From edition

Ola Jonsson, A Review of Banskys Wall and Peace

The Politics of Anonymity and Surveillance
Wall and Piece, by Banksy
London: Random House, 2005

‘I like to think that I have the guts to stand up anonymously in a western democracy and call for things no-one else believes in – like peace and justice and freedom’
— Banksy, Wall and Piece

In an interview in Guardian magazine, graffiti artist Banksy explains his artistic motivation, “Yeah, its all about retribution really,” he states. “Just doing a tag is about retribution. If you dont own a train company then you go and paint on one instead. It all comes from that thing at school when you had to have name tags in the back of something – that makes it belong to you. You can own half the city by scribbling your name over it.”
Similarly, Banksy’s artistry highlights the issues of artistic authority, commodity, private and collective ownership, and the topics of politics and anonymity. He appears to have a movingly idealistic worldview, expressing political values that contrast the often cynical and playful tone of his works. In accordance with guerilla tactics, the powers that be are turned against itself, with their own means; Banksy subverts the city as a capitalist authorial space by using its very space as his canvas. In a very literal sense, he mobilizes the democratic opportunities of the city to create an artistic arena that it’s multitude of inhabitants are free to evaluate, debate, and enjoy.

Born in Bristol, England, in 1974, Banksy abandoned the form of conventional graffiti for stencils early on in his career, because stencils allowed him to work faster and avoid getting caught. His identity remains unknown – an enigma that has generated rumors which only seem to escalate his popularity rather than work against it. To date he has published three books: Existencilism (2002), Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall (2003), Cut It Out (2005), and later in 2005 he released Wall and Piece, a compilation of the three latter titles. Wall and Piece contains photographs of his most famous stencils in their original context as well as his clever remakes of archetypal brands and logos, such as McDonald’s and Disney. The book moreover treats the reader to photographic documentation of the covert implementation of his works into museums, e.g. British Museum, where Banksy famously sneaked in some of his own alternative paintings next to the museum’s other canonical pieces.

Dispersed among the images and photographs in Wall and Piece are also autobiographical anecdotes and inputs, aphorisms, and tutorial remarks on the practical sides of graffiti art and stenciling. Judging by the images in Wall and Piece in particular, Banksy has a refreshingly liberal attitude about what defines a canvas; farm cows have appeared with his tag sprayed on their side (most of which can be seen in the book), zoos where he has snuck in at night to paint aphorisms inside animal habitats, and the locations of his stencils range from Naples, and Berlin to Mexico City and Bristol. The motives often deconstruct institutional icons such as military and law-enforced authorities and corporate culture, but also involve the oppressed ‘others’ of these institutions; the stencils of monkeys and rats stand as convincing metonymies and metaphors of how the materialistic axioms of our society have made us look at ourselves and each other.

The wall and piece relationship the title refers to is one of reciprocal nature: it denotes a pragmatic yet nonetheless effective interplay between a work and its spatial location. But it also signals Banksy’s sympathetic take on artistic freedom.
Most of his stencils very much rely on the space in which they are represented, and many of them in effect become extensions of the space itself as the space, in turn, becomes an extension of the work. A good example is London’s Trafalgar Square where he, neatly underneath a statue has placed the signum ‘Designated Riot Area.’ The formal, authorial tone and lingo is cleverly reversed and paraphrased, used as a means against itself. Note also e.g. the ‘Designated Graffiti Area’ stencils he has sprayed along with the royal emblem on empty walls, also available in Wall and Piece .

