Friday, June 04, 2010

Once upon a time, the late Gil Ott shared a tree-house in Bolinas with an anthropologist named Kush. Kush, aka Steven Kushner, would go on to teach at the late lamented New College of California & simultaneously begin videotaping many of the poetry readings he attended around San Francisco. As in thousands of them. Some of these events were also taped by others – most often the Poetry Archive at San Francisco State – & there was something of a rivalry over the quality of the work. How accurate this debate might be is impossible to ascertain from nearly 3,000 miles away since both archives – shockingly, to my mind – remain offline. For all I know, Kush’s archives are sitting in boxes in a garage or attic somewhere, or worse. But even if we presume that the quality borders on the non-existent, the reality persists that for hundreds, maybe thousands, of poetry readings in the Bay Area over the past 40 years, Kush’s archives are the documentation, the only remaining evidence of what happened, what was read & who was there.

I thought of Kush a lot when watching Exit Through the Gift Shop, Bansky’s documentary about street art documentarian Thierry Guetta & his morphing into millionaire street artist Mr. Brainwash. Exit is flat out one of the best films I have ever seen on the visual arts, easily the best since at least Basquiat, a film not-coincidentally directed by Julian Schnabel, a major painter before he turned to film (The Diving Bell, The Diving Bell & the Butterfly). Presuming, that is, that Guetta actually exists & is not himself a Banksy art product rather in the way that Kent Johnson produced Araki Yasusada.

Let’s presume here that Guetta / Brainwash are for real. The story, as such, is this. Guetta, an LA-vintage clothing store owner with a Euro-orphan background not unlike that of Andy Grove or Bill Graham, gets a video camera and becomes obsessive in his recording of everything. But one of the things he records, on a family trip back home to France, is a cousin, Space Invader, one of the first generation of street artists, who unlike the graffiti taggers they so palpably emulate appear all to have gone to art school. Film Space Invader in France, and then back on his own home turf of LA, Guetta meets LA’s resident street art hero, Shepard Fairey, pre-Obama image & Time magazine cover (& pre-Associated Press copyright suit over the use of an AP photo of Obama as one source for his iconic poster). Guetta becomes the sorcerer’s apprentice & soon finds himself everywhere, since he has no fear of heights & gets off on the idea of the danger of getting arrested. Fairey, Invader & the other street artists he soon gets know (virtually all guys save for one street-named Swoon) teach him not only the tricks of their craft, making spray art stencils at the local Kinko’s but to film from a distance & in low-light situations so as not to attract the police.

Guetta tells everyone he is making a documentary, but it appears to be one on the order of Kush’s: lots of tapes, but no real archive that can be credibly accessed by outsiders. The artists all seem to value not only his help, but the idea of creating a lasting archive of work that all too often gets sprayed over pretty quickly (tho, and it’s not noted in passing, we do later in the film see one Bansky Andre the Giant disappear as Mr Brainwash himself pastes his own newer work over it).

But as he gets to know the street art scene, Guetta comes to understand that his compulsive documentation has a major gap. He needs to interview Banksy, the “international man of mystery,” who is the Batman to all these various Robins of Street Art. The catch is that it’s impossible. Everyone professes not to know who he is or where he is. He is said not to own a cellphone. However, coming over to the US to do some work in the LA area, Banksy’s assistant is turned back at customs – the cover story on the rationale for the trip doesn’t get him through. So Banksy calls up Shepard Fairey to see if there is anyone who can and wants to help. Why not, suggests Fairey, this middle-aged boutique owner & camera nut who happens to be Space Invader’s cousin. Unable to find Banksy, Banksy comes to him.

Banksy has some additional rules beyond what other street artists have demanded of Guetta. Only filming his hands, for example. Guetta has no problem agreeing, and soon the dynamic duo are scrambling over rooftops together. Banksy calls Guetta his friend.So Guetta now really becomes the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, helping Banksy not just in LA, but soon enough back in the UK & elsewhere. To the absolute horror of the master’s own team of full-time assistants, all of whom have been trained to be extremely camera shy. Not for nothing is the production company of this film called Paranoid Pictures. Banksy is on-screen, indeed explaining action & motivations off & on from the first moment to the last, but also shown in shadows, his voice digitally muffled. Most of the film’s narrative voiceover is done instead by Welsh actor Rhys Ifans (soon to be Xenophilius Lovegood in the next-to-last Harry Potter flick).

All of which reaches a climax when two things occur. First, Banksy decides to have an actual show, converting a warehouse on LA’s skid row, complete with a live elephant made up in children’s face paint. PETA is not amused but the A-list set turns out in force, pushing Banksy’s rep (and auction prices) into hyperdrive. Second, Banksy actually tells Guetta to complete his documentary, which triggers a crisis, since Guetta may have hundreds of tapes of raw footage, but utterly no idea about organization or editing. What he comes up with looks like Warren Sonbert suffering from arrhythmia – as a parody of structuralist film-making, from Brakhage to Abigail Child, it might be interesting, but as documentation of a generation of artists desperate to be preserved in amber, not so much.

At this point, Banksy steps in, telling Guetta to give him the tapes & let him edit the documentary, while he, Guetta, goes off to become a street artist on his own. It is here that the Sorcerer’s Apprentice suddenly tips over the buckets of the art world. He has never had a show before, never had a work in a group show. He understandings marketing – his used clothing store requires him to back stacks of old clothing in dank warehouses & create displays of them. And he’s smart enough to understand that if people aren’t buying his goods, he needs to raise his prices, not lower them. So, armed with what he knows about retail & having spent the better part of decade observing street artists, this middle-aged French guy decides to outdo Banksy. If Banksy rented a small warehouse on skid row, Guetta (now calling himself Mr. Brainwash) rents a closed down motion picture studio. He hires sculptors & craftsmen & gives them instructions on the order of “build me an eight-foot spray can” or “make a giant monster out of TV sets.” He & his elves produce hundreds, if not thousands, of prints, most of them deeply imitation of Andy Warhol, Banksy, Fairey & other artists whose work itself is deeply implicated in appropriation. The spray cans for example are labeled Campbell Tomato Spray & given that familiar look. We see celeb portraits galore – often versions done by Warhol – now with dark glasses sprayed on. It’s not great work, but it sure looks familiar.

At which point several things occur. Guetta loses track of the number of tasks he needs to complete to make this happen. He emails Banksy for a quote he can use to promote the show, but then uses the quote on billboards. The media picks up on the circus aspect & are everywhere when, shortly before all of this is set to either collapse or come to fruition, Guetta falls & breaks his leg. It’s at this point that the people he’s hired cry out to Banksy for help, who sends his production team to mock up the work. In some cases they take serious liberties – “make a room of art that looks like the stuff in that gallery there.” Is this Guetta’s work? That would be an interesting philosophic discussion, but what is clear is that when his show opens there are 4,000 people or so waiting to get in & within a week he’s sold nearly $1 million in art. Does he have any clue what he’s doing? Banksy and the other street artists use words like “crazy,” “retard” & “mental problems” to describe what’s going on.

Furthermore, his success puts their hard-won art skills in a very different light. Was he selling ersatz art to suckers, as one artist put it, or showing that their art school educations were really not much more than an indulgence? The film ends on an ambiguous note, save for Mr. Brainwash. He is definitely the little engine that could. And did.

If in fact you buy that scenario at all. Not everyone does. The New York Times, among others, smells a rat & it looks a lot like the silkscreen one Banksy uses in so many of his pieces. Basically, the Times declared that it cannot prove that Guetta is who he says he is, rather than say an actor hired to play a role in a Banksy art event. If you buy the story as shown on the screen, it’s a howler, but ultimately an uplifting tale of an obsessive guy who actually got what he imagined was possible. If you buy the Times’ alternative, you get another very deeply cynical art scene joke. Just like most of Banksy’s work. If it walks like a duck, the suggestion is, then a duck it must be. The schedule at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute, where we saw the film, calls it a "faux documentary." But unlike, say, those of Christopher Guest, this one is done entirely deadpan. Exit Through the Gift Shop is not A Mighty Wind.

I’m intrigued at the implicit moral imperative of the Times piece that we must pick sides. Is this a happy, uplifting tale or a cynical, knowing art world put on? Does one make us happy while other make us sophisticates? Does one make us gullible, the other knowing? Is this a documentation of art terrorism or art terrorism itself? My guess is that it is the having to decide that is Banksy’s target here, to the degree that he can be said to have one. If having to decide is what separates the art world wunderkind from the laughable fraud, is the decision itself what constitutes art? Further, you can look at this film from either perspective & conclude that you are the one who gets it, who sees it for what it is. Either position can render you the one in the know. About which this film is deliciously agnostic.

All of which brings me back to Kush & the Cloud House Archives. This film suggests that a major archive of street art, as yet uncatalogued, unrescued, unavailable, still really exists. We know this is the case with regards to Bay Area Poetry. Which is, regardless of the field of endeavor, ancillary to, an extension of, the field of knowledge itself. The problem that this film inadvertently reveals is not one of Too Much Information, but quite the reverse. What else is happening to those tapes? On this the film is mute. I’m of the opinion that all archives should be made accessible, available, affordable, be it street art or Bay Area poetry. There is still no online catalog with streaming (let alone downloadable) options for the Poetry Center Archives, no doubt because of copyright, permissions & the cost of digitalization. But what about the rest of this world, decaying in our midst? How many colleges have similar archives? And what is becoming of them? I have a copy of a reading I gave many years ago at Temple, for example, which I still think of as one of my best readings ever, but I’m told that the school later simply discarded all of its tapes. Not just of that reading, but of years of them. Hello?

So the spirit that hovers over Exit Through the Gift Shop for me isn’t that of Thierry Guetta or Banksy, but rather that of Harry Smith, the equally obsessive music archivist whose anthologies of folk music virtually made the 1960s possible. We need many more just like him. For poetry, for street art, for all manner of activity that has not historically been tracked or recorded that way, but for which archives have come into existence. The difference between the domain of poetry & that of visual art may just be the lack of a painted elephant, but without a Harry Smith, each is threatened with the disappearance of generations of work.