“People who are older, have tended to lose a lot more. They lose the fight over and over and over again, and that can really affect the way people think about what is possible. Students haven’t been defeated so many times yet.”—Mary Notari
Mary Notari, Coordinator of The Yes Lab + Organizer for The Yes Men
Andy Bichlbaum + Mike Bonanno, The Yes Men
New York, NY
Interview with Mary Notari:
Can you talk about the origin of the Yes Lab?
The Yes Men [Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum] started the Yes Lab in 2010. Their work has gained notoriety and a lot of press by pranking and impersonating corporations and their misdeeds. The Yes Lab is a nonprofit with the mission of training other activist groups in these “identity correction” tactics of hijacking brands or other entities. It provides a platform to work with groups that come to them with ideas. In 2011, they started a partnership with the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics at New York University, and were given space at NYU, along with like-minded support from the Institute. It became a place for activism research, where we could organize with students and the community. My involvement with the Yes Lab began in 2010, and I help them run workshops and meetings. Some of the actions intentionally walk this hazy line of legality, so for those legal and political considerations, we keep the practical, creative arm separate from the on-campus, academic part.
What led you to be involved?
I come from a theater background. I am an actor. I got involved with some of the performance parts of this activism. I’ve actually impersonated people. When we launch a project and are on the phone with journalists, we pretend to be things that we might not necessarily be. I can do that. It was a brand-new organization and it needed help. It is still a very new organization.
Do most of the workshops and actions take place in the Hemispheric Institute?
Yes, we run workshops here in the space that has been generously donated. But part of the Yes Lab is doing workshops in other cities and other spaces. If an organization wants to do a workshop, then they can contact us and figure out the space and transit.
Have you noticed differences between hosting workshops in the Institute versus on the road?
Absolutely. When organizations bring us in for a workshop, they have something in mind that is location-specific, and we brainstorm around that. When we do workshops here, in New York, it tends to be more about learning our various tactics with brainstormed ideas going in many different directions. Working in other countries is a whole different can of worms as well. Maybe impersonating a person in Russia has different consequences than in America.
We don’t usually have to find people to work with. They usually come to us, and then they let us know what they are looking for.
How much do the participants’ objectives vary?
They may have a really clear idea that they want to do a Yes Men–style piece, like they want to impersonate this person and make them look ridiculous, or push them in a certain direction. Sometimes they want to get more media attention on their issue. People come to us with the expectation that we are going to create something and it is going to get in the news somehow. Or they want to know how to do something without going to jail.
What makes a group good for this type of work?
We often define success with the lowest common denominator: Do our projects get in the news? Did it bring more attention to whatever issue we are working on? Having an actionable, achievable goal in mind before going into a project really helps. It is hard to work with long-term campaigners. People who are intimately involved with an issue sometimes have a hard time narrowing something down or thinking more performatively. Thinking creatively about an audience is necessary to create the effect of projects that we are interested in. We essentially help create media interventions.
Is there a design process that you teach?
Definitely. If people want to do impersonation, we first define the target. You have to define your audience. Then we ask people to come up with ideas themselves while we show examples of creative interventions and protests that we have done in the past, just to get people’s juices flowing. We think in terms of images, ideas, symbols, and things beyond what a campaigner would. We write on Post-its, stick them on walls, work in small groups, and brainstorm for far-flung ideas. With the audience and target in mind, we narrow those ideas down to something that is funny, offensive, or juicy that people are excited to work on.
An example of a project that I helped with here at NYU was called Patriots for Deportation. It was brainstormed by a group of people who were working students, and who were dreamers, and they were working for the dream act. The brainstorming process took months. Luckily, it was mostly students, so they had a semester to think about it and get together. They went through many different ideas, all thinking about the idea of deportation, and the racism that surrounds the conversation about deportation here in the US. They were thinking about different angles to point out that racism. The idea that they eventually landed on, was faking a movement among young, white American citizens that choose to deport themselves because they realized that their parents or their great grandparents entered the country illegally a century ago. So if these people were true patriots, they would have to deport themselves. They co-opted that language of anger babies and illegal immigrants. They created a blog. They also created a video series of people saying that they were going to deport themselves, co-opting the same racist language that conservatives who are very pro-deportation use, especially towards Latin American immigrants.
They ended up getting a lot of press hits because it was such a juicy angle. It was so offensive. And people got it. Even if they were offended by it, they were offended for the right reasons. That came out of a process of very general workshops that we held, and a bunch of different students realizing that they had the same interests in getting together to meet week after week after week in trying to figure out what to do.
It was very well-timed because it was leading up to the 2012 election, so by pure luck, Mitt Romney used the term “self deportation” in a speech somewhere. When that happened, the small group of students were able to mobilize very quickly and push out their own story to piggyback on the wave of the press surrounding the term “self deportation.”
Is consensus difficult when working with these charged issues?
It tends to be self-selective. The people who are interested in doing this sort of work are interested in doing this sort of work already. The difficult part is when people are working for the target organizations, or when they are already doing real advocacy work. Then it can become tricky: “Oh, we can’t have our name or image attached to this because it will hurt our actual, real-life relationship with the people that we are parodying in this project.” In those cases, we’ve had to actually turn down the language or the approach that we were taking.
The other option is—and we have done this a few times—the Yes Lab or The Yes Men will just take credit for it. And the group usually says, “That’s fine if you take credit for it. We just want this issue in the media.” The Yes Lab has the space to take on that blame. Sometimes people create pseudonyms for fake groups, and then they give the name of that group to the press when they ask.
