I love street art. Something about the freedom of working without traditional materials in an often unlimited canvas captivates me. Those are some of the ideas that first attracted me to art. I have long followed the career of Banksy, one of the most infamous street artists around. Controversial for his messages, as well as the fact that his art is technically done illegally, his career has spanned across the world on walls, in books, and in film. For the month of October, Banksy took up residency in New York City, a place long known for avant-garde art. While I am fortunate enough to visit NYC fairly often, I was not able to be there when as part of his residency, Banksy was putting out a piece of work a day. However, I do have friends there, just as curiously wondering what he would do there. Since this was such a major event in the art world, I wanted to know more and get a first hand account of what exactly went on there. So I introduce to you my first guest writer, artist Jonathan A. Sims and new resident to Brooklyn, and his thoughts on the phenomenon that is Banksy.
Reflections on “Better Out Than In,” the Banksy NY Residency
Banksy’s New York “residency” started on October 1, 2013, approximately six weeks after I unloaded a Penske truck with my fiancée into our Brooklyn apartment. It was easy to be excited about it.
There is no denying that New York City has an irrepressible reputation for being the epicenter of the arts in the United States. And once you get here, and you start to pay attention, this fact slowly cements itself into the brains of newcomers. It’s the names. The names of the biggest American and international artists. The names of the best-funded galleries. The names of the biggest museums, with the names of some of the most famous masterworks. And it quickly becomes apparent that in New York City, apart from anywhere else in the U.S., all of these names from books and blogs and documentaries are suddenly very, very, accessible.
For the month of October in New York, Banksy was the most accessible of them all. The arts media started to drum up anticipation, and the blogs began to speculate. I didn’t pay too much attention until the first piece dropped. It seemed like the whole city was caught up in the scavenger hunt. Anyone could see images and location clues of the artwork du jour by simply checking Banksy’s Instagram or banksyny.com. The arts blogs ran posts that quickly filled with “updates” before you even reached the lede, crediting the first lucky searcher who found the work, or noting the dramatic crowds, or posting photos of the work after it had been vandalized by others. A friend of mine Instagrammed a photo with the October 1 stencil, but not before the “Graffiti is a Crime” street sign had been swiped, “not five minutes!” before he got there.
There was a local phone number stenciled nearby, and calling it greeted the listener with Muzak and a calming voice (you can still hear this “gallery description” on the website). A clever parody of the audio guides you can hear on rented audio players in museums, the narrator proceeds to mispronounce Banksy’s name and make fun of the typical artist statement verbiage before throwing up his hands and pronouncing “You decide. Really. I have no idea.” The narrator also mentions that the piece has “probably been painted over by now.”
This transience was a major part of the experience with Banksy NY. For anyone else in the world unable to see these works firsthand, the first image taken by Banksy or his assistants is the way they encounter the work– in pristine condition, fully in line with the artist’s intentions. When we finally got a chance to see his October 2 stencil, “This is my New York Accent,” you could see the hands of at least four or five other vandals. Graffiti begets graffiti, and Banksy is a magnet for spray paint, markers, and thieves.
Viewers are so used to seeing artwork as inviolable. Spend enough time in museums, and most of us will at some point be firmly chastised by a docent or guard for getting too close to a piece, or forgetting to turn off a flash, or some other minor gallery crime. These institutions work hard to create an atmosphere where visitors maintain an assiduous self-consciousness. With public art, there is something exciting about having no restrictions with the art. And there is also offensiveness in seeing that same art molested by others.
Banksy was very careful and very smart about where he chose to display his art. Walking past the Bedford stop on the L train in Williamsburg (the epicenter of the tragically hip neighborhood), we stumbled upon is first mobile piece. “A New York delivery truck converted into a mobile garden (includes rainbow, waterfall and butterflies),” was driven and left at local hot spots chosen to reach maximum promotional visibility. It attracted crowds and cellphone lenses. Shortly after we found it, inexplicably, a young man decided to climb into the truck and walk around its cramped interior. Once he got in there, I think he realized that he had no idea why he did it, and soon climbed back out. It was a mindless decision. It is easy to guess that most of the vandalism of the Banksy artwork was driven by the same mindset.
