For my project I decided to imitate a hoax from Andy Bicklebaum and Mike Bonanno’s The Yes Men Fix the World. I wanted to become a ‘Yes Woman’ of sorts. I used the hoax as platform for asking administration questions that I felt have gone unanswered and that students deserved having an answer to. I knew that my prank would have to be on a much smaller scale than one attempted by the Yes Men and would not address such profound incidents. With that being said, I want to ensure my audience that I understand that the topics I used in replicating the Yes Men hoax are not of the same caliber of importance or sensitivity as the ones used in the film. The topics addressed are those of importance to college students at the University of Rochester. In The Yes Men Fix the World the men recreate their own version of The New York Times with fake headlines declaring statements like “Iraq War Ends”, “Patriot Act Repealed” and “United Nations Unanimously Passes Weapons Ban”.I created a flyer that addressed three things that student body wished would happen on campus:
“Norovirus has been eliminated!”
“Free Mel Burgers To Celebrate Re-Opening of the Mel!”
“Parking tickets reduced to $10!”
I felt that each of these issues were topics of conversation that connected the entire student body in some aspect. I wanted to see how the university reacted to my hoax and if it generated any unrest within the student body. My hoax was set to address transparency/visibility of university policies, corporate power and communication media.Unlike the Yes Men, I did not have a large group of people to hand out the flyer of 10,000 copies to post however what I did have was one friend, 100 copies of my flyer, some tape and an open mind.
When was the last time that I had resorted to posting an announcement on bulletin boards? I was relying on the already constructed environments around me to provide me a space for which I could distribute information. I was not interacting with any Internet platform or email chain to get my message across but a pre-constructed environment. When I really thought about it I came to the realization that most information I obtain or send out into the world, is mediated by the use of my cell phone. Usually by text, email, or Facebook, I send and receive updates about the world around me without having to move my finger more than a few centimeters. My usual communication with the outside world is dematerialized to the extent that the information I am absorbing is not tangible, it just absorbed to become a part of my own hallucination. Although my flyers were not back to traditional technologies of communication, moving backwards to a modern technology of communication forced me to reconnect with the physical spaces around me (bulletin boards) that are a type of ‘modern’ platform for information distribution and storage.
I posted the flyers in around the floor that I live on in Wilder Tour, every floor’s bulletin board in Wilder, both elevator’s in Wilder, the laundry room door of Wilder, a stack was placed on top of the campus times in Wilder, each floor of Anderson, the bulletin board in Anderson, main lounge in Anderson, each floor of O’brien, both elevator’s of O’brien, each elevator in all of Riverview Apartments, the laundry room doors and stairwell doors. As I posted my flyers I paused and watched students pass by flyers with their heads buried in their phones, scrolling through cyberspace and being more interested and effected by what was going on “there” then what was right in front of them. It was almost frustrating to an extent to watch people I wanted to react to something to be too blinded by their phones to not even glance and this was not even a real announcement. I assume that there is a great deal of information that is posted on doors and bulletin boards that must go unnoticed each semester simply because its posted in spaces that eyes no longer have the time to linger on. The idea even of “lingering” is outdated. We constantly seek to be absorbed into something bigger than ourselves and like the characters of Don DeLillo’s White Noise want to evade the things we are the most scared of: being alone and death.
I decided to extend my experiment a bit further and not use my car when I went to flyer Riverview. I walked down the sidewalk with my bag of flyers and did not use my phone to distract myself from what I was experiencing, my goal was to be “present” in the present, something that has become harder and harder for people. Seeing cars drive by me at times it felt as if somehow I was not experiencing the same degree of sophistication or somehow I was lesser by not being trapped in a accelerating box, annihilating time and space around me and making it as if my ride never happened. If I would of had my phone open my mind would have been subject to what Rebecca Solnit calls “sacrificing the near to gain the far”. Except our culture has transformed and accelerated her idea to not just overcoming the local but overcoming the far as well. You can see globalization with the swipe of a fingertip on a metal device. I was anxious on my walk and felt as if Riverview was in another state. I was having a physical reaction to my “being in the present” because I was not experiencing any form of mobility except that of my own two feet. Usually even my mind would be mobile, accessing the depths of the far to search for some sort of wonder or excitement that is no longer present in the local.
