Activist and filmmaker Jacques Servin talks about shoplifting in airports.
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Jacques Servin is co-founder of the Yes Men, an activist filmmaking collective that’s plagued dozens of entities including Exxon, Shell, the NRA, and the US Department of Energy. In the process, he’s co-written, co-directed, and co-starred in three award-winning documentaries, with a fourth expected this fall. Servin has recently co-launched the Yes School, which teaches writers, theatre people, and artists how to strategically bring creativity to ongoing activist campaigns; this spring, “students” are working with groups in Tanzania, Belfast, Istanbul, Toronto, and Budapest that oppose housing financialization and other forms of land theft. Servin has also published dozens of articles in all sorts of magazines, as well as two collections of short stories.
NEIL GOLDBERG: I am sitting in the apartment of my dear, very long term, long term friend. It sounds like a disease.
JACQUES SERVIN: I’m sorry, I’m a disease.
NEIL: No, you’re the best disease. You’re, you’re, you’re the kind of chronic, you’re the kind of chronic, I like.
JACQUES: That is so romantic.
NEIL: Hello, I’m Neil Goldberg and this is She’s a Talker..
NEIL: Today, I’ll be talking to activist writer and filmmaker Jacques Servin. If this is your first time listening, here’s the premise of the podcast. I’m a visual artist and for the past million or so years have been jotting down thoughts, observations, reflections on index cards. I’ve got thousands of them. I originally wrote the cards just for me or maybe to use in future art projects, but in, She’s a Talker, I’m using them as prompts for conversations with some of my favorite artists, writers, performers, and beyond. These days, the cards often start as recordings I make into my phone here and there over the course of the day. Each episode I start with some recent ones. Here they are.
I always feel proud of doing the math of calling something 19th century rather than 1800’s .
Weird that sun can shine into an apartment.
The way people talk when they’re trying not to wake you in the other room.
I’m so excited to have as my guest, my dear friend and fellow lower East sider Jacques Servin. Jacques is one of the two founding members of the activist group, ‘The Yes Men’, who take a unique, really powerful and subversive approach to political action by basically impersonating officials from corporations and government agencies and taking public positions on their behalf.
He’ll explain more in our interview, which took place just after the new year in the apartment complex where we both live.
JACQUES: Hi, Neil.
NEIL: do you remember, we met around the same time that the original, she’s a talker, was being filmed. Do you remember that?
JACQUES: Of course. I remember I wrote a short story called, ‘She’s a Talker.’
NEIL: Oh, that’s right.
NEIL: Shock. In addition to being a perpetrator of corporate identity theft is also a writer whose writing. I fell in love with way back in 1993 and you wrote a story called, ‘She’s a Talker’ in one of your two, first books.
JACQUES: Yup. Yup. Yeah, I remember it really well.
NEIL: So for many years you were principally involved in the ‘Yes Men’.
What would be the elevator pitch? Just for our listeners of what the ‘Yes Men’ do?
JACQUES: Oh God. Okay. The ‘Yes Men’ are best known for impersonating captains of industry and representing them at conferences and on television and so on. Giving versions of what those people should say. Or doing what has been called identity correction in civic identity theft, where you kind of like represent them as as they actually are.
NEIL: Right. I remember a signature action of yours was impersonating someone from Dow Chemical going on BBC and announcing that at long last out chemical was going to be compensating the people of Bo Paul for that disaster there. And it had this implication for Dow Chemical stock.
JACQUES: Yeah. They said it was seen by 350 million people, which is the audience of that show. BBC world.
NEIL: Same audience as She’s a Talker.
JACQUES: Yeah, exactly. And but yeah, I ended up on, on BBC making this announcement on behalf of Dow chemical, spending $10 billion, I think, on compensating the survivors all this great stuff. Yeah. And yeah, Dow stock tank to immediately, I mean 4%
NEIL: It was surreal.
JACQUES: In that in their case it meant $2 billion. I think these days, my elevator pitch, which I’m refining, is I work with activist groups around the world to help them be more creative in their work.
NEIL: Well, I love it. That’s a real elevator elevator pitch.
