In October 2013, the enigmatic and subversive British street artist known simply as Banksy headed to New York to create an original work of art a day for the entire month with an ambitious project known as Better Out Than In. Every morning he would place a picture of his latest creation on his Instagram account, accompanied by a cryptic clue as to its location. Some were merely humorous spray painted stencil images on walls, like his familiar balloon and string, but others were more elaborate and detailed installations with a political point to make, or performance art pieces.
His works created a frenzy amongst fans and collectors eager to see his work before it was defaced, erased or removed by eager collectors. While some officials tried to cover up the work, others coveted them. Some cheeky entrepreneurial citizens even charged people to pose next to the distinctive Banksy creations. Some graffiti artists even tagged Banksy’s works. And a few brazen types even pilfered the works hoping to make a quick buck. There are several scenes showing people angered by the blatant vandalism of some of his art. But the audience participation was as much a part of the interactive exhibition as were the actual works themselves.
In one stunt, Banksy hired a man to sit near Central Park and sell his art work from a small stall without anyone knowing their source. Only a handful of the paintings were sold, for an average of $60 a piece. When their origins were revealed the next day, their price soared to $250,000!
Long after Banksy had left his mark on New York, Sheila Nevins, the head of HBO’s documentary production, approached filmmaker Chris Moukarbel to make a film looking at the city in the grip of Banksy fever. Moukarbel uses a cleverly edited mix of Youtube footage, mobile phone footage, tweets, and archival newsreel footage to recreate Banksy’s month long unusual residency and the attendant public reaction to discovering each new work. This multi-media approach is a signature of filmmaker Moukarbel, who similarly crowd sourced the images for his debut documentary Me @ The Zoo.
Banksy Does New York is a fast paced and frantically edited film that offers a rather vibrant portrait of the city itself. The film highlights an area of New York known as Five Pointz, a run down former industrial area that is earmarked for demolition and redevelopment into a commercial and residential precinct. New York’s legal aerosol space, the derelict buildings have been covered in graffiti and some colourful street art. While the residents of the area believe that this represents some sort of creative statement, the owners of the site disagreed and in an act of defiance covered the art in white paint which, somewhat ironically, makes the buildings seem even more ugly.
Unlike the doco Exit Through The Gift Shop, Banksy Does New York is not an attempt to shed light on the enigmatic artist, but rather an attempt to explore some bigger themes. Banksy Does New York explores important questions about the distinction between street art and graffiti, the rebellious nature of street art. Moukarbel also raises the question of who does public art actually belong to, and the privatisation of public space.
Moukarbel speaks to a couple of art critics who are openly dismissive of Banksy and his art, saying that it lacks nuance and substance. Even mayor Michael Bloomberg chimes in with his negative views on graffiti and street art. But many of his pieces are quite valuable, and the likes of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are avid collectors of his work.
Moukarbel also talks to Stephan Keszler, an upmarket South Hampton gallery owner and art dealer with an interest in Banksy’s work. He had taken possession of a stone sphinx that was left in an empty lot near some businesses due to be demolished. Moukarbel follows Kreszler’s unsuccessful efforts to sell the sculpture at an art fair. And we follow a couple of self-professed Banksy hunters who daily document their own hunt for the elusive artist’s pieces.
While not the most cinematic documentary because of its style and approach, Banksy Does New York will appeal even to those with limited knowledge of Banksy or little interest in art itself. It is a fascinating record of that anarchic month, captured by the people who actually were there, and effectively conveys that sense of chaos surrounding his presence and his creations. And at just 75 minutes, the time passes quite quickly!
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television