We work with activist organizations and student groups — sometimes in tandem — to
- support positive change around issues that matter, generally ones that don't already get the attention they deserve;
- cheerlead other activists, bringing joy and humor to struggles that can sometimes feel hopeless (but aren't); and
- mobilize communities, helping turn affected bystanders into full-fledged participants.
Most projects also have a much more specific goal — determined by the campaign it's a part of — and it's pretty easy to see whether it's worked.
We work with organizations and students, and sometimes with both in combination. In either case, we train as we go, and brainstorm ways to make positive change around issues that matter. (And then we actually do it, together!)
We were just two guys, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, who decided to have fun as we stuck it to the man. One thing led to another, and soon — thanks to a network of ultra-capable friends and allies — we were infiltrating conferences, producing fake spectacles, disrupting events, destroying brands, and otherwise exposing wrongdoing as well as the better world we could have.
Although our name contains the word "Men," that doesn't describe who we are, it describes what we used to do: use any means necessary to agree our way into the fortified compounds of commerce, ask questions, and smuggle out the stories of our undercover escapades to provide a public glimpse at the behind-the-scenes world of business.
We're an ever-expanding group who train students and help make campaigns sparkle.
We call this sort of thing "laughtivism" because, well, it’s funny. And it’s activist: the theory is, we’ll laugh bloodsuckers into oblivion and thus save the world. It doesn’t always work—the world still needs some saving—but, you know, the arc of history bends towards justice, even when it seems to be breaking.
See this lesson for more on why we use humor, and for a few examples.
We started doing so sort of instinctually and chaotically back in the late 1990s, and then more deliberately after a successful project from 2004 that Greenpeace had a big hand in.
Then, around 2007, we began trying to build a more formal sort of workshop machine, that we called (and call) the Yes Lab. For a while, we helped produce partnership-based projects from the New School and NYU on a regular basis—but that was full-time plus, so it only made sense when there were salaries for some and funding for others.
We went even further down that rabbit-hole with the Action Switchboard, a platform for individuals to propose projects and find collaborators independently. But as it turns out, platforms are hard to make and it's even harder to make them work. And it turns out people work a whole lot better together in person.
So now we're back to the formal but ad-hoc model that began in 2004, where one or more of the Yes Men work somewhat loosely with an activist org to publicize our common issues. We also still organize occasional Yes Lab workshops, usually at the request of universities or sometimes activist organizations, but mainly it's much more project-based.
For one thing, sometimes it works. Moreover, it's the only thing that can work: every non-violent action that has made real change has been part of an ongoing campaign by an activist org or movement (at least so far as we know). Browse around Actipedia's "Why it works" gallery for a few historical and recent examples.
Like this? You'll need some luck, many collaborators, and then many, many more. But it can be done, and for cheap.
Yes, we're doing an art show. The New York Times and Artforum have reviewed it, which makes it very art-worldy.
But even though we use artistic techniques, we've often described ourselves as definitely not artists, because our "bottom line" is so specific. Like ACT-UP's Gran Fury, we've never cared what the art world thought of us, but only wanted our projects to accomplish specific political things. (A few examples of those things are in our press pages).
Also, if we called it "art," we'd be relegating it to a category that most people think doesn't matter.
That said, we've certainly allowed our work to be shown in art contexts, no questions asked. There was a traveling solo show a while ago, and smaller ones at universities. Various "pieces" have also been featured in shows from Arkansas to Taiwan. We've been in the Whitney Biennial (2000), received Guggenheims and other art grants, and been written about in many art-focused articles, books, and dissertations. We were even featured on the very last page of Art Since 1900, 2015 edition, definitively positioning us as the last artists ever (at least in 2015).
Now there's a wonderful show up at Carriage Trade, a non-commercial New York gallery run by curator, artist, and writer Peter Scott. We love this show for a number of reasons.
For one thing, Peter put it together almost wholly without us.
For another, doing an art show means fun, meeting interesting people, getting all sorts of flattery from your friends (and strangers), and even free wine of wonderful quality.
For a third reason, the Carriage Trade show serves as the physical side of our website, in the futuristic inter-operative subjectivity tool called the Meddleverse™.
If even more reasons are needed well, well, maybe putting ourselves in the art world can help send out a message: if more creative young people thought of their talents as tools for changing the world, and stopped caring about the art world's opinions, we'd all be much better off.
Some press for the carriagetrade show:
- New York Times (online): The Yes Men: Revenge of the Pranksters (archive)
- New York Times (print): Mix Art and Activism, Then Add Laughs
- Art Forum: The Yes Men at carriage trade - Artforum International (archive)
- Bomb: What Is Normal? (archive)
If only you were so lucky. We've been sued only once, and that was by a non-profit big-business lobbying group ("the US Chamber of Commerce") that couldn't care less about public opinion, unlike our usual corporate and government targets. The course of that lawsuit's instructive: after four years sitting on a retiring judge's desk, the Chamber abruptly dropped it just as it was about to head to trial. We grieved, but there was nothing to be done.
And look, if you do get sued, and you're in the US, we think we might be able to find you a pro-bono lawyer super-jazzed to ensure that the law continues to protect free speech in some contexts.
You can bring us to your students.
You can bring us to your campaign.
You can buy weird stuff from our online store!
And, of course, you can donate to support our operations, which include providing and expanding a number of learning tools free of charge to anyone who'll use them.
So that we can continue providing and expanding learning tools free of charge, for anyone who'll use them.