Banksy’s directorial debut, Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) has captured a new round of audiences throughout Europe and the United States. First released in the UK back in March 2010 and later appearing in US cinemas as a limited release, the documentary is now showing in theatres in Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, and select US cities. The webpage boasts that it is “the incredible true story of how the greatest graffiti film of all time was never made.” Yet, rumors have it that the film is a mockumentary, designed to expose the pretension of the art world and street art’s consequent foray into commercialism. Nevertheless, Banksy skillfully weaves a tale of authenticity versus capitalism, juxtaposing footage of clandestine street artists with that of elaborate celebrity street art shows in staged galleries. Witty and entertaining, the film gives us an exclusive glimpse into Banksy’s creative process, as well as that of other prominent street artists.
Our protagonist is street artist cum overnight art world sensation, Mr. Brainwash, aka Thierry Guerra. One day, on a family trip to his native France, Guerra discovers street art via a famous cousin in the scene, Space Invader. The encounter precipitates an obsession with everything street art. With his trusty video camera in hand, Guerra begins his quest to document, to consume, and to understand the art form. Along the way, he becomes acquainted with many influential street artists, including Shepard Fairey—recently known for his red, white, and blue Obama Hope image—and, of course, Banksy. As the hours of footage turn into months and years, the documentary that Guerra claims he was making is yet to be seen. In truth, Guerra had only the inclination to capture the images, only managing to hoard the never-ending boxes of analogue tape in his home in Los Angeles. He had never really intended to tell the story of street art, nor to expose the art world—one that now sold pillaged works to collectors at obscene prices. According to Banksy, when Guerra eventually produces his street art documentary, it is unwatchable at best—a mess of doctored images and noise thrown together at random. Apparently, this is where Banksy steps in, takes possession of the tapes, and decides to make the documentary himself.
Up to this point in the film, the story seems pretty credible. Banksy presents Guerra’s footage over the past ten years, intertwined with current talking heads. While there are questions over the archive video’s authenticity, when compared to current footage, Guerra, along with Fairey, do, indeed, look ten years younger. Nevertheless, the story takes a sharp and interesting twist. Upon Guerra’s return to Los Angeles, encouraged by Banksy to produce his own art, Guerra becomes a superhuman production force. After a short stint on the streets propagating his own work, he assumes a new identity as street artist Mr. Brainwash. He soon sells everything, now investing it into a team of designers to help him produce street art. He uses the same methodology—and sometimes ideas—as his friends. Emulating Banksy’s massively successful art show in a transformed Los Angeles warehouse cum gallery in 2006, Mr. Brainwash sets out to curate the most prolific street art show ever. While his team of designers focus on production, Mr. Brainwash launches a massive promotional campaign, complete with quotes and support from Banksy and Fairey. Miraculously, the once unassuming Frenchman transforms himself into an overnight superstar—yet, not without the appropriate critique from his already famous friends.
What’s ironic about Banksy’s critique of Mr. Brainwash is that it was Banksy himself who set the stage for the unfettered circus that later allowed for the Brainwash Los Angeles show. CNN’s Max Foster has coined the term “the Banksy effect.” In other words, thanks to the art world’s newfound obsession with Banksy’s work, street artists can now ride this wave of interest to their own paydays. According to the BBC, Banksy first set an auction record of £50,400 in October 2006 for the sale of his Kate Moss print, a piece that represents Moss in the style of Andy Warhol’s iconic Marilyn Monroe images. The BBC reported yet another auction record in February 2007, when Banksy’s Bombing Middle England piece sold for £102,000, more than double its estimated price. With Banksy works reaching such astronomical prices, those collectors who would like their own street art pieces for their homes, but who cannot afford the millionaire price tags, will begin to scoop up works of less prominent street artists. While many have dubbed Banksy a “sell-out,” at least one art collective from New York City embraces street art’s entrée into the mainstream. The Wooster Collective argues that many artists would not be able to sell so much of their work or to command such high prices without the “Banksy Effect.” They assert that while “Shepard Fairey created the movement, Bansky created the market.”
It’s ironic that someone who purports to be anti-capitalist and anti-establishment, whose covert stunts project an image of underground dissidence, could obtain such high prices for his work. From the man who critiqued Paris Hilton’s celebrity with a massive stunt—where he went into music stores and replaced her album with his own doctored version—also comes exclusive celebrity parties at gallery openings and celebrity clients such as Angelina Jolie and Christina Aguilera. Although there are whispers of “sell-out” among Banksy fans, most seem to be accepting of his prominence and, in turn, accessibility to the general public.Yet, is Banksy comfortable with it? I wonder if his recent mockumentary about sell-out street artist Mr. Brainwash is an attempt to divert attention from his own stardom. On the one hand, it could be an expression of his frustration with a fad-based industry, one that is ruled by waxing and waning trends and not critical thinking. Banksy could possibly feel trapped by this own wave of celebrity. Or perhaps, Mr. Brainwash is a bit of a distraction from both Banksy and Fairey’s own fame. Many see the film as another Banksy stunt, as a way for him to, yet again, infiltrate the art world and insert his own perspective. Like the altered paintings that Banksy has covertly left in the Tate Britain, Mr. Brainwash is perhaps Banksy’s gift, also an altered original, to an overzealous art world.
Interestingly enough, Fairey is involved in the promotion of another mockumentary, I’m Still Here (2010), Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix’s recent hoax that documents the year Pheonix “decided” to become a rapper. According to one blog, you can find Fairey’s stenciled prints of Phoenix all over Chicago. If Fairey can willingly participate in one mockumentary, who’s to say he did not help orchestrate the Mr. Brainwash hoax? Yet any way you look at it, the film still stands as an interesting and witty peek into the world of street art. If nothing else, the film is still great entertainment, as well as a valid critique of the art world. If you haven’t taken the opportunity to see it yet, I highly recommend it.