Banksy’s latest effort to confound/impress and ultimately render America as the pseudo art-loving and genuinely capitalist mecca comes across efficiently in a new spewing, semi-revelatory documentary, Banksy Does New York.
The documentary, directed by Chris Moukarbel and produced by Jack Turner, acts as an elegant summary of the public and media fallout from Banksy’s month-long, self-appointed ‘residency’ in New York City this past year. The documentary had begun production a few weeks after Banksy left New York, when HBO approached Moukarbel about the project.
With Banksy spending the month creating new works daily and uploading information about them to a website dedicated to the project, ‘Banksy hunters’ went around the city, entirely dependent upon on the few hints Banksy provided, social media, and word-of-mouth. The goal? Track down the works, hopefully before they’re defaced or, as often the case, removed and sent to auction. The whole ‘craze’ of the situation was definitely palpable, and the lore and curiosity of Banksy warranted the documentary.
Effectively, the director used social media to acquire the majority of the content for the documentary and arranged it in a day-by-day timeline, from the announcement and audio guides provided by Banksy to the raw form of tweets and location clues given by tipsters, be it via Instagram, Facebook, or New York-centric blogs like Gothamist. The documentary explores the aftermath of each Banksy piece both physically and socially. Since Banksy work is, by all accounts, vandalism, how people deal with it on their property is entirely dependent upon the person. The documentary makes an effort to follow-up with a number of the people who found (appreciatively or not) hundreds of Banksy hunters gawking and standing around, often on their private property.
Whether the work was on your property or you were scavenging the city for it, it was never really about the art, it was about the potential- either to be the first to find it or to be the first to profit from it. It’s not that it could never be about the art, but by the time people were able to actually appreciate pieces, they were destroyed or stolen or capitalized upon. It’s an underlying theme of the documentary that never really gets addressed head on, and maybe rightly so, as most art critics of any merit seem to agree that Banksy is the lowest form of artist, simply a distraction and detraction.
But perhaps least explored until the very end of the film (and the final piece in Banksy’s residency) was the police involvement in the project. Banksy’s capture was highly desired, but the film never spun it as such. And once it was addressed, it was a playful situation with an air of jokiness that almost negates the actual power of the NYPD. It’s another question that goes unaddressed, but would have fit comfortably into the New York-centric nature of the film: does the NYPD see Banksy as a one-in-a-million or one-of-a-million? The answer could reshape the entire discussion of Banksy as an artist, taking him from someone with extremely intelligent and referential work, to someone who just knows how to push people’s buttons, beyond tagging private property. In other terms, if any other graffiti artist was concerned with the subject matter that Banksy is concerned with, would they be held up to the spotlight?
Of course, Banksy’s work isn’t just tagged buildings. The documentary also explores the complexities of the moving installations and still-life works that were also created. Beyond this, and perhaps most detracted, the film touches on the very New York tragedy that is the destruction of 5Pointz, an abandoned factory in Western Queens, often recognized as the graffiti world’s drawing board (literally and figuratively). Director Chris Moukarbel describes the inclusion of 5Pointz as “something of an eulogy”, and the fact that “something like 5Pointz may never exist in NYC ever again”.
After the screening, director and producer fielded some questions in a brief Q & A. On discovering Banksy: “This [film] wasn’t about discovering who Banksy was, but it was about the art. We had contacted Pest Control, the company that confirms authenticity of Banksy works. They’re not involved, but have given us notes.” Regarding the fact that the works that had been (fundamentally) stolen and put on auction haven’t sold: “the film functions in authenticating the works as Banksy.” Regarding gaining content: “[For content], We contacted a lot of people, and decided to pay $60 a clip to whoever gave us something. Two NYU students who gave us a lot of footage ended up with over $1,000.”
Perhaps most efficiently, the film was described as this: “It’s really about New York, it’s a portrait of the city, it’s a portrait of all the individuals that came in contact with this one artist. The Banksy residency sort of put a lens on the city for a month, and we sort of looked at it through that lens.”
What a dirty, shallow image we see. Maybe that’s exactly how Banksy wanted it to be. Curiously optimistic, connected, capitalist and Do-it-yourself as ever- this is the only way New York has ever been and shall be.
Banksy Does New York is part of the on-going Doc NYC series., being held around the city November 13-20th, exploring films that deal with NYC. Banksy does New York premiered on HBO, Monday November 17th, 2014.