Banksy's Dismaland: How Activism, Curating, and Immersive Environments are Changing the Art World


December 09, 2015

What happens when an elusive artist curates a temporary installation and show in collaboration with other artists for the purpose of criticizing the entertainment-centricity of contemporary capitalist society? For approximately one month, Banksy converted a disused seaside tourist attraction into an exhibition and immersive satirical experience he called Dismaland. This experiment can be seen as the first time Banksy has engaged in curating. While Dismaland was intended to be a critique on contemporary society's obsession with entertainment and the consumption of immersive entertainment experiences at institutions such as amusement parks, the work blurs the lines between theme parks and “high art” institutions due to Banksy’s use of not only work by internationally renowned artists, but also interactive approaches used by the very theme parks Dismaland is intended to criticize. This research seeks to situate Dismaland’s place in the art world and explores how activism mixed with curating and immersive environments are changing what we think of today as museums.

            So, who is this Banksy person? Banksy is a pseudonym for an English public artist “often labeled in newspapers as a ‘guerrilla artist,’ or even as an ‘art terrorist,’ [whose] artwork gained fanatical popularity not only for its ingenuity and wittiness, but also because of its illegal nature” (Valesi, 11). This “illegal nature” refers to is the graffiti Banksy is best known for, starting in what is believed to be his home town of Bristol to sites all over the world. Some believe that remaining anonymous draws more attention to the socio-political messages evident in Banksy’s work than to the importance of the artist’s “genius,” but others have different opinions about his supposedly innocuous anonymity. At least one critic as asked “Has Banksy joined the ranks of collusion where the artist and art market are incestuously intertwined? Is he, like Damien Hirst, allowed to get away with buying his own work to boost its value? In no other economic sector is this kind of thing allowed” (Branscome, 119). Indeed, Banksy is a polarizing figure in the art world. Many praise him for his endless dedication to social causes and others demonize him for what they see as childish pranks. “He is able to jump from underground to mainstream; from merry prankster, vandal, and nuisance to an art world showman and post-Warholian career manager. At the same time, he is still refusing to lend his works to corporate agencies for profit, as he views this as ‘selling out,’ or contradictory to the message of his artwork” (Valesi, 6). It is undoubtedly the message that is the cornerstone of Banksy’s work. His art can be seen as activism in areas ranging from humanitarian aid for refugees to combating homophobia to denouncing police brutality to satirizing notions of value in the art world. Some would say he “refuses to let anyone settle down for a nice stroll down a gallery corridor. Even his career has been a sort of parody of success. From street-smart hoodlum with graffiti spray cans to entrepreneur of a starkly new type of art show, he has remained an elusive personality” (McGovern, Mancunion). This “art terrorist” has, time and again, gone to great lengths to get his point across. As a public artist, many of his “pranks” is to draw the attention of unwitting passersby to force consciousness of socio-political issues. For example, “in September 2006, [he] covertly brought in [to Disneyland] an unlawful combatant detainee suit, similar to those worn at Guantanamo Bay, and inflated a dummy. Banksy placed the dummy outside Big Thunder Mountain Railroad where onlookers gawked at the spectacle. Banksy’s moment of protest was more shocking because of its location at the epicenter of popular culture consciousness” (Lukas, 239). By using these kinds of tactics, Banksy is contributing to the Conceptual Art practices of participatory art and creating immersive experiences to facilitate the distribution of, understanding of, and dialogue about his socio-political perspective through artistic media. In fact, this is a hallmark of participatory art: “the implication of unwitting participants (individuals or institutions without a specific interest in the work) is a frequent participatory strategy” (Frieling, 42). One can see Banksy’s early street graffiti as merely a prelude to his future experiments in participatory art and immersive installations. Some of his earlier “pranks,” such as the Guantanamo Bay detainee dummy at Disneyland clearly whet his appetite for something on a much larger scale crossing the lines between political statement, entertainment-centricity, and the arts: enter Dismaland.