I walked over the bridge and saw the river, the skyline and the sunset that was about to take over the sky. I called Rochester, New York home but my sense of place was far from understood. I know close to nothing about what came before this campus, bridge, pavement I walked on and the nature that surrounded me was just that “nature”: something that was “other” and that I got to experience only when I got off campus, what Edward Burtynsky called a “manufactured landscape”. The naturally aesthetically pleasing scenery the sunset gave me was break from the industrialized life I lead in the modern world.
Reality of Hoax:
At first I didn’t get a lot of reactions because apparently the flyers seemed “too real”. This was not something I originally thought would happen when I was creating the flyers. I wanted a certain degree of believability but I may have overestimated my fellow student body’s ability to recognize a prank. I believe that a large aspect of the lack of reaction is our current society’s (especially college students) overexposure to information. If someone’s eyes happen to look up from their technology and see the flyer it is possible that the image and words on the sheet of paper could be lost in the void of information crammed into their brain. Perhaps for some the announcements had just been reconfigured into more white noise, if a toxic cloud couldn’t derail the mediated train of thought of Heinrich or Steffie in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, how could I expect the capturing of Norovirus to grab the attention of my fellow classmates?
During my flyering exhibition I spent some time gazing at all of the other announcements posted on the bulletin boards and walls. It looked messy. Not sleek or organized like my newsfeed announcements or email subject lines, it was as if the code I was reading did not quite register at first. I was seeing the entirety of the interface, not the constructed reality I was used to. The constructed reality that only display’s what is “user friendly” and easy on the mind. Analog announcements such as my flyer do not register the same way as digital ones do. The Yes Men Fix the World was released in 2009. Seven years have passed since their fake New York Times had been publicized and in that time our society become more reliant on digital interfaces relaying information to them. In that time we have become passive consumers of information because we have a false belief that more information will always mean “better”. I think that if the Yes Men attempted to do the hoax again today, even with a publication as well known as The New York times, I do not believe they would have made as large of a splash as they did in 2009. At the time mass communication was centered around publications like The New York Times and the public had not yet transitioned themselves to being a digital interface dominated society. Now there are faster streams of information and news that constantly update and a hoax or scam can be exploited in seconds. Fake headlines of that caliber could be fact checked instantly by opening a single app on a phone or even better yet, asking Siri to check for you, because now we have digital versions of our mind and body and they can surf the web faster than your physical body can.
Posting 100 flyers is not mass media and not how our current society communicates. It is local and not at the disposal to be consumed by a thousand people by the click of a button. It was almost comical to me when I recognized that as I stood and stared at the wall of postings, I was romanticizing what it used to be like when my life was not so mediated and over-informed.
You’ve been punked:
I chose to include university parking as a topic on my flyer because it is something that connects many students on campus due to how expensive it is to have a car here. My flyer exclaimed that tickets were no longer a flat rate of $40 and had dropped to $10. Last year ticket prices surged from $20 to $40 so on top of an almost $500 parking pass fee, many students are faced with the reality of it being impossible to bring a vehicle to school. When I called parking and asked about a flyer I had seen announcing tickets were no longer $40 I was put on hold for eight minutes until finally given the answer that they did not “think” the announcement came from their office. When I inquired about why in fact the price of tickets had surged to $40 in the first place this year, I was put on hold again, disconnected, on hold for two more minutes, and then finally given the answer of “I cannot speak to why it happened but it may have to do with us wanting to be charging the same fee’s as the city of Rochester parking enforcement, its been this way since last July, here is my supervisor’s number”. It seemed like a simple question to me and something that I know affected a great deal of students on campus, but obviously there was more to it. Money. Why was the corporation our parents spend ridiculous amounts of money on not able to give straightforward answers about topics that don’t even concern education? University Parking is one of the biggest moneymakers on campus and they intend for it to stay that way.
