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“I am very, very happy to announce that for the first time, Dow is accepting full responsibility for the Bhopal catastrophe. We have a $12 billion plan to finally, at long last, fully compensate the victims, including the 120,000 who may need medical care for their entire lives, and to fully and swiftly remediate the Bhopal plant site,” said the supposed Dow Chemical spokesman, Jude Finisterra, on Dec. 3, 2004, during an appearance on BBC World. If this news, aired on the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, sounds too good to be true and too generous for a corporate company like Dow, it’s probably because it was.
The Bhopal catastrophe Finisterra was referring to was a gas leak in India at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal. In the early morning hours of Dec. 3, 1983, more than half a million people were exposed to toxic substances. Multiple sources report between 3,000 to 11,000 people died as a direct result of the leak, and a government affidavit in 2006 stated that the leak caused 558,125 injuries. Seven ex-employees of Union Carbide Corporation were convicted of death by negligence, yet they were sentenced to only two years of imprisonment and a fine of $2,000 each. The company eventually agreed to pay $470 million for damages, a mere 15 percent of the amount originally claimed in the lawsuit. In 2001, in the midst of this legal controversy, Dow Chemical Company purchased UCC. After this acquisition, Dow argued that it held no legal responsibility for unresolved lawsuits.
So when the news got out that Dow planned to liquidate its Union Carbide sector to compensate for the victims of the Bhopal disaster, the world was shocked. After two hours of international coverage, Dow responded by issuing a press release outright denying the statement. But the damage was already done—in a mere 23 minutes, Dow’s share price fell 4.24 percent on Frankfurt Stock Exchange, losing the company $2 billion. Soon after the false BBC report aired, Andy Bichlbaum, a member of the social activist group Yes Men, revealed on BBC Radio 4 that he had posed as Finisterra in this hoax. The Yes Men were already notorious for using media to draw attention to social issues—creating a fake website for George Bush during his first presidential campaign and revising his stance on environmental issues.
When the film about the Yes Men, “The Yes Men Fix the World,” won the Panorama Audience Award at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival, people started to question if the prank was a work of art. Because the video was placed within the context of reality—a news channel—instead of being presented as a parody, the “hoax” cannot be looked at as a simple joke. Why did the Yes Men engineer this incredibly daring and imaginative yet potentially socially problematic prank? What happens when a parody isn’t staged as a joke? And how can this “prank” be considered as a work of art?
In what they call “Identity Correction,” the Yes Men seek to “expos[e], perhaps deviously, the nastiness of powerful evildoers.” They are not simply lying—they are flipping reality and showing what the company should be saying. Donned in a typical white-collar worker’s suit, Bichlbaum appeared on BBC World, usually a trusted source of information. In this interview, Bichlbaum uses the other party’s voice to bring to light the obscured facts. In this video, the Yes Men present a different reality—an imaginary situation that is seen by audiences as something plausible through the medium of their hoax.
This distortion of reality—presenting a different possibility of the world as it could be—can be understood as a form of art. The Yes Men’s BBC stunt shares a common theme of de-contextualization with Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain.” Duchamp submitted a readymade urinal to the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917. The committee rejected “Fountain” despite its rules that all works would be accepted. However, in Duchamp’s decision to place it in a museum, the urinal lost its original, intended functionality and became a work of art. The Yes Men took this concept further. The hoax used the smooth, seamless surface of reality to substantiate hope; in fact, by impacting the stock market, the video elevated the possibility for retribution to a financial reality. Like in Duchamp’s “Fountain,” the appearance of the news report does not change—it instead offers another version of reality.
But more importantly, the Yes Men’s BBC stunt is a piece of contemporary political art in that it imparts a significant political message through the media. It is through this very medium that the Yes Men enable viewers to take a step back from their perception of the world and doubt the veracity of its appearance. In achieving this feat, the BBC stunt can be looked at as a current, innovative genre of art that blurs the line between the fine arts and media technology.
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