Anybody can become a Yes Man. All you must do, according to the group's Web site, is "expos[e], perhaps deviously, the nastiness of powerful evildoers." The Yes Men call their preferred method "identity correction": assume the guise of said potentates to represent their nefarious deeds in plain terms, rather than euphemistic PR-speak.
In June, for instance, at the mistaken invitation of organizers, The Yes Men gave the keynote address at GO-EXPO, Canada's largest oil-industry conference. Yes Man Andy Bichlbaum, as fictional ExxonMobil executive Shepard Wolff, proposed that the corpses of the 150,000 people who die annually from the effects of climate change should be put to good use. Bichlbaum and partner Mike Bonanno were escorted from the stage just as attendees began to grasp the purported composition of the human-figurine candles Wolff had distributed and asked them to light.
The Yes Men began in 1999, when Bichlbaum and Bonnano posted a faux George W. Bush Web site announcing the presidential candidate's intention to aid the rich at the expense of the poor and the environment.
Media coverage of The Yes Men's socially conscious pranks tends to accurately transmit the Yes Men's points about power's misdeeds. What's unnerving are the reactions they don't get. In 2000, in Vienna, Yes Men posed as World Trade Organization reps to address a conference on international trade law. (The group's WTO stunts are the subject of The Yes Men, a 2003 documentary.) When Yes Men proposed outlawing siestas in Spain and privatizing voting everywhere, audience members responded only with polite questions. So closely did the proposal to sell votes to the highest bidders echo the WTO's free-market, pro-globalization thinking that listeners could only nod politely.
Although anyone can become a Yes Man, most of the performance-art/situational-protest work seems to fall to Bichlbaum and Bonanno (pseudonyms for guys who teach, respectively, at New York's Parsons School of Design and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute). And at a Nov. 29 talk at Carnegie Mellon University, it'll just be Bichlbaum.
The group's Pittsburgh exposure has included a recent Andy Warhol Museum display on its 2006 "SurvivaBall" stunt: Posing as Halliburton execs, Bichlbaum and Bonanno briefed a conference on catastrophic loss about a bulbous suit that would let rich people weather environmental disasters. But what's a Yes Man do when everyone knows he's coming? At CMU, Bichlbaum says in a phone interview, he'll simply impersonate a military robot, like the ones CMU has accepted billions in Department of Defense funding to develop.
Like many local protesters over the years -- including 14 arrested in March outside CMU's National Robotics Engineering Consortium, in Lawrenceville -- Bichlbaum is unmoved by CMU's contention that much of its robotics work has nonmilitary applications. He's outraged by the DARPA Urban Challenge, a contest for unmanned ground vehicles in which a CMU team recently accepted the $2 million first prize from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the DoD's main research arm. "It's really pretty grotesque, isn't it?" says Bichlbaum. "They're asking civilians to develop robots so they can go into cities and kill people."
Still, he thinks his Nov. 29 show here will be easy. "The robots, they don't talk, they just kill. It's a very simple performance."
The Yes Men 6 p.m. Thu., Nov. 29. Porter Hall 100, CMU campus, Oakland. Free. 412-268-2105 or firstname.lastname@example.org