            Open for only one month from late August to late September 2015, Dismaland was described by Banksy as “a theme park whose big theme is – theme parks should have bigger themes” (Brown, The Guardian). Banksy temporarily rented a disused lido called Tropicana that was in use from 1937 to 2000. In effect, Banksy converted an “out of work” tourist attraction to build a mock theme park. For some, and clearly for Banksy, “the theme park takes on a form that is loathed – it is, simply, going too far, a distortion and degradation of the real, authentic world” (Lukas, 231). It is unclear if the bigger draw was the anti-theme park theme or the curated work of “roughly 50 international artists, including Damien Hirst, Jenny Holzer, and David Shrigley,” (Bellmann, 171), not to mention works by Banksy himself, but in advance of its opening, “its ticketing website was so overwhelmed it crashed” (Brooks, New York Times Magazine) and before it closed, it “brought in more than 150,000 visitors from all over the world” (Ellis-Petersen, The Guardian). Is almost every way Dismaland parodied the hallmarks of Disneyland. “Greeters – or rather, sulkers – wear Mickey Mouse ears and t-shirts that say DISMAL. Instead of being forced to smile all day they have to grimace all day. Some are so good at it they appear genuinely pissed off” (Jones, The Guardian). This performance piece critiquing the “acting” Disneyland employees engage in is one of several instances where Banksy adopted a theme park practice in order to critique it. “At the center of this park combining political activism, social critique, and art installation, plus coffee shops and bars, were two main attractions: a ruinous Disney-esque castle, drained of its Technicolor, and three large galleries containing the bulk of the other artists’ work” (Bellmann, 171). Banksy also used the layout of Disneyland with its “magical” castle at the center as the centerpiece for his own park. “In the moat around the castle is an armour-plated riot control vehicle built to serve in Northern Ireland which is now a children’s slide” (Brown, The Guardian). Some of the “attractions” Banksy incorporated in Dismaland were more directly participatory and subversive in nature. One example is “Guerrilla Island, an activist’s area where you’re able to buy the specialist keys that unlock bus shelter advertising hoardings alongside workshops in how to replace their posters with your own” (Juxtapoz). Other participatory “attractions” include a “pocket money loans shop offering money to children at an interest rate of 5,000%” and a  “a model boat pond with dead bodies and overly crowded boats full of asylum seekers” (Brown, The Guardian). For the boat pond, an added participatory feature is the fact that “it randomly switches the boat you operate – so you have no control over whether your destiny is to be an asylum seeker or a western super-power” (Banksy, dismaland.co.uk). Each one of these elaborately planned “attractions” are interactive art pieces were created or curated by Banksy to build a Dismaland experience (and brand) that functioned to have visitors think critically about their experiences at theme parks (and Disneyland’s own brand). “The brand provided the theme park with a more capitalist and consumerist focus, where the lives of people merge with the interests of the branded theme park” (Lukas, 212). Banksy, therefore, is using the very branding strategy of theme parks to create a brand for his immersive art experience. And, in doing so, Banksy seeks to replace the memories and entertainment-seeking experiences of visitors associated with Disneyland with a modified narrative, a text that asks people to understand their consumption in relation to socio-political events rather than simply enjoy an escapist fantasy. “As the theme park becomes a text, its narrative is multiply modified, its authors are no longer the bosses and showmen of the past nor the storytellers of the near present, but the theme park itself… [the] theme park becomes actualized as a form that everyone knows, instantly. In its new status as a life form – as a text that can be recalled in nearly anyone’s mind – the theme park takes on new authorship” (Lukas, 216). If the curated “attractions” at Dismaland outlined above can be seen as installation art with an activist bent, is it also possible to see the very theme park attractions Banksy is parodying as installation art as well? According to Claire Bishop, “installation art ‘is a term that loosely refers to the type of art which the viewer physically enters, and which is often described as ‘theatrical,’ ‘immersive,’ or experiential’” (Cheng, 98). If Banksy’s Dismaland and the theme parks he criticizes can both be seen as “theatrical,” “immersive,” or “experiential,” we can already see how Dismaland’s short existence has called attention to the blurring of the lines between the worlds of “high art” and “entertainment.” This line of inquiry will be further explored later in this paper as will the mentioned temporality of Dismaland and what that means for its place in the art world. But, speaking of its temporality, Dismaland was dismantled in late September 2015. In true Banksy fashion (and in line with many of the socio-political statements Banksy made with this work), many of the materials from Dismaland were recycled and sent to Calais where they could be used to build shelters for asylum seekers. As of mid-October, “around eight have been built and they’ve been set aside for women and children. Several are occupied already” (Chester, mashable.com). Clearly something that sets Dismaland apart from the theme parks it critiques is the dedication to socio-political activism.