When it comes to his subversion of commercial iconography, Banksy even has a self-made term worked out: brandalism . Brandalism is aimed to short-circuit the one way communication of established brands, and signifies the reclamation of an individual voice; a singular voice against the multitude that is commercialism, and for the right to choose your perceptive intake as an independent spectator and consumer. Judging by Wall and Piece, Banksy’s most arid opponent is the reductive one-way communication between leading multinational companies and their consumers that comprises the slogan – a strategy which also broadens his scope of spectators. One of the most interesting works is of a television set thrown out of a window. It reminds one of the famous parable of Rock n’ Roll, perhaps after the Rolls Royce in the swimming pool, i.e. Keith Moon of The Who, who famously tossed TV:s out of hotel rooms with the cord plugged to see if it reached the ground before the cord was yanked out of its socket. It also strikes a blow against one of the most well used representational tools of commercialism, the TV. The piece proves a statement that situationist scholar Guy Debord would probably be proud of, with his resistance against the spectacle of postmodern society, marking the constant proliferation in medial overflow.

It is hard to deny the fact that Banksy’s acclaim is foundationally based on his generic appeal. As opposed to many other graffiti artists he transcends narrow sub-cultural target groups, and reaches spectators and readers of all backgrounds and orientation. His minimalist stencils are modest and accessible in their form and location. But moreover, his works are every ones’ to enjoy, situated in spaces that go beyond the preconceptions of elitism and hierarchies that entail visits to the museum, art happenings, or the occasional vernisage. They are in the street – accessible to the multitude of the city, and to all spectrums of social class, backgrounds and ethnicities. As Banksy himself notes in Wall and Piece : his works do not presuppose a ‘hype’ and, certainly, no ‘price of admission.’ When presenting the works he sneaked into e.g. The British Museum, and how they were smuggled into the museums in his books and on his website, he always notes how long they remained there before their discovered and then removed. These pranks suggest an undercurrent of sincere pathos; they allow us to see the contours of an artist who values his works – and moreover his spectators – as important enough to be independent of the contextual factors pertaining to execution, critical reception, or the marketing procedures that often involve conventional exhibitions. The only obstacle between Banky’s works the spectator is whether they decide to disregard the piece on their way to work or stuck in traffic.

In fact, through their accessibility, spatial context and generic spread, Banksy’s pieces also narrow the gap between the essence of the work and its message, since to a very high degree, the acknowledgement of their essence subsumes their message. In regard to texts, Susan Sontag argues that interpretation ‘presupposes a discrepancy between the clear meaning of the text and the demands of (later) readers. It seeks to resolve that discrepancy’ (Fernie 218). Where Banksy’s works are concerned, the gap of discrepancy between meaning and demands appears less obvious than in other, more conventionally based works and forms of art. Hence we could establish that the spatial location of Banksy’s works, in effect, enables the gap between artist – work – spectator to be narrowed, if not interlace

In one of the book’s
textual segments, Banksy tells a story about a king and his skillfully unmatched court painter. The painter was one day challenged by a disheveled stranger, and they both entered a challenge to paint the most realistic piece. Both paintings were covered by a piece of cloth and, when unveiled, the court painter’s work of a table set with a feast was so realistic, it fooled a sparrow to eat from it, fooling Nature itself. The vagabond artist, in turn, refused to unveil his work, the simple reason being that the cloth-covered easel was the painting itself, and he thereby won the contest.
This often retold anecdote reminds us of tromp l’oeil, the artistic movement that valued artworks by their ability to represent – or, more accurately, be a convincing lie about reality, or what we would in retrospect perhaps call photogenic representation. However, rather than provoking an anachronistic debate on mimesis, art and reality, the story about the court painter gets at the heart of Banksy’s passion, which is the contextual eradications or disregards of a work of art; a focus extrapolated from everything around the painting and into the work in and of itself. It is not hard to parallel the court painter with contemporary corporate culture, as Banksy surely encourages us to do: hegemonic corporate marketing, and the vagabond painter as the graffiti artist who, through his art, reminds us of the distorted focus we put on representation over hollow content. The painter’s capacity as vagabond furthers the book’s revolutionary politics and rhetoric. As with the graffiti artist, there is in the vagabond figure an element of resistance to the prospect of the urban static – a claim for the sanctions of the individual and his benefits of mobility, being spatially unbound and counter-institutional, like the personification of Deleuze and Guattari’s nomadology . Banksy can both occupy and utilize the multicultural space of the city, distributing its many opportunities of cultural interliminality. He knows that the city, while capitalist bedrock, is also an axis of multiculturalism, regardless if this enriching blend is carried by democratic politics.

