Overview: On Oct. 1, 2013, the elusive British street artist known as Banksy launched a self-proclaimed month-long residency in New York City, posting one unique exhibit a day in an unannounced location, sparking a 31-day scavenger hunt both online and on the streets for Banksy’s work. Capturing this month of madness, this documentary incorporates user-generated content, from YouTube videos to Instagram photos, from New Yorkers and Banksy hunters alike, whose responses became part of the work itself, for an exhilarating, detailed account of the uproar created by the mysterious artist.
With installations spanning all five boroughs of New York City, and including a mix of stencil graffiti, sculpture, video and performance art, Banksy touched on such wide-ranging subjects as fast-food wages, animal cruelty in the meat industry, civilian casualties in Iraq and the hypocrisy of the modern art world. Daily News reporter Beth Stebner, who covered Banksy’s residency, was struck by the wide array of people drawn to his work, noting, “You had art students, you had plumbers, you had gallery owners. It just brought New Yorkers out.”A pair of Banksy hunters and dog walkers using the handle @twowaytraffic chronicled their month-long search on camera, while Stephan Kezler, owner of a Southampton gallery that buys and sells the street artist’s unauthorized, illegal, public work, sought out new and valuable pieces.
From Queens and Staten Island to Bushwick and the Lower East Side, each new piece was revealed daily on the artist’s @BANKSYNY Instagram account and website, but the exact locations of the pieces remained secret. “He made a treasure hunt where you needed to go and find something in a part of the city you’ve never been in before,” notes Steve P. Harrington, founder of the Brooklyn Street Art Museum.
Expectations: Okay, I am not a part of the cultural cognoscenti so I don’t even know who Banksy is going into this. In this particular instance I felt a little research was in order. Little did I know that a majority of the world does not know who the artist is as “Bansky” is just a fake name for a mystery artist. The only personal statistics is that he is a British male and that he utilizes all sorts of medium to express his artistic bent and political views. The artist has a large following and when the artist came to New York in 2013 a fervor for the art unfolded. I don’t remember this in the news at all.
What I do know is that one time I was faced with a documentary about an unfamiliar artist and their body of work and I raved it as one of my favorite HBO documentaries that I have reviewed. It was MARIA ABRAMOVIC: THE ARTIST IS PRESENT. Now another artist is in my midst and I have to see what people were exhilarated about when the artist staged works throughout NYC. Is it more about the artistic expression or the fact that this mystery artist has never been caught on the streets creating and/or installing the artwork?
Gut Reaction: Like I say I was stuck at square one with this subject. I was back at still learning who the artist was as opposed to taking on the latest exhibition. After a few scant minutes getting briefed on what is known about Banksy (not much, not even including what the artist looks like) we are off and running with the thirty-one day display of the work the artist generated on the streets of New York. Later on in the piece we pick up the theme again of Banksy’s beginnings. But really, this piece is for all of those caught up in the rage. For the rest of us, we just feel like we are catching up and not quite into what it is all about.
There are some cool elements to the whole project I appreciated. In fact, the cleaver gimmick of it all overshadowed the work most times. Okay, at least for me it did. I do know enough about art to understand that what gives art life and value is how people react to it. New Yorkers reacted in a big way to Banksy and lit up the social media outlets in their attempt to search for and praise the artistry discovered on their streets. That whole social interaction with the audience in this unique way singles Banksy out as a unique modern artist.
Also interesting was the way Chris Moukarbel documented the exhibit for this film. He was able to glean all sorts of media footage to plot the course of the month in order for viewers to play along in the ‘scavenger hunt’ over a year later. The whole social interaction right down to Banksy fans indirectly making BANKY DOES NEW YORK brings this artistic expression to a dramatic completion. Kudos for all that went into that process.
Now it would be wrong to discuss all this without focusing on the art itself, right? Now I’m not going to go day by day and point out the art displayed for each one; the documentary does that if you are that interested, but a few highlights should be singled out. The mobile displays held the most interest to me which was art works on a vehicle that moved about the city. There was a web video everyone tracked that was quite impactful featuring Disney’s Dumbo. There were also interactive pieces where the viewer stood and responded to the art to make the exhibit complete. Some of these pieces proved quite clear. My least favorite pieces were traditional and detailed graffiti art. Art is subjective, however, and any one person could get a totally different or relevant meaning from it. Banksy’s Audio Guide was there online to help shape the experience. Some insight is necessary to understand the relevance of the artwork. My favorite pieces of work are the Grim Reaper display on Day 25 and the “Sirens of the Lambs” from Day 11.That last one can be witnessed in the trailer above if you’re curious.
In all it is an interesting exhibition presented in a raw and innovative way. The documentary captures it in a style that perpetuates the energy the exhibit intended.
Bonus: We are able to supply straight from HBO an interview with director Chris Moukarbel whose work we have reviewed before. Do you remember ME @ THE ZOO and SEX//NOW?
HBO: When did you first hear of Banksy?
CHRIS MOUKARBEL: I don’t remember when exactly; I’ve always known about Banksy as a British street artist. I have an art background and went to art school; it might have been then that I got to know his work, but not nearly as intimately as I do now after having made this film.
