Archive for the ‘cinema’ Category

Exit Through the Gift Shop comes to Melbourne

For everyone living in Melbourne, you may well be aware of this already, but just in case, i thought i would mention the fact that Banksy’s movie, Exit Through the Gift Shop, is coming to town. As well as being a fascinating account of hype and marketing in the world of street art, it also contains some amazing footage of street art (and street artists in action) around the world – including several shots of the work of local artists such as Rone, Ash Keating and Vexta.

ACMI will screen Exit Through the Gift Shop from the 3rd of June for a full two week season. (You can check dates and times here.)

If you are living in Sydney, the movie is screening at the Sydney Film Festival on 2nd and 7th of June, but according to their website, the sessions are already sold out….

I’ve written previously about the movie – I saw it in April in New York and posted a two-part review of the film (here and here). I won’t repeat what I’ve already written about the film; you can check out those posts if you’re interested in my views on the movie.

In the interests of full disclosure, in the wake of the recent online debates about the differences, if any, between blogging and marketing, I should mention that Madman, who are distributing the movie in Australia, invited me to mention it on this blog. I’m not being paid to do so, and I wouldn’t make any mention of it if I thought the film was rubbish. It’s not rubbish, it’s well worth seeing, so I am happy to mention it here.

But in recent weeks there’s been a groundswell of awareness about the potential of blogs to influence consumption and opinion – the most acute version of this occurred in New York last month, and you can read here a thoughtful account of the implications of the way the Banksy film was promoted in the United States.

I don’t imagine that my opinions in this blog will exercise much influence at all over whether or not you go and see Exit Through the Gift Shop, but it’s only fair to mention the fact that I am also appearing on the panel discussing art, advertising and public space after the movie screening at ACMI on Sunday 6th June, and that the Friday 4th June screening of the movie is timed to facilitate your attendance afterwards, should you be interested, at a book launch taking place at Federation Square in the Atrium at 7pm – and that book is Street/Studio; the Place of Street Art in Melbourne (and I am a co-author of that book). More about the book soon!

So that’s the background to this post.

Is the film worth seeing?

Absolutely.

Even if you have no interest in street art per se, it’s still a fascinating documentary, with a great film-within-a-film narrative.

And if you are already interested in street art in general (or Banksy in particular), then it’s essential viewing. Funny, inspiring, provocative – it probably raises more questions than it answers, and it’ll produce endless hours of conversation about Banksy himself, about Shepard Fairey, Invader, and – more than anyone – about Thierry Guetta.

Who? See the film, and find out.

Post No Bills

In the above photo you can see posters advertising Banksy’s movie, Exit Through the Gift Shop, on a hoarding in SoHo in New York.

A brief post on Vandalog recently sparked an interesting conversation in the thread of comments – around the vexed qurelationship between street art and advertising.

On Vandalog, RJ wrote:

‘Banksy once said “‘Every time one of my friends borrows my ideas, mounts a huge art show and becomes a millionaire celebrity,’ a little bit of me wants him dead.” I’ll amend that to “Every time a street artist turns their back on their values, mounts a huge flyposting campaign and becomes what is essentially an advertising executive, a little bit of me wants to write over their work.”

But I suppose that’s the natural order of things.’

Comments in response to this were sharply divided between those who basically agreed with the point he made, a second group who interpreted Vandalog’s comments as unfounded criticism of their fave street artist, and a third group who thought that since the main objective was to get people to see a thoroughly worthwhile movie then bill posting was an effective way to inform people (especially people who might not be plugged in to networks and blogs within the street art community) about the movie.

Over the last week in New York, bill posters for the movie have gone up in a lot of places – Williamsburg, SoHo, the East Village, the Lower east Side (there may well be more that I haven’t seen). The question of where to draw the line (and in fact whether there is a line) between art and advertising is a tricky one. Sometimes artists certainly do use advertising – when they have an upcoming show, their gallery might advertise it in a listings magazine, or the artist might post a status update about the show on Facebook or tweet about it on Twitter. (There’s a whole lot of thinking to be done some day about the role of social media sites and their relation to art and to advertising.)

But bill posting – well, that’s often seen as something different, something done by clothing companies and by music promoters. Agencies pay bill posters to wheatpaste flyers around a city – an activity often done late at night because it is usually illegal. A number of years ago, the City of Westminster, one of the London municipal authorities, decided to crack down on fly posting as it’s called in the UK, issuing fines to the companies whose wares were being advertised rather than to the fly posters and the advertising agencies (not much came of this, and there’s as much fly posting in London as ever).

Anyway, Vandalog asked why use bill posting to advertise Exit Through the Gift Shop rather than something more directly related to street art, like stencils (or indeed, why not stickers?). Asking such a question assumes that bill posting is different from street art.

It’s worth thinking this through: what, if anything, makes bill posting different from street art? I think it’s complicated. Bill posting involves putting material into public space, usually without the permission of the owner of the property it’s placed on. It’s usually as illegal as street art. In 2008, when the Tate Modern ran a series of talks on street art, the curator, Cedar Lewisohn prompted discussion around exactly this issue by inviting former fly poster Mustafa Hulusi (who is now an artist who sometimes puts images on billboard spaces – click on the link and then on ‘Posters’ and then on ‘2007’ for some examples) to speak along with Brad Downey on art and the politics of public space.

