Which Way is Reality?

Yes Man Igor Vamos, posing as a National Petroleum Council representative, holds up a candle made of “Vivoleum,” a fictitious sustainable oil substitute made from human flesh. Photo courtesy of the Yes Men.

ON THURSDAY, June 14, oil industry officials from around the world gathered at the GO EXPO (Gas and Oil Expo ’07) in Calgary, Alberta, and heard a presentation for an innovative, sustainable replacement for petroleum: a new technology called “Vivoleum.” The presenters represented themselves as executives from ExxonMobil and the National Petroleum Council (an industry organization) and were among the keynote speakers before 300 oil business leaders.

They proposed that the bodies of climate change victims, who they said now number about 150,000 a year, could be rendered into a burnable product, particularly as combustion of fossil fuels speeded up ecological disasters. To demonstrate the efficacy of this, they distributed candles throughout the audience, which were allegedly made of the stuff. Candles were lit, and the oil execs passed the flame from one to another.

A presenter named “Shepard Wolff,” claiming to be an NPC representative, told the audience that current US and Canadian energy policies (notably the massive, carbon-intensive exploitation of Alberta’s oil sands, and the development of liquid coal), are increasing the chances of huge global calamities. But he reassured the audience that in the worst-case scenario, the industry could “keep fuel flowing” by transforming the people who die into oil.

The “o” in the Vivoleum logo was a drop of blood.

“We need something like whales, but infinitely more abundant,” said “Wolff,” before describing the technology used to render human flesh into Vivoleum. Three-D animations of the process brought it to life. The executives watched and listened attentively.

“Vivoleum works in perfect synergy with the continued expansion of fossil fuel production,” said “Florian Osenberg,” claiming to be an ExxonMobil representative. “With more fossil fuels comes a greater chance of disaster, but that means more feedstock for Vivoleum. Fuel will continue to flow for those of us left.”

Oil industry executive lights a candle made from “Vivoleum,” a petroleum substitute supposedly rendered from human flesh. Photo courtesy of the Yes Men.

The two then showed a video tribute to an ExxonMobil janitor, “Reginald Spanglehart Watts,” who had purportedly died of toxic exposure after a chemical incident at a company facility. Before passing away, the kindhearted worker had donated his body to be made into one of the candles, so that he could do some good and be useful to others after he died.

“Osenberg” lit the candle made of Watts’ flesh and held it up.

The tear-jerking tribute to “Reggie Watts” (with “You Light Up My Life” sung out of tune by Reggie as its theme song, as he mopped and swept) finally pushed the presenters’ credulity a shade too far. At that point, realizing the presentation was a hoax, Simon Mellor, commercial and business development director for the company putting on the event, walked up and physically forced the two imposters from the podium. The police were called, but the pair could only be charged with trespassing.

Meet the Yes Men — Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos — most recently using the aliases Andy Bichlbaum and Michael Bonnano. They specialize in messing with the heads of capitalism and its leaders, often impersonating representatives of the World Trade Organization or some multinational company that it represents: McDonald’s, Dow Chemical, Halliburton or ExxonMobil.

In a world where you often need a passport to rent a motel room and where some airports check your ticket before you can purchase a bottle of wine in the duty-free shop, the Yes Men exploit, indeed, they have discovered, a vast opening in reality: if you claim to represent a company or industry organization, then that must be true. It follows that no matter what you say, no matter how cruel, absurd or lacking any semblance of humanity or political correctness, most people (including the most educated) believe what you’re doing is real. “Suspension of disbelief” as it’s called in literature is facilitated by the profit motive. In other words, if something makes money, it’s not necessarily good; but it’s most definitely real.

In one presentation at SUNY Plattsburgh, the Yes Men impersonated McDonald’s and the WTO, and proposed the recycling of hamburgers into what they called reBurgers. In particular, they proposed to a lecture hall full of economics students that feces from Americans be rendered into food for developing countries, based on the scientific fact that people only absorb about 20% of their nutrition and excrete the rest. They presented a 3-D animation of sewage being stamped into patties and served in McDonald’s to people wearing turbans and other non-Western attire.

