It's disconcerting to have a conversation with Andy Bichlbaum of the Yes Men, through no fault of Bichlbaum's. Well, then again, it is his fault. After having seen The Yes Men movie, and Bichlbaum's various poker faced media stunts, there's always the suspicion in the back of your mind that he's somehow, to put it politely, pulling your leg. This is the man after all who spoke to a conference on International Trade in Salzburg, claiming to be Andreas Bichlbauer from the World Trade Organisation, and suggested that “violence is acceptable in banana trade so long as prices stay low and trade is free; that the siesta in Spain and the long lunch in Italy should be outlawed in the name of standardized business hours; and that a ‘free market’ in democracy should be encouraged by allowing the sale of votes directly to the highest bidder through Voteauction.com”, without any of the experts present realising that it was all a gag.
In reality though, Bichlbaum's comedy is one of context, and he's deadly serious when talking to the media about the specific issues raised by the Yes Men's pranks, such as the absence of corporate responsibility and the unthinking acceptance of 'free trade' ideology (well, maybe not 'deadly' serious. His conversational tone is good natured and cheerful).
“It's good for popularising things, –says Bichlbaum, talking about the satire on display in The Yes Men, – and getting people interested in a subject. It's a good entry point for people into topics that are very heavy and serious, and that require serious investigation. We do hope that people, by going to see our film, get interested and start to realise that there's something grotesquely wrong with the world right now, and the way it's being run. Hopefully they'll be stimulated to look into it in other ways”.
The Yes Men started when Bichlbaum met with fellow media activist Mike Bonanno and, as detailed in the film, they started setting up websites for what they term 'Identity Correction', where “honest people impersonate big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them. Targets are leaders and big corporations who put profits ahead of everything else”. An example was www.gwbush.com, which they setup in conjunction with Zack Exley who owned the domain name. The site looked to all extents like Bush's official site, but with some important differences, explaining the reasons why Bush wanted to become President: to help the rich at the expense of the poor and the environment, etc.
From there the idea of www.gatt.org was born. A website that outlined what the World Trade Organisation is really all about. As a shocking proof that style does indeed triumph over substance, researchers around the world arrived at the site, and because it looked like what a WTO site should look like, they missed the parody (Sample headline on the site: “Much has been made lately of IBM’s participation in the Holocaust. Indeed, IBM proactively and creatively helped the Nazis identify all of Germany’s Jews, which in turn made possible the biggest slaughter of all time. Today, however, another Holocaust is taking place: it goes by the name of ‘distrust of big business,’ and it is every bit as terrible as the last”). Invites poured in from conferences seeking representatives from the WTO. And from there, it was only a hop, skip and a jump to WTO representative Hank Hardy Unruh (a magnificently convincing Bichlbaum) standing in front of a conference in Finland, talking about how the issue of slavery in the United States (“the involuntarily imported labour model”) should have been left to market forces to sort out, while proudly displaying the WTO's management leisure suit – a gold glitter suit with a ridiculous inflatable phallus shaped monitoring unit.
The Yes Men is a hilarious and disturbing film, perhaps as all good satire should be. At various conferences throughout the world, the pranksters deliver increasingly absurd and offensive ideas, but face no dissent. The question, though, may arise: are they satirising the WTO, or the audiences who fail to get the joke? This writer certainly laughed in disbelief at the Finnish audience who failed to be offended. This though is not the intent behind the pieces, according to Bichlbaum: ”We're not satirising just the WTO. We're satirising the whole way people don't seem to question the foundations of current corporate globalisation, and the way it works. People assume there must be some good reason for corporate globalisation, and that someone knows what that good reason is. But one of the points of the film is to suggest that in fact, no one really is considering the consequences of liberalisation, or at least not very intelligently: it just happens because it’s convenient for those who have the power. If we can propound these extreme versions of this stuff and nobody notices, then what else is being put over without anyone noticing? Everything”.
It could be suggested, watching the film, that the audiences involved were merely being polite. That silence doesn't necessarily mean acceptance. “It could be politeness, – Bichlbaum responds doubtfully. – You do see in the film that nobody has any questions, at the end of the talk. What you don't see in the film was that we spent the whole day with the people at the conference, from the time of the lecture through to the evening. We went to lunch with them, and then dinner with them, and several times we asked people if there was anything in the lecture that disturbed them or bothered them, and nobody really found any problems with the content of the lecture. People were amused by the gimmick, thinking it odd that the WTO would use such a thing, inflating a giant yellow phallus in front of hundreds of people, but when we questioned them about the slave labour questions, as to whether they minded any of that, nobody really objected. The only real negative reaction was from one woman who was appalled that we seemed to be saying that only men could be factory owners, because of the shape of the leisure suit. The footage of all that exists but we didn't use it because it wasn't good quality, the cameras couldn't be too obtrusive”.