Andy Bichlbaum

Andy Bichlbaum
Yes Man;
resident of Paris, France

Tottered on: 6 April 2006
Temperature: 44 F
Ceiling: cloudy
Ground: firm
Wind: E at 3mph

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TT with HD: Andy Bichlbaum

[Ed. note: some useful background can be found on the Yes Men website and in the previous Teeter Talk with Alan Pagliere ]

HD: Oh, and you brought your own teeter tottering gloves!

AB: Yes. Yes, these will help me, as a novice, I think.

HD: It's really quite easy. No one's fallen off yet.

AB: Okay.

HD: We've had some near misses.

AB: Oh, wait, I should push back a little bit.

HD: The lack of handles is just something you have to deal with. There's advantages to having no handles. One is that you can scootch back and forth as required.

AB: And do an interview with a giant or a tiny person.

HD: Right, because the middle part is not adjustable as some playground teeter totters are.

AB: Ohhhhh, I see.

HD: That was the trade-off.

AB: Simplicity.

HD: Yes, and elegance of design.

AB: Yeah, it's pretty simple. What kind of wood is this?

HD: Umm, in terms of tree, I don't know, but it's wolmanized. So it will last forever. That was the key factor for me.

AB: So let's take off the gloves and feel what that means. Okay.

HD: I think it's weathered enough that the arsenic that's in the process is probably no longer active and will no longer harm you. That's what I'm banking on anyway.

AB: Yeah. I don't feel harmed. Yet. It's hard to tell.

HD: So welcome to the teeter totter!

AB: Thank you!

HD: And welcome to our fair city.

AB: Thank you. It's lovely to be here!

HD: How long have you been here so far?

AB: For one day.

HD: And is it your first time visiting Ann Arbor?

AB: It's my first time. Oh, second time. Last time was as a stop-off point for the DOW AGM ...

HD: ... right, because they're in Midland ...

AB: Midland, Michigan ...

HD: ... so this is a good base of operations for you?

AB: Yeah! It's a very good base. I think we've chosen it for the same reason that DOW has chosen it: it has a lot of natural salts in the ground.

HD: And you require natural salts?

AB: Only because DOW does. It attracts DOW and so it's good to be near DOW.

HD: Has anything particularly impressed you about Ann Arbor or impressed you in the wrong way, so far? Or have you even had a chance to sort of soak up the city at all?

AB: I've had a chance to soak up individual experiences and conversations, basically. And they've been really nice. I talked to Alan ...

HD: ... Pagliere, right ...

AB: ... Pagliere, that's fantastic!

HD: I was thinking actually that he might be a nice way to sort of explain what it is you do for local readers. Because I think a lot of the readers of Teeter Talk will recognize Alan's name as the perpetrator of this spoof website for the public schools, which he said that you, in part, inspired. So, in a sense, he was taking a concept of yours, this idea of identity correction, and translating it to a local level.

AB: Right, yeah, yeah ...

HD: ... whereas you essentially tackle international-level stuff.

AB: Sometimes. Only by default. I mean we've often tackled local issues, too. Just whatever hits us.

HD: Yeah, so the more local stuff, I guess it just doesn't get as much publicity, because of its local nature?

AB: I guess. I live in Paris and I did this thing where I kind of tricked a French politician on 'fake' American TV to say some really crazy things that he believed about poverty in France. I get a little circulation in France, but ... ... it didn't even get that much press there. I think the reason global issues: we've been working with the internet, these fake websites, and they're just by definition international. So I guess maybe that's why. Because I know both Mike and I have tackled local issues. He's doing some stuff around GE in upstate New York. I did some stuff when I was in San Francisco.

HD: Well, you mention the internet. I think that borrowing someone's identity for the purpose of correction is much easier in the age of the internet, because there's not an actual person involved. It becomes much more difficult to continue the game when it's a local affair, because people know the players. They know who's supposed to be involved, and I think that it's much easier for people to say, Well, you're not the superintendent of schools, so what are you trying to pull here?! Whereas on the international stage, you can show up as whoever you need to be, and it's not like people there are going to be personally acquainted with that named individual.

AB: That makes sense. There's a lot more people on the international stage. It's bigger. More people. Although, even there if people paid attention, they'd notice. It's all there available. It's not like immediately you'd recognize somebody or think of somebody. We'd have to be much more famous to be noticed.

HD: Well, I don't think that riding the teeter totter is going to give you that kind of fame, so I think you'll be able to stay under the radar.

AB: Ha! Yeah!

HD: So you're using sort of a slower [tottering] technique now?

AB: Oh! Why is that? I guess I encountered some difficulty from the edges here. But actually the hand-in-back-here technique seems to result in ...

HD: ... yeah, are you okay?!

AB: Yeah, it's also trickier, I think. ... Perfect.