Some audience members objected to the concept, making intellectual arguments against it or objecting on humanitarian grounds. After more than an hour, some students started heckling the presenters. But for the most part, the concept was received as authentic, if immoral.

One of the signatures of the Yes Men is that they experiment with pushing absurdity as far as they can, revealing that the part of the mind that questions reality has been anesthetized, even among students and the most educated people in society. This is not necessarily a new discovery; the Nazis discovered the same thing in the 1930s, but were not as friendly.

The Yes Men got their start in 1999, posting a parody of the George W. Bush website shortly before the “election” of 2000. When then-candidate Bush attempted to block them through the Federal Elections Commission, newspapers including The New York Times picked up on the threats. They became big news, and earned an international reputation as political pranksters.

From that publicity, someone who owned the domain GATT.org contacted them, and asked that they do a parody of the WTO, which was at the time becoming the focus of international activism. (GATT, or General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, is the predecessor of the World Trade Organization.)

After the Yes Men posted a convincing parody that supposedly focused on free trade issues, people started to contact them through the website and invite them to conferences and events as speakers, even as the keynote speakers. Consistently, conference organizers failed to read the webpage or to look into their credentials or true identity, and ended up the unwitting targets of elaborate hoaxes.

Yes Man Jacques Servin impersonates Dow Chemical Co. spokesman “Jude Finisterra” on worldwide television, taking full responsibility for the Bhopal chemical disaster. Screen shot courtesy of YouTube.

In their most famous stunt to date, on Dec. 3, 2004, Yes Man Jacques Servin was invited onto BBC World, the BBC’s international edition, as “Jude Finisterra,” purportedly as a spokesman for Dow Chemical Co. Dow had recently acquired Union Carbide, whose pesticide plant malfunctioned in Bhopal, India.

It was the 20th anniversary of the disaster, where tens of thousands of people had been killed, sickened and blinded by a massive toxic release — and more or less left to suffer in pain and poverty for the next two decades. The Yes Men had previously posted a website called DowEthics.org and were contacted via email through the site by journalists at BBC World to comment on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the disaster. Nobody checked to make sure they were for real; they just put “Finisterra” on live television and gave him free rein without interruption.

“Today is a great day for those of us at Dow, and for millions of people around the world as well,” “Finisterra” [his name means “end of the world”] began, speaking above the words BREAKING NEWS in bright red. “It’s been twenty years since the disaster, and today, 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 the rest of their lives, and to fully and swiftly remediate the Bhopal plant site.”

For five and a half minutes on worldwide television, he presented a litany of promises and apologies on behalf of Dow and Union Carbide, the latter of which under the “plan” would be liquidated and the proceeds given to the disaster victims. He also offered free access to the safety records of any Dow product to “any interested researcher.” The hoax went off perfectly, without BBC reporters ever suspecting they had been pranked.

Then Dow, learning of the broadcast, demanded equal time on BBC World in order to retract “Finisterra’s” many promises on behalf of the company. This put Dow in the odd position of being forced to tell the truth: they were not offering medical expenses for the many people they had injured, they were not really taking responsibility for the deaths and sickness, their files would not be opened, they were not going to remediate the disaster site, and so on.

It’s what the Yes Men call identity correction, a kind of corporate identity theft in order to fix the public record or establish or reveal the truth. “These things that are not presenting themselves honestly or that hide something about their nature that’s really scary, we want to bring that out, we want to show that and demonstrate that,” Yes Man Igor Vamos explained in a documentary.

The two were also behind the Barbie Liberation Organization (BLO) prank several years ago, wherein the digital voice boxes in Barbie dolls and GI Joes were switched, and the dolls returned to store shelves right before Christmas. Newly unwrapped GI Joes were talking about new outfits and keeping house, and Barbie dolls were saying things like “Dead men tell no lies.” The prank made world news, raising consciousness of gender issues, sexism and programming kids for violence.

