Posts Tagged ‘Banksy’

I first heard about Banksy’s film Exit Through the Gift Shop earlier this year, when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in February. I was really excited to watch it because I was sure it would provide a glimpse into the life and thought process of the incredible infamous and equally elusive British street artist Banksy, whose works have appeared everywhere from his native city of Bristol to the wall that divides Israel and Palestine. His repertoire does not just include stencils and spray but playful installations and elaborate hoaxes. In fact, in 2009, he gained additional notoriety by pirating the walls of a public Bristol museum, where he hung his own artworks and captions, as well as through his dolphin ride installation, which had been done in response to BP’s oil spill. Most recently, he has even been credited with directing the opening sequence of the October 11, 2010 episode of The Simpsons.

But this is not a post about Banksy, nor is this a film about Banksy. “What?” you may ask, incredulously, “but it’s A Banksy Film!” At first, I was a little disappointed too, but to be honest, viewers knew that this would be the case fairly early on, when a hooded Banksy with altered voice gave a brief introduction to the film. Think of this film more as a Banksy project, if that helps you wrap your head around the massive amounts of disappointment that I’m sure you’re feeling right now. But take solace in the fact, dear reader, that although Banksy and his own art appear only sporadically throughout the film, Exit Through the Gift Shop still serves as a wonderful introduction into the world of street art, and its message makes this film a prime example of a Banksy project.

So yes, although this film was not what I had originally expected, it was still incredibly enjoyable and informative. Aptly termed “the world’s first street art disaster movie,” it definitely provides a rather candid glimpse into the nocturnal adventures (both failed and successful) of a variety of street artists. Aside from Banksy, big names such as Space Invader, Monsieur Andre, Zeus, Shepard Fairey, Neckface, Sweet Toof, Ron English, Dotmasters, Swoon, Borf, Buffmonster and their works all made appearances in the film. And although it was a movie originally intended to be about street art and Banksy, it soon becomes quite clear how and why it developed into a documentary about the eccentric man behind the camera.

Meet Thierry Guetta, a French ex-pat living in Los Angeles, who ran a vintage clothing store and developed the rather peculiar obsession of filming absolutely anything and everything on his camera. While on holiday in France, he began filming the work of his cousin, street artist Space Invader and was soon drawn into the burgeoning street art scene. Upon returning to L.A., he continued seeking out the rising stars of the street art scene, a process that was aided greatly by his cousin, then by Shepard Fairey, who though reluctant at first, accepts Guetta as first a tagalong who happens to have a camcorder and then lookout on his nighttime wanderings. Guetta dives into his role with enthusiastic incompetence and films everything with a blundering sense of awe. His filming, finally having been given the direction and focus that it had previously lacked, leads Guetta to inadvertently take up the task of documenting this ephemeral genre of contemporary art.

Eventually, Guetta develops a desire to meet the infamous Banksy, an artist who he believes will complete his comprehesive record of street artists. Fate somehow brings Banksy to the West Coast, and Shepard Fairey introduces him to Guetta, who has developed the reputation of the man for out-of-town street artists to contact to get everything from supplies to information on the best walls to a nighttime ride. Soon Guetta is faithfully shadowing the elusive Banksy, even traveling with him to England to record his workshop and capture his projects.

Spoiler alert!! For those of you who want to find out for yourselves how this movie unfolds, and are only interested in the critical review and analysis, please skip ahead to the paragraph after the Life is Beautiful wall picture!

Meanwhile, inspired by the works of the artists around him, and eager to take part in what looked like a good time, it is revealed that Guetta has started experimenting with the mass dissemination of images via stickers and wheat-pasting under the psuedonym Mister Brainwash (MBW) and it comes to light that Thierry Guetta had been accumulating thousands of hours of footage with no real intention of editing it together to create a comprehensive documentary. Meanwhile, Banksy is preparing for his big debut show in L.A., Barely Legal. After this monumental US show, the commercial market for street art in contemporary art collections started to boom. It was at this time that Banksy decided that the time was right to show the world that street art was a messy business and that it had never been about the money. Faced with Banksy’s challenge to finally create a film, Thierry Guetta finally starts to edit his accumulated tapes.

Six months later, Guetta flies to London to show Banksy his almost-complete film, Life Remote Control. Banksy is absolutely flabbergasted and slightly terrified with the result, saying that the film was like someone with ADHD had gotten a hold of a remote control and was flipping through TV channels for 90 minutes. Keeping the tapes in an attempt to create a more complete and accurate documentary which would better portray the importance of street art as captured by Thierry Guetta, Banksy gives Guetta an assignment designed to distract: go home to L.A., create some art, and put on a show.

