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When I was younger one of my step brothers used to sing a short melody whenever anyone would say something that grossed him out, usually having to do with restroom related activities:
My stepbrother and I are long estranged but these days I often find myself humming the short melody (which, if you’re music illiterate, just think “Flin-stones, meet the Flin-stones”). I used to sing the phrase whenever someone said the particular phrase “I have to pee.” Like, for crise-sake, you don’t need to announce it! Just say “pardon me,” or “I’ll be back in a minute,” I don’t need the play-by-play here! Scatological humor aside, these days I hum the tune to myself most often when I’m confronted with tele-researchers, marketing surveys, advertising gimmicks that collect phone numbers (“Text ‘Spiffy’ to 3099 to vote for Spiffdawg as your next American Idol!!”), W9 forms, census collection, grad school applications, insurance waivers at the local brothel, that sort of thing. Why the hell are these people so obsessed with useless information like my phone number, ethnicity, political party affiliation, preferred food brands, waist size, cat’s name, the side of the bed I prefer, the average size of my toenail clippings, how many times a day I wonder what extra-terrestrial genitalia look like, or whether or not I have accepted Sun Ra as my lord and savior. What good is that information to them? Then, once this information is collected, it’s disbursed to so many different places that it starts to precede me wherever I go. For example, one morning I planned to visit my parents out of town. I asked SIRI what the weather was like, she said “It will be partly cloudy and in the high 60’s. It will take approximately 48 minutes to get to Riverside with current traffic conditions.” How the hell did she know I was going to Riverside? Is she a psychic?
I often feel like I am swimming, drowning in an ocean of information, data, the non-sequitur, bureaucratic filth of human history. To the government I’m a social security number, to Costco I’m a customer account number (even though I don’t shop there), and to Disney I’m a source of income and cheap slave labor (even though I don’t purchase Disney products or services). To these institutions I’m a digital file– hyperlinked, compressed, imported, shared, encoded, archived. I’m a modern man, one of countless other digital files. It’s a scary thought that not only are we all “insignificant drops of water in the endless river of humanity,” as Tom Zoellner once described it, but that we are now derelict and lost in the digital universe. Roy Rosenzweig also says that “abundance, after all, can be overwhelming. How do we find the forest when there are so many damned trees?” (Rosenzweig). It’s too much information. Some of us, though, have swallowed the red pill and escaped the matrix…only to create a new matrix.
In a previous post I referenced a video that was recently released to the internet which is reportedly produced by the graffiti artist and social satirist Banksy. The video is right up the alley of my personal tastes, complete with geopolitical satire as well as, to put it bluntly, grade A, e-ticket level Disney bashing. (Though, to what extent we can classify it as ‘bashing’ is up for the zeitgeist to decide, but considering previous political-activist-esque “works” attributed to the phenomena “Banksy,” I think it’s safe to assume “bashing” is an appropriate category.) In the minute-or-so video a group of presumably Islamic militants fire a rocket to shoot Dumbo out of the sky and kill him. “Allahu Akbar!” they chant as Dumbo plummets to the ground. The whole video is shot and edited as if it were filmed with a cell-phone camera. It has that shaky “handheld” and distorted quality common to videos posted to Youtube by militants and revolutionary forces all over the middle east to be vicariously ogled at by bewildered suburban Westerners. What’s funny, though, is that Dumbo’s execution here is very much like a Pythonesque exploding person/animal. Like the rocket that brings Dumbo down, the video itself brings Disney back down from the heavenly realm of family-friendly morality and soaring box-office-franchise profit margins. As Dumbo crashes, so too does the mouse-headed dragon that feeds on “piles of eyes.”
I have to admit, the first time I saw the video I was so tickled that I felt just as excited as the militants to see Dumbo’s demise. I almost started chanting “Allahu akbar!” right along with them. To briefly summarize my disdain for Mr. Mouse I can say this– Disney is pure escapism (which in of itself is a topic of discussion for some other time, but is very much a topic concerning comic theory in terms of moral epistemology; i.e. what is the morality of escapism?).
The video has “gone viral,” and it can be found in many places on the internet. I originally posted a link to a video of it, but Youtube deleted the user’s account. Of course, I simply updated the link to another user’s video of it.
In any case, digital is a relatively new medium for Banksy, although it’s not surprising because the internet is one of the main of reasons why he has gained so much attention and popularity around the world. Yet, most of the body of art attributed to Banksy remains street art, or graffiti. In this way culture is forced to remember its analogue– the material world. A Banksy piece can be easily reproduced on a large scale (like Warhol’s work), but it cannot be easily moved or sold, much less digitized. Though, apparently there have been attempts at removing whole slabs of plaster and cinderblock walls containing a Banksy piece which were then shipped to local galleries and sold to the highest bidding yuppies. With his or her foyers into digital universe though, Banksy becomes a phantom to the digital universe, nondescript dark matter that leaves theorists and critics puzzled. He is the “the art world’s Wizard of Oz” (Branscome). Banksy gets to control the shots here, and his audience follows along for his exciting guerilla art. There is a bit of irony here, though, because when “the jester rules the court, it is hard to tell when subversion of the system becomes cynical complicity” (Branscome).
