- 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 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.
Individual projects (actions, tactics, whatever) never make change; only ongoing campaigns do. So far as we know, every non-violent action that has succeeded has been part of an ongoing campaign by an activist organization, or part of a movement. Browse around Actipedia's "Why it works" gallery for a few examples of historical and recent actions and how and why we think they worked. (Hint: it's always because they were part of a campaign.)
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, we just haven't bragged about that. There was a traveling solo show a while ago, and smaller ones at universities, and various "pieces" have been featured in many shows all over the place. We've also been in the Whitney Biennial (2000), received Guggenheims and other 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. Now there's a wonderful show up at Carriage Trade in Manhattan, which we love, not least because the curator put it together almost wholly without us!
As for why, what's not to like? Doing an art show means fun, meeting interesting people, getting all sorts of flattery from your friends, and even free wine of pretty good quality.
But also: if more creative young people used their talents to change the world, and stopped taking into account the art world's opinions, we'd all be much better off. Maybe putting ourselves in that world can help send out that message.