Thierry Guetta throws himself into this project, fully adopting the MBW persona, and invests in a production line of artists and assistants, working to churn out prints of altered pop culture icons in a thoroughly Warhol-esque manner (but with none of the Warhol irony). Eager to please Banksy, MBW excitedly prepares for his huge gallery debut, appropriating a huge studio for installations, prints, and other assorted projects. Meanwhile a change is occurring in this central character: the blundering but otherwise endearing Thierry Guetta slowly transforms into an art world douchbag. Constantly on his cell phone, he becomes concerned mostly with hype, and attempts to become the biggest and hottest commodity in L.A. He sells pieces ahead of the show with arbitrary price tags, most of which are dependent on the object’s size, and often in the tens of thousands of dollars. Hours before the show he transforms into a control freak who is concerned with only interviews and handshakes. But despite the massive amounts of disorganization and procrastination, manages to pull off a critical success of a show that is attended by thousands of people. After the exhibition, he appears arrogant and self-satisfied, pleased to have finally established his place among the legendary street artists he had been filming for the past decade. Meanwhile, Banksy and Shepard Fairey show a certain amount of disdain for the pointlessness of MBW’s art, and seem uncertain as to what to make of the public sensationalism surrounding MBW.

Directed and produced by a notorious and mysterious trickster, this film has been widely called nothing more than an elaborate hoax, and has even been classified as a “prankumentary” by New York Times film critic Jeanette Catsoulis. I personally disagree with her assessment because it’s absolutely possible for someone to fall into a career over the course of a year and a half and create massive amounts of art when they’ve hired a production line of assistants. Some have even speculated that MBW was created for the purpose of the documentary. But the question as to whether or not Exit Through the Gift Shop is a case of life following art or art following life is irrelevant, because it’s the introduction and message that’s important.

The first act of Exit Through the Gift Shop is a documentary about street art, as seen through the exuberant eyes of Thierry Guetta, and the second act of this film becomes a documentary about Guetta as MBW. MBW becomes the perfect juxtaposition for street artists like Shepard Fairey, who has spent years finding his style, and Banksy, who is very thoughtful with his projects. While most artists spend their time developing their technique, finding their style, and thinking about the meaning of their works, MBW found his style quite quickly and almost accidentally, and uses repetition and gigantism without too much thought. Interviews taken during MBW’s debut exhibition show viewers praising the work as revolutionary, and assigning value to objects that clearly have none.

So perhaps this film isn’t so much a documentary, but more of an exposé. More than that, this film highlights the relationship between the world of street art and the world of contemporary/pop art in its second act. With a note of irony that only street artist can provide, this film raises questions regarding issues such as the monetary valuation of artwork, the commercialization of street art, and the appropriation of images. Perhaps most interestingly, Exit Through the Gift Shop underscores the pretentiousness of the contemporary art scene. So yes, this film makes you think. And, more than that, it successfully does what it was meant to do: provide the viewer with a glimpse into the chaotic world of street art and give them a good time while doing it.

Exit Through the Gift Shop will be digitally available for both rent and purchase on iTunes and Video on Demand channels beginning November 23, 2010 and available on DVD (with awesome extras, like a version of Life Remote Control) on December 14, 2010. I definitely suggest watching this film with some friends, not just because it raises a lot of quite interesting questions and topics that you’ll most likely want someone to talk to, but because it’s just that good of a ride. And the best part is that you don’t need to be a street art buff to love this movie. For all my analysis, it’s simply a great introduction into the world of street art, and just a lot of fun to watch.

For those of you who want more background on the film, here’s a wonderful interview with the producer and editor of Exit Through the Gift Shop with Movie City News about the documentary that never really existed. And, here‘s an interesting interview with Shepard Fairey about the film as well.

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In 1985, a well-known graffiti artist known as Robbo colorfully tagged the underside of a bridge running over Regent’s Canal in Camden, North London. One of the first pieces to go up in London (and certainly the longest standing piece in London), Robbo’s piece has become known as something of a landmark piece for graffiti art enthusiasts and taggers alike. Many graffiti artists and taggers are considered lucky if their piece endures for more than a few months. However, for the past 24 years, aside from some toy graffiti and over-tagging, Robbo’s name has remained largely untouched.

Just this past December, change affected not only the scene along the Canal, but this towering testament to King Robbo’s legacy as Bristol-based street artist Banksy returned to London to continue his street art projects. Among them are his rats (a commentary of how the artist is the lowest form of being), a witty phrase evoking political commentary, a boy fishing, and a city worker.