I couldn’t get upset about the destruction of the public work for very long. With few exceptions, these were illegal canvasses to begin with. The choice of Banksy to continue to work as a rebel artist invites that same kind of behavior. But the early culture that emerged around working in stencil and spraypaint demands that authenticity as a street artist be accompanied with risk and disobedience.
Maintaining street rep normally also includes an apparent indifference for the material gain that would accompany being an international art star, a disingenuous myth that continues to celebrate the “starving artist” as the most pure form of the professional. Banksy is now extremely wealthy, but he has carefully choreographed the impression that he is still giving his art away. Perhaps the most notorious and humorous day of “Better Out Than In” was a video of an old man in Central Park selling authentic and signed Banksy canvases for $60 each. The punch line? Only eight paintings sold for a total of $420, though some media outlets inflated the value to $225,000 in total.
Everyone was talking about the payday. How if we had been there, we could have raked it in. Of course, it isn’t funny to remind people that the paintings themselves were pretty boring, and if any name besides Banksy was attached to them, it would be hard to value them at $60 each. In the end, it was, like everything else produced in October by Banksy, a feat of amazing marketing. A clever promotional event, in which every part serves to increase the value of the artistic artifacts.
If there is a single argument that can be made in justifying Banksy as a meaningful contemporary artist, it is in the fact that the market price of his work continues to confront us with the dilemma of defining what is valuable as “art.” Property owners who had never heard of Banksy before were suddenly confronted with a totally new situation. In a closet somewhere nearby, or in the trucks of professional vandalism remediators, sit buckets of thick paint ready to erase graffiti. These buckets get employed hundreds of times a week all over New York City. If you walk up to the wall you own and find a crowd of people ready to attack you for painting on your wall, it can be pretty stunning. If art has enough cultural or material value to challenge the accepted notion that vandalism is inherently wrong, then the word’s definition has to be expanded again for the millionth time.
But in that same fact rests the anger and resentment that I was surprised to find in New York against Banksy. It is no surprise to find that many established members of the arts community judge the work as banal, as they are wont to do, and scoff at its popularity amongst the youth. Rebellion is the leitmotif that constantly follows Banksy. His refusal to come out of the shadows of anonymity and work in a more traditional capacity as an artist rankles more than a few people, an irritation even more grating by his inarguable success. Articles appeared in New York papers telling Banksy that he was unwelcome here— a recurring theme among them centered around the cosmic injustice that Banksy could elicit such a popular response when New York’s own resident graffiti artists, such as 5 POINTZ in Queens, are languishing.
In the last week of October, in the buildup to Halloween, Banksy unveiled an absurd and timely performance piece in the Bowery, which was to remain up from dusk to midnight from Friday to Sunday. A friend of mine texted me on Sunday asking if I had seen it yet, and we were compelled by the deadline to grab a train into Manhattan. There, behind a large fenced area on a concrete slab, a humongous mannequin of Death himself crouched in a remote-control bumper car and zipped back and forth, his battle-worn scythe extended above him in homage to the sparking electrical contact typical to the carnival ride. Musicians took turns playing continental accordion music as interludes between the real show: disco lights flashed and a machine pumped smoke as “Don’t Fear the Reaper” blared into the cool night. The Grim Reaper zipped into overdrive at these moments, and the bobbed to and fro on springed joints in the cramped space and occasionally slammed into a wall with stunning force. The whole thing was utterly ridiculous. View video here
In that ridiculousness is the joy of Banksy. Almost all of his work hinges on humor in some way—be it the general silliness of stuffed animals going to slaughter, or the observational jokes at the expense of capitalism or the political establishment, or the situational comedy of his site-specific gags involving children and beavers. A lot of the jokes are clever, and viewers enjoy his ironic juxtaposition of the beautiful and the decrepit (butlers and geisha girls), or the political and entertainment (Syrian fighters and Dumbo), and this alone probably goes a long way in explaining his popularity. But like anything that relies on joke-telling, some of the jokes aren’t that funny, and work built on facetiousness will always risk being seen as trivial.
