Banksy Does New York

A portrait not of creation, but of consumption, this fast-paced documentary unpacks the reaction to Banksy's New York residency.
Banksy Does New York

On October 12, 2013, a man sold spray art from a stall near Central Park, not that many people took notice. Few passers-by stopped to peruse the black and white canvases, each priced for $60, and even fewer still bought something. In fact, only three customers made a purchase, for a combined total of $420 in takings. The next day, it was revealed that the stand was part of Banksy's month-long residency in New York, selling his genuine paintings for far, far less than their usual value.

As the documentary Banksy Does New York shows, that's when the city's citizens and the art world paid attention. Unsurprisingly, fans, collectors and casually interested New Yorkers alike were left reeling about missing out on their chance to their very own Banksy at a bargain price. Of course, that was the point; after the elusive figure announced the October project, Better Out Than In, denizens of the Big Apple had responded with wild enthusiasm, despite already living in a city filled with street art. As Banksy spent the month traversing the five boroughs and unveiling a new piece each day, the masses traipsed the streets and scoured social media in an ostensible scavenger hunt, eager to consume every item as soon as it was surreptitiously unveiled. 

The vast difference between the disinterest in the average-looking street stall and the rapturous reception Banksy's pieces received otherwise couldn't be more telling. Since making the leap from Bristol's underground scene to international fame with publicly visible stencil creations, fascination for the anonymous figure has only mounted; however it is the name that now takes precedence over the actual content of his witty paintings. Audiences flock to the placement of different media in different locations on different topics – some fitting the traditional graffiti mould and other constructed as mobile works, with sculpture, inflatables, an open-air gallery and an interactive installation also featuring – driven by the cult of idolatry. Though Banksy's efforts are designed to be viewed by all for free, trying to capitalise upon their popularity for street cred and financial gain is increasingly common. 

While purporting to provide a chronicle of the 2013 residency through user-generated content, Banksy Does New York actually gets to the heart of this reaction. As the film advises at the outset, the response by the city was as much a part of the show as the artist's own work, but the assemblage of video, tweets and instagram images compiled by director Chris Moukarbel (Me at the Zoo) offers more than a montage of a movement surrounding the artist. Yes, as a record of Banksy's 31 pieces in 31 days compiled by the crowds that gathered to see them, the feature fulfils its task in its fast paced, frantically edited snapshot set to a pulsing soundtrack. Showing the individual works from Better Out Than In is only the set-up, though, with Moukarbel also affording a thoughtful filmic treatise on the state of modern art. 

Accordingly, what Banksy Does New York presents is a portrait not of creation, but of consumption. Packaging the upbeat documentary as the same kind of anarchic scramble it depicts, lurching between places and themes as well as off on tangents, might be driven by the material available; however it is a canny touch that supports a perspective of Banksy's work as emblematic of trends and brands reigning supreme with audiences, with the proof in the footage. As further evidence, Moukarbel juxtaposes the main mania with the plight of the 5 Pointz precinct, New York's legal aerosol space since torn down to make way for residential developments, a cause only the most devoted to the art form are shown to care about. It's an apt inclusion, fitting the film's astute yet irreverent approach to social commentary with a satirical skew, and ensuring the equally enjoyable and informative documentary always channels the spirit of its titular subject.

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Banksy Does New York
Director: Chris Moukarbel
USA, 2014, 79 mins

Release date: April 23
Distributor: Madman
Rated: M

Sarah Ward

Friday 24 April, 2015

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay