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'Banksy Does New York': user-generated HBO doc asks, 'What is public space now'?

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Director Chris Moukarbel talks about the challenges of using social media to help make his documentary, and the multiple layers of social commentary in Banksy's work.

Just over a year ago, the street artist Banksy declared himself "Artist in Residence for the City of New York." He created a new piece of art every day for the entire month.

The resulting graffiti, installations and sculptures created chaos, as rabid fans took to Twitter and Instagram to find the Banksy piece of the day, rushing to the art before it could be vandalized by amateur graffiti artists or lifted by people trying to make a profit.

The social media component of the "residency" was key to locating the works, and as a result the project lived a second life on the Internet. If you couldn't see a piece before it was removed in person, there were probably dozens of TwitPics to browse through.

Banksy's residency produced more selfies than official pieces of art, and maybe that was the point. Or part of it. Well, who knows. 

The chaos and conversation that unfolded is the subject of a new documentary called “Banksy Does New York,” airing tonight on HBO. Director Chris Moukarbel not only had to make a documentary from all the Banksy craziness, he had to somehow include events that he didn't even film.

When he dropped in to talk with The Frame, we asked him about the challenges of creating a "user-generated" documentary and the multiple layers of social commentary in Banksy's work.

Interview Highlights:

Your film is made up of countless YouTube clips, Tweets, and Instagram photos. Whose social media feeds did you pull from in making "Banksy Does New York"?

Sometimes it would be loyal Banksy followers and hunters, and sometimes it would just be a random person that happened to make it to one of the locations. But everybody posted their footage online. So the footage was all available in this massive archive. Anytime you hashtag something, you're essentially creating an archive for it. And documenting [Banksy's] work was part of his project as well, allowing the public this opportunity and even really baiting them to do it. So, for us, the film was really made up of this user-generated content as a way to accurately depict that month.

How did you decide what to include from the archive?

I'm not really sure exactly how many hours of footage we went through, because a lot of what we were doing was reviewing things and then already writing it into the film. And if we needed something else we'd search for that. So it was kind of like creating a sculpture, where it's an additive and reductive process at the same time.

A large part of the film is focused on the relationship between art and its spectators. Can you talk about that relationship and how you approached it in the film?

It's especially relevant with an artist like Banksy. Banksy is a street artist, but he was also using the Internet as a new street: it's a public space. So, given that his background is in street art, for him to take that into a broader public arena — taking it online — or at least creating works that can also slide in and out of that Internet space, that's what was interesting about his project. This idea of, What is public space now?

Were there certain aspects of Banksy's project that you related to specifically as a filmmaker and artist?

Yeah, I was a video artist and I was making conceptual public works, so I was always more interested in the effect of his work. And to some extent that's what he is interested in too. Often times the individual piece is not really the work: it's really what happens afterwards or what kind of reaction it creates. That's the frame, I think, and I'm excited by artists that are thinking in those terms, where it's not really the piece, but what happens around it — the side-effects.

Did you have any interactions with Banksy or his team?

We had interactions with Pest Control, which is essentially the group that authenticates his work. So if you have something on your wall that you think may be a Banksy, they'll tell you if it is or isn't. They gave us a little bit of direction, but for the most part they were hands-off. Banksy really wasn't involved in making this movie, and it really was about the people of New York and their perspective on what he did.

The movie both begins and ends with this footage of the police grappling with a giant piece of inflatable graffiti. It was so perfect. Did you do a happy dance when you found that?

I shrieked, yeah. It was one of those moments where, again, it's just this piece of footage that a couple random people had posted on the Internet, like this was some cool thing that happened. And for us it was like, Wow, this is the end of our movie! We have our ending already. It's [like the] Keystone Cops fumbling with this giant balloon, trying to stuff it in this paddy wagon, it's popping was pretty funny.

Did you try to align your project with the themes Banksy was exploring in his project?

Yeah, I think we tried to understand the broader themes in his work. In a lot of ways beyond each individual piece, there were bigger messages about the gentrification of urban space in New York, and how it's increasingly difficult for cultural organizations to function in New York City because they're priced out. So a lot of his works, whether you realize it immediately or not, are bringing attention to some broader issues about what it's like to be an artist in New York City.

And did your opinion on him change over the time you spent making "Banksy Does New York"?

Yeah, it did. I knew his work before, and his most famous work is "Exit Through the Gift Shop," right? That's arguably an artwork, a performance art piece — a lot of people don't even consider it a documentary — and I'm attracted to the ways he can use all these different media. It's not about the paint on the wall, and in that case it wasn't even about the film; it was about where the film went. He arguably hacked the Oscars, since that movie was nominated for an Academy Award in the documentary category, and I think that's brilliant.

"Banksy Does New York" airs tonight at 9 pm on HBO

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