It is the latter of these four project has generated the most amount of controversy lately. This is because Banksy has actually grayed-out a significant portion of Robbo’s locally familiar tag, leaving only strips of it to act as wall paper. The city worker, rather than removing the piece, is pasting it up using tools that traditionally refer to wheatpasters and in fact carrying additional wheatpaste rolls under his arm.

While some have said that this might be Banksy’s way of paying homage to the Robbo piece, from a territorial perspective, this modification comes as a rather biting slap in the face to Robbo- not only because Banksy has painted his own piece over the original, but because he has turned Robbo’s piece into a wheatpaste, a form of street art that is in general very much disliked by aerosol artists. Perhaps it’s in response to the actual slap in the face that Banksy received from Robbo, made public this past year in the book London Handstyles. In it, Robbo described a “tense encounter” between the two. Recalling how he was introduced to Banksy, Robbo claimed: “He asked what I wrote and I told him. He cockily replied ‘never heard of you’ so I slapped him and said, ‘you may not of heard of me but you will never forget me.’”

While internationally renowned street artist Banksy is busy premiering his new film at the Sundance Film Festival, graffiti legend Robbo came out of retirement on Christmas to again defend himself against the slight dealt to him by Banksy in London at the tail end of 2009. (Here it is important to remember that most street artists have teams, so what is going on may not directly deal with a single person.) Not only has Robbo eradicated the last traces of the original Robbo tag (including the rolled up paper under the worker’s arm), but he has written King Robbo (king being the term used to describe a graffiti legend, or one who has earned a considerable amount of street credit) so that it seems as if Banksy’s city worker is painting the tag rather than pasting it up.

A few days later, and the boy fishing along the Canal was altered as well. Rather than pulling out the slimy words “Banksy” from the Canal (originally meant to imply that Banksy was garbage in the way that his rat project implies that artists are vermin), a white sign now hangs from the fishing pole reading “Street Cred,” implying that this is what Banksy has lost by confronting Robbo.

Not since the days of Picasso and Matisse has the art world been so shaken by such a bitter rivalry. It was even said that Picasso hung “Portrait of Marguerite” in a room and threw (fake, thankfully) darts at it with his friends. Similarly, this most recent artistic exchange has caused many in Team Robbo and Team Banksy to take up arms against the other by taking to both online forums and the streets to battle it out. While many graffiti aficionados have lined up in either the Banksy camp or the Robbo camp (mostly arguing art and purpose vs. respect and territory), many are questioning whether the recent modifications are in fact the result of deep seated conflict or if they are simply the product of witty banter. (Some even suggest that this might be a publicity stunt, what with the recent publication of London Handstyles and Banksy’s venture to the Sundance Film Festival to release his film “Exit Through the Gift Shop.”)

Despite the story presented in London Handstyles, it’s rather hard to say. After all, despite Picasso and Matisse’s bitter rivalry, they spurred each other to new levels of creativity through their competition. Robbo didn’t respond by simply wiping out the Banksy piece and retagging the wall. Rather, Robbo (much like Banksy did for him), left a portion of the original piece by Banksy up while modifying the overall work to his liking (having the artistic “last word,” as you will). From the perspective of this street art academic/critic, Banksy did something that was not only natural in the world of street art and graffiti, but a big favor to Robbo by transforming the piece.

If you Google Robbo, Robbo tags, or Robbo graffiti, you will be hard pressed to find something either on the web or in images section that mention him solely, or provide an image of his tag other than the Regent’s Canal piece. Because Banksy is such an internationally-known name, it can be argued that he has brought Robbo to a more main-stream audience, and therefore inducted this piece (and, indeed, Robbo himself) into the international graffiti and street art scene.

If something becomes a permanent fixture in the landscape, it runs the risk of being taken for granted, and therefore leaves its viewers unaffected and unimpressed. While I recognize that the lifespan of this tag might be impressive to graffiti artists and taggers, once something becomes an accepted part of the landscape, it becomes fair game to street artists. This is because the true definition of street art is to challenge the way we think about our visual landscape through intrisically ephemeral and thought-provoking pieces. By revitalizing this relic, Banksy has forever immortalized it by giving it a new life and a new meaning. Because Banksy breeched the taboo of territory, he made it one of the current hot topics in the graffiti and street art world. Finally, by responding as he did to Banksy, Robbo crossed from the realm of graffiti artist and tagger into the world of street art. In this sense, Banksy has invigorated the environment of Regent’s Canal by changing the dynamic by initiating this creative dialogue and competitive exchange.

Many, including myself, will be tracking Banksy’s movements following the Film Festival and eagerly await to see what (if anything) happens when Banksy returns to London from Park City.