HBO: Were you in New York in October 2013?
CM: I wasn’t in New York. I knew of Banksy’s residency from the news, but I didn’t really get the same full-throttle media explosion of being in town. [President of HBO Films] Sheila Nevins specifically approached me because she was inspired by what was going on with Banksy that month and wanted to represent it in a film. I had previously done a film that HBO had acquired called ‘Me at the Zoo,’ which also used a lot of user-generated content from the web and told a story that already existed in a public space. It seemed like a good fit to apply that style to make this film.
HBO: How did you go about harvesting material from social media?
CM: In this case, people who had posted a photo or video related to Banksy oftentimes included a hashtag, so we searched #BanksyNY and #BetterOutThanIn. When we use a hashtag, in addition to just bringing attention to a subject, we’re also creating a massive online archive. Part of this project was really about accessing this archive and using it to tell a story.
HBO: What made certain users stand out?
CM: Sometimes it was just simply the amount of accurate coverage that some people had. For example, we turned the dog-walkers into characters because they were really comprehensive. They filmed themselves looking for Banksy’s pieces each day. It was examples like that that made the film really exciting, because you were watching real people documenting their experiences, not even realizing if there would be an audience for it.
HBO: Did any piece of user-generated content surprise you?
CM: There was one moment at the end of the residency where one of the dog walkers, Kurt, was narrating how that last day went. Banksy’s letter balloons were taken in front of his eyes, the cops were there and the fight broke out. Kurt was explaining this blow-by-blow for this unseen audience. At the same time, he was playing Banksy’s website voiceover, which included the song “New York, New York.” He said, “This is the song that he wanted us to hear at the end on this last day,” and, “It’s like we’re in a movie.” Then months later, I edited him into a movie to the same song and thought, “This actually is the end of our movie.” It was a moment where the distance between those two worlds collapsed.
HBO: How do you feel about Banksy’s art?
CM: I was always interested in the amount of notoriety that Banksy was able to achieve. Whether you would even consider Banksy a contemporary artist is debatable, but personally, I was drawn to the amount of spectacle around his work. What I saw with Banksy’s residency was that he is also interested in bringing light to some of that. He often makes work that isn’t specifically about the gesture or the piece itself, but about the frame around it. He also seems interested in these broader themes around the gentrification of urban space and the kind of value placed on public art. I think those broader themes were attractive to me as well and were something we tried to explore with the film
HBO: Can you speak to the monetization of Banksy’s work portrayed in the film?
CM: I think the public had these knee-jerk reactions when they realized that the Sphinx piece had been stolen in plain view. A lot of people were outraged. We connected with the men who took the piece. From their perspective, Banksy dropped this piece off in their neighborhood. It’s a very charged location; there are 250 small businesses that are going to be shut down and razed to build parking and shopping for Citi Field. This area, Willets Point, is featured as a character, not only in Banksy’s residency, but also in our film. These guys who had taken the Sphinx believed that because Banksy didn’t report this stolen, it wasn’t stolen. They said, “If we don’t take it, someone else will. Some gallerist or wealthy art aficionado might take it, and what good is it going to do then? It’s our neighborhood; we should be the ones to have it.” Under the circumstances, it seems like a fair position for them to take. I think he’s arguably one of the most famous artists in the world. He’s done this type of residency in the past, so he knew how it was going to play out, to some extent. I think oftentimes he was baiting the public and the media. It’s interesting how much social media played into this project, and that was another component to what I think. Banksy was trying to pay attention to: the fact that this is public art that exists on the street, but also the new street — and the other public place — is the internet.
HBO: The film ends on a sad note about 5 Pointz: what message do you hope viewers take away about street art?
CM: What happened at 5 Pointz is complicated but it’s also indicative of a larger issue: as real estate prices go up in a city like New York and as the city seems to privilege luxury condo development over businesses and cultural organizations, it changes the city’s texture. As it becomes more expensive, it becomes more difficult for artists to live and work there, and the experience of living in a city changes as well. Gentrified space is not merely as diverse or vibrant as cities were in the past. There could probably never be another 5 Pointz in New York City and there’s something very unfortunate about that.
In Conclusion: Art is something to be witnessed. You may not appreciate it; you may wish to exploit it, deface it or praise it. All four of these ideas happened to Banky’s work in NYC. I certainly wouldn’t have been one to hit the streets looking for the art, but I do appreciate getting in touch with the artistry via BANKSY DOES NEW YORK and that was good enough for me. You can still find this film on HBO and on HBOGo.
Next Week: Over the next two weeks there will be Encore Presentations airing Monday nights. Both have already been reviewed by HBOWatch. They are WHOOPI GOLDBERG PRESENTS MOMS MABLEY on 1.24 beginning at 6:45pm and THE BATTLE FOR AMFAR on 12.01 starting at 7:15pm. The next new documentary to air from HBO Documentary Films will be on 12.08 (9:00pm) with REGARDING SUSAN SONTAG, an author, lecturer and activist of our times.