to see their exhibition The Yes Men, because as much as I appreciate the work and have a great deal of respect for the collective’s culture jamming initiatives, I don’t know that their putative premise ever bears meaningful fruit. I think of the Yes Men as activist pranksters. They describe themselves on their website as: (since 1996) “hav[ing] used humor and trickery to highlight the corporate takeover of society, the neoliberal delusion that allows it, the corporate Democrats’ responsibility for our current situation, and so on.” They consist of artist and activist Jacques Servin, aka Andy Bichlbaum, and Igor Vamos, aka Mike Bonanno, an associate professor of media arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Their game tends to entail adopting the clothing and mannerisms of powerful governmental or corporate entities, and posing as representatives of these entities in order to have the public’s attention and the cameras rolling when they make absurd or shocking declarations that run counter to the well-established ideological positions of those they are caricaturing.
Perhaps the most famous example of this strategy is Servin finagling an appearance on BBC World as “Jude Finisterra.” On December 3, 2004, the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, he posed as a Dow Chemical spokesman and claimed that Dow intended to liquidate Union Carbide (which it owned) and use the $12 billion in proceeds to pay for the medical care of the victims and clean up the site. Dow Chemical reportedly lost billions of dollars within minutes of this announcement as its share price fell. They have pulled off these hoaxes posing as representatives of ExxonMobil, the World Trade Organization, the United States Chamber of Commerce, and even as boosters of George W. Bush during his 2000 presidency run, when they (according to Wikipedia) asked supporters to sign a “Patriot Pledge” agreeing to store nuclear waste in their yards and send their children off to armed conflicts. This is a kind of satire, publicizing ludicrous proposals that are nevertheless almost logical extensions of sociopolitical policies already in place in order to expose the social hierarchies and tribal affiliations that undergird these policies. There is a history of this kind of public mockery, for example Jonathan Swift’s 1729 essay “A Modest Proposal” which suggested that the desperately poor Irish might financially benefit from selling their children as food to the wealthy.
Most of what’s in the show is documentary evidence of these pranks. There are video stills from the BBC appearance in 2004 — in fact a banner reading “Dow Does the Right Thing” (2004) greets me as I enter the gallery. There are framed receipts showing the purchase of domain names for their campaign around the Bush presidential run. There are news clippings of legacy media coverage of several of their projects. There are business cards, correspondence, posters, branded merchandise, uniforms, and printed public relations ephemera. The most amusing and memorable object is the “SurvivaBall,” which is an inflatable vinyl suit that is masqueraded as an individual tool by which to survive climate change. It’s installed ensconcing a crash test dummy who is shoved into an upper corner where it dangles like some helplessly devolved creature no longer suited to its environment. I did laugh when I saw the installation “Balls Across America” (2021). But the show’s most earnestly hopeful (as opposed to snickering in derision) work is a pile of mocked-up versions of the New York Times that feature the world that the Yes Men actually want to see. Headlines read: “Iraq War Ends”; “Nation Sets Its Sights on Building Sane Economy”; “Maximum Wage Law Succeeds”; “Nationalized Oil to Fund Climate Change Efforts.” If only.
The show ultimately feels like the Yes Men are taking a victory lap — though they have only been shown in New York once before, for some sort of workshop at NYU in 2011. Still, I wonder whether the show’s curators or the artists themselves notice that they run with a somewhat shuffling gait. After all, most of their actions that take the piss out of these corporate and government henchmen are ephemeral joys. After their Dow Chemical ruse eviscerated the stock price, the BBC issued an on-air correction and apology, and Dow’s price returned to its previous levels. The arguments I’ve heard made for this work is that it can wake people up to their actual political reality. And yet the majority of our culture seem oblivious to the “corporate takeover of society [and] the neoliberal delusion that allows it.” And even for those like me who count themselves as keenly aware of these things, I am tacitly and at times actively complicit in the systems of oppression, exploitation, and ranking that colors our social world to its core. And the effects on those who are exploited and immiserated, most of whom I will never see, isn’t ameliorated at all by my awareness. I laugh for a moment, breaking this tension, but then my ensuing sobriety is inflected by realizing that my earnest work against this tide seems hardly any more effective than that of the Yes Men’s.
The counter argument goes: “You cannot know what change this activism will effect in … well, anyone.” This is also true. But this contention is also the last refuge of the barely hopeful and an endless deferral of what can’t be seized right now. “Maybe someone else … a leader … someday …” while our own democratic institutions and sense of civic responsibility are being ground into powder even as I write these words. “But did you see the look on their face when …”
I don’t know the answers to this dilemma, but I’m willing to try to identify a central problem: We can’t ever really make anyone come into self-awareness. We are almost, but not quite powerless in this regard. We can argue for it, cajole, tease, cry for it, subvert institutional voices for it, and perhaps even have fun doing so, but this is only one leg of the race, and someone else will need to accept the baton from pranksters’ hands to take it across the finish line.
The Yes Men continues at Carriage Trade gallery (277 Grand Street, 2nd floor, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through March 27, 2022. The exhibition was curated by Peter Scott, the director of Carriage Trade.