These discussions did not lead to any particularly interesting insights about art itself. But they did unwittingly reveal a great deal about the current state of the art world. The same is true of Banksy Does New York.
“Doing this reminds me of when I was a kid, chasing the latest Air Jordans,” one fan says halfway through Chris Moukarbel’s documentary, and immediately gives the game away. For the fans populating this film, including a pair of professional dog walkers who seem to have sacrificed an entire month of their lives to record themselves breathlessly running after pieces of Banksy’s street art, all that matters is getting to each work first and tweeting about it. Banksy Does New York celebrates the Pokémon approach to cultural engagement: what matters is not the pieces themselves, but catching them all.
A quick recap for those unfamiliar with Banksy’s New York City ‘residency’. In October 2013, the reclusive street artist undertook a project in the city’s streets: every day he unveiled a new piece of art in a different area, posted clues to its location on Instagram, and an army of followers would feverishly work out where it was. Two things New York City has in abundance, the police and get-rich-quick schemers, intervened in many cases, creating an even larger media spectacle.
In a moment of wonderfully pure NYC hubris, one art critic notes about Banksy’s residency that “the audience response is part of the art for the first time ever!” Well, it’s not the first time ever. But he’s right in the sense that most of these works are sort-of-funny interventions into the life of the streets, and it is how the people inhabiting those streets react that is often a lot more interesting than the pieces themselves.
Billing itself as a “user generated film”, Banksy Does New York is in fact very strategically directed, somewhat to its detriment. Moukarbel splices between Talking Heads interviewed after the fact and user-generated footage of New Yorkers hunting for, and reacting to, each new Banksy work. With a couple of exceptions, the interviewees frame the footage along fairly conventional attitudes to what each piece means: for art, for New York City. It is the firsthand footage of the response to each work that is where the film really gets interesting.
So, how do New Yorkers react? On the evidence presented, everybody loses it, repeatedly. How people lose it ranges from the expected (everybody whips out their smartphones to snap pictures of every piece) to the entrepreneurial (two men cover up one stencil and charge people to see it). The documentary begins and ends with a chaotic scene in front of an inflatable “Banksy” balloon. Two men try to steal the work to sell but fans fight back and everybody gets arrested.
It’s all very exciting and funny, but think about it for a few seconds and it ends up being rather depressing. Always lurking behind the stenciled wall is the complication of money.
Moukarbel must be aware that this is the true subject of his documentary. It becomes clearer as the film spends more time following a couple of men from Queens negotiating the sale of a Banksy piece that serendipitously showed up in their neighbourhood.
In a legally dubious move they relocate the work, a concrete sculpture of the Sphinx, to a suburban garage, where it sits under a tarpaulin until Hamptons-based European art dealer Stephan Keszler shows up.
It also reveals a startling insight that is buried inside the breathless hype and glossy shell of Banksy Does New York: the co-option of creativity by the wealthy has never been easier.
The interactions between the impeccably dressed Mr Keszler, his very well-appointed young male attendants and the working class suburban family are compellingly cringe worthy. On one visit, Keszler absurdly complements his finely tailored suit with an NYC cap, an amusingly half-assed concession to working class populism. Of course, the Sphinx ends up on display at an art fair.
The journey the Sphinx takes from the street to the gallery is worryingly efficient. It also reveals a startling insight that is buried inside the breathless hype and glossy shell of Banksy Does New York: the co-option of creativity by the wealthy has never been easier.
► 3 stars
► Banksy Does New York is screening at Cinema Nova from Thursday, April 23.