In one of the many thoughtful sections of Wall and Piece, Banksy poignantly states that ‘Nobody ever listened to me until they didn’t know who I was.’
His remark underscores the potential of anonymity, and the conflict between being heard and being seen as not necessarily reductive – the promise of creativity that such a conflict can generate. In many ways, Banksy’s insistence on remaining anonymous is a more potent statement against the celebrity worship of contemporary society than his pieces in themselves. The artist is, after all, in many ways bigger than his works.

Banksy’s anonymity reclaims the power of the city space by reversing authorial surveillance. As Michel Foucault argues in his essay ‘Panopticism,’ the spaces we inhabit in contemporary society remain infiltrated by notions of discipline, brought about by state apparatuses. This disciplinary society is made possible through constant direct and indirect supervision. Historically, Foucault claims, this institutional turn was an effect of the ‘demographic thrust’ of the eighteenth century. Indeed, the conception of surveillance has proliferated in intensity and influence over our lives ever since, certainly via the paradigm of ‘the informational age’ we now live in, as sociologist Manuel Castells would have it. Certainly, the 21st century city provides the penultimate example of a space that upholds its authority through supervision.
However, in his anonymity and art form, Banksy can remain mobile, unseen and unsupervised, and impossible for the state apparatus to pin down or monitor in any way. In fact, by exposing logos through his ‘brandalism,’ undermining authorial motives, and violating public space, reclaiming the city as his artistic arena, he has turned the lights of supervision back onto his institutional oppressors. In Wall and Piece, Banksy shows a direct and indirect awareness of this topic in his works. In the book are photographs of his pieces, “vandalized oil paintings,” comprising 18th century landscape paintings with surveillance cameras in the middle of the compositions. One could read this as a comment on the pervasive essence of state surveillance, and the latter’s intrusions on art from then on, starting, as it happens, when landscape paintings were high in fashion.
The “vandalized oil pieces” are in this sense fusions of two temporal points of our history of supervision; then and now – when it started in the current of ‘modern’ society, and where it has taken us today, and – if one sides with the cynic – how it has polluted the expressive freedom of art ever since.

Besides evading and paraphrasing the ‘authorative eye,’ Banksy’s anonymity entails many other striking intentions and effects. In a moment of self-reflexivity, he even makes fun of his own ability and prerogative to ‘stand up anonymously’ for long forgotten credos of democracy. One reason for Banksy’s anonymity could very well be to resist being part of the semiotics of capitalism. For by remaining anonymous he can both establish and sustain his fame without becoming a part of the marketing machinery. He can stand outside of the ‘spectacle,’ and in his facelessness blend into the collective group that it targets and be nobody and anybody, by denouncing fame. But another factor of his anonymity also pertains to our recurring tendency to inject mythical associations into works of art and their artists. As Walter Benjamin reminds us in ‘Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’ the appreciation and supposed value of a given work of art is intrinsically tied to its notions of originality. As the work is mechanically reproduced our appreciation of its specific aura evaporates. The aura of a work of art, I would argue alters when we learn that its creator is of anonymous origin. In Banksy’s case, not only the mysteriously unknown artist teases our desire for origin, but also the works he creates. The stencils are copies made in a split second, perfectly reproducible renderings of anonymous, allegorical figures, rather than idiosyncratic characters. In effect, the mystery of Banksy’s motives enrich the mystery of Banksy’s personae. However, while the lack of the artist’s personal mark or imprint teases our necessity for aura and origin, the works themselves resist the very same thing by proving perfectly reproducible.

