The Power of Yes

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If there’s a sweet spot where Jonathan Swift, Borat, Michael Moore and underground British street artist Banksy blend under a banner of cultural agitation, the Yes Men can claim it. Formed in 1999 by Jacque Servin and Igor Vamos, the culture-jamming subversive arts group engages in what it calls “Identity Correction” by masquerading as representatives of major corporations and pro-globalization think tanks. They appear at conferences and on 24-hour news channels, skewering the groups they claim to represent. More daring than cable’s Jackass crew, the Yes Men are political activists and performance art rabble-rousers. They create “public spectacles that reveal something about our culture that’s profoundly a problem.”

For example: In 2004 Servin went on BBC News to tell the world that “his” Dow Chemical Co., after years of indifference, was taking official responsibility for the 1984 Union Carbide tragedy in Bhopal, India. The company, he said, would spend $12 billion to clean up the mess and provide medical care for the tens of thousands suffering from the spill, which killed as many as 16,000. (Dow purchased Union Carbide in 2001.)

Dow had done no such thing, but that didn’t keep the company from losing $2 billion in stock value after Servin made his announcement.

Through June 5, a traveling installment of the Yes Men’s first-ever solo exhibition is up at DiverseWorks Art Space in Houston. Keep It Slick: Infiltrating Capitalism With the Yes Men features video of the group’s elaborate agitprop gags, manipulated newspaper headlines and fast-food logos, and interactive “conference rooms” where visitors can read the script of a “real” Yes Men hoax. Or consider a SurvivaBall, a protective suit designed to provide bottom line-loving corporate officers with 24-hour full-body protection from global warming.

Devotees of unencumbered global trade will probably find Keep It Slick hard to stomach. Which is understandable. I’d be reluctant to go to an art exhibit that busted on the ACLU or Planned Parenthood, no matter what the reviews said. But the Yes Men’s view of the world is so original, their approach to social responsibility so pointed, and their courage so unquestionable, I’d like to believe even Milton Friedman might tip his hat in appreciation. After which he would buy DiverseWorks and turn it into a BP gas station.

My favorite Yes Men production has Servin and Vamos posing as executives from the World Trade Organization and McDonald’s. They tell horrified college students that the best way to battle global hunger is to feed poverty-stricken third-worlders the reconstituted feces of first-worlders. Maybe you wouldn’t buy that pitch if it came from me, but the Yes Men know that when they say it—ID tags on their lapels, PowerPoint presentations at the ready, corporate doublespeak dripping from their lips—the idea carries the uncomfortable sheen of possibility. Our reactions say more about the dark side of corporate globalism than any non-profit report could.

Keep It Slick: Infiltrating Capitalism With the Yes Men is on display at DiverseWorks Art Space (1117 E. Freeway, Houston, 713-223-8346) through June 5. Admission is free.

Josh Rosenblatt writes about film from New York City.