Co-directors Ian Roderick Gray and Dylan Harvey may be as good at performing in front of an audience as they are at calling the shots behind the camera. Their new film, The Banksy Job, looks remarkably like the 2010 mockumentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, but Gray and Harvey maintain that the whole thing is unscripted. During the Q&A after a Tribeca Film Festival screening earlier this week, the pair kept straight faces as they answered questions about their wild protagonist, AK47 (“AK” stands for Art Kaida, his “art terrorist” organization). “You can’t script a madman,” they said.
AK47, whether real or fabricated, makes for a highly entertaining character. After buying an unsigned Banksy print for 75 quid (~$108), instead of springing for the 150 quid signed version, AK47 attempts to get the artist’s signature. When Banksy refuses, AK47 begins plotting revenge by stealing one of Banksy’s works, a public sculpture called “The Drinker” (a riff on Rodin’s “The Thinker”). Absurdity ensues.
The AK47/Banksy feud really has been in the British news. Yet, it all feels too staged and extreme not to be an elaborate hoax. That’s not really the point, though; Gray and Harvey creatively reinterpret the narrative in a way that blurs the line between fiction and documentary. They stage scenes that take place in AK47’s mind, filled with workers in white jumpsuits. The imagination becomes a legitimate setting for drama. The whole device is reminiscent of Being John Malkovich, but instead of requiring a hidden door, all the filmmakers need to access their protagonist’s mind is a set and a crew.
In one of the funniest scenes of the movie, AK47 has successfully stolen “The Drinker” and attempts to create a ransom video à la Al-Qaeda. He sits in a chair with his face half covered by a black scarf while two armed men flank him. The image underscores the silliness of AK47’s “art terrorist” enterprise. When compared to large-scale international problems, the pettiness of the art world becomes that much more glaring. In another scene, AK47 marvels at how Banksy was able to bypass the increased surveillance of post-9/11 London in order to erect “The Drinker.” The Banksy Job subtly articulates how 9/11 continues to shape our conceptions of terror, covert organizations, and the vigilance now necessary in public places. Even in a comic film about contemporary street art, 9/11 looms.
The film also lampoons what passes today as “the artist lifestyle.” AK47 professes to be an artist by lifestyle, not by training. He explains his various odd jobs over the years (porn star, acid rave promoter, etc.) and the fact that he’s always coming up with new ideas. To be an artist these days, he suggests, you just need to rack up a checkered employment past and draw attention to your wildest actions while calling them conceptual art. AK47 questions why it was okay for Yuan Cai and Jian Jun Xi to jump on Tracey Emin’s bed, but it’s not OK for him to steal a Banksy statue. The film asks us to consider who and what determine a legitimate artistic act.
Artists’ fabrication processes also take a hit. After someone steals “The Drinker” from AK47, he decides to hire new workers to build a replica. If Banksy signs a document stating that he authorized the fabrication, the sculpture will become valuable. Without the signature, the piece is worthless. The film highlights the whims that determine value in the art world and the remove that successful artists often have from pieces that they sell as their own. The value of art in contemporary culture, the film suggests, is no longer about the physical objects themselves. Instead, it’s about artists who can create a certain cult of personality — think Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and, of course, Banksy.
Regardless of its veracity, The Banksy Job provides some great British humor, a compelling main character, and some well-deserved cultural mockery. The fact that the audience is even tempted to believe it all speaks to the extent of the farce in today’s art world.