AIGA Philadelphia recently invited public performance activists and artists The Yes Men to discuss design, guerrilla anti-consumerism, and the power of the self-initiated project. The Yes Men have built a vocation addressing various social issues by impersonating specific organizations in a process that they like to call “Identity Correction.” The group designs websites and materials so convincingly mimicking their targets’ brands that they are invited to interviews, conferences, meetings, and summits to represent said entities. Since the late 1990’s, the group has carried out many pranks and projects, impersonating the World Trade Organization, Dow Chemical, ExxonMobil, The United States Chamber of Commerce, and this year, Shell, amongst others.
Mike Bonnano and Cristian Fleming were kind enough to take the time out of their busy schedules to reply to AIGA Philadelphia’s questions. Mike Bonnano, along with Andy Bichlbaum, is one of the creators of The Yes Men initiative and a publicly-visible personality seen in The Yes Men’s two films, The Yes Men and The Yes Men Fix The World, and in hoax interviews with the media (AIGA Philadelphia is not currently being pranked). Cristian Fleming is a principal at ethically-focused design practice The Public Society, and one of many people around the world who are considered behind-the-scenes Yes Men.
AIGA Philly: Some of your early projects suggest an above-average level of design sophistication. Did any of you have a design or programming background before the Yes Men started?
Mike Bonnano: Andy had computer programming skills (self-taught) because there was little money in the experimental fiction writing business. I had some general design and illustration skills, and knew how to use a photocopier. But overall, we’ve relied mostly on the skills of amazing collaborators, like Cristian Fleming from The Public Society, who has done lots of pro-bono design work for us.
AIGA Philly: Many were caught up in your recent “Let’s Go!” Shell ad hoax, and the viral nature of the result was quite widespread and immediate. What could designers learn from your process about pre-initiative research in complex, multifaceted projects?
Cristian Fleming: Do your homework. Learn everything you can and sweat every tiny detail. It’s really important, also, to have a pretty good sense of the scope of the project before you start.
The funny thing about the “Let’s Go!” thing is that it was actually “over” pretty quickly. We took credit for it within a few days and then somehow the internet kept finding it and there were these waves of interest, first a few weeks later when, all of a sudden, people largely thought it was real; and then nearly 2 months after the reveal there was a tsunami where the site got something like 2 million visits in a week. Each time, a new group of people fell for it. I believe that’s because we spent considerable time considering every aspect of the project we could and worked overtime to make sure that everything we did was realistically believable enough to cause that momentary suspension of reality.
Also, looking at “pre-initiative” from a different perspective, there’s the importance of learning from every project and applying what you learn to subsequent projects. There are learning experiences in every endeavor, no matter how good or bad the outcome. I think that we improve with every prank because we have a depth of experience attempting to pull these things off. Without that history we wouldn’t likely be able to successfully handle a project as complex as the Shell hoax. Experience is the best teacher.
AIGA Philly: How often do you come across facts in your research that run counter to your ideas, putting a stop to a project before it begins?
Mike Bonnano: Occasionally. We try to be very careful about fact checking, because we don’t want a simple mistake to undermine the entire premise of a project.
AIGA Philly: How could a society ascribe value to a service that attempts to benefit civilization, humanity, or the environment, but which does not have a readily apparent economic reward?
Mike Bonnano: It is a shame that that is so difficult to do! The answer to that one is: our culture has a problem. We are too focused on short-term profit instead of real value. That is why we are headed down such a reckless path – and if we think longer term, certain unprofitably opinion-shifting activities — like education itself — become profitable! These activities contribute to our abilities to overcome the forces that want short term financial gain at all costs. So it is super important!
When we are faced with things like Shell’s real “Arctic Ready” campaign, where they are spending billions (thats right, BILLIONS) to do something that is sheer madness and according to climate science spells the end of the world as we know it, we need to use every non-profitable tool in our arsenal to try to get some longer-term rewards… hopefully a planet that remains livable.
AIGA Philly: Aside from any of your own, what is your favorite historical situationist act?
Mike Bonnano: Wow! Well, for simplicity’s sake, let’s say Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies throwing dollar bills on the floor of the NY Stock Exchange… whether or not it really happened!