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In October 2013, the renowned street artist Banksy began a month long residency in New York, where he created graffiti, installations and performance artworks in the city. Chris Moukarbel’s HBO documentary charts the interaction between the artist’s residency and the immense public reaction it garnered. Each day, Banksy would post a photo of a finished work online, without listing the location. This led New Yorkers on a fevered hunt, it became a triumph to successfully find a work untouched, photograph it, and gloat your way across the internet. Banksy fanhood evolved into frenzy, as the rapidity of technological response heightened the ephemerality of the works. Regardless of their location, in unassuming doorways or vacant lots, they would soon be interfered with, the works inevitably painted over or removed.
In some ways, the spectacle becomes more important than the art itself, and this is central to Moukarbel’s documentary. In the film, most fans rarely look at the art; instead they capture a shot, and wait for the next chase. In one ironic spectacle, Banksy creates a diorama in a truck of a lush garden, claiming it will bring calm to the city. Once found, the installation is swarming with people crammed up against it, arms outstretched with iPhones. Director Moukarbel utilises a vast array of sources for the film, much of it user-generated footage of “Banksy hunters” themselves. In traditional documentary style, he intersperses this with commentary from art and culture critics.
The varied response of the city dwellers interests Moukarbel—some are enthralled by Banksy, others see it as an opportunity for profit. Building owners promptly remove their doorways and walls with Banksy’s art in order to sell it, making considerable money in the process. The arbitrariness of “artistic value” is everywhere. In one bizarre scene, Banksy’s sphinx sculpture made of foam and cement blocks is removed from a deserted lot and transported to the elite Keszler Gallery, where it is valued at $350,000. Meanwhile, iconic sites of graffiti and street art are disappearing across the city due to the development of sleek high rises. Public art is privatised, or demolished. Because the documentary charts each day of the residency, it is a little repetitive in its concentration on the Banksy hype—the frenzy has a crushing nausea to it. But the film is interesting at its edges, when it explores the vibrant, sometimes fraught, tensions between artistic expression and the city.