Banksy has been the damned, elusive Scarlet Pimpernel of the international art scene for so long now – close to 20 years – it arouses suspicion. How, in our CCTV/smartphone/digitally surveilled era, has he been able to do his hit-and-run stencil-street-art groove thing without getting caught or his identity revealed?
Such an enduring cone and code of silence can only be explained by a vast pro-Banksy conspiracy, one with millions of dollars, rubles and euros at its disposal to ensure that the CIA, MI6, CSE, the Illuminati, the Freemasons and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences continue to turn a collective blind eye.
Banksy Does New York is a part of this vast conspiracy. Theatre-goers hoping for a behind-the-scenes/now-he-can-be revealed exposé of the British artist are instead presented with a celebration of the myth that is Banksy. They seek him here, they seek him there: a man – if man, in fact, he is – at once everywhere and nowhere. Ostensibly billed as a documentary, the film, which first aired on HBO last year, is also a funhouse-of-mirrors meta-tation on the valences of the contemporary art-industrial complex.
The film is centred on Banksy's now-famous 31-day "residency" in New York in October, 2013, each night of which he dedicated to clandestinely creating a new work of art at a (mostly) obscure but nonetheless publicly accessible site in the United States' largest metropolis. Come morning, Banksy usually would post an image of each finished artwork on his website and on Instagram and provide ironic audio commentary but not identify the work's precise locale. New York, as a result, became the site of what one interviewee in the documentary calls "the first hipster scavenger hunt."
Sometimes the work was as simple as a spray-painted slogan or aphorism: "The grumpier you are, the more assholes you meet" is one example, affixed to a truck door. But more often than not it was ambitious, clever in a stuntish sort of way and politically tinged. On one occasion, he bought a kitschy landscape painting from a charity shop for $60, then returned it a few days later with one alteration: a Hitler-like figure in a Nazi uniform seated on a bench in the painting's foreground, staring at the bucolic scene before him. Banksy titled the work The Banality of the Banality of Evil. Shortly after its discovery, it was auctioned by the charity for $615,000. Another time, in what Banksy called an attempt to "deliver calm," he installed a large woodsy diorama complete with babbling brook in the open back of a transport truck and had the vehicle drive around the East Village. The response, predictably, was anything but calm.
Later, in the parking lot of a soon-to-be-demolished industrial strip in Queens, he erected a small replica of the Great Sphinx, made of foam, cinder block and cement. We see the owner of an auto-glass shop dismantle the Sphinx, to a chorus of boos from outraged spectators, then take it to his mother's garage where he reassembles it for consignment to a Southampton art dealer who prices it at $350,000.
As he did with his debut film, 2012's Me at the Zoo, director Chris Moukarbel relies heavily on crowd-sourced, user-generated footage for Banksy Does New York, complemented here and there with his own material filmed after Banksy left town. "The public covered his residency better than I could have," Moukarbel said in an interview last year. "Because the locations were secret, I could never have gotten a camera there fast enough."
The result is a bravura feat of editing that effectively conveys the varied responses of New Yorkers to Banksy's art – some were charmed and felt protective (or acquisitive), others irked and destructive – responses that, in effect, become part of or complete the performative-participatory component of the Banksy aesthetic. Simultaneous with this, Moukarbel's film smartly addresses a proverbial plethora of larger issues – from the power of branding and the cult of celebrity to the uneasy place of street art and graffiti in the urban landscape and the redefinitions and de-definitions of art in our post-postmodern era – but without getting overbearing about it. It's downright playful, in fact, funky chic and cheeky. Somewhere, Banksy is smiling.