The Yes Lab can become a gateway to getting involved in activism. Sometimes, there is a learning curve: “Are you allowed to do this? Is this ethical? Why would you make fun of people? Don’t you want them to change? Wouldn’t it be better to be straightforward?” I take those sort of concerns very seriously because I do think that while we may not be 100% legal in everything that we do, and even though it’s a freedom of speech issue, that can be very ill-defined when it comes to satire and parody. We ask them if something will actually hurt them more than help. Generally, if people are uncomfortable with it, they are not going to seek us out in the first place.
How would you describe the relationship between Yes Lab and NYU?
The Yes Lab is totally separate from NYU at this point. I think there was a point where the Yes Lab was an initiative of the Institute, and therefore connected to NYU in the sense that the Institute is a part of NYU—whatever the mechanics are of an Institute receiving grants through an institution. But we have never had that relationship with NYU at all. The Yes Lab was an initiative of the Institute, but the grayness of it became a little bit too much for NYU, so we became completely separate. The way that it exists at NYU now, is in this research component, the Critical Tactics Lab, which is connected to the Hemispheric Institute, and it incorporates research with activist practice.
What is the impact or relationship of having such a close proximity to the NYU students?
It has been really cool to get to know some of the groups who are trying to use direct action as part of their engagement with the issues that they are organizing around. We have worked with student debt groups in the past, and a student movement that divests from oil and fossil fuels within universities. I feel like I have learned a lot about student movements by being in proximity to them. It has afforded us an opportunity to help them brainstorm and help them expand their idea of what is possible.
Part of the Critical Tactics Lab is a series of events that are bringing in practitioners, whether they are academics or artists or activists, to talk about their experiences and strategies. That has brought a lot of people from the wider New York academic community to the Institute to see these people speak. We have worked with people from CUNY, NYU, and The New School.
Have you noticed differences between working with a community group versus a student group?
The student groups that we have worked with here tend to be very knowledgeable. They really know about their issue and have goals in mind of what they want to do. They are just younger and that is the main difference. Their minds also tend to be a little bit more open to being molded. Sometimes the biggest challenge of working with community groups, is getting them to step outside of their campaign mentality, and consider what else can be in the realm of possibility. People get so entrenched in defining goals that are achievable. We try to get people to open their minds to the utopian ideal of what world they actually want to live in. Then we work backwards from there. People who are older, have tended to lose a lot more. They lose the fight over and over and over again, and that can really affect the way people think about what is possible. Students haven’t been defeated so many times yet.
What do you want for the future of the Yes Lab?
I would like more people. This is a goal of ours. We have to do this in order to sustain ourselves as an organization, because we have a vision of spreading our way of teaching and training people in how to do our brand of media activism. Even going beyond media activism tactics, this shit can be fun. It can be really, really fun. Even if you lose, it can still be fun while spreading the ideas of collective action. If you are only preaching to the choir with your work, then you’re never going to make any headway. So we want to spread this idea of having fun while collaborating with designers and artists and more seasoned campaigners. We want to bring people with creative skills into the activist realm and vice versa.
We are starting something called the Action Switchboard, which is an online tool that will basically be a virtual Yes Lab. There will be people like me operating it. So if people are interested in doing something, then they can post it, contact us, and we can help guide them through the same process that we would go through in the physical workshops. There will still be in-person workshops, but not everyone is part of an organization that can afford to provide space and travel for us.
What is it about artists and designers that is important or relevant to what you do?
On a practical level, activists who want to get in the media need a certain set of skills to get attention, and not everyone has the skills. Whether it’s building a website, or branding a campaign, or just thinking outside of the day-to-day enough to be able to come up with a hook for a story to perform and sell to the media, designers are equipped to facilitate that. A lot of times, campaigners are totally capable of doing that. Creative and cultural workers do a great job of connecting with campaigns. But also, a lot of artists are able to separate themselves from the day-to-day work of a campaign, and express something beautiful about an issue, while grabbing a lot of attention.
I would like to see artists that are really good at saying something, connect to current struggles and campaigns. Sometimes that is scary, especially with young artists who might want to be politically involved, but that are not really sure how to be. I would like to think that we could help connect artists and designers to campaigns, where maybe some creative thinking could really help. I do think that artists and designers who are concerned with issues and political goals, can really help create conditions for great collaboration and outside-of-the-box thinking.
What is the link between collaboration and activism?
You can collaborate with so many different types of people. At it’s most practical level, collaboration means working with people who have skills outside of your own skill set. By definition, that makes you stronger. Change can only happen collectively. I think that individuals can act, and they should act, but nothing is ever isolated. Collaboration is essential for any long-term change. Nobody works in isolation, even if you only see one or two people highlighted in the media. The only way that knowledge and inspiration spreads is by talking to other people.
Do you have advice that you offer to the student groups?
Show up. That’s the biggest thing. That’s also one of the hardest things to do when a group is just starting to organize themselves around something. Being present. It can be very difficult with a lot of different demands on time and attention. But that’s the first thing you’ve got to do. Also, do not work in isolation, even if you think you know what you’re doing. If a group is organizing themselves around an issue, it is imperative to talk to people who have already been working around that issue. If it is location-specific, seek out members of that community. I think that I have observed a lot of missteps in these arenas, especially working in New York, and seeing lots groups trying to form around an issue. I see lots of groups working in isolation. Because New York is an eclectic city, I see a lot of separation between people who are from here and people who have moved here.
In light of all of this though, there comes a time when groups just have to act. So the number one advice that the Yes Lab gives people, is to just pick something and do it. That is primarily how you learn to do it.