HD: No one's actually used that technique, I think. Ever.

AB: Really? Well, it's comfortable. It's more comfortable. But, of course, it is more precarious.

HD: Just because my readers aren't going to see this, I'll just say for the record that you're leaning backwards with your hands behind you, sort of propping yourself up.

AB: Yeah, and the teetering seems to be going out of control a little bit as a result, right?

HD: Well, I'm okay with it, actually, but if you need me to slow down or speed up, just say.

AB: Oh no, It's fine. I just haven't done this in so many years.

HD: Most people haven't! I wanted to ask you, this brand of activism essentially consists of perpetrating a very complex prank, 'prank' is probably too cheap a word to use, but there's this fun, whimsical element to it, and there's this flash to it. So with Alan's fake website there was for, I would say, around two weeks a great deal of local interest and chatter both sort of online and on the streets. But, as best I can tell, it did not evolve into anything that you could point to as: Oh! As a result of that activism on Alan's part, now we have this that we can point to. Now we have this new candidate for school board, for example. It's actually been a frustration of mine that, since that time, no one has stepped forward to take on the role as a write-in candidate for the school board.

AB: Right.

HD: And I suppose people might say, Well, Dave why don't you do that? and I think the reason is pretty obvious why I wouldn't do that: I have no expertise in that area.

AB: Well, nobody has expertise!

HD: I think there are people who have expertise in managing large organizations, people who have experience essentially doing a managerial task, asking the questions that need to be asked.

AB: Yeah, but it's not probably as difficult as it seems.

HD: I don't know.

AB: I would imagine that you could just step in there and start doing it. And you'd know 70% of what there is to know. And then the rest would probably be painful. I don't know.

HD: That chasm, though, between the kind of protest and activism that you practice and advocate and actual effect in the real world. I mean there is this gap, wouldn't you say?

AB: Yes, there is.

HD: It's not really a criticism, it's just an observation that it seems like there's a next step that you hope would happen, or that I hope would happen, that doesn't happen. And it ends up being an exercise in fun, to be sure, entertaining, sure, it gets the issues on people's minds. But that's not something you can really go out and measure.

AB: Right. That's really a problem. And it's something, I think, is not necessary, it's not intrinsic to it. I think in part it's because it's not integrated enough into other forms of activism or something. When we go and do something, we always try and hook up with people who know a lot more about the subject matter than we do and are actively involved in a fight over it. And figure out what we can do that will actually serve the bigger situation and try to make it so that if we do something, then people know how to use it or jump on it and benefit from it. And sometimes we do that. Sometimes we don't do that. Sometimes that helps and sometimes it doesn't. And I think if this were a time when all kinds of different things were happening, then maybe that would happen more. I don't know.

HD: I think part of it might have something to do with language skills. And I'm not talking about non-native versus native language skills, either. I know some people have observed that the reason people don't stand up and object when you present a lecture on slavery and how it should be a model for how the WTO conducts its business, people don't stand up. And people say, well they just don't understand English is not their native language. I think it's fairly clear that they do and I think their English fluency, production-wise, is probably adequate to the task of expressing something.

AB: And many of them were Americans, so ...

HD: I think that just from a pragmatic point of view, objecting and challenging, these are not scripts and routines that most people have ready-to-hand. It's not something that's trained. It's not something that's particularly encouraged. Typically if you do challenge, if you do stand up and say, That's not right! or That's absurd! then you very quickly are ostracized as 'rude', as a malcontent. You're very quickly shunted aside as a loud, clanging bell that should be shouted down as quickly as possible.

AB: But like in the case with Alan's website. I mean, I'm not saying it was feasible, or that it could have happened, but theoretically, a hypothetical situation in which that website would have been put into place and somebody was already there, ready to step in as candidate or something. Yeah, that could have been organized. Just like what we did in Bhopal could have been better organized. What we did on the BBC could have been better organized, so that the people knew what was going to happen and were ready to do something, and to jump on it, and use the momentum to build it, instead of just them being surprised. They didn't know it was going to happen and so ...

HD: ... yeah, but I feel like it rests at a much sort of broader more basic fundamental level than organizing for a particular protest. I don't want to speak for Alan, but I think he might say something like, The school board, their major fault is that they haven't asked the right questions and they haven't asked them hard enough. And I think that asking challenging questions is not something that is particularly well-trained in our linguistic universe.

AB: Yeah, that's true.

HD: I was talking to my neighbor, actually, about who I was having onto the totter and we were talking about exactly that point: that it's difficult to stand up and say, Well, that's absurd! I challenge you to prove that you are who you say you are. Because people aren't used to doing it. And she related this anecdote of why she's never actually seen the movie Blazing Saddles. Back when the movie came out, she and her college roommate went to the theater to see the movie. And within, I guess, the opening four or five minutes there's this either a rape scene or a discussion of rape. And her roommate just stood up in a crowded theater and said, I'm sorry, but rape is not funny! and walked out.

