Creative trickery is dead, long live creative trickery

I first drafted this tool in 2012 while I was a visiting professor in NYU’s Department of Performance Studies. I meant it for activist artists and performers who, when asked how their work made a difference, could only answer that it “raised awareness.” 

Perhaps there are times when that’s good enough. Those times aren’t now. 

At any time at all, actions have a lot more effect when they’re part of a bigger campaign. And if you’re lucky enough to live in a time when things are really changing and fast, the best thing to do is to let the movement lead you.

But be comfortable not knowing where; just show up however it seems useful—in the streets, or financially, or what have you. Most importantly, leave your own personal questions of artistry (or in our case trickiness) behind, at least for a while.

It can be hard. For us who became the Yes Men thanks to the anti-globalization protests of 1999, it’s been unclear since 2016 what role tricky humor has in the US. In a democracy under roughly “normal” conditions, sure. Even under outright dictatorships, sure. But now, in a country teetering on the edge of autocracy?

Speaking for myself, besides some campaign videos I helped out with for New York State Senate races, nothing creative I’ve done in the past four years has felt useful. It’s as if our brand of trickery only serves to expose hidden truths, and when nothing is hidden—when the emperor already has no clothes, and nobody cares—exposure is useless.

COVID-19, of course, has exposed what’s wrong with a brutal clarity, one that is many orders of magnitude greater than a Yes Men action could ever do. And suddenly, now, with the protests following the murder of George Floyd, how to make a difference is obvious: burn a police precinct here, use a leafblower there, and march to repeal horrible laws, defund and disband the police, and get cops out of schools

Not only does all this start to achieve real change in itself, it also mobilizes and educates, with a majority of Americans finding that torching the Minneapolis police precinct was justified. This feels like the start to a society-wide reckoning with the murderous pillars on which this country was built, and the dismantling—with evident benefits for everyone—of the systemic racism that structures American life. And not just American: around the world, inspired by Black Lives Matter, people are attacking the racist underpinnings of their own societies.

For us “creative activists,” as for everyone, the way to participate is clearer than it’s been in quite some time. And who knows? In the not-so-distant future, when it comes time again to hold leaders accountable to their lip service, creative trickery may even be useful again.