How we gave Monsanto a decision dilemma

Monsanto really cared about this action — enough to demand a "private apology" from NYU, whose VP just happened to have previously worked for Monsanto

(Diana Taylor was the main originator of this action. This is an excerpt of the last chapter of her 2020 book, ¡¡Presente! The Politics of Presence. The complete chapter, complete with footnotes, is here.)

Over the years, the Hemispheric Institute has offered a number of courses called Art and Resistance in Chiapas, Mexico, as mentioned earlier in this work. Hemi, housed at New York University, offers graduate-level courses through the department of performance studies, where I teach, and accepts students from NYU and from universities throughout the Americas. In 2013, as usual, the goal was to create an immersive, multilingual environment in which collaborative learning could take place through doing as well as through traditional text- and discussion-based seminars. In addition to researching the topic of resistance as a series of acts—from armed resistance to civil disobedience, revolt, refusal, protest, foot-dragging, and so on—we always offer a workshop that ends in a public performance directed by Jesusa Rodríguez.

This was the third time Rodríguez and I had taught the course, although we always changed the topic. That year we focused on the health, social, and economic problems caused by genetically modified (GM) corn. Monsanto had asked permission from SAGARPA, the Mexican Secretariat of Agriculture, to plant GM corn commercially in Mexico. They had planted it experimentally since 2009. Although Mexico’s National Biosecurity Commission had issued a moratorium on planting GM corn in 1998, President Felipe Calderón lifted it in 2009 after a personal meeting with Monsanto. Activists throughout Mexico were mobilized to intervene against further invasion of GM corn. Genetically modified organisms (GMos), they agree, impoverish local farmers and can pose health dangers. They threaten the diversity of the crop, the environment, and the cultures that developed in connection to agricultural practices. Monsanto, like other corporations, funds scholars to contest the evidence against them. Its goal is not to prove that GMos are safe or beneficial to society, but to create enough doubt in people’s minds so that safety and economic issues become a matter of opinion rather than fact. Mesoamericans have been developing corn for the past ten thousand years. They think of themselves, by extension, as the people of corn. Hundreds of countries have condemned planting GM crops and understand them as especially threatening to countries of origin, those places where the crops were first grown and developed.

In 2013, as in previous years, we invited artists, scholars, and activists to participate in the course. Lorie Novak, a photographer and professor of photography and imaging at NYU, joined us for the second time. Jacques Servin of the Yes Men, who was a visiting professor in performance studies, also participated. Andy Bichlbaum (Jacques Servin) and Mike Bonanno (Igor Vamos) are the Yes Men, artivists who parody powerful corporate leaders and spokesmen through what they call “identity correction,” that is, “impersonating big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them, and otherwise giving journalists excuses to cover important issues.” So while the Yes Men use the media, they do not target the media. Rather, as they say, they give journalists the excuse to talk about serious and ongoing issues that do not necessarily qualify as newsworthy.

In 2013, when Servin was with us in Chiapas, activists were anxiously waiting for the news of whether SAGARPA would grant Monsanto’s bid to plant GM corn commercially. Rodríguez communicated with activists from throughout the country, coordinating events and efforts to intercede. For years she had led nationwide protests through her Resistencia Creativa project that creatively informs Mexicans about the dangers posed by GMos. As we sat in the Zapatista restaurant on Real de Guadalupe, an upscale walking street in San Cristóbal de las Casas, the idea came to us—we would create a Yes Men action against Monsanto. Some local activists and some participants in the class wanted to join in. In a few days we had prepared our digital action. In true Yes Men fashion, we launched a fake website claiming to be Monsanto’s. Our press release, on the fake Monsanto website, announced that the request for expanded GMo cultivation had been granted by SAGARPA and thanked all those people in government for their invaluable help in moving Monsanto’s interests along to fruition. We, of course, thanked them by name and carbon copied them in our communiqué.

Mexico City (Aug 14, 2013): The planting of genetically modified (GM) cornfields on a large commercial scale has been approved by the Mexican Secretariat of Agriculture (SAGARPA). The permit allows the planting of 250,000 hectares of three varieties of GM corn (mon-89034-3, mon-00603-6 and mon-88017-3) in the states of Chihuahua, Coahuila and Durango. This is the first time GM corn will have been planted on a large commercial scale in Mexico.

