More recently, in 2007 the Yes Men posed as representatives of ExxonMobil and the National Petroleum Council before an audience at GO-EXPO, the main oil industry conference in Canada. Addressing environmental problems produced by oil and coal development, Bichlbaum as “Shephard Wolff” gave deadpan assurances that the oil industry could solve the problem by creating “Vivoleum,” the conversion of human corpses into oil. Again utilizing a theatrical gimmick, the Yes Men passed out candles to audience members. As the lecture wore on, “Wolff” told the audience that the candles they held derived from the willing self-donation of an Exxon janitor who had died while cleaning up toxic waste.
The Yes Men have few art-world rivals in the realm of comic theater and sheer guts. For these reasons, I admit I am a fan. But social bridges the Yes Men’s antics are not. Audiences’ reactions have been telling. The documentary film The Yes Men (2005) featured footage of the 2001 performance in which, much to the Yes Men’s chagrin, the conferees sat there, even after the phallic management revelation, roundly nonplussed.15 In the case of the ExxonMobil/NPC conference, the artists’ website reveals that the audience reacted the opposite way; they caught on to the parody and became aggressive. The Yes Men were promptly removed from the stage by security guards and briefly detained by the police. The problem with these results is that neither indifference nor hostility opens minds. On the contrary, what they do best is affirm the underlying conflict. The likeminded admire the cunning, courage, and comic skill of the Yes Men’s stunt and appreciate the seditiousness of the intervention. But while the work successfully dramatizes social barriers, it does little to transcend them because it lacks a substantially persuasive aspect. Without an attractive alternative vision, it is too easy for the opposition to dismiss. Removed from the ambiguity of the performance itself and labeled as a prank in the subsequent press coverage that is the Yes Men’s ulterior goal, there is still no motivation for their ideological opponents to consider the substance of the Yes Men’s critique.
4. At least one aspect or phase of the work must be non-voluntary.
The unfettered free choice of information and opinion, as well as purely voluntary participation, is a major source of our current predicament. Voluntary encounters reinforce existing inclinations by definition. In Piper’s case, the offender’s confrontation would not function as such an efficient ethical mousetrap if that encounter were voluntary. The entire work is predicated on surprise. Rakowitz’s work entails both voluntary and non-voluntary parts, but the non-voluntary have crucial significance. The initial approach by the artist to the group of homeless men crossed a class barrier to create an opportunity for dialogue with them. The startling of passersby with the curious sight of the shelters is practically guaranteed to upset the routine of ignoring the homeless on the street in all but the most hardened individuals. Finally, the host’s unwitting contribution to the shelter—a forced, if passive, generosity—crosses a class barrier and makes homeowners or tenants aware of a potential relationship between their consumption and others’ survival. The artist could bring the socially inequitable situation to their attention by asking for their voluntary participation, but the shelters are designed to be mounted and nomadically carried about by the homeless independently—in order to empower them. Should the homeless ask for homeowners’ or tenants’ participation? This too is problematic. Not only might the tenants or homeowners most resistant to empathy under normal conditions be the least receptive to the homeless men’s appeal, but also such an approach would put the homeless in an all-too-familiar submissive position.
The problem volunteerism brings to an art that seeks to transcend social barriers is amply demonstrated by a recent genre of interactive Net art. Its creators tend to see themselves in a pro-democratic vein, for they cast themselves as catalysts of infinite connectivity and universal inclusiveness by their active identification with a similar ethos and practice derived from the Open Source Movement. Such artists make the source code used to construct their Net projects available to users, who are then free to download, disseminate, modify, and create other works from that code—provided that they, in turn, share their work to an equal extent with others. Artists who operate in this communitarian vein see the global scale of the Internet as an opportunity to build utopian communities free from the exclusionary rules of the normal commercial economy that thwart equal access to cultural, human, and technological resources.
- Sarah Price, Chris Smith II , and Dan Ollman, dirs. The Yes Men. Distributed by MGM, DVD, 82 minutes, 2005.↵