In 2013, Banksy staged his "Better Out Than In" residency, which took place in the streets of New York City last October. For those who somehow managed to sleep through the entire month of mayhem, the project saw the ever-elusive street artist leave behind a work of art everyday somewhere in an unannounced location for people to find. It ignited a frenzy amongst the public. Fans were excited to see a Banksy work firsthand, and enterprising businessmen and gallery owners were eager to make a dollar (or millions of them) off the artist's abandoned works. Pieces were tagged, buffed, and removed; fights broke out, and the cops got involved on numerous occasions. Banksy's residency was one big spectacle, and those who got too caught up in his antics may have missed out on the fact that they were part of the show.
Luckily, the theatrics are about to begin again.
Tonight, HBO will broadcast director Chris Moukarbel's Banksy Does New York. For his documentary film, Moukarbel and his team sifted through hours of crowd-sourced content, piecing together tweets, photos, and videos (the only surviving evidence of Banksy's works) to depict what exactly happened in the streets of New York last year. After watching the film, viewers will learn a whole lot more about the larger context behind some of the highly sought-after works (Banksy himself gave explanations) and perhaps a bit more about the people who partook in the madness. We sat down with the Moukarbel to discuss creating a film out of crowd-sourced content and the allure of Banksy, the world's ultimate provocateur.
How did the idea for Banksy Does New York come about?
HBO approached me about making a film about two weeks after Banksy had left and had finished. It presented this problem of “How do you cover something that had already happened?” I have a history of making films in this style, using Internet content, social media, and user-generated content to tell a story, and that presented the opportunity to take a snapshot of the Internet from that month of October and a depiction of Banksy’s residency. It probably would have been nearly impossible to cover with our own cameras, anyway, just because every location was secret, and he was a moving target.
Your film reveals how people responded to Banksy’s works and how they feel about Banksy in general. Do you think your documentary explores Banksy’s story more or the people’s?
We always talk about it as being a city holding a mirror back up to the artist. Banksy’s residency was almost like a film that he was producing himself. It was like a movie that was playing out on the streets and playing out online. It wasn't so important to me to make the movie from Banksy’s perspective because we weren’t making it with Banksy. But we were making it in collaboration with New Yorkers. So the fun of it and the point of view was all that of the city.
You interview people who love Banksy, people who dislike him, and people who are trying to make a dollar off him. Why did you feel it was important to include a range of voices in your documentary?
The thing about Banksy that is really polarizing—and I think that’s part of what was attractive to me in terms of making the film—is that he’s somebody who a lot of people know about and have a lot of opinions about. Americans don’t necessarily know the most famous art world artists, but they often seem to know Banksy. He has moved out of that space of belonging to the art world and has become this populist figure, and a lot of people have opinions.
Americans don’t necessarily know the most famous art world artists, but they often seem to know Banksy.
His work is populist by nature, but he’s also an expert at self-promotion and attracting the media. I think that that’s a big part of his projects—not just the actual work but creating a frame around the work. So for me, part of that frame is the opinions of everybody that happened to come in contact with his work.
How did you select the people that you interviewed?
It’s really about people that had some sort of relationship with his residency, whether it was somebody who had a Banksy put up on his or her wall or someone like Stephen Keszler who hunted Banksy’s works and had a history with selling them in auctions and being part of the unauthorized Banksy market.
Then there are the guys in Willets Point, who didn’t know anything about Banksy. Banksy had dropped this highly valuable piece of artwork right in their backyard, amongst all of these mechanic shops that were about to be knocked down. [The Sphinx] kind of got delivered to them, and they saw it as this godsend because suddenly they had the opportunity to own something that was so valuable, that might actually save their business.
When this Willets Point event was happening, it caused quite a bit of controversy. Your film doesn’t vilify the guys who removed the Sphinx but attempts to show their perspective.
We weren’t trying to create any sort of value judgment against anybody that had been affected by Banksy’s residency. It was more about showing how his works were interfering with people's lives, sometimes in a great way.
