Banksy: brands as people, people as brands

“I don’t know who the joke’s on, really. I don’t even know if there is a joke.” — Steve Lazarides

Exit Through the Gift Shop: A Banksy Film is a documentary detailing the counter-cultural ‘career’ of Thierry Guetta, a.k.a. Mr Brainwash. Its co-directors are Banksy and Shepard Fairey, “the biggest figures in the street art world.” Let’s break apart some of its elements in terms of personal branding.

We’re first introduced to Guetta as a compulsive filmmaker who gets entangled in the street art world. He documents countless hours of illegal art and eventually locates the elusive Banksy, an opportunity beyond his wildest dreams. Banksy grows to trust this strange man and encourages him to use his footage to create a documentary. After seeing the final (unwatchable) result, he comes to the conclusion that he isn’t a filmmaker at all, but a “mentally ill person with a camera.” He tries to shake Guetta off by suggesting that he becomes a street artist himself. Guetta takes this message to heart and immediately puts on a massive show as if he were already a fully-fledged artist.

Banksy is nothing if not a brand. We haven’t yet been able to verify his/her/their identity, let alone anything concrete about who they are as a person. We only understand Banksy from artworks and what he chooses to share with the public, and this mystique certainly adds to international interest. Guetta jumps at the chance to help him due to what he does, his name.

It’s entirely plausible that the film is fake. The filmmakers could have fabricated an obsessive filmmaker with a story interesting and credible enough to have caught Banksy’s attention enough to be let inside the world of the elusive artist. Many bizarre elements point to this being a mockumentary: rabbit, bird and bull metaphors, Disneyland FBI agents, being driven around in a wheelbarrow with a broken foot, odd camera angles, jaunty music, and increasingly strange and childlike dialogue.

Guetta is instantly the famous street artist who’s let fame go to his head: “Do you think he’s going to come and cut little papers and start to glue? No. I’m not going to make it. I’m just going to come with the idea and say ‘this is what I want, and I want this like that’.” He openly jokes about the amount of money he’s making out of his prints, he’s overly controlling of his staff, and they stop people trying to enter without having lined up first. He is a distillation of a street artist with an overinflated ego which both perpetuates and parodies the medium.

“I do think that the whole phenomenon of Thierry’s obsession with street art, becoming a street artist, a lot of suckers buying into his show and him selling a lot of expensive art very quickly… It’s anthropologically, sociologically, a fascinating thing to observe, and maybe there’s some things to be learned from it.” says Fairey. Hint hint.

Ultimately, I don’t think it matters if this documentary is ‘real’ or not. Either way, it acts as a meta-critique of the ‘industry’. Mr Brainwash could be argued to be an extension of his brand: this is how Banksy could have become, and it highlights his artistic and moral highgound from which he can mock the ‘sellouts’.

As Chris Maclean — Creative Director at RE Sydney — observed in his Brisbane lecture, How to make brands and influence people, brands reach beyond aesthetics and almost become personalities. In fact, people themselves are becoming brands. If we all carefully construct how we present ourselves to the world, then what is genuine?

Most people in the public realm will inevitably form some sort of ‘brand’ — even if all it manifests in is their way of speaking or their dress sense; the figure doesn’t necessarily have to have collateral associated with them. Musicians, artists, lawyers, and politicians all have a separate public façade.

Banksy recently sold his work on the side of a road in New York for $60. His intention was to highlight the importance of brands and our own prejudices. If it’s by Banksy, it must be good — and perhaps more importantly, fetch a high price on the market or carry high social currency.

Much of Banksy’s work speaks out against consumerism. It would go against the ethics of his own brand to sell artwork at exorbitant prices: he would destroy the brand’s integrity, and the media would make sure that it was well covered.

Photo by Michael Pickard via flickr

In an interview with a free street newspaper, he states that “Commercial success is a mark of failure for a graffiti artist” and that “when you look at how society rewards so many of the wrong people, it’s hard not to view financial reimbursement as a badge of self-serving mediocrity.”

This self-awareness is another pointer towards the documentary being fake. If Banksy likes to create irreverent parodies, then this line from an interview with Guetta doesn’t refute that: “In the end, I became his biggest work of art.”

“Exit Through The Gift Shop,” accessed 19 September 2016, http://www.sbs.com.au/ondemand/video/23317059542/exit-through-the-gift-shop.

Chris Maclean, “July / How to make brands and influence people — Brisbane” (lecture, The Edge, State Library of Queensland, 20 July 2016).

Ruchika Tulshyan, “Banksy: Why A Million-Dollar Artist’s Work Sold For $60,” Forbes, accessed 20 September 2016, http://www.forbes.com/sites/ruchikatulshyan/2013/10/14/banksy-why-amillion-dollar-artists-work-sold-for-60/#5b69278064dd.

“Getting at the truth of ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’,” Los Angeles Times, accessed 20 September 2016, http://articles.latimes.com/2011/feb/22/entertainment/la-et-oscar-exit-20110222.

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