The parodic element is the principal quality of Banksy’s work, which is the steak-and-potatoes (or bread-and-butter depending on your dietary preferences) of comedy and satire. In context of his medium, parody and satire blend to become what’s known as “high-street-irony.” However, what most interests me is Banksy’s relative obscurity, his or her anonymity that is “as controlled as that of Greta Garbo” (Branscome). There are plenty of sources and bits of information available that suggest “Banksy” is a real dude–an actual person roaming the streets at night (and day) poking fun at the world’s geopolitical and socioeconomic powers–but, for the most part, the evidence remains non-substantial. Unless someone comes forth as the official face and name behind that famous molotov-bouquet-tossing dissident (like Shepard Fairey was eventually revealed from behind the mask of Andre the Giant “OBEY”), Banksy will remain “Banksy” the “carefully positioned” persona, idea, force, theme, movement (Branscome). (We don’t need to make the V For Vendetta connection here, so for the sake of everyone involved in this discussion, please, please, all you coffee shop wanna-be revolutionaries, puh-leez don’t strap that annoying V mask over the term Banksy, otherwise it becomes clear that you’re missing the larger point.)
What’s most important is that Banksy’s anonymity pushes the artwork to the forefront of the discussion– art’s rightful place, anyway. Art critics and academics, I’m sure, have already began to play that worn-out game of tug’o’war with Banksy’s work, which has the New Critical approach (“The work only, all other information is irrelevant!”) in one corner vs. the Modernist (“The Artist is paramount, historical context is key!”) in the opposite corner of the analytical ring. (Personal note: I think most academics are completely unaware that the rest of us often share many laughs at their expense because these debates–new critical v. modern, feminist v. patriarchalism, inner-directed v. outer-directed arguments in rhetoric and composition theory, and so on–are the stuff of comedy. Picture here, Bugs Bunny v. Elmer Fudd, Tom & Jerry, Itchy & Scratchy.) That battle is an equally interesting subject to pursue, but for purposes of this blogpost, the work is what we have to focus on. The artwork itself is the only tangible manifestation of Banksy that we have. In other words, Bansky, whoever he or she may be, is free to go about his life, undetected, obscure, unscrutinized by “the gaze” of “the other”– society. Of course Banksy’s true identity is just as susceptible to the power/knowledge ramifications that Foucault went on and on about, but at least he can suffer through it on his or her own terms as opposed to the hyper-broadcasted yet static pangs of celebrity. If Banksy were revealed, he would cease to exist as an infinitely multifaceted person and become the single entity BANKSY, known solely for his soon-to-be archaic artistic style. Another famous (or infamous) example of this strategic anonymity is one of my favorite rock bands (no surprise), Tool. At one point in time they were basically phantoms to pop-music journalists. Interviews with band members were few and far in between, which is something their fans came to appreciate because the music, their art, became the focus of discussions instead of the the latest MTV “Cribs” episode featuring Danny Carey (which doesn’t exist, of course). It allowed the band members to maintain comfortable home/family lives and branch out to other great projects that would also become the stuff of rock-legend. This same focusing on and valuing of the artwork is extended to Banksy in this case.
My dear friend and bassist for the band Dantes Boneyard, Casey Peterson, once used a phrase to describe his trepidations about his emergence into general, tax-paying society after many years of relative transience. He said, “I can’t stand being on the grid.” He described to me how uneasy he felt about being in debt to a bank for his car loan, a job he’s obligated to report to at unnatural hours of the day, a job from which the government feels entirely justified in taking an ever greater portion of his income. Those who fall just outside of the parameters of our society are considered criminal (Foucault again for ya). This is what Casey is referring to– the dichotomy of his new existence, a “criminal” that has put on the mask of the citizen. He feels that his reintroduction to the big masquerade of society meant giving up his core, uncorrupted identity (in the Rousseauian sense) and taking on a new, uniform, simplified, mono-dimensional identity completely foreign to his natural self. Of course, we could get bogged down in all kinds of discussions about what I like to call “the postmodern man” here, but for the moment let us forgo endless deconstruction in order to address some real concerns, the ever more pertinent fears that people face as we spiral further and faster into the post-human world, taking on the new paradigm of Haraway’s cyborg (mentioned in a previous post).