I have struggled with the transparency of the school in terms of dining related services for some time. From lack of vegetarian options on campus to recycling bins having the wrong size lids, I have always felt bitter towards what the school claims they do and what the reality is. At a progressive school that claims to be eco-forward in many aspects, I wanted to see the truth behind a few of the ways U of R claims to be “green”. We learned from Allison Carruth how sustainability has been transformed into a brand asset and that being “green” is good for PR. new black. It has the ability to mark something up as good enough to not have to worry or wonder about the consequences of using it are. With that being said, I wondered if my beloved university was masking greed as progress and fooling both prospective and current students with their eco-friendly ways, or if there was a truth at the center of it all. Similarly to findings in Karen Tei Yamashita’s Through the Arc of the Rain Forsest and Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke, the good of the people or the land was not being considered as what mattered most. Media and brand image is transforming our environment into a place where negative effects go unseen and therefore make them easier to “deal with”.
I reached out to Cam Schauf who is Director of Campus Dining Services and asked if it would be possible to meet so I could ask him a few questions about a final project. He was the only person I spoke to that met me face to face and had a good old-fashioned, sit down conversation. The last time I had an unmediated conversation with a faculty member where two bodies agreed to psychically meet at a certain location to speak was with Professor Nadir before the midterm. However before that, all questions or clarification I needed happened in my Gmail inbox. Having a human being in front of me that I could interact with and see blink or move in his chair gave the conversation a wholesome feeling of sorts. I couldn’t delete or edit each statement I made and neither could he. However, during the meeting I was typing his answers out on my computer trying to overcome my body’s limits for how hast I could write on a piece of paper and by having the computer open, I was connected to any notification that could pop onto my screen. Why does this matter? Because even during a sense of wonder about meeting Cam face to face, technology was still taking me out of the here and now.
My first question for Cam was if The Mel restaurant was actually reopening (continuing my hoax streak). He chuckled and said he had some flyers announcing such (internally I rejoiced) however he explained that we will never go back to a service based dining hall due to its expense. It was clear in my flyering hoax that the most excitement came from the announcement of said restaurants new opening so hearing this from Cam justified the flyer as being “too good to be true” just like Yes Men’s newspaper. My following questions were directed at the concerns of the university’s ability to be sustainable and ecofriendly: Why are receipts at Hillside still necessary? Why is there only one place to recycle trash bags? Why cant most recyclable plastics fit into the recycling bin? Answers to this type of question usually included the statement “we are examining our options” or “next year we will look to continue..”. The answers to these questions all revolved around money, either we didn’t have enough to make it happen or the university did not want to loose any more in adapting to ways. Again, I saw that the university wanted to chalk up their “progress” as good enough so mask the fact that they were just not ready to give up more money to do the right thing.
The last section of my fake flyer was used to stir up excitement over the end of the everlasting Norovirus that captured the minds and bodies (literally) of the majority of the senior body. I announced that it had been “captured” and it no longer poised a threat to the university. When I got caught the virus and was sent to the ER, I called Dr. Manchester, Director of UHS the following morning because I was confused as to what had happened and if the murmurs of it being Norovius were true. His response? “It is probably not Norovirus, there are no traces that it came from the school food or environment and by this point you are probably no longer contagious”. Well the outbreak began and somehow now the school had to answer all of the questions it didn’t really want to a few days prior. Every day for almost a month now, we have received “Communications Updates” from Dr. Manchester regarding how many students the virus had infected, how many people reported new symptoms, what to do if we begin to feel ill, and how to protect ourselves from getting it all together. The university wanted to ensure that it looked like it was in constant ~communication~ with students and on top of the virus.