JACQUES: Yeah, but there’s a second part of it too. That’s equally elevator, but another elevator, which is, and I’m training people to do that also.
NEIL: So like, so you’re both helping and training people to help.
NEIL: You’re training people to do the job that you’re currently doing? Yes. Okay. And what does that mean to, what does the first part mean?
JACQUES: It’s like we went to South Africa in September and worked with like 800 squatters. It’s kind of amazing. They reached out to us long story, but they
NEIL: were speaking to the Yes Men’?
JACQUES: The ‘Yes Men’. And they wanted to kind of do something. ‘Yes Men-ish’ around their issue, which is existence. Like they. Have a right to be there under the South African constitution. Everybody has a right to housing, but typically the government, if you demand your right, they’ll give you some corrugated iron and send you 30 miles outside the city.
Just like under apartheid, where they have these like racial settlements. Now it’s economic. Basically the same apartheid policies are being replicated for economic reasons. Big surprise, and. So these people basically have squatted this on these two medical places that were empty, that are located in the most pricey real estate in Cape Town. And, and they’ve got a fully functioning society, not perfect.
NEIL: Versus all those other perfect societies.
NEIL: Let’s be realistic,
JACQUES: you know? But yeah, but anything that goes wrong and it’s like says, you know, see, they can’t do it. And you know, in like, they do amazing stuff already, but, but it doesn’t get attention because everybody’s used to it.
So they wanted to. Try to think of something that people weren’t used to that would surprise people that would get across these ideas. And they came up with the idea of a Zombie March. So it’s like, you know, apartheid ideas back from the dead. So the za, they all dressed up as zombies and all the kids, especially dressed up as zombies and they had zombie dance offs and zombie, you know, all this, these crazy activities for a week, getting ready for the Zombie March.
Which were in themselves, a big point, you know, like the education and the connection and all that. And then they did this big March on the city, building. It was all super fun and it got front page news. There was tons of press. they got a new metaphor. Zombie embodying the should be dead ideas that were not dead
NEIL: of apartheid
JACQUES: of apartheid, zombie ideas.
NEIL: Ah, so Jacques. Your parents were, remind me your parents’ names.
JACQUES: Henry and Genevieve.
NEIL: Okay. So what would in turn Henry and then Genevieve, how might they describe what it is you do to their
JACQUES: friends? I think they would say he makes movies or when I made movies,
NEIL: cause the Yes Men made movies.
JACQUES: We made movies, we made three movies.
So I think, I think they would say that they would say they make funny movies.
NEIL: Oh huh. I remember at some early point, your mom asked you something like, “Are you still making mischief?” Was that it?
JACQUES: Yeah. Yeah. She characterized, the first thing I did as mischief.
NEIL: So they’ve moved beyond just seeing what you do as mischief?
JACQUES: It was mischief at the time.
NEIL: So she was correct.
JACQUES: She was correct.
NEIL: Interesting. what is something you find yourself thinking about today?
JACQUES: You mean like bigger than me? Cause like
NEIL: Anything, what, what you happen to be thinking about today?
JACQUES: God, what was I thinking about? Like insofar I was thinking today, I was, I mean, one of the things I was doing was trying to, I did headstands. Our mutual friend, Joe , who’s a super adept, adept of Iyengar.
NEIL: Yes. Relatively.
JACQUES: Yeah. Showed me how to do headstands, which I used to do like 20 years ago, but that was a long time ago, and suddenly I was doing them again because the teacher wasn’t there. The real teacher just didn’t show up.
NEIL: And Joe led the class
JACQUES: No he led me and some other people kind of eavesdropped and did the same thing, but he, that’s
NEIL: That’s very advanced to have you do a headstand.
While he was just kinda like, filling in, you know. I remember back in, we’re, if we’re talking like 1991 at Jivamukti yoga center, when I had just really gotten deep into yoga and they had windows looking out onto second Avenue, I remember doing a headstand while it was snowing out. Oh my God.
And seeing the snow fall up. Oh my God. It was just so great.
JACQUES: That sounds amazing.
NEIL: That was a yoga turning point for me.
JACQUES: Oh my God.
NEIL: Shall we go to the cards?
JACQUES: Yeah, more cards. Didn’t we go to one?