AB: Wow. That's cool.

HD: That's cool, but I think it's extremely rare that people are able to express opposition. You're only allowed to express discontent or opposition in a very sort of polite and agreeable way and the end effect is that it doesn't register as opposition a lot of times.

AB: Yeah, opposition and expressing doubt and disagreement. And probably the higher you are up in your field, the less likely you are to be able to express doubt or opposition very easily, because how did you get there? You didn't get there by expressing opposition, you know, often. I mean, maybe at the beginning. But for a lot of it, you just have to stomach these absurd processes that keep happening. That's the way things work. Like in newspapers, the journalists who go on to become editors and then powerful editors and then more powerful editors often are the very worst ones. You know, the ones who don't really try to do anything, don't try to oppose the policies of management, they don't try to impose the presentation of truth. They go with the goals of the organization, which are usually really counter to or not at least in line with the goals of truth. Yeah, so there might be that, too. Maybe, generally, people are better at expressing opposition. Except maybe in the case like that [movie theater] where it's so visceral, like we all need to laugh, we have a vested interested interest in just going to a movie and laughing at it. It's just what we want to do.

HD: Well to satisfy my own need to laugh, let me ask you a couple of silly questions.

AB: Okay!

HD: The suit that inflated to become the, I'm trying to remember the name of it, it was the Management ...

AB: ... the Management Leisure Suit ...

HD: ... the Management Leisure suit, has that been donated to the Smithsonian or something?

AB: No. Close. It was actually bought by some kind of art organization in Europe. I can't remember what, a museum, or a gallery, a collector, something. Somebody who had borrowed it, and then wanted to keep it. They gave us 4000 Euros for it.

HD: That's not bad.

AB: It's great! That's more than it cost to make. It was very used by that point. It was really disgusting.

HD: So how many times was it actually deployed?

AB: Three times maybe?

HD: Three times, and theoretically, the purchaser of this apparatus could ...

AB: ... no, it's un-deployable now. It's filled with a gross foam that keeps it always stiff.

HD: So even for longer than four hours, huh?

AB: Forever. I mean before the foam decomposes back into fossil fuels.

HD: You mentioned that you live in Paris? You live in Paris full time?

AB: Yeah.

HD: Paris is actually, very tangentially, a local topic right now in terms of density. There are some folks who look to Paris as a possible model for Ann Arbor.

AB: Oh?

HD: That's probably overstating the case, but ...

AB: Why not? You need a river!

HD: We've got a river! Haven't you seen the river?

AB: No!

HD: It's the Huron, the mighty Huron! It has a lot of dams along it, so it's not as mighty as it might be otherwise, I guess. But yeah, you should get somebody to take you to the river before you leave town. I can do that for you actually.

AB: Really? Okay! Shit that's tomorrow morning but ...

HD: Well I mean we don't have to plan the schedule right now, but the point is: We've got a river!

AB: Well, that's great. That's the first step.

HD: What people point to as Paris being able to teach us is that you can a lot of density even without skyscrapers.

AB: That's true.

HD: And the cost of that strategy is that the square footage per person ends up being less, but that's sort of a trade-off you have to make. That if you're going to build relatively low-rise buildings, four to six stories as opposed to twenty to thirty stories, then to achieve the same level of density, you've got to chop up that space into smaller chunks for each person. So are you happy with where you live in Paris? You actually live in Paris proper?

AB: I live in Paris proper. And I have a very small space. I don't know what it would be in square feet, but it's 40 square meters. It's around 400 [square feet] or something. What you said about Paris, it is true: they're really good at managing the space and it's a very pleasant place to live. All the skyscrapers in Paris are on the outskirts. There's especially one suburb where there's this an amazing nightmare space, it's like Bladerunner space, it's really amazing, it's just pure skyscraper, and really interesting ones some of them. But they've evicted the skyscrapers to the outskirts, which is good, but they've also evicted the minorities and the poor people to other suburbs and so they're in tall buildings on the outskirts. You never see them because the subways don't even go there.

HD: You mention subways, do you have a car or do you use the public transportation to get around?

AB: No! I have a bicycle and the subway.

HD: So is that like just a totally absurd question to ask someone who lives in Paris, if they have a car?

AB: I don't know anybody who has a car in Paris. I think, no, no, I don't. Yeah, I do, wait. I know one person, but I think he may be [ed. note: inaudible] but nobody has a car. It doesn't make sense. It's really expensive and they go very slowly. You go much faster from point A to point B on a bicycle in Paris.

HD: So you're in town as a part of the Distinguished Visitors Series.

