Art World Rallies Around Bank-Robbing Filmmaker

Joseph Gibbons robbing the Capital One bank in Manhattan’s Chinatown on December 31, 2014 (photo via NYPD)
It was intended as a provocative video performance. Late last year, Joseph Gibbons walked into banks in New York and Rhode Island and videotaped himself robbing them. Each time, he discreetly slipped a note to the terrified teller and walked away with bags of cash — he netted about $3,000 from the first heist and $1,000 from the second.

But, as one might hope would happen to any bank robber, Gibbons was caught in January. And on Monday, he pleaded guilty to third-degree burglary and sentenced to a year in prison, according to the New York Post.

That a white, former MIT professor and Guggenheim fellow got the same treatment as everyone else would suggest that the US judicial system isn’t as broken as it has often seemed of late. Yet some members of the art world were saddened by the sentencing.

Ahead of the verdict, 26 curators, artists, and professors from prestigious universities like Columbia, Pratt, MIT, and NYU had sent letters to the Manhattan Supreme Court asking for either a light sentence or no sentence at all. “I hope you cast your eye upon him favorably and not imprison him,” Berlin-based art professor Julia Scher wrote. “I am confident he meant only the best for his art, and felt he was acting in a solemn and worthwhile direction.” In her own letter, Queens Museum curator Larissa Harris pled for mercy, explaining that she plans to invite Gibbons to screen his work — including the robbery video — at her institution. “This would be an enormous honor for us,” she wrote.

Many are also donating to help Gibbons financially. Video artist Peggy Ahwesh spearheaded an Indiegogo campaign that has raised nearly $9,000 for his legal and health bills, along with “food-clothes-and-shelter” needs.

There’s no doubt that the avant-garde filmmaker is, as Tony Oursler described him in a statement, a “national treasure.” He was an early pioneer of Super 8 film, and his work has always pushed boundaries and delved into the nature of criminality and psychological chaos. One 1977 performance piece involved “liberating” a Richard Diebenkorn painting from the Oakland Museum in California, while a 2006 video called Confessions of a Sociopath found him shooting heroin, shoplifting, meeting with a parole officer, and going to a shrink.

Given his oeuvre, it would be surprising if Gibbons hadn’t considered prison a possible outcome of his latest project — in fact, a stint in jail seems very much a part of the performance. He clearly knew what he was doing, and what’s more, his motivation may have even transcended art: he told Post that he robbed the banks during a time when he had no money or place to say.

So why did art world figures push for a reduced sentence? Do they really believe artists should be treated differently from anyone else in a court of law? Whatever the answers, it seems their pleas may have actually had an effect. Though the prosecutor was pushing for a sentence of up to three years in prison, Justice Laura Ward gave Gibbons just a third of that. He will be formally sentenced July 13.

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