NEIL: Now? These are, this is like the evergreen questions as it were. These are the questions I ask everyone. Now, these are bespoke cards that I’ve curated for you and only you.
JACQUES: Oh my God.
NEIL: So first card Jacques is actually something we came up with, or we found ourselves discussing together. First card is the way a couples bed feels, at a party. The way it kind of excludes you, you know? Oh, and the type of specific,
JACQUES: Oh God.
NEIL: Intimacy. I’ve seen a couple’s bed at a party
JACQUES: Covered with coats, usually
NEIL: That’s true. That’s true.
JACQUES: That always strikes me as weird. Like, Oh.
NEIL: Putting the coats on it.?
JACQUES: Yeah. It seems like a shame or something, or it’s like, yeah, there’s a little shame in it. You feel shame. No, I feel like there is shame in the offering of the bed for the coats. It’s like, you know, it’s like a way of acknowledging the bed without highlighting the bed.
I t’s like, just put the things on it.
NEIL: Maybe that’s what it’s about though. Maybe it’s about kind of hiding. Literally and metaphorically. Yeah, the bad.
JACQUES: I think so. I think it’s like the bed is there and you got to use it. A bed is made to be used, but clearly they’re not going to have sex in front of everybody at most parties, so you put the coats on it to use it, you know, not obscenely or not, not embarrassingly. And, and, and there’s a little shame in that.
NEIL: So, yeah, no, I totally get it. It is almost like a Freudian right? Like, you know, we’re a Youngian, right? Like, so that we may have festivities in this room, we must cover the place where the act of union happens.
JACQUES: Yeah. It’s like all about covering up the bed.
NEIL: Yes. Yeah, totally. Totally. Totally, totally. funny. I, you know, I. Because it is like that bed is almost like throbbing. It throbs with this intimacy from which you are excluded.
NEIL: Maybe the jackets are effective in extinguishing. Right? ]
JACQUES: Because when the jackets are there, you’re just focused on the jackets and your own jacket probably.
NEIL: And yes. And will you be able to find it? You know,
JACQUES: And then when you go get it, I always have the thought like, are people gonna think I’m stealing things?
NEIL: Sometimes when I’m in a supermarket, and obviously this is like the product of like deep privilege. Like if I reach into my pockets, as I walk through an aisle, I think, Oh, is someone looking at a camera going to think I stole something?
JACQUES: Right. And sometimes you have. But maybe not you. I steal in airports. I never steal in supermarkets.
NEIL: What do you steal in airports?
JACQUES: Anything I want. It’s super easy to steal in airports.
JACQUES: Yeah. I almost always steal something.
NEIL: Wow! Have you ever been caught?
JACQUES: No. No. You can’t really be caught at airports. There’s no security. They’re not looking for that,
NEIL: Or their security is all riveted on something else. It’s like the ultimate, the real misdirection.
JACQUES: Yeah. Yeah. Right, There’s this like potential really bad thing, so you can do the minorly bad thing. and also I always have an alibi, so like, you know how the shops are always open and interconnected? I just like pick something up from one shop and walk to the cash register in another shop as if I think that’s where it is.
And then kind of like aimlessly wander off so I can always. Say, Oh, I, he, I did thought that was like, all right.
NEIL: She’s a Talker. Pro tip. How to shoplift.
JACQUES: Yeah. In airports.
NEIL: See, I feel judgmental of that. I do. I’m always looking for opportunities to feel judgment.
JACQUES: Yeah. No, I’m glad to provide that.
NEIL: You often do.
All right. Jacques, next card. Hypothesis – people who do torture, must actually be empathic in order to be effective.
JACQUES: Ooh, yes, of course. Look, that’s terrible. That’s dark. That’s good. Yeah. Yeah, of course. Otherwise it would be no fun.
NEIL: It wouldn’t be effective because you have to imagine what something would,
JACQUES: yeah, I think, I think so.
It’s like sex, right? You, you, you can’t really perform a good sexual act on somebody if you haven’t had it performed well on you. I mean, is that true?
