Exit Through the Gift Shop boasts layers of meaning not many filmmakers would attempt with a debut feature documentary. Then again, not many film-makers are Banksy, street artist extraordinaire and pop culture enfant terrible, an art celebrity whose persona relies upon anonymity and, thus, a kind of omniscience. Banksy enjoys a respect amongst critics and collectors usually reserved for artists already passed to the great beyond, this in no small part because he hasn’t ever lived within the public imagination in any conventional sense and, as such, seems to already inhabit a kind of artistic otherworld. And this ever-penetrating, all-knowing gaze has made for an interesting directorial lens indeed, both into the world of graffiti artists and the corporate urban marketplaces whose crumbling buildings serve as their canvases.
Exit Through the Gift Shop is, ostensibly, a who’s who of the street art movement, the legitimate documentation of an art form itself so illegitimate that the danger was never whether its artifacts would be swept aside by the street-sweepers of history, but by literal street-sweepers. The film is told from the vantage point of Thierry Guetta, an eccentric Frenchman and clothes-horse turned vintage shop owner, who shot most of the film’s footage. At some point in his very odd existence, Guetta became obsessed with filming all aspects of his everyday life, and, in doing so, amassed boxes and boxes of unorganized, uncatalogued video tape of family dinners, pranks played on customers in his clothing store, and random conversations with people on the street. In one of these video sessions, Guetta happens to capture his cousin making a series of small, crude mosaics depicting characters from the video game, Space Invaders.
Without any real motive beyond his usual voyeuristic obsession, Guetta follows his cousin into the urban neighborhoods of South Los Angeles to watch him glue these creations on the walls of buildings, on overpass bridges, even on sidewalks. The cousin, now having re-named himself Invader, continues on with his mosaic project until the pieces are plastered over much of the city and have piqued the interest of other L.A. graffiti artists. Both Guetta and his cousin come to gain a certain level of street cred among taggers of note, people with assumed names like Neckface, Swoon, and Twist. And all the time Guetta is filming, filming, filming, ever with a kind of infectious, anything goes attitude, a bumbling perspicacity.
Guetta’s footage eventually becomes more focused in subject matter, as he begins to understand what he’s stumbled upon. He and his camera follow his cousin and his artist friends across the country, making himself useful to them in their clandestine operations. Before long, he has documented the work of every important street artist in the United States, everyone but the elusive Banksy, a graffiti-tagging ghost whose distinctive mark on public artifacts of historical significance has grabbed the attention of art luminaries and national news syndicates alike. Guetta searches after Banksy relentlessly, futilely, until he and Banksy finally meet through an introduction by acclaimed icon-forger Shepherd Fairey. The unlikely duo become friends, and the story takes a wild U-Turn.
Through a series of artistic fumblings on Guetta’s part and patronizing encouragements on Banksy’s, the role of archivist and artist reverse: Guetta himself tries to become an artist, re-naming himself Mr. Brainwash and fashioning his work after that of his street art heroes to cringe-inducing effect. Banksy, as documentary film-maker, meanwhile seems to cinematically wag his identity-obscured face in disapproval of the corporately successful, artistically dubious enterprises of Mr. Brainwash.
Many have proposed that the film is a hoax. Others claim that only half of it is, which seems more plausible. Can the film’s old footage of not-yet-famous street artists, like Shepherd Fairey and Swoon, really be fake. Exactly how elaborate could this ruse be? The answer lies in who exactly would be Banksy’s target in each scenario, in either the “whole film hoax” theory or the “half film hoax” one. If the whole film is a hoax, then the target is documentary film-making itself. If only the Mr. Brainwash sequences are a hoax, then Banksy’s ire would seem to shift from a meta-awareness of the film’s form to focus on the film’s actual subject matter, graffiti’s value as art in spite of its inability to be archived or sold in any meaningful way. And that sounds just about right.
Banksy seems to want to show how temporariness is built in to graffiti art; his documentation is fleet-footed over the shifting ground of any real “meaning” or “message”. Still, if a moral to the story were to emerge, it would be that corporate imitations are possible even in the world of art criticism. Granted, they would have to be perpetuated by someone behind the velvet ropes of art’s V.I.P. section, but Banksy just happens to have assumed just such a persona and is in just the right position to make such a statement. Banksy has seen that smarmy, self-referential world from the inside, has touched it, and he knows just how full of shit it is. In zooms Banksy’s lens to grotesque effect on how Guetta’s, or rather Mr. Brainwash’s, first showing is well-received by critics and public alike, how in the span of 48 hours he sells over a million dollars worth of merchandise, yet how the street art visionaries in whose image the amalgam Mr. Brainwash was conceived can themselves only look sideways into Banksy’s camera, unsure of what to say. Mr. Brainwash, indeed.
The pointed fakeness of Exit’s Mr. Brainwash is a commentary on the nuanced beauty of street art itself. The film is the litmus test of an insider’s insider status, an illusion whose purpose is to gauge whether the audience can tell the difference between something beautiful yet risen from the street or something only made to appear as such. Art Incorporated itself is become Banksy’s medium here. Through an elaborate prank, he has “tagged” the self-important world of galleries and uninformed trend-watching in the same way he tags the architectural structures that house them, and into which a no name street-rat could never gain admission. Because Banksy still is a street-rat and still has no name, and he wants us all to know that he and his medium are not for sale.