It was interesting to see how individual pieces played out, depending on what neighborhood they were in. I think [Banksy] did originally intend for the pieces to resonate in each given location. Sometimes the work was actually about bringing people's attention to the specific locations that the piece was found in. Often, it was the frame around the piece that was the work. Leaving the Sphinx out in plain view, he knew that people would try to steal it. And that was part of his project, watching this process play out.
I think he was often baiting the public, like when he put those balloons on the wall. That piece was done on the 31st day, so his residency had already been highly publicized. He knew there was going to be a ton of cameras there, and the fact that the balloons could be so easily removed was intentional.
What is it about Banksy that appeals to you as filmmaker?
Again, I’m personally more interested in the broader effect of his work and not always the work itself. And I think that is, at this point, his interest. I guess I related to what he was doing in that sense. It felt like he was creating this cinema in the real world, even down to the final song he put on his website.
When he’s signing off on the last day, he had the song “New York, New York” playing. So while the balloons were being stolen, while everybody was getting arrested, and during the whole spectacle that was playing out in front of everyone’s eyes, he was simultaneously playing it out online. Everybody who went to his site would be hearing this classic New York song playing, which we used at the end of our film as well. It really felt like this classic New York ending to his residency, and it kind of informed it stylistically.
What is your approach with documentaries in general? It seems like Banksy Does New York has parallels with your film Me at the Zoo.
I’m really interested in cinema and social media. I think a lot of us are making documentaries every day, in a sense. So to me, it seems like a great way to tell a story—not just of the real world but also of this big digital space that we occupy. It feels like an accurate way to tell a story because so much of our lives are playing out in these two spaces. For me to be able to sift between these two parallel universes as a filmmaker is exciting and also feels like the most accurate way to tell a story.
For me to be able to sift between these two parallel universes as a filmmaker ... feels like the most accurate way to tell a story.
Can you talk about the process of crowd-sourcing content? How long did it take you to sift through all the footage and social media?
We started editing right from the beginning of the process of making the film. I worked with a really amazing team at Matador. We had people basically doing searches for “Banksy” and “#Banksy,” really tapping into this massive online archive of videos, photos, and stories of everybody that was tracking him.
We would then take these videos and images and start editing them in order to understand our story. And then we would reach out to these individuals who created them to ask for their permission. We also figured out who our characters were and how we were going to tell our own story with our own cameras.
How did Banksy get involved in your film half-way through?
What he did halfway through was give us a bit of guidance in terms of accuracy of some of the events. No one had really taken this wide view on the residency, so we were the first to really look at it as a whole. And we didn't always know what we were seeing. [Banksy] wasn't involved in any way in terms of the production of the film, but he did give us some insight into the individual pieces and helped us be more accurate.
What have you learned about him through your interactions?
Oh my god, absolutely nothing [laughs]. I don’t know anything more about him than I did when we started this, which may be a testament to his ability to stay anonymous. I really can't say I have any more insight into the man than I did a year ago.
He reached out to you guys?
We started making the film from the perspective of his work, and it was less important to us whether or not he was involved because it is not really about him. I think there was some concern about it being some kind of exposé, and I think when he realized it was not that kind of movie, he was a little more relaxed in terms of providing us some context for what happened.
Sometimes the deeper meanings behind his works get lost among the hype. Your film spends quite a bit of time discussing certain pieces, like Banksy's video of rebels shooting down Dumbo. Was it your intention to shift the lens toward these subjects?
Some of these things were what Banksy was intending to bring the public’s attention. It was also our intention to refocus our attention to some of those issues. They’re inherent in the work. They gave a broader meaning to his residency. It wasn’t just about stirring up trouble or getting a lot of praise. I think he was also choosing to refocus people's attention, using the spectacle around his work to occasionally, when it’s possible, bring people’s attention to some of these broader issues.
As a filmmaker, why was it important for you to delve into the deeper aspects of his residency?
Personally, I never set out to make a movie about Banksy. It was initially about the work. Then after understanding his work, I was inspired by some of the themes that he was getting at: gentrification of a public space in New York City, the inability for a cultural organization to function in the city. It’s becoming exceedingly unaffordable, and that’s something that has affected people I know. So I thought that it was worthwhile to allow his story to bring attention to some of the other issues that New Yorkers are affected by every day.