Banksy — Laughing All the Way to the Bank?

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Filed under: Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking

Update April 19, 2010: The question of whether or not this film is a hoax keeps coming up. The answer seems extremely obvious to us, but here’s some fodder from Web Concepts:

Here”™s Why the Banksy Movie Is a Banksy Prank

Riddle? Yes. Enigma? Sure. Documentary?
By Melena Ryzik
The New York Times
April 13, 2010

Is there an art-world equivalent of crying wolf? If so, Banksy has probably done it.

Banksy”™s film follows the efforts of Thierry Guetta at being a filmmaker and an artist.

Banksy, the pseudonymous British street artist, has built his reputation on stunts “” like inserting his own work among the masters”™ in museums “” that taunted the market in which his pieces sold for millions. But with his latest project, the documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” he is laboring to convince audiences that he”™s playing it straight.

The film, which opens on Friday in New York and California, follows Thierry Guetta, an amiable Frenchman who lives in Los Angeles and videotapes everything “” or so we”™re told. When Mr. Guetta and camera eventually tunnel into the world of street art “” he was introduced to the scene through a cousin, the Parisian artist Space Invader “” his enthusiastic recording melds nicely with the artists”™ desire to have their otherwise ephemeral work documented. He captures that scene”™s luminaries, like Shepard Fairey and Swoon working on rooftops and in alleys under cover of night.

It seems to be a natural fit for a documentary. But Mr. Guetta”™s nonstop footage turns out to be unwatched (he has boxes and boxes of unlabeled tapes) and even when he cobbles something together after years of shooting, largely unwatchable. “He was maybe just somebody with mental problems who happened to have a camera,” Banksy says in the film.

So Banksy decides to take control of the material himself “” or so we”™re told. Robbed of his camera and prodded by Banksy, Mr. Guetta, meanwhile, morphs into a street artist, inventing an alter ego called Mr. Brainwash and staging an opening exhibition in Los Angeles that turns him into an overnight sensation, all of which is captured in “Exit Through the Gift Shop.”

The film itself was a sensation at the Sundance Film Festival this year, especially after Banksy works (including stenciled images of a cameraman shooting a flower) began popping up on storefront walls in Park City, Utah. At the Berlin International Film Festival in February, he called a news conference, only to cancel it at the last minute and show a video, in which he appears in shadows, cloaked in a hoodie and with his voice disguised, as he does in the film, to vouch for its veracity.

The thing is, both Banksy and Mr. Guetta are pretty unreliable narrators. The immediate scuttlebutt was that Mr. Guetta either didn”™t exist at all, that he was in cahoots with Banksy or that he was Banksy himself. Even aficionados of the scene were unsure what to think.

“Is it real?” asked Andrew Michael Ford, the director of the Last Rites Gallery in New York and an independent curator who has worked with street artists. “Is it a hoax?” The film, he added, offered so many circular possibilities that it was “tough to comment on it directly.”

But everyone involved has vouched for it. “Of course the more I try to say it”™s all true, the more it sounds like I”™m somehow perpetuating the conspiracy,” said Mr. Fairey, a friend of Banksy”™s.

Mr. Guetta did not respond to a request for comment “” though he does seem to exist and to be as idiosyncratic as he is in the film.

“I don”™t know why so many people have been fooled into thinking this film is fake,” Banksy, or someone purporting to be he, wrote in an e-mail message from Los Angeles, where the film had a premiere on Monday night. “It”™s a true story from real footage. Does it bother me people don”™t believe it? I could never have written a script this funny.”

As Marc Schiller, the proprietor of the street-art-enthusiast Web site, put it, “It is one of these cases where Banksy has found in his art that truth is stranger than the best fiction you can imagine.”

Both Mr. Schiller and Mr. Fairey said that “Exit Through the Gift Shop” was of a piece with Banksy”™s site-specific work, like a guerilla Guantà¡namo installation at Disneyland and an ersatz pet store in the West Village.

“Banksy is making a movie that”™s 100 percent like a Banksy exhibition,” Mr. Schiller said. He called it a prank, then corrected himself, labeling it “a Banksy event.”

Mr. Fairey, who said that he and Banksy were in the same situation in trying to recover the footage of their career-defining moments from Mr. Guetta, added: “This is a way for Banksy to tell his story but at the same time critique the street art phenomenon. It”™s perfectly aligned with how he does things. But it was a very shrewd adaptation to a problem that existed, not something premeditated.”

Banksy said it was a stretch to call the film his directorial debut.

“I didn”™t take the director”™s credit because I thought that was a bit unfair,” he wrote. “The editors essentially built the whole thing, and I deferred to the producer on the scenes I feature in “” otherwise I”™d just have picked the shots where my silhouette looks good.”

Still, he added, making it was “an all-consuming process, and my vandalism has certainly suffered as a result.” And Mr. Schiller said that Banksy was “involved in the smallest little detail of every aspect of this production and of the marketing of the film.” (Banksy said he financed it himself; new graffiti appeared in Los Angeles for the premiere.)

The surprise, Mr. Ford said, is in how quickly non-art-world audiences were to accept the notion of graffiti as a major spectacle.

“It”™s one of those things where I”™m not quite sure what I”™m here for, but I”™m excited about it,” a fan in line for Mr. Brainwash”™s 2008 show, where works sold for tens of thousands “” still far less than Banksy”™s prices “” says in the film.

“Banksy cares very much about selling art and what people think of him,” Mr. Fairey said, “and he understands thoroughly that people”™s fantasy is a far better marketing tool than reality.”

Ultimately, wondering whether “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is real or not may be moot. It certainly asks real questions: about the value of authenticity, financially and aesthetically; about what it means to be a superstar in a subculture built on shunning the mainstream; about how sensibly that culture judges, and monetizes, talent.

Asked whether a film that takes shots at the commercialization of street art would devalue his own work, Banksy wrote: “It seemed fitting that a film questioning the art world was paid for with proceeds directly from the art world. Maybe it should have been called “˜Don”™t Bite the Hand that Feeds You.”™”

Related Links:

  • Is Bansky”™s Mr. Brainwash an Art-World Borat?,
  • Previous posts about Banksy projects