“It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.” ― Benjamin Franklin
Culture jamming is an increasingly pervasive social commentary on how individuals and organizations perceive and respond to corporate and political marketing messages. Often we see culture jamming examples via satire and parody, when activists start re-spinning or unspinning what’s already been spun. I like to think of it as a civil remix…instead re-appropriating beats, culture jammers are expropriating from the Bourgeoisie. The movement is grounded in its principles reflecting anti-consumerism and anti-conformity, demonstrated through countless approaches and placements. We see it all the time…cartoons from The New Yorker, infamous street art, Condescending Wonka memes, and Mal-Wart logos (there should be a blog entirely dedicated to the insurmountable backlash of Walmart…www.peopleofwalmart.com may not exactly count, but I’m not NOT going to link it, folks…for the love of research.) The primary and ultimate objective of culture jamming is to provoke, not aimlessly antagonize or groundlessly lambaste. Those participating, at the core of their doings, encourage others to question authority and consider the information transmitted from massive –and to their point often faceless and removed- corporations that govern more than we may reasonably grasp.
I want to take a look at The Yes Men, a culture-jamming duo working under aliases Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno. Notorious for public impersonations (endearingly self-proclaimed as “identity corrections”), false representations, spoofs and downright schemery, The Yes Men explore and exploit the world’s most dominating industries and individuals. As professional guerrilla communicators, they describe themselves and their practices as follows: “The Yes Men are a group who use any means necessary to agree their way into the fortified compounds of commerce, and then smuggle out the stories of their undercover escapades to provide a public glimpse at the behind-the-scenes world of big business. The stories are often both shocking and hilarious.” Bichlbaum and Bonanno maintain a trusted vigilance, as to say they’re not just two GIF-generating web trolls, bitter and best written off. After all, they’ve made two movies with a third on its way, and have served as a valuable model for educators in media arts.
Really though, who are these guys? First off, they are not Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, but instead Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos. Again, they are more than a couple of sinister, bums-by-day, ex-punk band drummers, anarchist-lite hooligans with nothing better to do. They’re cultural craftsmen in a way Ogilvy may not condone but may have to commend for critical wave-making. If you’re The Yes Men’s unlucky target, prepare your PR team for their very worst nightmare. Feigning and formidable, the duo has some professional padding. A former Maxis employee, Servin made his mark by applying a secret code into the game SimCopter that would cause “kissing male sprites” in bathing suits to appear on particular dates. Undisclosed until the game was published, the move got Servin fired but not without prompting him to start RTMark, a place for reporting acts within the same vein and bringing attention to unaccounted issues. Furthermore, believe it or not, he’s an Associate Professor in the Department of Performance studies at New York University. Vamos, Associate Professor of Media Arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has a similar rap sheet. As an undergraduate studying Studio Art at Feed College, Vamos coordinated a student group called Guerrilla Theater of the Absurd that performed and documented acts of protest. One of his most successful escapades was the Barbie Liberation Organization, a revolutionary Barbie and G.I. Joe mass transplant. Vamos and friends bought 300 dolls, switched their respective voice boxes, and returned them to the stores. The result was a shopaholic Joe and a vengeance-hungry Barbie. The number of dolls used in the experiment is debated (from 12 dolls to 3,000 across the world), infuriating scholars against and delighting scholars in favor for the fact that the stunt thrived off the hype and was merely a mediababy. Far from being irrevocably marred in the academic sphere, he’s been awarded for his ingenuity. Vamos received a 2003 Guggenheim Fellowship for utilizing GPS and related technology to develop a new medium with which to view Grounded, his documentary about an abandoned military base in Wendover, Utah.
The two began professional –or perhaps anti-professional- pranking in 1999 with the launch of a parody World Trade Organization website. On-goers took the site for the real thing, emailing in quandaries but also invitations to speak at trade conferences. Sure enough, the duo posed as the very group they opposed, bought new suits, and hopped on a plane to Salzburg, Austria. Bichlbaum and Bonanno offered convincing suggestions in front of elite, esteemed international businesspeople to begin auctioning votes to a highest bidder, “a free market solution to democracy.” In the same thought, they proposed that the Civil War was a waste of money, and revealed a sensory gold spandex body suit with tracking capabilities that would enable managers to more easily conduct worker/productivity surveillance. One of their most famous jams came in 1999 in lieu of the US Presidential election when Bush fever was upon us. Up to their Internet hijinks and under different aliases, they set up a website designed similarly to that of the official. Somehow, www.gwbush.com was not occupied and the duo seized the opportunity, with intent “to draw attention to alleged hypocrisies of the actual website.” The jam was brought up in a press conference with Bush, where he veritably denounced the project explicitly stating -to the very nation he hopes to lead, the very nation built entirely upon rights- that “there ought to be limits to freedom.” Yikes. Open mouth, insert foot. You might be happy to know they didn’t stop there. In 2004, they began the “Yes, Bush Can!” campaign with various tactics to counter the man’s. The “Patriot Pledge,” for which the duo traveled across the country, had Americans swear to nuclear waste dumping in the privacy and comfort of their own backyards, and to shipping their children off to war no questions asked. Sounds harsh and hasty, right? They argue that this manner is the reality, and flipping these public figures into caricatures is an effective and completely inflammatory way to garner attention.
Before they were profiting through films and appearances, one might argue that their body of work was ethical, that it was free speech without the commercial. They’ve been less on the scheme scene since, however, perhaps scaling it back hoping to follow through with their purpose. What they do may not be precisely, traditionally identity theft, but it’s certainly enough to call their antics into question. At the same time, I wonder to what degree people are responsible for fact-checking on their own, to understanding mission statements and recognizing registered graphics of the institution to which they’re investing time, energy, and resources. Culture jamming can both correct and misuse ignorance…but whose fault is that?
Just a thought.