Once again, new media frenzy about street graffiti artist Banksy and his work has been picking up a pace in recent few days. Rummaging through several news outlets, it seems that the elusive part about this prolific and world-renown author - his identity - became the sole preoccupation of tabloid editors worldwide. Numerous sensationally titled pieces such as Banksy Unmasked!, Banksy caught on camera etc., seem to spring up around the world refereeing to a probably bogus video recording of a person leaving a site in the city of Melbourne where Banksy’s piece with Pauline Hanson is stenciled.
Who is Banksy? It doesn’t really matter. We picked up Banksy as our artist of the week not for the purpose of describing or analyzing his work or life, which has been done numerous times so far, but to clarify a bit this constant frenzy surrounding his identity with a help of critical theory. Finally, we also point out to what really matters - his work. Although we cannot avoid some profiling, at least in the use of personal pronouns which immediately put him in a certain gendered body, it is more a part of standardized approach when writing about him, than anything else.
Widewalls has published several pieces following the occasional flair-ups of interest in Banksy’s identity and privacy. Different theories appeared over the years concerning these issues, some more believable than the others, and some completely ludicrous. Pinpointing Robert Del Naja, one of the Massive Attack members as true Banksy is one that stirred the public and provoked several other theories to come into circulation. But, as rightly pointed out in our article on it – what is the point?
Maybe the capital issue here is not Banksy’s identity per se, but a constant grudge held by a part of the public that something or someone in a globalized world permeated with modern technologies and systems of surveillance can escape its watchful eyes. One thing is to be curious about someone’s identity, to question and amuse one’s mind with it, and completely another to make it into the headlines of news around the world. Even more so when artist himself wishes to keep this part of his life private.
But as we well know, such wishes are never respected. Trying to create his art under constant watch is probably a draining experience but nonetheless, Banksy’s art is always engaged and stimulated by such circumstances. Taking what is wrong with contemporary society as his target, Banksy works around the world. The appearance of his street art on almost all meridians is just another controversial aspect that seems to provoke different theories, such as the one questioning if Banksy is one person flying around the world or a group of people with address on different locations. Another theory that appeared recently following the opening of his Dismaland is whether Banksy is hiding in Dismaland as a parking attendant, or some other stuff member. Not being enough, even scientist tried to use a complex algorithm of geoprofiling in order to hunt down the real Banksy. A name popped-up of Robin Gunningham, and was a hot currency for a while, mainly because of his links with Bristol which is artist’s hometown address.
To analyze the enormous public attention to Banksy, we turn to some critical theory. In his book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prison, Foucault describes contemporary systems of power and control through Panopticon. It is a type of prison building designed by Jeremy Bentham, English philosopher and social theorist, in 1785. Bentham described Panopticon as a new mode of obtaining power of ‘mind over mind’ conceived as an annular building with the tower in its center. The building is divided in cells where each cell can be seen from the tower. Because the inhabitants of the cells are constantly visible but not aware when and if they are observed, the power is automatically exercised. In this way the power is also separated from the actual persons who exercise it. For Foucault the Panopticon surpasses its materiality and is conceived as ‘a dream building: it is a diagram of a mechanism of power’.
How can it be that someone so skillfully hides his identity throughout the years? Is Panopticon not working properly? General public, which according to Foucault participate in the mechanism of power seem to have one of the cells befogged from its view, and as you may guess its inhabitant is Banksy. The intrigue over his identity is constantly fed by the fear that systems of control are failing. The grudge of the public mentioned before thus translates into insatiable desire to find out the artist’s identity, and to rectify the disturbed mechanisms of power.
News not related directly to the perpetual search for Banksy came a few hours ago from Australia. Not being enough that his works are often appropriated by the public and sold through different venues, new retrospective exhibition of Banksy’s work has been open in Melbourne and includes reproductions some of his famous works from the past, such as his New York pieces, and well-known stencils of a girl with balloon. The controversy shadowing the show is that it has not been authorized by the artist. The currency that Banksy became in art world seems to allow anyone to regard him as a common good for making a profit of. In this case, the antagonist is Banksy’s former manager Steve Lazarides. In his attempt to explain the decision to stage an unauthorized exhibition, the one with ridiculously high entrance fee, Lazarides contends that it is general public who put him where he is, and so they have earned the right to see a show of his works.
Panopticon is fighting back, is it not? The exploitation of Banksy’s work seems a sour substitute for the public’s failing to uncover his identity.
It would not come as a surprise if Banksy’s next work would feature a somewhat changed slogan from his alleged stencil of Australian anti-immigration politician Pauline Hanson - F*** off, you fools!
All featured images by Banksy in the following order: Spy Booth, 2014; Dismaland; I fought the Law; Piece from Kidderminster; Dismaland- Immigrants. All images via Widewalls visual archive.
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