Remember the Shit Harper Did website, with its faux-etching of the awkward kitten-petting photo and endless horrifying Harper facts? What about the Arctic Ready campaign? That summer gem baffled Shell's social media team by pretending to be them, touting off-shore drilling on a slick website pairing sad animals with slogans like "you can't run your SUV on ‘cute.'"
Both of those satirical initiatives got their share of online attention, and both were (in some part) shepherded by Vancouver comedian-provocateur Sean Devlin, 29. (The Shell project was headed up by the Yes Men, famous for convincingly faking corporate apologies and many other great tricks.)
Appearing in Toronto this week on the "Serious Issues" tour, Devlin will bring the Yes Lab to the Big Smoke, hosting an activism dance party and a day-long youth workshop where he'll share tricks on using humour to draw attention to uncomfortable realities. But before he rolled into town, we asked him some questions on activism, hilarity, and what the heck is a "thought stylist."
What is the Yes Lab, and what on earth is a thought stylist? The term sounds a little sinister.
The Yes Lab is mainly a series of brainstorms and trainings to help activist groups carry out innovative creative actions, focused on their own campaign goals. It's a way for social justice organizations to take advantage of all that the Yes Men have learned-not only about their own tactics, but those they've come in contact with over the decade and a half they've been pioneering their unique form of activism. The Yes Lab currently makes its home at the Hemispheric Institute at NYU.
A "thought stylist" is a made up term that the Yes Men have applied to me. I am brought into certain projects to... coordinate their execution. Hmm, "coordinate their execution" also sounds sinister. To help bring actions to life! Yes, that's much better.
The Shit Harper Did site and the lampoon on Shell's Arctic drilling campaign both got a lot of attention. What is the secret to going viral?
There is no obvious recipe for viral success. However, I think one thing both those campaigns had in common was that people were able to creatively participate in them, as opposed to just playing the role of passive audience member. Many people used ShitHarperDid as a slogan to express discontent during the 2011 election, others used the joke format of some of our early videos and shared their own iterations online. More than 10,000 people created fake Shell ads, many of which were hilarious. In both cases the creative participations of strangers played a critical role in the viral reach of those campaigns.
People do seem to handle serious issues better when they're presented through comedy. What is the funniest thing you ever did to prove a political point?
At my high school we used to have "Sprite Days." These were special days when disturbingly enthusiastic 20-somethings would show up at our school wearing Sprite T-shirts and take over our cafeteria for the day. They'd play obnoxious dance music and encourage students to participate in ridiculous games in order to win a free bottle of Sprite. My friends and I found this annoying and intrusive, so the next time Sprite Day happened we went to a grocery store and bought a case of no-name lemon-lime sodas. We then set up in the cafeteria beside the Sprite Team and gave students free sodas in exchange for the promise not to participate in any of the Sprite games. That day, countless students were saved from the demeaning experience of limbo-ing to the "Hamster Dance" song. I don't know if that was the funniest, but probably the first funny thing I did to prove a political point.
Thursday's workshop is aimed at youth activists. Who counts as a "youth" in this case, and is that to say activism works differently in different demographics?
Are you suggesting I'm ageist? I'm not, I have old friends, I swear. In fact I hung out with my grandmother just the other day. True story.
In all seriousness, the workshops are happening on campuses and so we're encouraging students to participate. However, the one we just finished at McGill in Montreal included two Raging Grannies, which was awesome!
A lot of dedicated activists don't have $30 to spend on a workshop. Is there a way those people can access the event, or the materials?
People can access the training on scholarship through Sierra Youth Coalition, by filling out the form (available here).
Now, to get serious. What one issue should more Canadians have on their radar?
The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation is filing a constitutional challenge against the expansion of a Shell tar sands mine near their community. This presents a truly rare opportunity to actually stop a tar sands development in its tracks.
The Serious Issues dance party is Wednesday, Nov. 7 at Bizune Gallery at 9 p.m.. The ensuing workshop is all day Nov. 8 at OISE. You can sign up online.