In one of their most graphically outrageous stunts, they got listed on the bill at a WTO-sponsored textile manufacturers conference in Finland, purportedly as WTO representatives. The presentation before a room full of highly educated sweatshop owners proposed that the Civil War had been unnecessary and that traditional slavery would have been “sorted out by the market” and eventually modernized into something more efficient than an “involuntarily imported workforce.” Then Servin (using the alias Unruh Hank Hardy) said he was going to demonstrate technology that you could use to remotely supervise workers in your factories around the world. This was a “managers’ leisure suit,” which he wore beneath a breakaway business suit designed with Velcro releases. (The ensemble took several months to design and create.)

His business suit was pulled off in a single tug, and he was suddenly standing in a shiny gold leotard. A room full of textile manufacturers did not miss the tribute to their industry. Then he pulled a rip cord and an inflatable three-foot long phallus emerged from the suit, at the end of which was a “video monitor” supposedly used to watch progress in remote factories and stay in contact with one’s business associates around the world.

Some people laughed nervously — but most of the audience watched in earnest as he pranced around in front of the lecture hall in gold tights explaining that he could observe his workers through a TV at the end of a giant erect penis. They finished the presentation, they were thanked, hands shaken, and (as there were no questions from the audience) they left.

When we ask ourselves how it’s possible that someone who cannot speak coherently is president of the United States; how he got away with rigging two elections with nary a peep from the public; how the world fell for the fake WMDs in Iraq; how we have a vice president who recently said his office is not part of the executive branch; why the Democrats don’t seem to get anything done; why people think it’s a brilliant idea that we invade Iran; or how for that matter Borat gets away with it — the Yes Men make it perfectly clear: hardly anyone is paying attention.

Flag, 1958, by Jasper Johns.

Solstice Cluster: So Far So Good

Dear Friend and Reader:

A FEW weeks ago I published my report on Spider medicine and the solstice cluster. I’ve never mentioned this, but I’m someone who loves road signs. I am always grateful to the people who put up those yellow diamond shaped indicators of curves, deer crossing and slippery when wet and for that matter Breakfast Ahead. I am sure that most people ignore them, but they prevent accidents, and they work on the subconscious level even if the thinking mind isn’t paying attention.

Eric Francis. Photo by
Danielle Voirin

This is a little how transits (astrological events) work. Some people use the transits for prediction, which I try to avoid as much as possible. There is a difference between saying that the road curves to the left ahead, and saying that the road curves ahead and you’re going to slam into a tree. Why not do a good job on the first part and skip the second part? The thing with transits is that they represent energy points with creative potential, yet where there is paint, you always have the potential to spill it. So transit reporting I think needs to take the “handle with care” approach and say “this is what you can create,” rather than say what will happen.

(My theory on how predictions work is that they are a creative act between the astrology, the astrologer and the client or reader. They are literally self-fulfilling prophecies, so we have to watch what we predict and why we predict it. You know?)

What DID happen in world affairs was a terrorism scare in the UK on the eve of the Full Moon (I did actually predict that, it was a no-brainer, I did not think anybody would get hurt, and the UK seems to be going into autopilot mode these days) — and then Bush basically pardoned Scooter Libby (which I have not dived into this week, Mercury is too retrograde but there is good stuff at Political Waves and this Tom Toles cartoon says it all).

The remaining bit of the solstice cluster is Mercury stationing direct this week. We are now in the Mercury storm phase, i.e., Mercury is slow and about to change directions, which is a little world of its own. This is the time not make dumb mistakes: don’t leave your laptop in a cab or your iPod in a hot car. Keep track of your wallet and keep spending down to a dull roar. Wait a week to sign on the new addition for your house. You don’t need most stuff (I’ve been doing a little study on how little of what I buy I actually need, particularly as I go from city to city shipping stuff back to my father’s house and leaving other stuff behind to drop weight in my suitcase).