But maybe it really does come down to aesthetics (and the relationship of the image to capital). The posters for Exit Through the Gift Shop are attractive posters, especially when positioned in multiples, and when placed on wooden hoardings (the wood makes an excellent background to the poster’s colours). But I’ve seen them now in several places around NYC and they’re almost always next to the same other posters, especially one claiming to involve a free MacBook giveaway. Here’s one in Williamsburg:

And that confirms that these are not aesthetic interventions in public space, however appealing the poster is. They weren’t put up by Banksy’s assistants or anyone connected with him; they must have been put up  – I’m guessing – by the standard bill posters who work in the illicit economy putting up posters for anything, just pasting up whatever they are given.

And in another fascinating development, Vandalog published news today that some of these posters have in fact been gone over by Jordan Seiler of Public Ad Campaign (click the link for photos and for Jordan’s essay on this issue), replacing ads with street art….

I’m not trying here to provide any kind of definitive word about art and advertising. Far from it. In fact, I think it deserves more discussion. After the furore about Fauxreel recently (see the discussion of this by Hrag Vartanian on Hyperallergic), now Banksy (as ever) ups the ante and makes the need for such a debate even more compelling

Banksy at the movies: Part II (Banksy’s hands)

Since the previous post, about expectations of what Exit Through the Gift Shop is about, turned out to be a long one, I thought I’d write a separate one dealing with what it’s not about.

So let’s go back to the second response that a lot of people seemed to have after seeing the movie – a feeling of surprise that it’s not ‘about’ Banksy, or at least not as much as they had expected.

It’s worth looking at this closely. Is the film ‘about’ Banksy? Well, the film is made by him, and thus it provides us with a text which tells us something about the artists and his concerns, just as his artworks, books and exhibitions do.

And then again, Banksy is in the movie: we see him in his studio; we see him stencilling; we see him with his crew of helpers creating the famous ‘vandalized telephone box’ in London (which goes on to sell for an extraordinary sum at auction); we see him installing a blow-up doll, hooded, shackled, and wearing an orange jumpsuit, at Disneyland, in a direct juxtaposition of American mass entertainment culture with the torture of detainees at Guantanamo.  (All of these occurrences are filmed by Guetta.)

But of course, while all of these events are taking place, Banksy still withholds himself from any kind of identifying gaze – he wears the hood of his sweatshirt pulled over his head, his face is blanked by pixillation, his voice distorted (and his assistants’ identities are similarly masked).

So Banksy’s certainly in the movie, but he’s simultaneously on display and hidden from our view. But what we do see in plain sight are his stencils and his hands: as Banksy himself states in the film, ‘I told Thierry he could film my hands but only from behind’.

As he says these words in voice-over, the film shows us Banksy at work, cutting stencils (for one of his signature rats, to be put up on a wall in LA). And for me, that was one of the highlights of the film – watching those hands, whether at work on the stencil or gesturing along with the words spoken by Banksy’s distorted voice.

They’re slender hands, with long fingers. They’re the hands of an artist. What does the face matter, or the voice? Watch the film – and watch out for the scene of Banksy cutting stencils, with speed, and with great skill. That moment might not be central to the film, but it’s certainly what street art is all about.

Banksy at the Movies: Part I

I’m in New York City right now, and last night I attended a preview screening of Banksy’s film, Exit Through the Gift Shop. The film is being released in a number of US cities from April 16th and if you click here you can find a list of release dates, cities and theaters. (If you’re reading this in Britain, the film’s been out for a few weeks; if you’re reading this in Australia, be patient a little longer because the film will be released there in early June.)

Given the intense interest in Banksy as an artist and in the mystery of his identity, it’s inevitable that this film will attract a lot of attention. What’s as interesting as the movie itself is the range of responses that people are having to the film. Among those who’ve seen it so far, people speak positively of the film (as they should, since it’s a highly enjoyable documentary), but they also seem, first of all, surprised that it is more about Mr Brainwash (aka MBW aka Thierry Guetta) than it is about Banksy; and, second, disappointed that, because the film is more about Mr Brainwash, Banksy doesn’t reveal much of himself in the movie.

Let’s start with the first of those reactions, that the film’s not ‘about’ Banksy, which certainly raises the question of what the film is about. Well, the film operates on many different levels, and one of its main ones is the story of how street art took off, from being something with an intense local significance which was shared through the networks of the global street art community for the enjoyment of those who practice or appreciate street art, to became an entrenched part of the mainstream art world, whereby paintings (and artists) are commodified for profit.

To tell that story, the film focuses on Thierry Guetta’s transformation from amateur film-maker into artworld succes du jour, as a means of demonstrating both the possibilities open to anyone with the will to put up art and the (slightly frightening) logical consequences of those possibilities (for example, having people queueing for hours to get into your art show, simply because they’ve been told by the media that your art is important).