Our release went on to add that Monsanto, aware that critics would decry the threat to the diversity of corn in Mexico that would be contaminated or displaced by the GM crops, would enact certain measures. “One such initiative is the National Seed Vault (Bóveda Nacional de Semillas, bns), whose charter is to safeguard the 246 native Mexican corn strains from ever being fully lost.” “Fully lost,” we felt, was a nice touch. Researchers and celebrity chefs could come and examine the native seeds in the vault.

Another initiative, we claimed, was the creation of the “Codex Mexico (Codice México), a digital archive preserving the vast wealth of Mexican culture for centuries to come. The five-hundred-year-old amatl (bark) manuscripts that contain much of what we know about preconquest Mexico are called “codexes.” Our “‘Codex México is a visionary initiative that will allow future generations of children to know far more about our lives today than we know of our pre-Columbian ancestors,’ noted forensic anthropologist Marcelo Rodríguez Gutiérrez. ‘Never again will the wealth of this region’s culture be lost as social conditions change.’” This new conquest, we suggested, would be kinder and less devastating than the last. To illustrate the contribution of the codex, Lorie Novak included corny photographs and empty captions: “Mexican Corn.”

Monsanto, faced with the decision dilemma of responding to or ignoring the prank, did not take long to respond. Just as we were sitting down for a celebratory margarita, Monsanto had us on the phone demanding that we take our hoax site down.

They insisted we issue a retraction immediately. We agreed, of course. Another press release, by us but again seemingly from Monsanto, “denounced the release as a hoax, crediting a group of students and activists called Sin Maíz No Hay Vida (Without Corn There Is No Life).” There we fully explained what Monsanto was up to. The reveal, the Yes Men’s revelation of the hoax, always happens within twenty-four hours of the act, if it hasn’t already been uncovered. The lie may be useful in illuminating a larger egregious act, but it is not allowed to stand. Unlike fraud, our intentions were neither to profit nor deceive but, rather, to provoke a conversation. A few news outlets knew that both our press release and our denouncement were a prank—no one familiar with Monsanto’s strategies could believe that the corporation would issue such declarations—but they took advantage of the excuse to throw light on the corruption shrouding Monsanto and SAGARPA. Given the widespread activism around the GMo issue, we were leaked a confidential email that Monsanto had just sent to SAGARPA, apologizing for the confusion that our “reprehensible action” had caused and promising to get things under control. Monsanto reiterated the need for confidentiality. Monsanto, imposters too, had to perform their role as responsible and efficacious collaborators for the authorities. We also published that email.

On September 13, 2013, Monsanto contacted the president of NYU to complain about the street and digital actions. They wanted to know about the course, see the syllabus, and understand the relationship of the actions to NYU. They demanded an apology from NYU.

This created a new drama, one that dominated our fall semester in 2013 at NYU. This drama was complex. In Victor Turner’s language of social drama, it could be characterized as consisting of a breach or rupture caused by a transgressive act (launching the fake website?), a crisis (which spanned the fall semester), the reparative acts (involving Monsanto lawyers, NYU, and myself), and the resolution (hopefully to come). The series of acts that constituted the drama shifted between overt and covert, play and “dark play” in Richard Schechner’s words. Play, like the law perhaps, is usually regulated by rules and agreements, but it was not quite clear during that time what we all thought we were agreeing to. Had we even agreed to agree? More in the realm of dark play, we did not all know who were playing. The law structured its performance of authority and consensus, agreeing that we were in violation. Servin and I started coming into presence as a problem, a problem for Monsanto and, by extension, a problem for NYU. We defended different rules based on freedom of speech that included the right to parody and critique.

In several ways, Monsanto started to appear as a person and persona invested with personality before my eyes. Persona, in classical Greek theater, is literally the mask through which the actor speaks the words. No one ever saw the face of the being that uttered the words, only the mask or persona transmitting them. Monsanto’s spokespeople were literally mouthpieces, ventriloquists conveying language. I never knew who, if anybody, was behind the mask. The mask of Monsanto removed the “object from our grasp,” to paraphrase Brecht. But contrary to Brecht’s “alienation effect” that builds on dialectical materialism “to unearth society’s laws of motion . . . [and] treats social situations as processes, and traces out all their inconsistencies,” this form of alienation made the powers more inaccessible and potent, unlocatable yet ubiquitous. Monsanto’s spokespeople impersonated and embodied a corporation (corporare) that itself impersonated being a person.

