Thursday, February 10, 2011
"Exit Through the Gift Shop:" New Abstractions
2010 saw the release of two drastically different documentaries, one of which (Casey Affleck's I'm Still Here) was touted as a documentary, but turned out to be an elaborate piece of performance art by Affleck and actor Joaquin Phoenix. I still haven't seen this film, and part of me is hesitant, and it's a rare film that may end up being less entertaining than the articles and discussions that have come in its wake. The other documentary has been accused of being a fake, even though there's a better chance that it's actually a real documentation. I recently screened Exit Through the Gift Shop, the directorial debut of street artist Banksy. The emotions that this film has generated are genuine, and would remain so even if the entire story did turn out to be fabricated. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and even viewing this film as a fictionalized account would not diminish the questions about creativity, the public reception to art, and/or the way certain creators are viewed in the public eye. Given Banksy's history, elusiveness, and intents (his street art is both beautiful and heavily political), Exit Through the Gift Shop provides no easy answers, but instead steers the conversation into the realms of philosophy. Political or social documentaries are normally standard fares: the viewing public either agrees or disagrees. With Banksy's work, there is support and criticism, but so much more to explore beyond whether one agrees with his defiance or is against it.
The film relies heavily on video narration by Thierry Guetta, a French-born boutique owner who lives and works in Los Angeles. His hobby (or compulsion) is video-taping every possible moment of his life, and examples included are heart-warming (videos of his young children growing up) and nauseating (one of his film clips shows a flushed toilet, and thankfully the audience isn't shown the footage that was possibly taken minutes before). In a quick aside, it's hinted that Guetta's desire to film his life stems from his mother's death, and his belief that not taping even the most inconsequential moments might mean that he'd miss something. As the film goes on, it's obvious that Guetta is probably more comfortable in front of the camera than he is behind it. His video interviews are rambling, in both good and bad ways, and he's naturally comfortable being the center of attention. His heavy French accent, curious facial hair, and hipster chic attire combine to show someone who seems almost created for the Los Angeles scene, be it film or art. Guetta discovers the high of being a cameraman for both famous and underground street artists: his cousin (whose face is blocked out on camera) is Invader, a Frenchman known for his worldwide tile art of the video-game Space Invader. This leads to Guetta meeting, filming, and sort-of befriending Shepard Fairey, a street artist best known for his iconic "Hope" image of Barack Obama. Fairey then introduces Guetta to Banksy, an artist with both international acclaim (and detractors) and an equally famous aversion to being recognized or identified. His interview footage consists of him in a large hooded sweater, in the dark, and even with his voice modified.
Guetta's goal is to create a standard documentary on the graffiti movement, and when he finally culls together the footage into a full-length film, Banksy is unimpressed, and for good reason: Guetta's footage is a dizzying collage of random images with virtually no outline or narrative, a confusing mess that may have worked as an underground experimental film, but not as a documentary. After this, the film dives into its most perplexing moments, leading up to the ending. Banksy decides to take over the filmmaking duties while Guetta performs his own tagging in order to gain a better understanding of how street artists work. Guetta adopts the handle "Mr. Brainwash," sells his business, rents a large studio with a team of assistants, and begins creating a myriad of canvases and art pieces. He rents an abandoned CBS studio in California to house his first gallery exhibition, and asks Fairey and Banksy for blurbs to promote the show. Banksy's simple endorsement gives Guetta a wealth of esteem and potential that, in all reality, he never had to begin with. LA Weekly magazine runs a front-page preview, and the opening night of the gallery exhibition draws thousands of people. Almost literally overnight, Guetta is an "acclaimed artist" with nearly a million dollars' worth of sales in the week after his opening. Not out of jealousy or envy, but rather out of creative puzzlement, Fairy and Banksy close the film with underhanded critiques of Guetta's style and rapid rise, and the question that remains is one that's as old as creativity itself: Is Guetta really an artist?