The film treads a clever and careful line between condoning and critiquing the commercialization of street art, as its embodied in Guetta’s transformation: it really is left up to the viewer to work out where you stand on the issue. In some ways, the film seems to be criticizing the people who have bought Mr Brainwash’s work for vast sums of money and who have contributed to his art world stardom, but, then again, isn’t this the same art world that has made stars of Shepard Fairey and Banksy and Blek le Rat? If we want to critique the art world, it must be a critique that can specify why Mr Brainwash’s stardom is problematic when that of the others is not.

So: how do we think through that problem? Is it because Mr Brainwash doesn’t make all of his art himself? Neither does Shepard Fairey nowadays, nor Banksy (both of whom have assistants – and we see some of Banksy’s assistants at work in the film), and neither does Jeff Koons, for that matter. Is it because Mr Brainwash’s work is derivative (his work repeats many of the devices used by Andy Warhol, Banksy, Fairey, Nick Walker, Blek…)? Well, that might be a better founded criticism, but it still requires us to think through its implications: each of those artists borrow from other artists and art movements, re-presenting certain tropes in order to create a new art idiom. Perhaps Mr Brainwash’s endless borrowing (what some would even call plagiarism) from the borrowers lacks aesthetic merit because it does nothing new – no new idiom emerges from his pillaging of pop culture and street art.

At any rate, I think these issues form the heart of what the film is about – and I’d back this up by referring you to the movie’s title. By calling his film ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop‘, Banksy is both having a sly dig at museum culture, which often cynically seeks to extract more money from visitors after they have viewed an exhibit, but he is also pointing out to us the direction that street art may be heading in, now that its commercialization is so advanced – the only ‘exit’ is to find a way through the endless consumption offered to us as a poor substitute for the art itself.

Moving images: art and politics on the screen

Today I went to see a film called Hunger. I haven’t written at all yet in this blog about moving images, despite a significant part of my time revolving around thinking, teaching, and writing about cinema. Seems appropriate, then, to make the first cinema-related post on this blog about Hunger, the first film by Steve McQueen, a visual artist, photographer and sculptor who won the Turner Prize in 1999. Hunger is certainly the work of someone who understands the visual, but one of the great things about it is that it is not only outstanding for its its composition of images, with an artist’s eye for the huge image on the cinema screen. The film also shows how the visual imagination in cinema can be intermeshed with sound and narrative, so that when you are watching the film you are captured in several simultaneous ways. (Here’s a link to a very good article in The Guardian about the film and about McQueen.)

The film is about the hunger strikes organised by the IRA in the Maze prison in Belfast in 1981. Many IRA members in the prison took part in a series of protests, in an attempt to compel Thatcher’s government to recognise the political nature of IRA activities. The British government refused to do so. The prisoners, for many years, refused to wash and to wear prison uniform. The prison authorities gave them each a single blanket, rarely cleaned their cells or their bodies, beat them and tortured them. Unlike the scandals at Abu Ghraib, which led to the trials of several soldiers, as far as I’m aware no member of the Maze prison authorities ever stood trial for what was carried out there. And after the ‘no-wash’ and the ‘blanket’ protests had seen no success, a hunger strike was begun. Bobby Sands was the first to go on hunger strike; a further prisoner began a hunger strike every fortnight after the commencement of the protest. Sands was the first to die; a further nine prisoners died too.

Here’s a still showing Bobby Sands (played by Michael Fassbender), in the film’s amazing central scene (filmed in one 22-minute take), as he describes his commitment to the hunger strike in conversation with a priest visiting the prison:

hunger

These hunger strikes were a huge part of my early years at university. The newspapers were filled with stories about the hunger strikers; Bobby Sands was elected as an MP during his hunger strike; he also was elected President of the Student Union at Glasgow University (I grew up and lived in the West of Scotland, an area filled with strongly sectarian sentiment).

Seeing Hunger today brought back many memories from that period, and it’s amazing to me that so little is now talked about the Maze hunger strikes, and the ‘dirty’ protest, and the abuse that was perpetrated within the prison walls.

The film is very difficult to watch, in that it unsparingly shows Sands’s physical decline as he starves to death. But the film-making demands that we watch. I simply want to mention the first few scenes, which show a man getting dressed in his bedroom, washing his hands, and then going downstairs to eat a plate of food prepared for him by his wife. There’s no dialogue or music in these scenes. We don’t know who this man is (later, we learn that he is a prison officer). But what is so beautifully rendered is the simplicity of these everyday activities – dressing, washing, eating – activities which have been, as the film is later to reveal, rendered absolutely impossible for the IRA prisoners (who must live in faeces-smeared cells, with maggot-infested piles of rotting food on the cell floor, naked except for a blanket, filthy and unable to wash). These scenes take only a few brief minutes at the film’s outset, and they would be easy to miss. If you see the film – and I recommend you do – take note of these scenes, and the activities they show. They’re easy to overlook, we do them everyday. How luxurious are our lives that we are able to do them without giving them a second thought. How great is Steve McQueen’s film in that it shows what life can become when that freedom (to wash, to eat, to wear our clothes) is taken away.