On a different level, Monsanto seemed to be a person with feelings. It (he? she?) claimed to have been hurt and embarrassed, and needed an apology. Corporations legally count as persons after all; they have rights and, apparently, they have emotions. “Monsanto” had complained to NYU. But again, who is Monsanto and to whom did he/she/it complain? Where were the people behind these masks? That legal fiction functions as its own form of impersonation. The fiction of the corporation as a person was, it seemed, an acceptable and permissible impersonation, while impersonating a corporate impersonation was not.

Lawyers for NYU repeatedly questioned Servin and me. We stressed that the digital action had nothing to do with NYU. It was not on the syllabus or part of the course. We forwarded the materials, syllabus included, requested by Monsanto. We reiterated that NYU had no reason to issue an apology.

We had a few questions of our own for Monsanto. We asked the lawyers to ask what Monsanto objected to—the street action or the digital action. Is impersonation on the street different from impersonation online? It could not be that simple. We had impersonated Monsanto before, in a street action comparing the insatiable agribusiness to the insatiable mouth of Tlaltecuhtli, the Aztec god/dess of the earth who devours her creations. It would seem that embodied actions in some distant town in southern Mexico did not resonate much. Yet again Servin had been sued for impersonating a Chamber of Commerce in the flesh. The difference, Servin and I concluded, was not about the online or offline nature of the impersonation but about the reach of the prank.

We also wanted to know how our action had harmed Monsanto. After all, it was just play. A performance, such as the street action, can be considered a form of representation. Monsanto in a pig’s mask was a representation. A performative, on the other hand, can be considered a speech act, a form of incitement. We, like the Yes Men before, claimed ours was intended as an art project—a performance rather than a performative. We were not trying to do something, make something happen, we said. This was not an animative—a refusal to play the game. On the contrary, we were playing. And arguably, if readers had actually believed the fake website, it might be said that we were trying to make Monsanto look good, as if it cared about bio- and cultural diversity. Privately, of course, Servin and I actually hoped Monsanto could show we had injured them—that would have been proof of the efficacy of activist performance. But no proof of injury or efficacy was forthcoming.

Before long, an NYU lawyer and a top administrator came to visit me in my office. Phrases such as code of ethics, academic freedom, and conflict of interest came up. Apparently, our action had placed us on the wrong side of each. The lawyer and senior administrator from NYU told me with straight faces that I might be guilty of conflict of interest. Really? How so? I asked. Apparently the Hemispheric Institute site linked to the Yes Men’s, where they sold T-shirts. But then I asked the senior administrator, “Weren’t you once one of Monsanto’s lead counsels? Some might call that a conflict of interest.” The lawyer hastened to add that conflict of interest was not necessarily a bad thing, it just needed to be managed. The administrator straightened herself up uncomfortably in her chair and scratched “conflict of interest” off her list of our infractions.

Violation of an ethical code? An important university person had recently sent an email on official letterhead asking employees for donations to a right-wing politician, payable through his office. Was that against our ethical code, I asked them? Just asking. That violation was also scratched off the list of my infractions.

Monsanto, I said to my visitors, had seemingly infinite resources and strategies to counter any critiques or evidence of wrongdoing against them. All we (professors) had to shield us was academic freedom. Were they really going to go after me on the grounds of academic freedom? They must have agreed it wasn’t worth their while to continue the conversation, but they did admonish me not to do it again.

As I put in an email to members of the administration who continued to question whether my actions were covered by academic freedom: “For me, as a performance studies scholar, the hoax and writing and acting are all ways to express ourselves in the face of enormous corporate interests that do very real harm.” Polluting the environment, destroying local economies, meddling in educational institutions, and harming humans all theoretically count as violations, but which violations matter and which do not? The law, apparently, legitimates certain performances, turning away from the harms they permit, and negatively sanctions others (plays, pranks) on the basis of a harm they are said to cause.

Nonetheless, the logic around academic freedom seemed paradoxical: if my use of a hoax were part of a course, it would be covered by academic freedom. If it were not covered because it took place outside the limits of my institutional commitments, then why would NYU have to weigh in? Again, there’s no clear agreement on what academic freedom might mean and what it covers, especially now in the Trump era. Greg Lukianoff defined it in Fire’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus “as a general recognition that the academy must be free to research, teach, and debate ideas without censorship or outside interference.” Following that definition, those who study and teach there must be able to pursue knowledge without corporations impeding and subverting academic work. Monsanto and other corporations and military entities fund research at all of our universities. There is a rotating-door hiring process between these industries and universities, as the role of ex-Monsanto lawyer, now current highly placed administrative officer, makes clear. These businesses influence what areas of inquiry are important, prioritized, and funded. And yet I am not allowed to critique them? Is that academic freedom?