The media created such a buzz around the Norovirus soon the outbreak was trending on Facebook, a USA Today Article was written, a satire article was written by The Odyssey and an entire Servpro team was hired to sanitize the school. Servpro’s mantra is “Like It Never Even Happened” meaning that after they come to clean up the mess, we can forget that our lives were ever impacted by a natural event and we can continue on living our fast-paced, ultra-mediated lives.
About a week and a half into receiving “Communications Updates” about Noro, I wanted to see how someone who was having to risk their safety every day to clean and sanitize really felt about the situation. At this point, Servpro was on campus with men in hazmat suits wandering around the hallways spraying who knows what on everything students could possibly infect. I asked Devon, the man who cleans our suite bathrooms every Tuesday morning, how he felt about all the people getting sick on campus he told me that the university had just given the cleaning staff masks and extra protection only two days ago. This stunted me. The week after I was hospitalized for Noro I wouldn’t touch anyone or anything without a 10 foot stick and plastic gloves and Devon was having to clean without any added protection at all? We hired Servpro and reportedly spent an estimated $30,000 per day on cleaning and supplies but a week after Noro hit campus and Servpro arrived, we finally told our facilities and cleaning staff (barfblog)?
Part of the communications emails read as follows:
” Because the Norovirus particles can live on surfaces for weeks, the most effective protection against becoming infected is proper and frequent handwashing. Here are the CDC guidelines on handwashing: http://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/when-how-handwashing.html”
and in a more recent email:
“ Continue with frequent hand washing using soap and water. This is the best way to avoid infection. No hand sanitizer is effective against Norovirus”
The school called for hand washing using soap and water over and over again. The problem? I live in a building where neither soap or paper towels is given to us. So even during a virus out break that cost estimated $30,000 a day, many students were left to fend for themselves when trying to abide by precautionary steps to avoid getting sick. Why you may ask? Money.
After calling Residential Life and trying to get someone to answer my question of why we weren’t supplied these necessities, I was told that she was unable to make a statement about that and was not entirely sure. I left my name and number and when her supervisor called me back I finally got the answer of “Well its not in the budget to do so”. Interesting.
I called UHS to ask if they had heard the news of the “captured noro” and whether or not it was true. The woman on the line paused and then put me on hold to find someone who had the answer. WHAT! How is it possible that someone working in the UHS building in the same area that these “Communications” emails were being sent from, did not know that I was pulling her leg? A disgruntled nurse came on the line and read to me, verbatim, the most recent email that had been sent to us. When she got to the part about washing hands I stopped her and told her that I live in a building where soap is not given to us. There was a long pause on the phone and she said she had no idea that there were buildings such as mine and offered me a bottle of the soap they had inside the UHS building. So our healthcare professionals had no idea that they are calling for their students to do something that in fact, they cannot do without expending their own money and resources.
Reactions and Conclusion:
For some reason my movie is either too long to upload to youtube or to link the file here. In closing, my hoax provided me with great insight into how transparent a few of our university policies are. It also gave me a great appreciation for the work done to make Yes Men Fix The World. I was asking community based questions and barely getting any answers, they were addressing some of the largest companies that have made the biggest splashes on humanity and the environment. I believe that if would have taken to the internet with my hoax, it would of made a lot more of an impact on campus and the reactions would of been greater. However it was interesting to find that most of the reactions that I got from posting an analog announcement, came from mobile devices and various applications such as GroupMe and Snapchat. This just solidifies my argument that mass media and mass communication is how our current society knows how to communicate. We are programed to want to absorb the information from coded platforms that do not confuse us or make us think about that information is being left out. I thoroughly enjoyed this project and it evoked a greater, tangible, idea of how information is spread through our constantly connected and communicating society.
Cam Schauf, Director of Campus Dining Services and Auxiliary Operations. Co-chair, University Council on Sustainability
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