Banksy is lucky. Because we only have the work, Banksy is able to remove himself from “the grid.” The outlier Banksy is the one that society and (I’m inclined to believe but not quite convinced) language cannot touch. He is free to produce, to turn the magnifying glass around and focus scrutiny instead on society, relieving the stress on the individual. Banksy, then, becomes the faceless Other and takes the power/knowledge relationship into his own hands to utilize as he sees fit. Might this be the very definition of subversion? Obviously there are some qualitative issues that arise if this is to work, but I feel the more theoretical analysis and rhetorical jargon I, or anyone, else might pile on, the more we fall into Banksy’s trap. That’s not to say “okay, that’s it, we’ve figured it out, no need to dig any deeper,” and I encourage any feedback offered, but how many categories can we place Banksy, or anyone else, into before we have a hot, steaming mass of meaningless information? Make a spreadsheet, start a Google map, compile a Prezi presentation, document, archive, store, collect data, data, digitize, digitize, digitize digitizedigitizedigitize CONSUME! Do whatever necessary, but what does it all mean?
There is a trio of Futurama characters who have remained in my thoughts ever since Bender’s Big Score came out in 2007– the Scammer Aliens. They’re creepy as hell. They’re creepy in the same way as Bob (Bill Murray) in What About Bob or Cable Guy (Jim Carey) in The Cable Guy are creepy– they have an illogical and insatiable appetite for very personal information. The Scammer Aliens have large noses, called a “sprunjer,” which they use to sniff out information (similar to the way Marilyn Manson’s adaptation of the Child Catcher from Roald Dahl’s screen play for Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang sniffs out children– “Mmm, smells like children!”). They are very gluttonous characters, hoarding information in order to scam Earthicans (citizens of earth in the 3000s). There is no bit of information that is not accessible to them. In other words, every piece of every Earthican’s personal information is entwined and stored in the Alien Scammer database. This becomes the new paradigm of life for the Earthicans– their very identities essentially stored, databased, archived, consumed, shared. The Futurama film doesn’t necessarily dwell on this idea for too long, but it’s the same idea that my friend Casey and Banksy are probably critical of. Again, we can imagine Haraway’s cyborg here (a concept which I am admittedly captivated by lately). For now I’ll skip over the obvious connection to the Star Trek universe and use another more relevant Futurama reference– the Eyephone. In the real world, every time we use our phones, or “mobile devices” if we are flight attendants, the phone sends and receives data, sharing information about us with the abstract ether of the digital universe (which apparently used to look like this, but was reconfigured to look like this:
…it’s all better now, apparently). Yup, every time we use our phone to check an email from grandma’ Google is using it’s sprunjer to snoop through the body text, searching for words that give it clues to our lives, needs, desires, infatuations, you name it. Grams says “Oh, sweetie, I’m sorry you and Jackie split up, but at least you got the kids,” and Google knows–oh it KNOWS–that you’re in need of legal council, dating services, personal finance, an extra-wide casket, day care, and some how it also knows your social security number, the birthmark on your left buttocks looks just like Richard Nixon (or Bob Hope, you’re not quite sure which of the two), and that you prefer 3-ply TP (which Bob Nixon is appreciative of). The Eyephone is just the more absurd version which, for its users, replaces the material world with the exchange of data. An Eyephone user no longer exists in the material world. Instead, they exist solely as their avatar in social media, their digital identity, an identity which is entirely public. Replace the term “Eyephone” with “iPhone,” “Galaxy S,” “Razor,” or any other “mobile device” and the same is true. The Alien Scammers, a.k.a. Google, have made our identities completely public, and no one escapes the omniscient eye of Google, the NSA, Pepsi…Disney.
Banksy, though, I think is somehow able to subvert the eye. There is, somehow, an inversion of the public/private relationship. Where Google, with its sprunjer, makes information public, Banksy’s art, like the spry Bugs Bunny out-witting the cumbersome Elmer Fudd, subverts the obtrusive, indeed intrusive Google-eye. What better place to hide a secret message than in plain sight, right? We might not notice it at all, but when we do discover that pesky little rat
…we probably notice it when we are alone, in some obscure place, at some obscure time of the day. It’s a seemingly inconsequential image that is so simple that it sticks with us throughout the day, irking us. It makes no sense, but we ponder the image’s meaning, tease out any number of ideas, and it becomes unnervingly thought-provoking. The image is totally analog, but it has consequences that reverberate in the digital realm. If Banksy is at once everything such as the rat, the Pulp Fiction banana parody, the molotov-bouquet-throwing dissident, the great demolisher of walls, and so on, then his digital identity is just one of an infinite identities. What good is Banksy’s digital identity to the all-seeing-public-Googleeye if it can’t neatly fit “Banksy” into a few, concise categories in order to “personalize his ad experience”?
What if everyone embraced their own sense of, well, nonsense? What if we all understood that our digital-selves (our archives, our databases, records, files) are just one of our many selves. What if we learned to poke the Google-eye? Dumbo would’ve have probably crashed long before anyone had the chance to fire a rocket at him.
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Branscome, Eva. “The True Counterfeits Of Banksy: Radical Walls Of Complicity And Subversion.” Architectural Design 81.5 (2011): 114-121. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 11 Oct. 2013.