If we must make a choice, as the law apparently requires, then we will need to agree on underlying values. Which performance is more important to society: a group of concerned artists and academics impersonating a hurtful corporation, or a corporation intent on impersonating hurt feelings?

After many back-and-forths, it seemed that the street action, which was officially related to the course, did not really bother Monsanto. While the actor wore a pig’s mask to impersonate Monsanto, no one actually believed it was Monsanto—it was a performance; the joke was clear, and it took place far from the public eye. The digital action, on the other hand, reached a far broader audience (including the people who were considering granting permission to Monsanto). It might be argued that people for a short period of time actually thought the fake announcement came from Monsanto, which got them activated—thus it was a performative, language that acts, that makes something happen. In any case, that level of exposure was no laughing matter, and Monsanto was taking it very seriously indeed, operating behind closed doors as usual to intimidate their critics.

As the fall semester wore on, it seemed that Monsanto no longer insisted on a formal public apology from NYU. A confidential apology, available only to “persons who need to know,” as an email put it, would be sufficient. As before, I argued strongly against this, stating that Monsanto would use the (confidential) apology to justify itself and discredit critique before Mexican lawmakers.

Civil liberties lawyers argue that the ambiguity around the legal understandings of impersonation could clamp down on free speech. Matt Zimmerman, the lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation that defended the Yes Men from the Chamber of Commerce, notes, “the concern is it gives a lot of discretion to law enforcement to go after First Amendment activity. . . . The resulting consequence of that is that people will feel chilled and intimidated and hence decide to not engage in perfectly legitimate forms of social protest because they’re worried that not only might they be sued, but they could actually go to jail.” Political speech is, after all, what the First Amendment protects, according to Christopher Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union: “Political, religious and other speech often is intended to be annoying. But that is precisely the type of speech the First Amendment was designed to protect.”

In October 2013, a Mexico City judge, Marroquin Zaleta, issued a temporary halt that prohibited SAGARPA from granting Monsanto permission to plant GM corn in Mexico, either on an experimental, pilot, or commercial basis. A December 2013 ruling upheld that position. Subsequent court rulings have prohibited the planting of GM corn in Central America. AgroBIO and other firms have lobbied to overturn Judge Marroquin Zaleta’s 2013 ruling and demand he be taken off the case. The struggles continue into the present, but the prohibition against planting GM corn stands.

Did our digital action prove efficacious? Did we really derail or at least postpone Monsanto’s plans? Although we would love to think so, this hoax was one of thousands of interventions that artists and activists constantly carry out to keep GMos out of Mexico and other countries. We did not know most of them, but we were reassured to be among people who use their talents to keep (further) bad things from happening. These networks of coresistance can make a difference. Unfortunately, local activists are usually the ones taking the heat from corporations for intervening in their plans.

But the action did place many in a decision dilemma. Would NYU tell Monsanto to go away and reiterate that NYU had nothing to do with the digital action (my suggestion)? What would happen to Jesusa Rodríguez, to Jacques Servin, and to me? Would the Hemispheric Institute have to distance itself even further from direct actions such as this one?

As of this writing, the Hemi-NYU-Monsanto conundrum seems to have been resolved or, better, dropped. Instead of reaching a resolution, the issue went away. Monsanto, of course, was too smart to go after the Yes Men. Monsanto just wanted a letter from NYU declaring our action unethical. They were even willing to accept a confidential letter, read by only a few key people. I could not find out if NYU ever issued the letter of apology. Although Bayer absorbed Monsanto, deemed too toxic a brand, and Monsanto Roundup now masquerades as Bayer Roundup, “Bayer Chairman Werner Baumann said in a statement, ‘We will listen to our critics and work together where we find common ground.’”

Happily, in any case, we were history.

I told the NYU lawyer that I would write the incident up in an essay. “If they [Monsanto] come after me for that, I'll write more.” Have I changed tactics in regard to knowledge, action, truth, and power?

Yes ma’am!!