The Yes Men

DiverseWorks, Houston

Regan Golden-McNerney

The Yes Men, Keep It Slick: Infiltrating Capitalism with The Yes Men, 2010; installation view, Conference Scene, DiverseWorks, Houston

The Yes Men, Keep It Slick: Infiltrating Capitalism with The Yes Men, 2010; installation detail, (Executive) Boardroom Scene, DiverseWorks, Houston

Keep It Slick, the first solo exhibition by The Yes Men, arrived in Houston at just the right time. The series of installations at DiverseWorks includes documentation and props from the duo’s interventions critiquing corporate irresponsibility. This critique has the perfect backdrop: oil has gushed into the Gulf of Mexico for the duration of the show, and none of the corporations involved in the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig have accepted full responsibility for the sprawling environmental catastrophe.

In response to such sticky situations, The Yes Men invented a strategy of “Identity Correction” to raise questions about corporate accountability. The most recognized of these “corrections” occurred in 2004 when Andy Bichlbaum, half of The Yes Men duo, impersonated a representative of Dow Chemical Company on BBC News and accepted full responsibility for the 1984 Bhopal disaster in which toxic gas leaked from a Union Carbide chemical factory (now owned by Dow) killing thousands of people in India. The Yes Men’s “Identity Correction” had two phases: first, publicly reverse Dow’s denial of culpability for the Bhopal disaster; second, cause Dow to respond to this statement, and in doing so, create public awareness of the corporation’s position on Bhopal.

Following The Yes Men’s intervention, Dow did as expected: to quell the media coverage, the company refuted the announcement and denied responsibility for the leak or remediation. At the entrance to DiverseWorks, a video of Bichlbaum’s false BBC pronouncement is looped on a TV along with clips of the media response once it was exposed as a “hoax.” Witnessing this cycle of competing narratives does not clarify whose version can be trusted, but it does empower viewers to determine for themselves the line between truth and fiction.

Even though Dow’s stance on Bhopal remains unaltered, The Yes Men’s temporary correction revealed the corporation’s position; The Yes Men make reality visible—and questionable—by portraying its extreme or opposite. The purpose of such reversals, as curator Astria Suparak argues in her exhibition statement, is to “hold a mirror up to faceless, corporate power” and to “rouse to action the individuals who uphold this structure—that is, all of us.” The intent of an Identity Correction is not only for corporations to be held publicly accountable but also for viewers to reflect upon the “forgetting” of incidents like the Bhopal disaster.

In the ongoing discussion about art’s ability to create change within a capitalist system, Keep It Slick suggests that artists can try to produce change. Thinking of The Yes Men as artists, rather than activists, or even both, throws a wrench in the preference of some in the art world for work that does not deliver a specific message but whose meaning remains open-ended. The message of The Yes Men’s work, although delivered with humor, is clear: corporations do not police themselves.

Despite this call to vigilance, The Yes Men provide limited opportunities for viewers to take action at DiverseWorks. The opening weekend included a workshop with one of The Yes Men, but the exhibition proper invites few interactions with the actual objects on view. As a result, the viewer of Keep It Slick often becomes little more than a passive spectator. For instance, the installation Conference Scene positions the seated viewer on a folding chair before a stage. On stage, a mannequin models the “Management Leisure Suit” that The Yes Men designed and presented—supposedly on behalf of the World Trade Organization—at a textile industry conference in 2001. Beside the mannequin, a “promotional video” demonstrates how the Management Leisure Suit allows executives to monitor workers in faraway factories by operating a control panel located on the end of a giant, inflatable gold phallus. The promo video is followed by footage of The Yes Men presenting the suit at the conference and the audience gasping in disbelief as the control stick or “Employee Visualization Appendage” inflates.

The entire setup of Conference Scene situates the viewer in a scenario similar to the initial intervention, so that she will share in the original audience’s dismay. However, watching the audience’s reaction on film while seated in the installation only distances the viewer from the actual event because the setting, which is so clearly fake, allows no room for uncertainty and gives away the surprise. While the Conference Scene videos parody the exorbitant products that corporations churn out for consumers, these images do little to activate the viewer or the installation. The assembled objects function as residual, inert props, far removed from the action of The Yes Men’s jarring interventions.

By contrast, (Executive) Boardroom Scene, an installation secluded at the end of the gallery, resists this inertia. In this mock conference room, The Yes Men offer primers on how to perform your own Identity Corrections and space to brainstorm new strategies for infiltrating corporate events. Here the viewer can handle the installation’s objects and discover the purpose of each without a demonstration on how it was used in an earlier Identity Correction. The Yes Men’s boardroom is detailed with cushy leather chairs, oversized posters advocating “corporate synergy,” fake plants and a bookshelf with texts by media luminaries from Rush Limbaugh to Bob Woodward. The viewer can page through memos detailing grooming tips for corporate executives or flip through a Rolodex of fake business cards for Yes Men personas like “Andrew Shimery-Wolf, Director of McDonald's Interactive” whose office is located on “1 Kroc Drive.” (Executive) Boardroom Scene provides the tools and the space for viewers to develop their own critique.

This installation in Keep It Slick stands out because it is the passivity of The Yes Men's audience, whether at a corporate conference or in the gallery, that they seek to challenge. It is the audience’s willingness to believe in “Andrew Shimery-Wolf” that glimpses a corporate culture where the likes of Bernie Madoff and his magical, ever-climbing profits could also be believable. In an era when executives like Fabrice Tourre from Goldman Sachs, as reported in the New York Times, asked to be called “the fabulous Fab” while raking in profits from the spiraling housing crisis, the fantastical falsehoods and wild impersonations of The Yes Men appear ever closer to the truth.

Regan Golden-McNerney is a Core Fellow in Critical Studies at the Glassell School of Art of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

This exhibition runs through June 5, 2010.

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