Shell "Artic Ready" spoof's Vancouver connection Sean Devlin shares views on activism

Greenpeace's Arctic Ready campaign  elaborately spoofs  Shell Oil's activities in exploring the Arctic for new oil reserves. The popular website, which was made in collaboration with the Yes Lab and Occupy Seattle, has a Vancouver connection: local creative director Sean Devlin, who gave the rousing speech at a robocall protest last year, is a Yes Lab member and was directly involved in planning and executing the Arctic Ready spoof. 

Devlin sat down with The Vancouver Observer at The Hive to talk about the campaign. Because of his track record as one of the creators of guffaw-inducing political parody sites, it's a surprise to see how soft-spoken he is in person. He's one of those searingly smart individuals whose speech is peppered with dates and facts to support reasonable arguments. In sum, the kind of person who creates headaches for corporations like Shell.  

Photo courtesy of Sean Devlin

Arctic Ready: an 'identity correction' for Shell

Devlin addressed a recent CNN op-ed which suggested that Arctic Ready had crossed the line between culture-jamming and "libelous misrepresentation". 

"Misrepresenting is an unfortunate word that definitely applies to what they (Shell) do. The tactic that we employ at Yes Lab is more honestly described as 'identity correction,'" Devlin said.  

"We felt like what we've created for Shell is a website that reflected the faulty logic in their current arctic exploration and what would happen if they actually opened themselves up to public opinion instead of creating advertisements that presuppose that they have the public's support."

He said that Greenpeace decided to take this approach because they were barred from Shell from coming within one mile of the oil giant's ships, which meant that the activists' traditional form of protesting was not possible. 

"We wanted to highlight a couple of things, notably how old the oil rigs are," Devlin said, speaking of the Kulluk, a 29-year-old Arctic drilling rig that was inactive for 14 of those years while in Canada. "For example, the Deepwater Horizon (an oil rig off the Gulf of Mexico which exploded in 2010 during its lease to BP) was built in 2000. These ones are from '84, from the sixties, and have basically been in retirement until now. The one from the 80s was also built by Mitsui (Oil Exploration Co.), which recently paid a $90 million fine for their role in the Deepwater Horizon rig."

"It tells you so much about how they're putting their exploration together that seems poorly thought through, in terms of their experience in the gulf – it's kind of irresponsible."

Mike Bonanno, a co-founder of the renowned activist Yes Men group, voiced similar thoughts about the campaign:

"We are trying to represent Shell more honestly than they are representing themselves," Bonanno wrote. "When they try to make it look like they are somehow a 'green' company despite drilling the Arctic, it's not only a travesty and a giant lie: it should be a crime." He added that his favorite aspect of the site was the "Mercy poll" for animal harassment.  

Arctic Ready: a classic dilemma protest 

Devlin said the idea for the controversial Shell arctic launch party video was born during discussions of what the company would do to mark the send off of oil rigs to the arctic.

Cell phone video of Shell launch party spoof 

"We said, 'If they weren't scared of public opinion, what would they do? They would probably celebrate that these ships were going off and they were about to make a whole bunch of money," Devlin said.  

In the video, the celebration goes horribly awry with a malfunction of the model rig that was supposed to pour drinks for guests.

"We designed the event in a way that it would speak to the real risks – and worked with a lot of great activists in Seattle," Devlin explained. 

"I was co-working on the creative and strategic for quite some time on the nature of the event and how we staged it, how we filmed it, that cell phone video that I was filming."

Shell's response to the Arctic Ready campaign has been muted so far. Devlin said that while some feared legal repercussions for their campaign (which blatantly rips off the oil giant's trademarked material), this campaign evolved out of the long tradition of a "dilemma protest". 

"The concept of a dilemma protest is that you develop an action that's a win-win situation," Devlin explained, noting one of the most effective examples as Gahndi's 1930 Salt March protest. The British Empire at the time had imposed a salt tax on India, and was met with public backlash when British troops began arresting and beating Indian protesters who made salt from sea-water. 

"It's based on the concept that really effective actions should be structured in such as a way that if  the authorities allow you to continue with it, you get your message out there...and if they stop you by arresting you or using physical force against you or pursuing you legally, that also makes them look bad, so you also win in that sense." 

He noted that in the Yes Men's history, the only group really willing to pursue legal action for a prank or protest was the US-based Chamber of Commerce, a fiercely pro-Republican business lobby group.

Working with the Yes Lab

Devlin explained that he came to work with the Yes Lab during the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference, in which the famous Yes Men (Michael Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum) impersonated the Canadian government. Later, when Bonanno and Bichlbaum came to BC around the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, Devlin was brought on as part creative consultant, part project manager to ensure that someone was working directly with an organization on the ground to ensure that actions happened.  

"In situations where they (Bonanno and Bichlbaum) are doing an initial consultation with an organization ... their schedules are quite demanding, so sometimes they can't actually go and be on the ground when these actions are happening, which is a crucial moment. That's a role I've been brought into as a surrogate," Devlin explained.

"In New York, for a couple of months in the fall, there was a lot of demand both from New York University students as well as Occupy activists, so I was there facilitating and making sure people follow through on their actions," he explained.  

Mike Bonanno of the Yes Men is in fact coming to Vancouver arount the end of September, Devlin mentioned. 

"Part of what we're trying to do is build a reputation or demand for the Yes Lab in Canada," Devlin said. "We'll be bringing in activists and organizations and debrief them on our previous actions, talk about the national context in Canada." Given the issues that Canadian activists face today -- ranging from  robocall scandals to eroding environmental standards, they can expect to have a wide variety of material to work with. 

He told The Vancouver Observer that he will be in Vancouver on Thursday, September 27, for a film screening and live Q&A at the Rio Theatre on Commercial Drive. 

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