But seeing the Grim Reaper riding a bumper car and slam into a wall with a Blue Oyster Cult soundtrack? That just makes me happy.
Jonathan Sims is a painter living in Brooklyn, New York. His work can be seen at www.chromadetic.com.
My friend invited me to head to Austin to see Weekend, 1967 by Jean-Luc Godard. Having seen a few of Godard’s films, this was a new one for me. A great director of French New Wave, I always enjoy watching experimental film. We take the Megabus, a bus service that has expanded their market from the East Coast into Texas. For less than $5 round trip for both of us, it is an easy and worry free journey. Weekend is showing at the Paramount Theater, a beautiful and classic venue, located in downtown Austin. It’s a nice experience viewing a movie here. Playing with the convention of both the plot and editing, Godard gives a small portrayal of the broken and fragmented minds that covet money and possessions over the value of life. Roland and Corinne are a married couple taking a trip to collect an inheritance. Quickly understanding there is little else they care for, they attempt running over pedestrians, nonchalantly walk through dead bodies, and have a disdain for even each other, as they plot the death of one another. Throughout the movie, Corinne collects clothing from each event, changing her outfit several times. This is a great trailer for Weekend, the entire movie done in this random sort of format. Flashing words, inappropriately played music, and including the breaking of the picture reel at one point, are all Godard’s stylistic way of portraying his observations of society. This is another fantastic collage of Godard’s imagery: Original French Weekend Trailer. While no dialogue is in the beginning of this clip, the silhouetted figures are a great representation of the dead, emotionless conversation they are having, illustrating their feelings for everything and everyone, including each other. Roland is very disinterested as Corinne describes a threesome she had, asking her only “and then” in a bored voice and “is that all.” Her casual body language in this still, reflects her careless attitude as well, her head propped up by her hand. Although, I wish this trailer had subtitles to understand a few parts. The first young woman covered in blood and screaming is yelling how her rich, dead boyfriend is the one worth living, the life of a poor peasant is worth nothing. Another crash, the cars are on fire, and the only time Corinne is screaming, she is hysterically shrieking “My purse! My purse!”, as Roland rolls out from the burning car. And at the end, when she is eating, she is told she is eating her husband. She calmly asks for a second helping to go, for her to eat later. Ending the film with Fin de Cinema, the End of Cinema, this was also the last film Godard did in this manner, choosing to focus on a documentary style. Because I always love hearing German, here is a another clip I found, Weekend Dubbed in German. Why am I not surprised that this consists mainly of her taking a bath? Well, it’s perfectly natural as the portrait she is imitating suggests. Even though the camera is focused on Corinne as she bathes, the entire time Roland is lecturing her, the only nudity is the portrait hanging behind her. If you’re really interested in Weekend, here is the famous Weekend Traffic Jam Scene With Commentary that brings the story to a halt and lasts seven minutes. It is discussed how Roland and Corinne are breaking the rules, an example of how they treat societies civilized mores “visual variety”. There is also a longer 15 minute clip, with two great monologues juxtaposed with an interesting choice for imagery. Update: Weekend has been added to the Criterion Collection! If you want to watch amazing movies, they are usually released by Criterion or Janus Films. Since I didn’t plan this weekend trip, I had no art itinerary planned. But walking down Congress, we passed the Mexic-Arte Museum that was advertising a graffiti show, so we had to stop in. Having never been in here before, I was impressed with the layout, very spacious – a great place to exhibit. Walking into the exhibit, the first wall is taken by a huge pop mural, grabbing my attention immediately. I have always been a fan of pop and Andy Warhol, particularly loving the bright, bold colors. Not one for subtly myself, I appreciate not being afraid to express something in a loud manner. The subject matter always intrigues me. Usually comments on society, I think it is very clever to pick up on everyday thoughts and imagery that has seeped into our subconscious and realize that even though we are bombarded with this now, it is actually a fleeting experience that is unique to our society at this particular moment. I love that art can actually document something as intimate as our attitudes. While a time capsule may preserve history and reveal many things, pop takes it in a different direction. Loud, brash, and unapologetic, it has always stated the obvious right now. Focusing on subjects like commercialism and consumerism, these pieces force you to contemplate the same things that overload your brain everyday, hopefully, making you aware and rethink the things that are constantly blurred in the background of everyday life, buzzing around you. I am very interested in the fact that a graffiti exhibit is making my thoughts go to Warhol and his philosophies.
