In October 0f 2013, Banksy took up an artists’ residency New York City, promising to serve up a new piece of work every day for the next 31 days. At this point, you almost certainly know who Banksy is. You know, the world’s most famous street artist whose uncommissioned works feel like a cross between Andy Warhol and a politicized Far Side cartoon. The guy who has never shown his face and yet became the most famous artist of his generation despite not generally being respected in the art world. Yeah, that guy. The residency shook things up in New York for a month in a big bad way, becoming a cultural happening that reached outside the city confines thanks to the explosion of social media that surrounded the event. Inevitably, a documentary was also made by director Chris Moukarbal and the results are about as entertaining and mildly insubstantial as you’d expect.
The beauty and ease of making this film was that fact that so much of the footage was available already. Banksy’s show was as much a calculated social media explosion as it was a live event in New York, so Moukarbal had access to plenty of angles and perspectives on the art pieces available to him with the ease of a google search. It’s both the best and worst aspect of the movie. Viewers get to see every installation and the immediate audience response, but also have to deal with some pretty irritating and self-important people responsible for capturing the footage. That’s ultimately the big strength and weakness of Banksy’s work. His pieces are deliberately simple to appeal to all audiences, which means that just as many dumbbells are entranced as anyone else. Thankfully Moukarbal delves into this idea as much as any other subject over the course of his movie.
In addition to the street footage on display, Moukarbal talks to a variety of New York art enthusiasts from bloggers blown away by the Banksy’s ability to take over the entire city to exhausted reporters required to follow the spectacle for 31 days straight and perhaps most amusingly a New York Observer editor who claims that his paper refused to cover the event because they don’t consider Banksy to be a real artist and neither do their readers. Given how deliberately goofy and selfie friendly many of Banksy’s New York pieces were, it’s easy to see his point. Banksy does play in the realm of pop and often merely aims to make his audience smile. That was clearly a major part of the New York event and it’s hard not giggle and scoff off installations like a Grim Reaper bouncing around in a bumper car to the sounds of “Don’t Fear The Reaper.” It’s a fun piece to be sure, but pretty much meaningless.
Of course many of the other pieces in the New York show made up for such silliness like several dedicated to specific warzone tragedies, a satirical truck full of screaming puppets planted in front of butcher shops, and most famously a collection of Banksy originals secretly sold in artists row in Central Park for $60 that were actually worth $250,000 once their origin was revealed. Some other pieces brought fans to crime-ridden areas in the city where a few less than official curators charged $5 for photographs. In other instances, the people who owned the building where the graffiti art appeared painted over it to divert attention or tore down the work to sell it for profit. Other graffiti artists frequently tagged Banksy’s work to make a statement dismissing Banksy as a sell out in the street art movement. It’s hard to say how many of these events were calculated by Banksy and how many emerged naturally. Either way, rarely a day passed over the course of that month in which Banksy’s work didn’t cause some sort of hubbub or provide think-piece gurus with easy editorials. Perhaps just getting an entire city (and thanks to the internet saturation, a larger digital landscape as well) to discuss issues surrounding art and its possible purpose for a month was what Banksy had in mind all along.
It goes without saying that Moukarbal explores all of these ideas in his doc directly, sometimes eloquently and sometimes awkwardly. For those who paid attention to Banky’s New York show as it was happening, there’s very little here that will come as a surprise. However for those who missed it, the film is a thorough exploration of the event and a worthy document for prosperity. The only real stretch is the way the filmmaker ties Banksy’s show into a famous street art landmark in New York (the city where graffiti was born) that was being painted over for demolition around the same time. Moukarbal tries to turn Banksy’s work into a sort of funeral tribute to the lost artist’s space in a way that’s tough to fully accept, but overall the filmmaker does a good job of sitting back and letting the artist’s work dictate his doc. It’s obviously nowhere near as fascinating of a movie as Banksy’s own Exit Through The Gift Shop, but given what a strange and unique project that was, Moukarbal never had a chance of topping it. The best approach to Banksy Does New York is to look at it as a companion piece to a wonderful art show you’ll never actually see and on that level this little doc can’t be considered anything other than a success. Not a masterpiece, but certainly a success.