NEIL: It may be true, but, but I think buried within that is the idea. I think you can’t perform a sex act well if you can’t inhabit someone else’s subjectivity based on, and that doesn’t necessarily have to come from having experienced it yourself, but from being able to like, you know, be in tuned with the cues that you’re getting and stuff like that, which is like torture. I mean, often when I’m getting a massage, which I don’t get a lot of, but when I do, I really love them.
But I often think, God, massage and torture are so related.
JACQUES: God, you’re so dark. It is not true
NEIL: because they both require a type of empathic or a type of knowing touch, right? To the extent that torture is physical versus psychological. and I guess with torture, what you have to do is at a certain point you have to cauterize or do something to that empathic connection that permits you to, or turn that empathic connection around to generate pleasure from the fact that you’re doing something to someone that you wouldn’t want done to yourself.
JACQUES: Do you have any other cards?
NEIL: Yes. Let’s move on. I have another card about core torture, but using Kindles read a sample feature of a book about torture. I found myself doing that. A question of torture.
JACQUES: Oh God,
NEIL: Read a sample.
JACQUES: Read a sample
NEIL: Jacques, next card, that part of every Holocaust museum where they acknowledged the folks who are not Jewish, who helped. What if we had the audacity not to include that?
JACQUES: Oh my God. First of all, as soon as you said the word words. The part of every Holocaust museum I had to burst out in laughter,
NEIL: Of course. Which is hilarious. Hilarious.
JACQUES: Yeah. What if you didn’t include that? What would that mean?
NEIL: I’m not advocating it. I’m proposing it as a thought experiment.
JACQUES: If you just didn’t bother, Oh my God, that would be so dark,
NEIL: Would it be dark?
JACQUES: I think it highlights the rest of the people who didn’t help, but it also like makes it a little less dark. It’s like not everybody was bad, you know, by and large they weren’t. Maybe, but that’s a different lesson, isn’t it?
NEIL: I think that there’s an element of internalized antisemitism in it. Like, I’m sorry that you needed to help us, or I don’t know what it is. I don’t know what it is.
JACQUES: I don’t see that
NEIL: That may be a bridge too far.
JACQUES: I don’t see that, but I do see it exceptionalizing and making people heroes, which is super interesting. Like I always think like blaming the CEOs of big companies is, is bullshit. Also, it’s like by the same token, it’s sorta like. You know, they’re not the problem there.
There are these bad people, but exceptionalizing them isn’t, isn’t where it’s at. It’s like, just like the exceptionally good people aren’t where it’s at. It’s great. They exist and the exceptionally bad people exist. But no, the main problem is that there’s the, that perfectly nice people can do horrendous things.
NEIL: Right. Are you an optimist? Yeah. I know so many people who are like surprising optimists. So many people.
JACQUES: Ah! That’s interesting. Like me, of course. Is it surprising? I feel obviously an optimist.
NEIL: I get that.
JACQUES: Otherwise, why would I be doing anything that I’m doing?
NEIL: So I’m not an optimist. I don’t know if I’d call myself an activist, but I’m politically engaged because I don’t want to feel regret. I want to feel like, at least I tried. Yeah, sure. But that’s really different from optimism. Isn’t it?
JACQUES: There’s a probably a fine line, a gradation, a shades of gray. Ah. Cause it’s like you do everything with a suspension of disbelief. Like it’s very easy to do things without fully believing them scientifically. You can just do them. Maybe secretly you think it might make a difference, you know?
NEIL: If that’s not what drives me, well…
JACQUES: You wouldn’t do it.
NEIL: That’s true. Like that’s true. If there was zero chance, I wouldn’t do it right. So that implies optimism, doesn’t it?
JACQUES: It does. huh. It does. Absolutely. Cause you wouldn’t, it wouldn’t work for the regret thing.
NEIL: That’s a great point. So maybe I’m a crypto optimist.
JACQUES: Yeah. I mean, at least somewhat. And maybe like you don’t believe it’s definitely gonna work, but you don’t have to leave it believe it’s definitely gonna work. To be an optimist. You have to believe there’s a good chance or a chance, a chance, chance. And.
Yeah. When, when, when ever, has there been anything more than that ever in history? Like it’s always been just a chance.
NEIL: You’ve changed the way I think about optimism and pessimism here on, She’s a Talker.