I recognize the work of another artist in the show, Miguel DonJuan. It’s weird because the imagery is very different than what I’ve previously seen of his work. In fact, there is very little exposed wood, normally characteristic of his pieces. But there are masked faces and graffiti, and although done differently, they still seem familiar to me. The work still seems to deal with the topic of concealed identity, a particular issue for graffiti artists. In this series of work, the figures are animals or donning an animal mask. This work incorporates some words in Spanish, another varied element, I normally see his work as referencing other cultures. He was in the Graduate program at UTSA when I attended there. I have seen his work under Carlos DonJuan, Carlos SourGrapes, and now Miguel DonJuan. I’m not sure why the use of different names, although his bio explains he is part of the Sour Grapes Collective. There is an interesting piece by Niz, I believe the only solo female artist in the show. Created with aerosol paint, I love the use of an old window as the object to directly paint on while also framing the work. There are so many windows already in my collection…It’s nice to see old materials being incorporated into art. This particular piece is political, discussing current concerns about the border. Old, weathered items can help illustrate a mood or certain points you are trying to make. A new window wouldn’t suggest an issue that as been there for a while, having a history. More images from the show by Origin of Cool. Since my friend collects vinyl, we head to End of an Ear, a fantastic record store. Interestingly enough, we run into an album with the artwork of one of the artist that I represent, Linda Arredondo. It is always great to see artists I am working with have their art exposed to different viewers. This piece was actually purchased at Justiceworks, I remember their farewell show late 2011. Designed by fellow San Antonio artist, James Woodard for the band The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. This was from her Monsters in Love series of mixed media pieces. Austin is a fun little town just a jump away from San Antonio. I love that I can change scenery so easily. As usual, I packed quite a bit into an overnight trip, experiencing film, art, and music here.
Stenciling is an extremely popular method because it can be completed in seconds while having the time to design the image. With graffiti, time is always of the essence.
Papering on the walls is one the quickest methods that allows the most details, since the piece is ready in advance. The paper piece, glue, brush, and some darkness is all that is required for a rapid installation.
The wall murals were truly amazing! Several stories high, I can’t even begin to imagine how a piece that large is completed. I saw several pieces that have been included in graffiti books but found so many more than I had never seen referenced in pictures before. I love that I just kept stumbling upon these amazing, huge art works as I explored further into this hidden world. I wonder how many artists it took to create such a monumental piece and how long they spent making it. I’m assuming to complete a project that large they must have the cooperation of the building owner, or at least the residents.
These artists really earned my respect. While there were a few pieces done on store fronts, the majority of the graffiti pieces were done to spread their ideas and love of art. It is common knowledge most artists don’t receive any regular type of compensation for the creation of art and this stands even more so for the artists of the street. This brings up another issue, the anonymity
of the artist, typically hiding behind an alias. Yes, it is illegal in Berlin to vandalize public property. But obviously ignored in certain parts of the city, such as Kreuzberg. Some artists are recognized by their style without a tag. Though in the UK, Banksy comes to mind. He may be the most anonymous public figure, making a “documentary” that was nominated for an Academy Award, “Exit the Gift Shop”, where he blurred his face the entire time. However, there is also Good Ol’ Texas boy, Ron English, an important, preceding figure to Banksy. English differs greatly in the fact that it is very easy to find an image of his face just by googling his name. Yet both artists leave their tongue in cheek opinions in the public, for all to see, comment on, and sometimes add to or alter their art.
But none of these issues have put a cap on the expression that explodes from the neighborhood of Kreuzberg. Paint, paper, glue, stickers, doilies, fake fur…if you can make it stick or paint it, anything goes, anything becomes a canvas. This excursion was very inspirational to me. I am constantly trying to get fresh ideas and renew my thoughts on art. I left with a lot to think about, which directions I can take my art. My head is still trying to process everything I saw and experienced there. This will definitely be a regular stop for me anytime I am in Berlin from now on.