AB: Oh?!

HD: You didn't know that?

AB: Thank you! No, I didn't.

HD: It's the Penny Stamps Distinguished Visitors Series.

AB: Right. I did know that.

HD: And even though it sounds like one-cent postage, I believe that Penny Stamps is the name of a person.

AB: Oh-kay. Thank you.

HD: So you've go that going for you: Distinguished Visitor.

AB: Good!

HD: And it's going to be at the Michigan Theater, you're aware of that, right?

AB: I think so, yeah. I saw the lights last night. It's very nice.

HD: Actually, to me, the nicest thing about the theatre, and I hope they have the refreshment stand open for your presentation today. I wonder about that, because your presentation is free and I wonder if, for free events, they bother to open the refreshment stand. But the good thing about the popcorn there is that they actually will put real butter on it. Not butter flavoring, real butter.

AB: That's unusual.

HD: And you can get real, locally made Stucchi's ice-cream there.

AB: Wow! That's great!

HD: I would ask for some, if I were you.

AB: Okay Scootchy's?

HD: No, Stucchi's

AB: Okay, Stucchi's. Okay, I'll do that. That sounds great. I'll get a sugar rush.

HD: The presentation today, that's going to be you and Mike?

AB: Just me. Mike is having a baby. Or had one recently. He's growing a baby now. I guess at the beginning is when they grow the most, and so you have to be around in case they break something.

HD: That's going to be just a straight-up lecture, here's-what-I-do-here's-how-you-can-do-it-too type affair?

AB: Yeah! Yeah, exactly.

HD: Like a primer for Yes Men activism.

AB: That would be great. That depends a lot on the questions from the audience. If people are interested in how to do it exactly, then I will talk about that.

HD: I noticed on your website there's a link to a software product called Reamweaver, that, if I believe the text I'm reading on the screen, makes it very easy to sort of copy a website, so that you can then have your way with it.

AB: It does. It makes it easy, but it doesn't really work very well, that software. I mean, it works, but then it goes out of control and then it can really screw things up on your server.

HD: So basically you need somebody who can code HTML ideally?

AB: No! No, no, you can download a program on the internet, there's a few, like for MacIntosh there's one called Pagesucker and there's some others. You download them, and then you install them, and then you type in the URL of the website you want to copy, and then it just downloads the whole thing. And then you go in and fix it a little bit, but you don't have to know much HTML. It's very easy. You need to get it hosted, but you can do that online pretty simply. Just look up 'web hosting'!

HD: What's the full text of your T-shirt? I can't quite read it.

AB: Catalina Foothills Volleyball.

HD: Do you have a connection there or did you pick that up in a thrift store somewhere?

AB: I did. But it's a thrift store in the city I'm from, so there's a connection. Tucson.

HD: You mention in this standard press blurb that you've been fired from a bunch of jobs. Now is that just exaggeration to make a more interesting story, or were you in fact fired? Somebody said: Andy, you're fired!

AB: Yeah! Several times!

HD: Literally those words?

AB: Well, no, I don't think anybody's actually said: Andy, you're fired.

HD: They said something like, We're going to have to let you go?

AB: Yeah! Yeah, exactly or, Our relationship is at an end. Or, Thank you, you did a wonderful job!

HD: But we won't be needing your services anymore?

AB: You worked yourself out of a job! All kinds of things. I don't know why they're polite. But usually they're quite polite when they fire you, unless you did something egregious, and they're still polite, but they just use different words. At times they were very short jobs. I've often fired myself, as well. My first programming job, I got through a fake resume and I was immediately hired as a senior programmer.

HD: All right!

AB: Yeah! And it was all fake and I had to learn. It was okay, and I did okay, but I couldn't stand it after three months and so I quit and then got other jobs.

HD: Before they found out that you had faked your resume? So you can work as a senior programmer for three months and nobody notices?

AB: No. I mean, I did the job. It's not very hard is the thing. I mean, it's hard but it's not very hard. You know, you just pick it up. If you're mathematically inclined at all, or if you know how to do HTML or whatever, you can become a programmer!

HD: Okay?! I'm sure that the computer science department at the University of Michigan is encouraged to know that!

AB: Yeah, no. I knew computer science graduates in some of the jobs I had, because I ended up doing video game programming, really high-level programming, and so I met people who'd actually been trained at it. They all said, Well yeah, I learned a few algorithms or a few little things like tricks and stuff, but basically all the learning happened afterwards. You don't miss much by not going to computer school. But it's a great skill if you want to make some money.

HD: Or wreak havoc?

AB: Yeah that, too.

HD: Well is there anything you wanted to talk about, before we dismount from the totter?

AB: No, not really. It's lovely to be here. Thank you for tottering.

HD: You're quite welcome. I'm thrilled that you came!