The Mercury station at 2 degrees, 28 minutes Cancer is overnight from July 9 to 10 (Monday to Tuesday). Mercury itself is in pretty good shape, in Cancer on the Aries Point, trine the nodes and about to trine Uranus and Pallas; if you have something meaningful to say, when Mercury is slow and powerful is often a good time to say it but be mindful that feelings are involved and your story may change overnight. We probably will see some unusual news early next week with the Aries Point involvement. Mercury stations have for a long time had that feeling of the truth coming out, like they shake it loose. Those early degrees of Cancer are all mixed up in the 9/11 scandals, so keep your antennae up.

Personally, to me the trip backwards through Cancer has been a long essay in “how do I really feel?” and a touch of how did I really feel and how do I feel now?

In an upcoming edition that theme will continue — I’ll cover the soon-to-be retrograde of Venus and the slightly less soon-to-be but still worth thinking about retrograde of Mars. Both of those sequences are fairly significant themes in the Spiral Door annual write-ups for 2007 (everyone here has access — just use your Planet Waves Weekly log and pass) and they are covered in detail in the Spiral Door almanac.

For now, hang loose, and it’s good to be with you. Welcome to all the new arrivals.

Yours & truly,
Eric Francis




Weekly Horoscope for Friday, July 6, 2007, #670 – By ERIC FRANCIS

Aries (March 20-April 19)
There are some things in this life that we must pursue, and others we must become. It may be that what distinguishes the two is a sense of lack; where that is present, we must become something within ourselves. Where desire or ambition are at work, we may be able to pursue or aspire outwardly with real success. Keep your inner focus over the next few days, because you will need to make a meaningful distinction. You may be inclined to chase after something that can only be attained inside yourself, and at the core of that impulse is a feeling you need to be aware of. Follow it in and see where you’re led. You don’t need any “thing” — you need to write the ending to an old story, and resolve a feeling that has eluded you for a long time.

Taurus (April 19-May 20)
You are a different person than you were one week ago. You may be wondering how such a profound change is possible in such a short time, but we begin life with such a metaphor of squeezing ourselves from one world to another. The series of rebirths that you are now going through may indeed reveal something about the circumstances around your physical birth and early childhood. Be on the lookout for feelings or mental images bubbling up that give a clue to what you experienced, and the impact it had on you. Whatever you discover will, among other things, provoke you to be more attentive to the meaning of your creative process, the meaning of love, and the beautiful place where the two intersect deeply.

Gemini (May 20-June 21)
Mercury is about to wrap up its retrograde in your neighboring sign Cancer, and this change signifies a deep awakening to a fact about yourself that you have been missing. Mercury stations (that is, changes in direction) often come with the truth morphing into existence. Yet you can wonder how exactly you missed it. On one level, you will discover something that shifts your relationship to money. Yet this is fundamentally an emotional revelation, and it promises to ripple out in many directions. What seems to be a change of opinion about yourself is in truth releasing a very old feeling of lack that was in effect choking your ability to feel like you’re a person worthy of freedom.

Cancer (June 21-July 22)
You seem to be under some kind of stress regarding a decision. When that feeling passes and the nature of the decision appears as clear and sensible as it actually is, you’ll wonder why you put yourself through any unnecessary mental gyrations. The planets are quite literally with you right now; can you feel them? Of course, for the moment, you need to look and feel within for the most relevant information, which you could say is the whole point of this phase of your life: cultivating a new depth of introspection even for one born under the sign of the crab. This may seem like generic advice; it is not. There is something currently hidden, of profound importance, that you are poised to learn about yourself, and with this information you will design a new relationship to the world, your world, and the people in it.

Leo (July 22-Aug. 23)
Though you always seem to be entering new territory where a particular personal growth process is concerned, the most difficult phase is over. What you will be doing over the next couple of months amounts to a review, yet the new data you encounter during the course of Venus retrograde will help set several important new patterns in your life. Let’s put it this way. What was always important to you will become even more meaningful. What you’ve always known was trivial but could not bear to give up will seem too ridiculous to bother with. This is a roundabout way of saying that if you’ve been stuck for a while, you are coming unstuck. In the good way.