Perhaps the most common of Banksy’s motives, animals are frequented in Bansky’s repertiore both ascanvas, literally regarding cows and animals at the zoo, and as motive, often metaphorically layered. As the book shows, the symbolic scope of animality goes way beyond artistic intentions: ‘I’d been painting rats for three years before someone said “that’s clever, it’s an anagram of art” and I had to pretend I’d known that all along.’ The rats in his repertoire also strongly connote the “rat race” that involves our cumulative and material mentality and consumerism, our strive for financial success, and our inherent capitalist values. Animals as motive in Banksy’s art hold tremendous political significance. Scholars Fred Young and Ronald Broglio speculate that a revolution ‘to-come’ – a revolution of animality, ‘in which neither human nor animal as ontically separate but equal would still be considered viable.’ This is a prospect where the ‘human and animal do not blend into a circular and capital exchange of a restricted economy of equivalences. Always a question of politics, and of revolution that would not lend it’s time to nationalism nor globalization, but now of a politics of animality’ ( Animality 12). As Broglio and Young acknowledge, there is a highly political value of the animality figure.

Friedrich Nietzsche writes in Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality t

hat the survival and instinc
ts animals have been forced to develop – the mimicry of playing dead or camouflaging themselves – parallels the way the single ‘modern’ subject hides behind the concept of ‘man’ or society; his tendency to echo and adapt to superiorities or normative opinions and class belonging echoes the mimicry of animality.

By depicting animals in his art Banksy can withhold his anonymity to his works as well by not necessarily referring to a specific person but rather a constituent of a multitude, a repressed and exploited multitude with a concealed yet ever so existing revolutionary aptitude that resembles human conditions. Our desire to put animals in captivity and under surveillance, has bestowed them with metaphorical leverage. Consider the binaries of civilized and the wild, the rational and the instinctual and predatory, and freedom and enslavement – a value from which Banksy makes considerable use.
We should also note that the human-animal similarities that Nietzsche makes us aware of also involve the insinuations of anonymity that the ‘ideals’ of ‘modern’ society hold within itself, that collective values force people to get back in line, to concur with all facets of uniformity, certainly where capitalistic cultures are concerned.

As we have seen, Banksy – rather than submit to the impotence of anonymity – retains its opportunities and turns it into ammunition. While anonymity can be considered one of the outcomes, or conspiracies (depending on your politics) of capitalist culture and its credos of ‘modern’ conceptions of ‘man,’ it also holds a lot of political rhetoric, a sense of safety which in turn encourages statements to be made that otherwise would or could not. It also feeds into the so influential but simultaneously dangerous ally of political history we know as myth. The most mythical person is perhaps after all the one we have yet to meet or to see, because the lack of origin lends a creative space for subjective interpretation. In a sense, the actual person comes closer to a fictional character and thereby blends into his/her works in a very distinct way, and by remaining mysterious furthermore raises their own romantic and heroic appeal.
Banky’s anonymity, so profound to his appeal and artistic integrity, is finally a gesture in favor of the political fortitude that always resides in the collective body. The individuals that comprise the collective ‘we,’ in our uniform compliance with the capitalistic age, hold more similarities to animals than we think, as both Banksy and Nietzsche remind us.
This brings to mind one of Bankys’s more expressive pieces, underscored in Wall and Piece; the stencil of the monkey with a billboard on his chest, reading ‘One day we will be in charge.’ The message is there. In Banksy’s mindset there is an artistically spearheaded revolution to come where the political world order of the west is overturned, and it will be accomplished by using the machinery against itself: integrated within the nonsensical information flow, like a grain of sand in a well oiled machine.
Banksy’s prophecy is underway, and it rides the commercial pipeline to get here.

Works cited

‘Something to Spray.’ Guardian Unlimited. 17 July, 2003.

Sontag, Susan. ‘Against Interpretation.’ Art History and its Methods, A Critical
Eric Fernie. Ed. London: Phaidon, 1998.

Young, Frederick. Ronald Broglio. “Animality Revolutions: There are no Animals,” Perforations #47, Eyedrum Gallery.

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