Pranking the Powerful: Culture jammers the Yes Men appear at the Co-Prosperity Sphere

An Exxon Mobil flesh candle, a Yes Men hoax

An Exxon Mobil flesh candle, a Yes Men hoax


June 19, 2007. The scene is a large, fluorescently-lit conference room, walls draped in threatening black curtains, the air chiming with the scattered tinkling of metal, glass, and thick, cream-colored hotel-grade dinnerware. Slight murmurs drift upwards from a series of round tables filled with the occupants’ self-satisfied smiles. If it weren’t for the overabundance of grey suits, the scene could be mistaken for the Daytime Emmys, but lo: the smiles are shrinking.

A certain weight replaces the buzz as each participant takes a globular, misshapen lump of wax and passes a crowning flame to their neighbor. Above, a gaunt, bald, bespectacled overseer gazes seriously over the crowd. The spirit of camaraderie is overwhelming. These “candles,” tributary beacons of hope for the post-apocalyptic world they will serve to supply, are Exxon Mobil’s newest development in the race to maintain petroleum-based power.

“Vivoleum,” a fuel derived from human fat, is the newest and most urgent development for a future world that lacks natural (non-human) resources. The source of the prototype is Reggie, the devoted Exxon Mobil janitor who died from complications in cleaning up a toxic spill. Dead people, the future of power, have finally been realized for their potential in staving off a global energy crisis. Such practical ideas are being espoused by keynote speakers Mike Bobanno and Andy Bichlbaum, Exxon Mobil and National Petroleum Council representatives, who will be visiting Chicago on Thursday, October 29, despite being muscled off the stage in the middle of their tribute to Reggie at GO-EXPO, Canada’s largest oil conference. At that event, three hundred oil enthusiasts witnessed the duo’s “exposition,” one of many pranks pulled off by their ever-incendiary, anti-corporate prankster-artist alter-egos, the Yes Men.

Mike and Andy, otherwise known as Igor Vamos and Jacques Servin, are notorious for their clever infiltrations of corporate America, many of which have been carefully documented on camera and make up their newest film “The Yes Men Fix the World,” premiering in Chicago this Friday at the Music Box Theater. To enrich the event, the Yes Men will be staging an action, the specifics of which will be decided at a workshop offered this Thursday at Bridgeport’s Co-Prosperity Sphere. Displays of the Yes Men’s infamous parodies of the New York Times and New York Sun will enhance the Co-Prosperity Sphere’s atmosphere, and the evening will include discussion of both the Yes Men’s most recent actions and other activist groups and public art.

The Yes Men’s pranks–some would call it performance art–range from appearances on CNN as Dow Chemical Company representatives accepting responsibility for an industrial disaster the company caused in Bhopal, to acting as spokesmen for the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development in New Orleans promising to prevent the demolition of public housing. The sentiments espoused under the guise of various corporations range from the horrific (Reggie’s lumpy candle) to the absurd (a presentation preceding the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference debuting the “SurvivaBall,” a contraption that promises to protect its wearer from the worst effects of climate change). Rarely caught until well after the damage is done, the Yes Men attempt to turn the media outlets and industry functions used by large corporations back against them. Referred to as “culture jamming,” the subversive approach takes its name from the sound-collage band Negativland’s ‘80s radio show, but its intellectual roots reach back to the lightest-hearted of ‘60s counterculturalists, including Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and their kindred spirits in Germany, the Spaßguerilla (Fun Guerillas). The Co-Prosperity Sphere’s relationship with the Yes Men dates back a few years, and it’s been a mutually rewarding one. Their action this weekend offers the Bridgeport arts center a boost in its quest to help the neighborhood become an arts destination.
Co-Prosperity Sphere, 3219-21 S. Morgan St. October 29. Thursday, 7:30pm. (773)837-0145. coprosperity.org