            Another differentiation between Dismaland and the theme parks it parodies is the curatorial activity woven into the fabric of the installation. Banksy described the art of Dismaland as “a showcase for the best artists I could imagine, apart from the two who turned me down” (Brown, The Guardian) and it is the first documented example of Banksy engaging in curatorial activity. In one interview, Banksy explained to Juxtapoz magazine his revelation about the creative possibilities of curating: “It turns out curating can be surprisingly creative. For instance, I asked Jenny Holzer for one of her electronic signs, but she didn’t have anything in stock. She said she was happy to supply the text, but I’d have to find some signs. I asked a lighting guy to get a big LED screen and he came back with a system that cost £8000 a week to rent. I couldn’t afford that, so I suggested we record Jenny’s slogans and play them over the Tannoy system. She liked the idea and said she’d never done anything like it in forty years. So now we have a totally original Jenny Holzer that cost fuck all” (Juxtapoz). In collaborating with Jenny Holzer, Banksy as curator found the problem solving process of fitting an artist’s work into a larger, immersive narrative of a space as artistic in itself and this resulted in not only the creation of a new type of Jennt Holver art piece, but also helped create the larger art piece that is Dismaland itself. It can be said that the most important aspect of curatorial work is “the simple constitutive act of selecting art and the environment to display it in” (Ventzislavov, 86). Banksy also expressed hesitation about the inclusion of another artist: “I didn’t want to include Damien Hirst, the show doesn’t need his validation or any of the baggage that might come with his name. But when you’re organizing an art show at the seaside and you know there’s a sculpture of a beach ball hovering on a jet of air above fifty sharpened steak knives – well, you have to include it. That piece is so poetic and technically intriguing” (Banksy, dismaland.co.uk). Like the artist-curators that came before him, Banksy discovered curating itself could be seen as an art practice and creating an exhibition was actually creating a work of art. Dismaland can be compared to Edgar Degas’ maison-musée, or house-turned-museum—which was also temporary in duration, as “characterized by its uniqueness, for being both the expression of the personal taste of a collector and a work of art in itself” (Crisci-Richardson, 219). Another artist-curator, Fred Wilson explained of his work Mining the Museum as follows: “I didn’t curate the show—this is my artwork. I make that distinction. Although people looked at the exhibition and saw it as a curated exhibition, which is fine, for me it’s something else entirely, it’s my work” (Karp and Wilson, 4). Similarly, Dismaland may have been an art exhibition of works curated by Banksy, but the curating aspect can simultaneously be seen as artistic process in itself. In addition to the precedents of Degas and Wilson, we can also see an increasing overlap of activities between artists and curators: “while curatorial work has grown to afford artistic creation, the artist’s work has evolved to include curatorial activity” (Ventzislavov, 83-84). Indeed, Ivan Gaskell has suggested that the act of juxtaposing artworks can itself generate meaning. “In effect, the ideas (carriers of meaning) that bring a smattering of artworks to the same room, gallery, museum, or catalogue should be looked upon as artworks (carriers of value) themselves” (Ventzislavov, 89). As such, Dismaland can be considered both a carrier of artistic value as a single entity and also a carrier of meaning through the delivery of messaging about Banksy’s opinions and ideas of critiquing the entertainment-centricity and capitalist nature of contemporary society.

