HBO's 'Banksy Does New York' Making Idea-Driven Art Popular

Banksy Does New York Still - H 2014
Courtesy of HBO

Banksy Does New York Still - H 2014

Filmmaker Chris Moukarbel tells THR that Banksy's New York residency was the famed street artist's way of "baiting the public"

In October 2013, when anonymous street artist Banksy did a monthlong residency in New York, documentary filmmaker Chris Moukarbel wasn't there. He didn't know he would be doing a movie on the subject until weeks later, when HBO documentary president Sheila Nevins suggested a film chronicling the city in the grip of Banksy fever. His film was already shot, out there online somewhere; he just had to go find it and edit it. The finished product is Banksy Does New York, premiering on HBO on Nov. 17.

"It's really about sourcing all these bits of media that already exist in the public space," Moukarbel tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Every time somebody uses a hashtag, they're not only directing people's attention to something, they're also creating this massive online archive."

Each day would begin with a picture of Banksy's newest work placed on his Instagram account with an ironic museum-like audio explanation giving a hint to its location. Like his Oct. 7, heart-shaped mylar balloon stenciled on the side of a Brooklyn factory, much of the art begs to be completed with people posing as if holding the balloon's string, and one graffiti artist tagging it within hours. "What Banksy saw in the past were certain things playing out, like people defacing the work, people trying to steal the work, people trying to cash in on it. I think by the time he did the New York residency, he was sort of baiting the public, and I think he was baiting the media," says the filmmaker, who obviously bit on the bait. "So I think that it's making the residency complete. He was expecting all this audience participation."

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And audience participation he got. "I would certainly not be able to get somewhere because there was a Banksy somewhere in Chelsea. You couldn't get a cab, you couldn't get on a train," recalls Nevins, which got her thinking about a crowd-sourced movie on the subject. HBO enjoyed critical success last September with Terror at the Mall, a movie made entirely from surveillance footage about a terrorist attack in a Kenya mall, and Nevins knew Moukarbel from a similarly crowd-sourced film, Me @ the Zoo, which he made for the channel in 2012.

"If you search 'Banksy New York,' you come across this trove of footage that people had been posting throughout the month," notes Moukarbel, who had no trouble locating the works that hadn't already been removed or painted over. While most street artists vie for locations with higher visibility, Banksy often chooses places that create a context essential to the work's meaning. The domineering Ronald McDonald statue with his foot up while a shoeshiner labors at his feet works best when placed outside a McDonald's like the one in the Bronx where it was found on the morning of Oct. 16. And The Banality of the Banality of Evil, a cheap alpine landscape painting purchased for $50 by an anonymous buyer, turned up weeks later with an admiring Nazi added to the composition by Banksy. He didn't leave it in the foyer at AIG; he left it in one of Housing Works' thrift stores, where the proceeds would go to fighting homelessness and AIDS. Weeks later, it fetched $615,000 at auction.

"You could say he's giving it all away," notes Moukarbel, which accurately describes the case of a Sphinx sculpture left in an empty lot near several open businesses slated to be demolished by a developer. Bernardo Veles, owner of a nearby auto-glass shop, scooped the artwork into his van and hid it in his grandmother's garage. The subsequent meeting between Veles and art dealer Stephan Keszler is one of the few sequences filmed by Moukarbel, along with the sequence at the Art Southampton Fair, where they try to sell it for $300,000.

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The attempts to cash in on Banksy outraged some, but there's an argument to be made against posterity in the street art world, which is by definition ephemeral. If artists like Banksy felt otherwise, they would engage established institutions to ensure their work ends up in a museum or private collection where it will be safeguarded. "People have this assumption with art that it's supposed to be part of posterity, and it's supposed to outlive the artist," offers Moukarbel. "I think that might be an old-fashioned way of looking at art. What can be viewed as street art is not necessarily the piece but the effect of it. I think Banksy's an example of how to make idea-driven art popular."