What is something that keeps you going?
JACQUES: Oh, say one thing is. This sense of story wanting to make a complete story. that’s only half done, or maybe more than half done, but like, it isn’t complete. So it’s like wanting to, you know, put a goal on it… The perfectionist. Yeah. The completest. Is that a word?
NEIL: Completist. Yeah. Oh, it’s like a person who needs to read every book by.
JACQUES: Okay. Or finish every… Which is a lot of people, right. Not me. okay. So, yeah. Well that’s, that’s one thing is like, Oh, that would be a shame because it’s, it’s not, it’s not done. It’s not finished. It’s not a package. There isn’t a, a knot on it. And that’s just, we, I’m not saying that’s rational or like, I’m right to think that it’s just, that’s my psychology.
The other thing would be, Like have being ambitious, wanting to do things, wanting to do more things than I’ve done, thinking that I can do more things than I’ve done having these like ongoing, like back-burner projects that I know I’m going to get to. having that illusion of getting to them one day, which may not be an illusion or maybe, but having that illusion.
NEIL: Fill in the blank for X and Y. What’s a bad X you would take over a good Y?
JACQUES: Oh wait, there’s so many. A bad X over a good Y? I would take a bad, almost everything over a good, almost anything, I think.
JACQUES: Yeah, like…
NEIL: A bad meal. Over a good meal?
JACQUES: Like often if it’s good, if it’s labeled good, I feel an obligation to enjoy it a certain way. Whereas if it’s labeled bad, I can just like if, if I don’t, it’s no loss. I haven’t failed.
NEIL: I know that. Yeah, there’s freedom.
JACQUES: There’s freedom and badness. Yeah. I dunno, there’s a theater trick, right? Where you, you like say, okay, we’re going to do this thing and we’re going to do it as badly as we can.
JACQUES: Okay. Who’s the worst actor here? First role. You do that.
And you know, and it’s amazing because you’re free, right? And you don’t have to worry about the quality and you know it’s going to be bad. So you just go with it.
NEIL: On that note. Jacques Servin, I never use your last name, but…
JACQUES: Let’s do it there.
NEIL: You, you never use your own last name or you never used my last name?
NEIL: Okay. Jacques Servin thank you for being on. She’s a Talker.
JACQUES: Thank you Neil
NEIL: Love you.
JACQUES: Love you.
(Neil airkisses Jacques, Jacques replies in kind)
NEIL: Before we get to the credits…
As promised, we have something a lot of people have written in with their own responses to the cards, and we’re going to be featuring some of them in the show. For instance, Paul van Dakar wrote in about a card we featured in our episode with comedian Naomi Ekperigin. The card is:
My favorite TV show is the menu.
Paul wrote, “I have a love hate relationship with the menu. Whenever I stay at a hotel or a friend’s place who has cable, I probably spend the most time on the menu channel. When I was growing up, we had channels two four five seven 38 56 and if you’re lucky, maybe 68 that’s why TV menus for me today are still like how I think Soviet immigrants used to feel when they moved to the US in the seventies and eighties. Astonished at the endless variety of breakfast cereal and deodorants and peanut butter on supermarket shelves. So like a bewildered immigrant to the land of cable. I scroll endlessly through the menu only to realize that the good stuff either ended a half hour ago or it doesn’t start for another two hours, or never existed to begin with. And I start to feel dead inside. And then if I don’t fall asleep, I might muster the strength to turn off the TV and read a book.”
Thanks, Paul, for writing. If you’ve got a response, please email us that firstname.lastname@example.org or message us at shesatalker on Instagram.
This series is made possible with generous support from still point fund. Devon Guinn produced this episode. Andrew Litton mixed it. Molly Donahue and Aaron Dalton are our consulting producers, Justin Lee handles social media. Our interns are Alara Degirmenci, Jonathan Jalbert and Jesse Kimotho. Our card flip beats come from Josh Graver and my husband Jeff Hiller sings the theme song you’re about to hear.
JEFF HILLER: She’s a talker with Neil Goldberg. She’s a Talker with fabulous guests. She’s a Talker, it’s better than it sounds, yeah!