            One can read Dismaland as a narrative authored by Banksy, but really the immersive experience of visiting Dismaland takes on a life of its own and is experienced differently depending on each participant’s point of view. Banksy has said of Dismaland: “All I need is to make my point and get something more out of it than what I put in. If something extra has happened between the idea and realizing it, that’s a win” (Juxtapoz). But even considering what this “win” would be depends on how you look at it. In creating an immersive experience where all the art and interaction centers around critiquing theme parks and entertainment-centric culture, does that mean Banksy has “made his point” creating something bigger than what he put into it? “Research has demonstrated that new technologies that stimulate the visitor’s senses make it possible to ‘recreate’ the content of a cultural message, leading to its rediscovery” (Balloffet, Courvoisier, and Lagier, 4). In that sense, it would be difficult to imagine the experience of Dismaland not staying with visitors long after their departure. This may be what Banksy means by getting something more out of it than what he put in. After all, if no one attended Dismaland, there would have been no audience. Does attendance, though, equate to a sense of success in delivering a socio-political message via art? “In the words of the artist Liam Gillick, ‘My work is like the light in the fridge, it only works when there are people there to open the fridge door. Without people, it’s not art—it’s something else—stuff in a room’” (Frieling, 36). Similarly, with no audience, Banksy’s Dismaland would merely be stuff on a pier. And Banksy publicly admitted “the audience is the punchline” (Juxtapoz). The vast majority of articles about Dismaland have focused on criticizing Banksy’s delivery of a socio-political message through this experience. Even with a dedicated audience, it is unclear if his message delivery was successful even with the immersive experience. In the words of Eva Branscome, “When the jester rules the court, it is hard to tell when subversion of the system becomes cynical complicity” (Branscome, 116). This particular critique questions the effectiveness of delivering a narrative to visitors on the inauthenticity of theme parks through a theme park-like experience. Plus, there is the question of “how much is too much?” With having every inch of Dismaland covered with messaging critiquing entertainment-centric society, does the attempt at total inundation compromise the sense of agreement the audience was intended to feel with Banksy’s messaging? This is something theme parks themselves have struggled with over their decades of evolution: “When theming is too specific, a park may suffer from patrons who are unable or unwilling to grasp the referents involved” (Lukas, 88-89). Some of the harshest of Dismaland critics have related this overly didactic presentation to that of all of Banksy’s works, one example being: “The very shocking style driving this art has become so overutilized that it has become kitsch: one-dimensional art that does not have any effect on its viewers” (Epker, Stanford Review). This is, however, only one perspective on whether or not politically-charged art can have an effect on its viewers. Not being new to this type of criticism, Banksy has responded to this kind of feedback by saying, “Fundamentally I disagree with the charge that art is bad if it’s too easy to understand… I think there’s space for art to be loud, crass, and obvious.” (Banksy, dismaland.co.uk). Perhaps the obviousness itself of the message is an additional level of Banksy’s criticism of theme parks. “One of the criticisms made of spectacular exhibitions is that they tend not to ask questions or to offer a critical perspective on the subject matter. It is because of this undemanding, slightly enchanted aspect that these exhibitions have been referred to as ‘Disneylandian mechanisms’” (Balloffet, Courvoisier, and Lagier, 8). If Dismaland had been such an “undemanding” experience it would be difficult to say that Banksy’s narrative delivery was successful as it would have succumbed to the very theme park experience being critiqued. In Banksy’s own words, “For some reason it’s been labeled as ‘twisted’ but I’ve never called it that. We just built a family attraction that acknowledges inequality and impending catastrophe. I would argue it’s theme parks which ignore these things that are the twisted ones… Why should children be immune from the idea that to maintain our standard of living other children have to die trapped in the hulls of boats in the bottom of the Mediterranean? The grown-ups might have convinced themselves small incremental change and buying organic tomatoes is enough, but passing that mindset onto the next generation doesn’t feel like good parenting” (Banksy, dismaland.co.uk). Without any quantitative measurement of visitor experience or feedback, it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of Banksy’s delivery of his messaging via Dismaland. Instead, the value of Dismaland’s immersive experience is likely more in utilizing “too-specific” theming to create what Banksy set out to do: have the experience be greater than the sum of its parts. As one visitor commented on her experience, “After an hour or two in Weston-super-Mare, you found yourself wanting to be an anarchist. At least I did” (Bellmann, 172). While it may have been overly didactic to some, the narrative delivery of Dismaland would have been weaker if the pieces had not been so cohesively arranged.

            So, what are we to make of Dismaland? Is it merely an activist’s artistic reaction to what he perceives as a depressing trend of increasing “Disneyization” of society? “According to Alan Bryman, Disneyization is ‘the process by which the principles of the Disney theme parks are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as the rest of the world’. Theming, hybrid consumption, merchandizing, and performative labor are all, according to Bryman, incorporated in non-theme park venues in ways that challenge the authenticity and quality of these places” (Lukas, 217). It would seem, based on much of the criticism of Dismaland, that Banksy’s use of theme park-esque immersion to parody theme parks may have muddled the point he was trying to get across. One writer for The Guardian described it as a mere art exhibition. Dismaland does not offer the energy and danger that real theme parks do” (Jones, The Guardian). But, it was an art exhibition. It was not meant to be a “true” theme park with perceived “energy and danger” as that would arguably have compromised the overarching socio-cultural narrative. Another writer described it as follows: “Everything inside was curated to shock and repel visitors. Tasteless art, tacky stands and not a pleasant museum souvenir shop in sight” (McGovern, Mancunion). Again, this critic may fail to see the irony of her own critique. Having a souvenir shop would most definitely weaken the authenticity of Banksy’s critique of consumerist, entertainment-driven popular culture. One thing that these two criticisms show is the difficulty of placing Dismaland within the structures and institutions we are familiar with. Where does Dismaland sit between the thrill of theme parks and the pristine white walls of the art world? It certainly makes visible the parallel of capitalism between the theme park and the museum. With no real thrills to be bought and no gift shop to buy trinkets, the real value of Dismaland may be the identification of the very fine line between entertainment institutions and art institutions. Thus, Dismaland can be read as more than an activist’s intentional criticism of theme parks. It is also, perhaps more subtly, a criticism of art institutions such as the museum. After all, “more and more, museums are turning to innovative, lively environments that include recreational elements in order to mediate content that is perceived as serious” (Balloffet, Courvoisier, and Lagier, 4). By using work by internationally renowned artists curated as a temporary, immersive installation interrogating contemporary culture’s obsession with entertainment, consumption, and “dumbing down” serious content, Dismaland is as much a reaction against museums as it is a reaction against theme parks.

