The Yes Men: Revenge of the Pranksters – The New York Times


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Critic’s Notebook
A collective that blazed a trail with corporate hoaxes occupies an uneasy space between art and activism.

Here are some striking headlines from a 2009 New York Times front page that even the most assiduous readers may not remember:
“Maximum Wage Law Succeeds”
“Nationalized Oil to Fund Climate Change Efforts”
“Nation Sets Its Sights on Building Sane Economy”
If those policy achievements don’t ring a bell, that’s because the “special edition” they were trumpeted in was a fake, distributed in 80,000 copies by the Yes Men, a New York artists’ collective. Its founders Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos have spent more than two decades tweaking the nose of corporate power, or showing what the world might look like if the powerful served everyone else.
There was the time in 2004 that Servin passed himself off on TV as a representative of Dow Chemical, saying the company had decided to offer full reparations and an apology to the thousands who had suffered in the Union Carbide explosion in Bhopal, India, two decades earlier.
For another project, the Yes Men attended a conference in Salzburg, Austria, as representatives of the World Trade Organization, espousing the organized sale of democratic votes. (Where better to deploy the invisible hand of the market?)
And as members (not) of the National Petroleum Council, they told another conference that climate catastrophes might have the upside of providing corpses that Big Oil could turn into Vivoleum, its latest fuel.
The Yes Men refer to their practice as “identity correction,” ventriloquizing what corporate culture would say if a truth serum made it display its real self.
A range of Yes Men projects are now on display, as videos and clippings and props, in the collective’s first New York retrospective, at Carriage Trade gallery on the Lower East Side. The city’s museums have failed to give the Yes Men a show despite the worldwide attention they’ve garnered, maybe because of the uneasy space they occupy between art and activism. That’s a space many excellent artists have moved in, from Ben Shahn to the Guerrilla Girls and Hans Haacke. There’s no doubt the Yes Men would like their art to effect change, but they, like their audience, clearly also enjoy the clever fictions they create in the hopes of making change happen.
It helps that Servin, 58, and Vamos, 53, are fine actors and that they clean up so nicely: Videos at Carriage Trade reveal their mastery at putting on both corporate-speak and corporate suits, a shape-shifting that is the equivalent, for their chosen art form, of wielding a paintbrush with skill. (Natural longhairs, there’s something ritualistic about the buzzcuts they tape themselves getting each time they head into the corporate lion’s den.)
Servin, in particular, does deadpan about as well as Stephen Colbert. Watching his performances, I found myself choking with laughter.
I’ve done the same when faced with similar “hoaxes” pulled off by entertainers and ironists with no connection at all to art. In 2000, the comedian Rick Mercer got me roaring when he assumed the mantle of a journalist and asked George W. Bush, then a presidential candidate known for his shallow grasp of international affairs, what he thought of the Canadian prime minister, “Jean Poutine” — a reference to the Canadian dish of french fries, gravy and cheese curds — and got straight answers. Six years later, I screamed (and also cringed) when the actor Sacha Baron Cohen, in the character of Borat Sagdiyev, a “journalist” supposedly from Kazakhstan, made vicious fun of Americans of all stripes, from eager feminists to ardent evangelicals.
But where Mercer and Baron Cohen and their like are mostly out to entertain, with a dose of politics thrown in, the “jokes” played by the Yes Men seem to have a special heft. That’s partly because those jokes really are meant to help change the world, which is too sober a goal for any true comedian’s antics. But it also comes from those jokes being played in the context of art — the way Marcel Duchamp’s urinal mattered a whole lot more as the statue called “Fountain.” The best of the duo’s hoaxes have a subtlety and complexity that Mercer and Baron Cohen never achieve: You know what those comedians are up to and where to place them in the cultural scheme of things, but the Yes Men straddle too many genres to leave a viewer that comfortable. The Yes Men stand in a peculiar place between the broad comedy of political satire and the heart-on-sleeve actions of most activism — and peculiar places may be the special territory of art.
During the 2001 anti-globalization protests, Servin faked his way into an appearance on CNBC as the gloriously straight-faced “Granwyth Hulatberi of the WTO.” (Servin’s delicious pseudonyms — Jude Finisterra, Kinnithrung Sprat — somehow never raise eyebrows with his targets.) Servin/Hulatberi argued that “his” organization’s views clearly had to be correct, because they were held by “many, many of the decision makers in the world, the powerful people” — might making right, yet again. It’s less about crafting a comic caricature of the world’s Hulatberis than about revealing beliefs they might really hold, at least unconsciously or in the privacy of the boardroom.
At other times, the Yes Men merely open up futures that are modestly better than what we are used to imagining, as with their faux New York Times, available free at Carriage Trade. Its altered front-page motto is “All the News We Could Hope to Print.” However unlikely to come about, at least for now, an income cap for America’s wealthy is hardly that much of a stretch — in 1952, a 92 percent supertax almost got us there. Another of their “unlikely” headlines from 2009, trumpeting a major bike lane on New York’s Ninth Avenue, pretty much describes the lane I now use on most sunny days.
“It’s a dream newspaper. It’s like you wake up, and all the things you wanted became the news,” one surprised reader said of their front page, in one of the group’s feature-length documentaries. (The first two are free on their website; the third can be rented on most streaming platforms.)
“We needed to show what real change could look like,” Vamos explained.
In another piece, the Yes Men held a news conference as the United States Chamber of Commerce, to announce that “their” organization had decided to reverse its longstanding opposition to climate regulations. (Life imitates art yet again: Just a few weeks after the hoax was revealed, and the Chamber had raised a stink, it really did just that surprising reversal.)
The Yes Men aren’t utopians, pushing for a world that is entirely different from the one we live in and is therefore nigh impossible to imagine. Often, they’re just giving us a picture — as realist as it is surreal — of a world that’s a touch fairer, nicer and especially more honest than ours. What’s strange, and sad, is how that can come off as a joke.
The Yes Men
Through March 27, Carriage Trade Gallery, 277 Grand St., Lower East Side, 718-483-0815; carriagetrade.org.
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