By Michael Dean Benton
Despite the fact that there were many worthy and politically important documentaries nominated for Oscars this year (in particular Gasland and Inside Job), I was rooting for Exit Through the Gift Shop. Here are the reasons why:
How much of our everyday life is colonized by corporate sponsored vandalism and socially engineered marketing prompts? Never mind the obvious mediatized experiences. Take a walk across your nearest urban landscape and look deeply at the signs—explicit and implicit—that seek to influence our actions. Observe how the environment increasingly is demarcated, bordered, limited, controlled and monitored. Why do so few people think about our “society of control” or its soft bargaining through manufactured desires, marketing prompts and mindless distractions? (Hard bargaining occurs when your Governor threatens to call out the National Guard on you for exercising your democratic rights.)
The distinction between private and public space is becoming increasingly blurred. The average urban dweller is now estimated to absorb—mindfully or not—2000+ ads a day. Advertising dominates our internal mindscapes and our external landscapes. Unless we desire to isolate ourselves like the technophobic Unabomber, we are unable to escape these corporate marketing intrusions. What, then, is our defense?
Street Art/graffiti artists
The colonization of personal mindscapes and public landscapes is part of a privatization of the commons in which limitations are put into place through walls and barriers. Extending this metaphor further, corporate colonization delimits the artistic creative imagination as well as the civic imagination of what is possible. Extend this even further and it is as if we have been culturally framed and put on the wall of a museum. Our world becomes comprised only of the narratives that “they” state “we” should pay attention to.
Street Art/graffiti artists—intentionally or not—through their desire to repurpose and reconceive their urban landscapes, positioned themselves against the logic of mass production, herd mentality, and creative uniformity in the traditional art worlds. Eventually, they extended their random tagging into more direct critiques of the branding, limitations, conformity, surveillance, and control of our everyday lives.
Humans are narrative creatures, homo fabulans, who seek meaning and are open to narrative constructions. We all laugh at the person who is unable to perceive that their favorite TV star is not the character they play, but is this all that different from those of us who are unable to perceive the surreality of the infotainment with which we are presented 24/7? When it comes to more important political and social issues, how does this play out in our perceptions of what is right and wrong? Do most people investigate for themselves and use their knowledge to produce their own meanings, or do they sit back and allow talking heads to tell them what to think?
Banksy, a British street artist, announced his artistic intentions through the development of the expanded concept of “Brandalism” in his book Wall and Piece (2005) :
People abuse you everyday. They butt into your life, take a cheap shot at you and then disappear. They leer at you from tall buildings and make you feel small. They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and the fun is happening somewhere else. They are on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it. They are The Advertisers and they are laughing at you.
He goes on to say that the unfairness of this psychological and material struggle is that we are not allowed to “touch them,” to deface their constructed environments, because of corporate invocations. “[T]rademarks, intellectual property rights and copyright law” act as mystical barriers protecting their worlds.
Banksy’s response, in the spirit of Street Art/graffiti, is “Screw that!…They have rearranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.”
So, in a sense, this is semiotic warfare in the form of guerrilla resistance against a dominating force that could wipe you out if you tried direct confrontation. Military theorists call this asymmetric warfare, and it is notoriously difficult for monolithic, high-technology, invading forces to deal with because guerrilla forces strike and disappear into their environment. This long has been the tactic of street artists.
What do you do, though, when the populace has been colonized so heavily by the invading forces? How do you get them to recognize their enslavement or to begin to imagine something different? How do you deal with the lackey art world that supports the dominant structure of passive consumption, corporate branding and obsessive collecting? What does an artist do, when they know their art depends on a critical audience to respond as co-creators, to wake people up? Especially when all of their direct actions of defiance and critique are immediately repurposed and delimited for safe consumption in the 24-hour titillation news cycle.
This is not a new dilemma. As Monty Python so humorously demonstrates in The Life of Brian, graffiti most likely showed up wherever the first empires sought to control societies. Critical artists of all types have a heritage of challenging controlling narratives through defiant rejection of the forms of the dominant culture: medieval carnival culture, dada, ‘pataphysics, punk, Guillermo Gomez-Pena’s performative dioramas, Luis Bunuel’s films, Situationist detournements, and so on.
Documentaries generally adopt an authoritative voice and are very manipulative in their traditional structures. Documentary films from the very beginning have problematized and/or been implicated in this cultural problem. From the questions of whether Nanook of the North restaged its anthropological observations of Inuit life, to Orson Welles’ playful mocking of truth, art and property in F for Fake, to Errol Morris’s restaging of torture scenes in Standard Operating Procedure. What then is the filmmaker-artist to do when attempting to critique dominant, controlling narratives through the form of documentary film?
I can’t say that until you have seen the film
Exit Through the Gift Shop reminds me of a favorite critical reflective essay that I use in my writing-argument courses. It is Douglas Rushkoff’s “Introduction” to his book Coercion: Or Why ‘We’ Do What ‘They’ Say. The power of the piece is that he does not just tell us about these tactics. He demonstrates their process by initially weaving a narrative that constructs a web in which we quickly become entangled—agreeably or disagreeably—and when he has us where he wants us, he then begins to walk us through his narrative web that constructed a controlled way of knowing.
As much as I admire Rushkoff’s disentangling of his controlling narrative, I equally admire Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop. Much like how we walk through our urban landscapes and forget we are walking through a heavily coded, artificial environment, we also travel through the typical documentary (or corporate news show) expecting it to tell us the truth –we allow them to create meaning for us without questioning the form and facts. This is why I vigorously defend Errol Morris’ restaging of scenes from various viewpoints to create a documentary environment where we need to forensically create our own understanding of the evidence, and this is why I celebrate Exit Through the Gift Shop as an exemplary documentary that challenges our passivity.
Banksy’s last statement is chilling and can be interpreted in many ways. Perhaps you might watch it and, if you do, I’ll gladly discuss it with you. If you disagree, that is ok. Construct your own narrative of what you see and engage other interpretations in an open dialogue. Better yet, oh….wait. I can’t say that until you have seen the film.