            If Dismaland can be understood as a criticism of both theme park and museum by highlighting the increasing similarities between these two types of cultural institutions, can Dismaland itself be considered a theme park AND a museum? Or is it neither? “Hans Haacke [has said] ‘every museum is perforce a political institution, no matter whether it is privately run or maintained and supervised by government agencies. Whether museums contend with governments, power trips of individuals, or the corporate steamroller, they are in the business of molding and channeling consciousness. Even though they may not agree with the system of beliefs dominant at the time, their options not to subscribe to them and instead to promote an alternative consciousness are limited. Survival of the institution, personal careers are at stake. But in non-dictatorial societies, the means for the production of consciousness are not all in one hand’” (Karp and Wilson, 6). This “production of consciousness” is purportedly the responsibility of museums, but can theme parks also produce a similar kind of consciousness? “In the theme park world the individual uses all the senses and understands that knowing is achieved through immersion, participation, and seeing for oneself. Even museums, which have traditionally stressed austere forms of learning, have incorporated this important mode of knowing that is instituted by the form” (Lukas, 242). Given the overlap of the functions of museums and theme parks, it is possible to consider Dismaland as both a theme park and a museum even though the narrative intricately woven through Banksy’s project criticizes the entertainment-centricity of both institutions. If a museum, Dismaland would certainly be what Alexander Dorner conceptualized during the 1940s and 1950s as the museum of the future: “The next type of art museum must not only be an ‘art’ museum in the traditional, static sense, but, strictly speaking, not a ‘museum’ at all. A museum conserves supposedly eternal values and truths. But the new type would be a kind of powerhouse, a producer of new energies” (Frieling 38). While it is debatable that Dismaland produces these kinds of “new energies,” it certainly can be seen as a move in this direction toward such a new museum as “no longer a container of art, nor does it manufacture consensual communities. If successful, it becomes a producer of and an arena for social and aesthetic experiences, temporarily interrupting singularities through the presentation of participatory art that actively generates a discursive public space” (Frieling, 48). This is where Dismaland can be separated from the theme parks it parodies. Banksy’s activist orientation as both artist and curator with a message successfully interrupts singularities of individuals through participatory art.

            While conceptualizing Dismaland as both a theme park and a move toward the museum of the future may appear to be a laughable thought, the notion does provide interesting considerations for artists and curators in understanding the gray area of contemporary cultural institutions’ roles between entertaining and educating. “Museums occupy a liminal space between the past and the present. Through these portals pass large numbers of people of diverse backgrounds and conditions and interests and learning styles whose lives are in the process of changing, whether they know it or not. Museums, when they do their job right, assist in these metamorphoses by opening closed—or hidden—windows on rich and nourishing realities. Or they retard them by keeping those windows concealed and locked, providing instead cheap reassurance, empty calories for hungry minds” (Yellis, 348). Dismaland represents a prototype for a museum to utilize entertaining, or at least engaging, “attractions” without sacrificing the dissemination of knowledge. Another interesting consideration involves the role of money in cultural institutions. “The days of museums as purely not-for-profit endeavors are gone, if they ever existed in the first place. We must throw overboard our collective illusion that a museum is a pristine, unpolluted, capitalism-free zone. This is no more possible for a museum than for a gallery, a bank, or an auto repair shop” (Hoffmann, 3). With the increasing economic and funding overlap between museums and for-profit institutions like theme parks, it may be Dismaland’s ephemeral nature and emphasis on recycling that helps shape the concept of a museum in the future. This temporality combined with Dismaland’s activist nature, incorporation of curating, and the immersive experience it provided to visitors situates itself in the confusing and narrowing territory between what we see today as very different cultural institutions: the museum and the theme park. Time will tell if Dismaland ends up a premonition for the eventual merging of these two institutional types or if it simply serves as an alarm sounded on the entertainment-centricity of society resulting in a dissipation of the overlapping between museum and theme park.

 

 

 

 

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