Q&A with culture jamming activist Jeff Walburn of 'The Yes Men'

14 October 2019 - 11:10 By Carla Lever
Reclaim the City activists march to the Civic Centre in Cape Town to protest against Mayor Dan Plato's housing policies.
Reclaim the City activists march to the Civic Centre in Cape Town to protest against Mayor Dan Plato's housing policies.
Image: Jeff Walburn

Nal’ibali Column 2 Term 4 2019

Welcome to SA, we’re thrilled to have you here. Can you start by explaining what “culture jamming” is?

I suppose it’s the practice of subverting or disrupting the dominant media culture using a variety of creative activism tactics, in so doing revealing them to be oppressive and disturbing. We tend to use the biases in those systems against themselves to illuminate how crummy they are, such as the corporate world’s willingness to trust a white man in a suit, regardless of how ill-fitting and sweat-stained it is.

What inspired you to come to SA and work with land justice activist organisation Reclaim the City

We met several organisers of Reclaim the City and were completely blown away by the truly revolutionary work they are doing alongside hundreds of occupiers, right in the heart of power in Cape Town. They were down to deploy a slightly different sort of action — posing not as themselves this time, but as their opponents. For us it was a chance to support them and to learn from them.

Can you tell us a little about the event you collaborated on in Cape Town?

Reclaim the City activists formed a “Zombie Nat” rally. Participants were made up to look like old National Party ghouls, resurrected back from the dead. They stumble-marched to the Civic Centre to celebrate Cape Town Mayor Dan Plato and his committee members, whose housing policies are only superficially different from those of the National Party during apartheid. Together, the zombie mob demonstrated that some bad ideas in this country refuse to die. Accepting that racial and economic segregation is normal and acceptable is definitely an idea that belongs in the grave.

Political and cultural sensibilities are often different around the world. Were there any surprises or challenges using your methods in a South African context?  

These actually weren’t our methods, really — we collaborated on the action, but all of it grew out of the creative energies of hundreds of people in these communities. We may have helped them take a slightly different angle of approach, but everything about this project was theirs. We have been so moved and excited by the creativity and energy South African activists have. While knowing that these issues are surely no laughing matter, they collectively found ways to use dark, even painful humour as a way to get at dark, painful truths.

People often say that political power is all about “controlling the narrative”. You seize power by disrupting narratives, often with powerful and playful storytelling of your own. Why are stories so powerful? 

Because we are social animals who use stories to co-operate. We organise ourselves around shared narratives, for better and worse. We might like to think we make rational decisions in a vacuum, but we most often make decisions based on the fundamental stories we believe. I think that is the real work: weaving stories that enable organising to fundamentally change people’s material lives. Stories are part of systems that suppress people’s wellbeing, and they are also part of subverting them.

What have been some of your favourite moments from previous activist interventions?

There are surprising responses from some US targets, such as the interruption by a real Chamber of Commerce spokesperson during our announcement of their reversal on climate change or, more recently, BlackRock’s CEO releasing his annual letter just hours after our hoax version, enabling our more desirable policy changes to lead coverage of his own. But honestly, my favourite part is seeing lots of people collaborate on something fun and hopeful and hilarious, while grappling with such weighty issues — as happened recently in Cape Town.

You have many different kinds of creative tactics in your activism arsenal. How do you choose what will be the most effective for each situation? 

Through collaboration with the activists who are doing the long-term organising work, who know the issues, players and goals better than we do.

There’s a perception that politics is a very serious issue. How can humour be a powerful and surprising weapon in combating political power?

Because we’re emotional, story-organising creatures, we feel things more than we think them. So humour, just like fear, disgust or hope, speaks a language more human and accessible than talking points, think pieces, and theses. Humour is also a survival mechanism. Shared laughter, just like shared hope, is necessary for empathy and action.

What advice do you have for our local activists who might want to learn from your creative tactics?

Try not to be too inhibited and afraid — that’s what they want. Go and take creative action, you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised by how much you can do with minimal resources.

Where can people go to learn more and keep up with your activities?

www.theyesmen.org

Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success. For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign or to access stories in a range of SA languages, visit www.nalibali.org.


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