Last week, a press release was released announcing YourBofA.com, a new website (apparently) from Bank of America. It was followed by another, seemingly hastily-written press release imploring readers to ignore the “malicious website (YourBofA.com) that is fraudulently representing itself as a Bank of America re-branding effort.” The second release insisted, “Bank of America is not making plans to enter into federal receivership.”
The website (and both press releases) were creations of the activist pranksters The Yes Men, who have pretended to speak for the World Trade Organization, Chevron, the World Economic Forum, and many others, all in good, subversive fun. To learn how laughter can be the greatest weapon of all, I sat down with Andy Bichlbaum, one of the founders of The Yes Men, last month at Scratcher Bar in the East Village. In addition to The Yes Men, The Yes Lab, and teaching at New York University, he has recently been involved in developing the Plus Brigades, a project of Occupy Wall Street meant to infuse the movement with renewed creativity in the streets.
Laura Gottesdiener: What was your goal with the YourBofA.com action?
Andy Bichlbaum: 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 shit.
Gottesdiener: What was your favorite part of the action?
Bichlbaum: 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.
Gottesdiener: Let’s get to the basics: Why do more than march or hold a rally? What’s the point of these fun, creative actions?
Bichlbaum: 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 [the music festival] Sasquatch 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.
Gottesdiener: What makes people join in, besides the fact that dancing is fun?
Bichlbaum: I think it starts with having rules that are simple to follow. The other day, a Plus Brigades 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: When everyone is doing something purposefully that has some rules to it.
Gottesdiener: But isn’t fun something spontaneous and uncontrollable?
Bichlbaum: There are always rules and structure. Even within an anarchist society there would be lots of rules and structure, but hopefully a lot more fun.
Gottesdiener: It seems like now we have a lot of rules, but very little fun. What’s up with that?
Bichlbaum: I can’t think of a time in history when fun has been normal. There probably have been times—I imagine the anarchists in Spain having fun all the time. But not in our society. It’s a pretty radical vision: a world in which fun is normal.
Since it’s not, 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.
Gottesdiener: How do you work with the media?
Bichlbaum: I think of journalists as collaborators. There are a lot of really bad journalistic organizations—there’s nothing good about CNN or MSNBC—but there are a lot of individual journalists, including at CNN and MSNBC, that are really friendly and love Occupy. When you do creative actions, it’s like you’re giving journalists an extra token that allows them to say something important.
Gottesdiener: Does using fun also change the way the message is communicated?
Bichlbaum: 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.
Bichlbaum: Facts don’t have any emotional weight. I believe there is an objective reality, but we don’t live through facts. It’s like we’re dancing with objective reality. And some people are closer to it than others. We build these structures inside us that are much more powerful than facts because they are ours, and they are deep and emotional. Imagine it’s this big eight-legged metal thing that you’re living in that’s walking over reality—humor can knock off one of the legs so that the creature falls over, and you’re suddenly looking at the sky.
Gottesdiener: OK… I think I’m just going to draw that monster instead of transcribe this interview.
Bichlbaum: Ha! No that probably wouldn’t work.
Gottesdiener: Okay, so then tell me more.
Bichlbaum: 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.
Making jokes pierces through the stupid logic that supports a system, and we laugh because we know that it makes no sense. It’s laughing at yourself for being so stupid as to believe in this system.
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.
Gottesdiener: Do you think power structures are derived from people believing in that power?
Our House, In the Middle of the Bank
Video: What can you do when the bank takes away your house? Move into theirs.
Bichlbaum: 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.
Gottesdiener: So, if you recognize the power and how you reinforce it, and if the power wouldn’t exist unless you reinforce it, then…
Bichlbaum: Then you just go, Shit! You collapse on the ground laughing because you are the one making these crazy decisions.
Gottesdiener: You are the thing that’s oppressing yourself.
Bichlbaum: Yeah! Why do we do that?
Gottesdiener: Is that the reason that your work often centers on Wall Street or the government or the NYPD? Is that your political slant coming through, or is the 1 percent just the funniest group to make jokes about?
Bichlbaum: They are the only people to make fun of. Why would you make fun of anyone that doesn’t have a ton of power? That’s not funny. It’s not funny to make fun of the weak.
Gottesdiener: You send out a lot of fake press releases, but you also do on-the-ground actions. Why bother with the real world if we all sit in front of our computers for the majority of our lives anyway?
Bichlbaum: 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, 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 life.
Great moments in “laughtivism” from Yes Men Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, the guys who duped the BBC, embarrassed Dow Chemical, and mocked Halliburton.
To show how ludicrous an idea is, sometimes you have to take it seriously.
How Occupiers, pranksters, and artists speak louder than money.