The Yes Men infiltrate art gala disguised as real estate executives to protest New York public housing demolition

The Yes Men infiltrate art gala disguised as real estate executives to protest New York public housing demolition

The Yes Men’s Andy Bichlbaum impersonated a Related Companies executive at nonprofit More Art’s gala. (Via The Yes Men on Youtube)

The Yes Men are back, albeit this time around taking aim at the New York real estate industry. The culture jamming activist group founded by Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno is known for infiltrating conferences dressed as World Trade Organization, McDonalds, Dow Chemical, and ExxonMobil bigwigs to protest white-collar crime. This June, they trolled an art gala in Manhattan to raise awareness about gentrification.

The term “culture jamming” was coined in 1984 by Negativland, a British alt band, but the movement can be traced back to Parisian Situationists led by Guy Debord in the 1960s. Some of its most famous proponents include the Guerrilla Girls, the feminists who dress like apes to protest inequality in the art world. The Yes Men are contemporaries of the Guerrilla Girls and other culture jammers like Barbara Kruger.

On June 4, at the 20th-anniversary gala for More Art, Andy Bichlbaum dressed up as an executive from Related Companies to roll out a half-fictitious proposal he called “Chelsea Yards.” The proposal, Bichlbaum said in disguise before hundreds of people, would extend Hudson Yards into West Chelsea by demolishing public housing there to make way for new gleaming office towers and luxury condos.

“We are working with NYCHA to demolish 2,065 units of Section 9 affordable housing that provides lifelong security for the people who need it. And we’re going to replace those 2,065 units with 875 units of Section 8 housing which is much less reliable,” Bichlbaum said in character. The Jonathan Swift–style modest proposal quickly drew the crowd’s ire, and many booed. If tomatoes were on the menu that evening, they would have thrown them.

The Yes Men posing as ExxonMobil executives
The Yes Men posing as ExxonMobil executives in 2007 (Tavis from Canada/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

Chelsea Yards is another name for Related’s (very real) vision for Fulton and Elliott-Chelsea Houses—a plan by PAU, COOKFOX, and ILA that would demolish 11 NYCHA buildings in Chelsea and replace them with luxury condos and Section 8 apartments. To date, the demo plan has been met with stiff opposition, and this most recent debauchery marks the resistance movement’s most creative tactic thus far.

“We’re working to improve the conditions of not only the residents, but all of those who live in Chelsea and all of New York City,” Bichlbaum said into a microphone after being introduced by More Art associate curator Dylan Gauthier. “Just as Hudson Yards replaced what was previously a mere train depot, Chelsea Yards will replace the Fulton and Chelsea Elliot Houses with an income-diverse and income-exclusive and fully supportive community of stores, business suites, diverse options, and art galleries.”

Then, after Bichlbaum made the (intentional) Freudian slip of equating public housing with a rail yard, the heckling got audibly louder. Bichlbaum proceeded to talk about Related’s “social justness” [sic] strategy. “Related has made contact with 29 percent of the 3,300 residents of the Fulton and Elliott Houses,” he said, committed to the bit. “Those 500 residents are especially excited for the HVAC and dishwashers that’ll be in every new unit.”

Bichlbaum then gave the microphone to another pair of undercover comrades, The Good Liars, a comedy duo founded by Jason Selvig and Davram Stiefler that was active during Occupy Wall Street. At the gala, The Good Liars played the part of Related’s (fake) public relations team.

All in all, the Yes Men’s most recent stunt was an inside job: They had secretly been invited by More Art to pull it off. But it wasn’t until several minutes into Bichlbaum’s presentation that the fourth wall was broken and the peanut gallery realized they had been fooled. Mona Ghasemi, the president of More Art, was one of the few people laughing while most others in the room were seething over what the suit had to say.

Later that night, the founder of pro-public housing group Save Section 9, Ramona Ferreyra, was given an earnest award for her anti-gentrification activism against the NYCHA demolition plan. Bichlbaum also said at the gala he is downright appalled by the plan moving forward in Chelsea today: He said that NYCHA and their architects should “get in line with what people actually need” and “improve what’s there, expand what’s there, and give up this idea of giving everything to the developers.”

“We were hoping to do something about this plan for some time now,” Bichlbaum told AN. “Then when More Art and Dylan told us that they were having this gala, we said maybe we should crash and subvert that.”

In years past, the Yes Men have mostly gone after corporations, but also government agencies like HUD. After Hurricane Katrina, the activist group raised awareness about gentrification in New Orleans vis-à-vis government backed initiatives, much like their most recent performance in New York. (The Yes Men’s activism in New Orleans is showcased in the 2009 documentary The Yes Men Fix the World.) “Public protests are so important because demonstrations are good ways of spreading information and bringing people on board,” Bichlbaum continued.

“But laughter is also a really powerful way of getting a message across, especially things that the mainstream doesn’t want to hear. It’s really hard to laugh and keep your mind closed to new ideas at the same time.”