Virgo (Aug. 23-Sep. 22)
You still seem to be making up your mind about a friend, though they are a lot more certain about you. You can learn something about yourself from their assurance, which in particular is to say that analysis is not always the best way to determine your personal truth. You like to play this little game, where you know something in your gut; then you work the mathematics six ways from Christmas, then, whatever your brain tells you, you go with your gut. You could do this wasting a lot less energy, time and anxiety, and someone you love is setting an excellent example right about now.

Libra (Sep. 22-Oct. 23)
You’ve seen how important perception is: both your own and those of the people who notice you. Commitment is not a matter of image, however. Indeed, once all the projections are called in and everyone takes full responsibility for what they see and how they feel, only then is commitment possible. Seeing commitment occurs on a different level than seeing what people show off. Recent events seem to have demonstrated all of this, but more than anything I trust you’re figuring out that there are real benefits to persisting with something that is custom tailored to your creative gifts and community vision. Follow those clues. You have made an investment and have yet to experience the best results.

Scorpio (Oct. 23-Nov. 22)
Opinions of certain individuals are clouded not only by their emotions but by perceptions of the past that they are dragging around. The truth will come out soon enough, and yet you may be concerned that when it does, it will have a harsh or unforgiving quality. I suggest you trust that others are close enough to their pain and learning enough about their deepest personal needs that they’ll bring some compassion to the equation. You can do your part by seeing yourself in them and by relating your own experiences that demonstrate you know where they’re coming from. You do — but it may not be so obvious.

Sagittarius (Nov. 22-Dec. 22)
Okay, your faith has been tested. It’s not always so easy being the fountain of optimism that endows your reputation; anyway, it’s not always true. However, you need to give someone credit for going to such great lengths to understand their own feelings, and be honest about them. The kinds of things that are now up for discussion typically get very little airplay, or none at all. Drink this moment like the pure water that it is. Allow all the feelings that are involved. There is sometimes a price to pay for honesty, and there are rewards that can only come from being upfront and allowing others the space to do so.

Capricorn (Dec. 22-Jan. 20)
You are not in such a tight spot after all. Nor are your practical concerns stepping on the imagination of someone close to you. You are in fact providing a combination of necessary structure, and inspiration. You may not see the effects of your influences for a little while, but one thing I can tell you is that someone close to you is more concerned with their own situation than with yours; and they appear ready to begin a new chapter of your story together. In one sense, the relationship has gone as far as it could go in one particular direction; you have seen all the differences that exist. Now you get to explore the common ground, if you remember vividly that it’s there.

Aquarius (Jan. 20-Feb. 19)
Reassurance has not come in quite the form you expected, but it has arrived and it’s here to stay. There is more news to come, in both personal and professional relationships, and the sometimes strange territory where they meet. It’s true that mixing personal involvement with work, or daring to allow a relationship to take on a purpose, are considered risky by many people, and often threaten to have sloppy results if things go wrong. The actual problem is people having no real sense of what others are thinking and feeling, and not bothering to ask. I suggest you take this opportunity to reveal yourself, and to make any long-overdue inquiries that could give you an excellent change of perspective.

Pisces (Feb. 19-March 20)
You are finding out how much pressure you were under. Pressure is often one of those invisible factors that you don’t see or feel till it starts to go away. So much of what you’ve been through the past couple of years (of the Saturn-Neptune era) has been completely antithetical to your nature, that is, something other than you. Yet we get to know ourselves through encountering our opposites. Astrology is largely a study in polarities. Though the Saturn-Neptune opposition is waving away fast, what remains is Neptune in Aquarius. You can use what you learned in these past two years of your life to be inventive, rebellious, science-minded and most of all, as original as you really are.

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