Exit Through the Gift Shop: Hoax?
Something’s been bugging me for a while: is Banksy’s film Exit Through the Gift Shop a hoax or not? I saw the film when it came out and loved it. I heard some rumblings questioning its authenticity, but didn’t think too much about it. While I was in Windsor, a bunch of the artists went to see it, and most didn’t like it. Their reason, more often than not, was that it was a self-celebrating fake documentary. So there were a few discussions about what exactly might have been faked – but no one knew for sure.
For those who haven’t seen it and don’t want to, a quick SPOILERIFFIC! summary: Thierry Guetta is a Frenchman who owns a clothing store in LA and obsessively videotapes everything he does. He becomes interested in street art and before long he is following first one artist, then another, finally meeting and filming Banksy (who appears in shadows and voice-modulated). When Banksy asks Thierry to see the film he is working on, Thierry – who had no interest in editing a film, only shooting – hacks together a clump of shit. Banksy suggests that Thierry (who by now is doing his own street art under the name Mr. Brainwash) should concentrate on getting a show together, and Banksy will take over the documentary. The talentless Thierry mortgages his life to hire minions to produce an extravaganza of bad art, but nonetheless after an LA Weekly cover story and other press, the art world gets caught up in the hype and the works sell by the truckload for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
You can understand the suspicions. Banksy is known for pranks. His identity is still unknown. Counterfeiting seems a theme of his: the film mentions a stack of fake ten-pound notes he threw into a crowd. And of course the story of Mr. Brainwash seems too outlandish to be true.
Where, then, was the locus of the hoax (or hoaxus, if you will)? The following are possible:
- The LA Weekly cover story on Mr Brainwash never happened.
- Thierry is played by an actor and not a real person. Mr. Brainwash’s art is made by Fairey and Banksy.
- All the shots with Banksy, Thierry or Fairey were staged for the purposes of this film.
- Thierry is real, but Mr Brainwash is fake. Aka Thierry is playing himself (and the first half of the film may be true), but his art persona and his art are a fictionalization, created by Banksy and Fairey (or just Banksy).
- Thierry is actually played by Banksy.
These are all ideas floated in one review or another of the film. After casting about on google for a while, all I can find are reviews, which all sound pretty similar. Here’s the new film, Banksy blah blah, it may be a hoax, but maybe not, anyway, here’s what I think of the film (most like it – the consensus review might be, “it could be a hoax, but who cares? It’s a good film.”)
So we have something here about the cynicism of critics – or alternately, their laziness. Everyone is willing to say it “may” be a hoax, but no one is willing to say definitively that it is or not, because that would take actual work. We might have to figure out whether Thierry exists (he does), whether the LA Weekly cover story happened (it did). Or, we might have to talk to one of Thierry’s employees (no, I’m not going to go that far).
I suppose it makes sense – film critics aren’t investigative journalists, and there isn’t much of a call for that sort of work in an arts context. But it reminds me of After Last Season – everyone’s quick to jump to the hoax conclusion as a defensive stance, since if we believe it’s a hoax, we won’t be revealed to be gullible or naive. We can be revealed to be cynical, but that’s not much of a knock these days.
Interesting little quote from Shepard Fairey to do with the whole affair:
I asked Fairey directly whether Mr. Brainwash was a hoax devised by Banksy. “I swear to god that’s not the case,” he said. “Banksy may not want me to say that but no, it’s not.”
Hoaxists aren’t going to buy that line, of course. But I love the idea that Banksy wouldn’t want him to say that. Banksy wants to encourage the hoax rumour – it’s essentially part of the film’s publicity.
That’s an astonishing thing in and of itself: the creator of a documentary wants his film to be thought of as a hoax. Documentary is a tough category to define, but any definition will include the idea that these films make truth claims. So are we in some strange new era when truth-dealers want to disguise their work as fiction? Or is Banksy just being honest, since it is a hoax? I’d like to argue that his desire for his film to be considered a hoax makes it more likely it’s not, but let’s be frank – what he wants is controversy. “Is it real or not? Decide for yourself” becomes the implied marketing tagline.
Let’s step back for a second. If Thierry is real and Mr Brainwash did have a show in 2008 at which his work sold for hundreds of thousands apiece, what difference does the hoax make?
Perhaps Banksy and/or Fairey created and/or oversaw the creation of all of the Brainwash art. But part of the point in the film is that Thierry didn’t make the art himself, he hired people to do it according to his orders. No matter who ‘created’ it, it’s clearly mass-produced bad art that nonetheless became hugely popular on the art market by exploiting the ‘street’ aesthetic and reputation. A hoax was carried out no matter what: bad art was foisted on the art market.
Both Banksy and Fairey lent their names to the Brainwash enterprise. Banksy lent a quote to the Brainwash marketing materials, and it’s fascinating in this context: “Mr. Brainwash is a force of nature… and I don’t mean that in a good way.” Fairey DJed the opening night. So Banksy and Fairey’s support is the case whether hoax or not. Is there something else that they could have done to guarantee the success of Mr. Brainwash? Other than bidding up the price of the art (which of course in and of itself wouldn’t prove a hoax), no. The fact that the art world was unable to see through the hype is not in dispute, and that’s the important part of this story.
This may sound like “who cares if it’s a hoax or not,” and perhaps it is. I don’t think that phrase holds true in general, but in this case, given the limited scope of the possible hoax, I think it does.
What’s perhaps even more fascinating is that the hoax possibility presents a bizarre reverse hoax. If Banksy or even Fairey created the Mr Brainwash art, then the work is worth considerably more than what people paid for it. Similarly, one of Banksy’s counterfeit ten-pound notes now goes for £200.