Opinion

The Crime of Being an “Avant-Garde” Artist

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WPRI 12 Eyewitness News reports Joe Gibbons’s bank robbery (screenshot via YouTube)

When the news hit that experimental filmmaker Joe Gibbons was arrested for bank robbery in New York this past January, my first reaction was a gut one. Though I should have been worrying about him, and those closest to him (because his community and mine overlapped for many years) instead all I could think about was how the story was being covered. My initial thought when I saw the very first story was something along the lines of “he’ll probably get more press coverage for this than he did for any of the honors that he’s received.” Not to mention for his obsessively wrought artwork or dedicated teaching.

I don’t condone bank robbery — regardless of whether it’s undertaken by artists, mortgage brokers, or career gangsters, but I think Joe Gibbons’s situation is worth looking at more closely because it says a lot about how artists are and aren’t portrayed in the popular media when they do risky work, and hints at what might be necessary if artists are to take more control of these narratives.

There has been a whole range of coverage since January (including here in Hyperallergic) and Gibbons, who plead guilty, was sentenced just this week, but the initial story, published by the New York Post (and featuring the phrase “screwball professor” in its SEO-optimized URL) is downright nasty in tone. Not to mention inaccurate on several counts. It begins: “A wacky former MIT professor took cinema verite to a whole new level by robbing a Manhattan bank and recording the heist, authorities said.”

I won’t pick apart every questionable statement throughout because it’s the New York Post, but I would be very surprised if any “authority” called Gibbons “wacky” or discussed the evolution of cinema verite with the reporters there. Still, every article since has referenced this one, so it has to be taken seriously.

The Post article, and all of the other press coverage of this event, relies heavily for its information about Gibbons’s practice as an artist on a nine year old interview by Christian Holland from Boston’s Big Red & Shiny art journal. A big point of emphasis in the 2006 piece is the lack of respect (even within the art world) for creative practices that aren’t commercially viable. But the focus of every quote pulled from it for use in 2015 stories has been on Gibbons’s interest in the transgressive, which would be considered “deep play” if he were conducting anthropological research, but which has a less formalized lineage in art. Even the Boston Globe’s more nuanced coverage of the story emphasizes Gibbons’s history of “performing transgressive acts” and implies a causal relationship between these acts and the assertion by a friend and former collaborator that in recent years, his life “fell apart.”

Gibbons’s friends, family, colleagues, and even Gibbons himself via another problematic New York Post article that I’ll return to in a moment, confirm for me that he has indeed dealt with his share of misfortunes at points during the last several years. But there’s no rationale for chalking this up to his filmmaking experiments. A lifetime of making films that push at the boundaries of civility and legality has worked out just fine for John Waters.

Gibbons’s crime — beyond any of the actual crimes he’s been prosecuted for — is being a genuine “avant-garde” artist. It’s not a marketable social role or an easy one. It involves the sacrifice of many creature comforts and a constant questioning of yourself and everything around you that not everyone has the stomach for. In Gibbons’s case, it also involves stepping into the shoes of many even more reviled social roles — voyeur, drug addict, sociopath, and now incarcerated felon — and trying them on for size in front of a camera, and questioning our collective attitudes about these categories in the process.

Saul Levine, a beloved educator, advocate for, and longtime practitioner of avant-garde filmmaking (think Maya Deren, Jonas Mekas, Jack Smith) and based at Massachusetts College of Art, met Gibbons in the early 1980s at a visiting artist club that founding father of cinema verite Ricky Leacock used to host in his home in the Boston area. Gibbons was moving East to teach but had been a part of what Levine described to me as a “kind of punk” filmmaking movement in the late ‘70s in California that was involved in “socially transgressive pranks.” Once settled there, Levine feels that Gibbons, along with another filmmaker very active in Boston at the time, Anne Robertson, was doing some of the most interesting and cutting edge super 8 work in the country — combining performance art, sound, and direct address of the camera.

We spoke in detail about the ethos at the time among underground filmmakers. Levine and Gibbons were both lucky to be able to make some money by teaching over the years, but it was an era when artists supported themselves by any means necessary — legal or otherwise. So diaristic or pseudo-diaristic work often captured or made fun of this as a part of its content.

“It’s always been part of his work that he’s been fencing with the bourgeoisie system,” Levine pointed out, and then went on to describe a hostile atmosphere towards the arts in Boston as something that may have helped to galvanize Gibbons’s approach.

Boston has been a very hard place for visual artists unless they find, like I have, a good day job within academia, and even then you’re bucking the culture of Boston. Boston is not all that friendly to unconventional visual art. So you get very extreme versions of it because there’s no institutional control — no moderation.

Like the New York Post, most media coverage of Gibbons’s crime (slash artwork) has focused almost exclusively on one narrative: a former academic has fallen from grace and is expecting special treatment. It is relayed almost gleefully and calibrated to perfectly aggravate anti-intellectual knee jerks and moralistic finger wags.

By instigating this narrative, Gibbons is taking a somewhat radical approach to reinforcing the legitimacy of his not-very-monetizable art practice. That after interviewing him from jail, the New York Post is calling him a “nutty professor” with a “bizarre film project” rather than characterizing him as simply criminal or deviant can actually be seen as a tremendous victory for artists doing highly experimental work.

Gibbons is treating the press as a collaborator in whatever he’s creating right now, or as Levine put it, despite being concerned for his friend on a personal level, “What’s amazed me is how on-script Joe came through in the news coverage.”

Vanessa Renwick, an Oregon-based filmmaker and friend of Gibbons since 2001, has been corresponding with him in prison and has no doubts about how this episode fits into the trajectory of his career. In an e-mail exchange I had with her, she said:

I told … the TRUE/FALSE Film Festival that they should give Joe their True Vision award this year. The award goes to those whose work shows a dedication to the creative advancement of the art of nonfiction filmmaking. If anyone deserves it, it’s Joe. Has any other filmmaker blurred the line so well between true and false? Or perhaps there is no line, and we are left to wonder exactly that. Which makes his film “Confessions of a Sociopath” one of the most interesting films out there.

This film, Gibbons’s most well-known work, is based on Samuel Beckett’s famous avant-garde play about artistic failure and isolation, Krapp’s Last Tape. Like Krapp, Gibbons is taking a huge risk in his current artistic endeavor. And like Krapp, despite several enthusiastic fundraising efforts by his friends, and promised future exhibitions, the end result of his current situation may very well be that Gibbons is left with nothing but his recordings.

As Gibbons’s films go, I’m partial to “The Genius Maker” as a route into the profound value of his work.The film begins with Gibbons reading a small child a baby book — one of several props that Emily Breer constructed for the film — about capitalism. His choice here to collaborate with a baby underscores what I see as both Joe Gibbons’s particular talent as an artist, and what makes his work truly radical — not just in opposition to a bourgeois value system, but in opposition to what we all hold most dear.

Joe Gibbons’s genius is that he puts himself — or very well structured caricatures of himself — in one situation after another that he can’t control and leaves the camera rolling. Not because he wants to see what will happen, but because he wants us to see what will happen. He proves to us what we are constantly proving to ourselves but then creating revisionist histories around: we can’t really determine the outcome of our actions or anything else.

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