My immediate gut reaction is "no," but of course, this is my opinion. Guetta's gallery pieces reminded me of crappy Andy Warhol knock-offs, not that I've ever considered myself a major Warhol aficionado in the first place. In one of the film's closing titles, Banksy states that he's never going to participate in any future art documentaries, and he's long been a critic of art buyers, even though his own pieces have sold for vast sums. Long arguments and hypotheses can be formed as to whether Exit Through the Gift Shop will give Banksy more recognition beyond his own pieces, and if so, is it attention that he really doesn't crave, or is it a sly tug of the sleeve in order to gain a bigger audience? If the film is truly his from start to finish, he's definitely an able filmmaker, and whatever he does in the future, it will probably be even harder to maintain his desired anonymity. I felt that the film was much more compelling when focused on Banksy's philosophy; when interviewed, he was vastly intelligent, but not one to build his own work up in egotistical ways. Guetta, on the other hand, clearly realized his calling as an "artist." Banksy's street work, however, stands perfectly well on its own. In both small and large mediums, his work is at best politically thought-provoking, and even at worst, inspires a healthy reaction. He displays his art on buildings around the world, stages gallery shows, and even modifies outdoor pieces--Exit Through The Gift Shop
features a London phone booth welded to look like its bent or melting, and he's also created a version of Stonehenge with portable toilets.
As I screened the film, I realized that, in some ways, Banksy could be classified as a hacker, and obviously not in the sense of computers. I've spent a few years reading passages from Australian media theorist McKenzie Wark's A Hacker Manifesto, a 2004 work that explores the ways in which hackers (defined as computer hackers, writers, artists, and philosophers) have long been in a battle to use and manipulate information, not so much for their personal needs, but in an attempt for full creativity and the often-controversial desire to keep information free and open for use. Wark divides the book into themed chapters ranging from "Abstraction," "Class," "Production," and "Representation," to name a few. I was tempted to read the entire book again for the purposes of this essay, and in being slightly pressed for time and schedule, I realized that citing select, random passages is really the spirit in which Wark wrote the book. While I'm not claiming the information as my own, I'm in a sense "hacking," much like Wark describes and Banksy does on a regular basis: I'm using information at my disposal as part of a bigger landscape. This might be a stretch for my own definition, but Banksy's use of materials and "off-limits" landscapes seems to be perfectly exemplified in Wark's manifesto.
"Production meshes objects and subjects, breaking their envelopes, blurring their identities, blending each into new formation. Representation struggles to keep up, to reassign objective and subjective status to the products of production. Production is the repetition of the construction and deconstruction of objectivity and subjectivity in the world (Wark 157)."
Banksy's aforementioned telephone booth could be an immediate example of this. The phone booth as an object and a subject is intentionally maligned, worked into a new formation, and literally (and subjectively) hacked into a new form. To use the words in their literal definition, the phone booth is both constructed and deconstructed:
"All abstractions are abstractions of nature. Abstractions release the potential of the material world. And yet abstraction relies on the material world's most curious quality--information. Information can exist independently of a given material form, but cannot exist without any material form. It is at once material and immaterial. The hack depends on the material qualities of nature, and yet discovers something independent of a given material form. It is at once material and immaterial. It discovers the immaterial virtuality of the material, its qualities of information (Wark 015)."
"It is at once material and immaterial." The artists interviewed in Exit Through the Gift Shop are appreciative of Guetta's services as an accomplice as well as a cameraman partly because their work is always in danger of becoming immaterial--taken down or painted over--and having the documentation of what is usually a temporary piece of art is important for the body of work. With someone like Banksy, there's usually a message behind the work, but sometimes, it's just about the abstraction, the intentional difference-making in a landscape or on a drab building. While this essay may seem to hint otherwise, on an aesthetic level, I'm not a supporter of all tagging, but there is a difference between art and graffiti. Like any medium, one has to take the good with the bad, and while I'm not at all comparing myself to him, certain critics and supporters like the late Norman Mailer can get caught up in the immediacy of an artistic movement, and not immediately take into account the fact that just because something is done audaciously, that doesn't mean it has true merit.
And in these thoughts, I wonder if Banksy, by making Guetta the true subject, has given himself more credit by having his own art featured less prominently than Guetta's incarnation as "Mr. Brainwash." Despite not being immediately visible, for all of his fame, Banksy doesn't seem to fit into any artistic stereotype, unlike Mr. Guetta. I would imagine that most people would agree that Banksy's work is stronger than Guetta's, but as far as the film subjects go, the label 'a film by Banksy' would be much more realistic if changed to read 'a film about Banksy.' Perhaps his nearly mystical persona is part of a longer act, but the film left me wanting to see more of him, at least artistically. And that ultimately hints to his creative strengths. Even when he doesn't want the spotlight or the attention, being linked with someone who is virtually his exact opposite makes him that much more compelling.
Wark, McKenzie. A Hacker Manifesto. Copyright 2004 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.