Who is Banksy?

For most of us, a street artist. For others, a brilliant oil painter or a sculptor, maker of big installations, a writer or a filmmaker. Every now and then an organiser of enormous art shows and sometimes a taxidermist. It all depends on the narrative we create in our minds. Maybe the beauty of it all rests in the full picture, Banksy as a piece of art in himself. Accessible and comprehensive, but yet so difficult to grasp.

An icon for the alternative yet one of the best-paid painters in the UK. Anonymous but seeking the spotlight constantly. High voltage political figure claiming social justice and transparency,  at the same time an incarnation of opacity.  Collectors favorite investment, hitting “all-time highs” at top auction houses, but at the same time a constant provocateur of the art establishment. The contradictions and double entendres not only are key in his paintings, but they are also the essence of the Banksy phenomenon.

A team or a single person?

The carefully crafted myth wants us to believe that Banksy is a single person, but the sheer magnitude of his work and the many different techniques he uses in different genres points in the direction of a team of artists. It is well known that there is a production team helping out with art shows like Dismaland, “Better Out than In” or “Banksy vs Bristol Museum”, nothing strange with that.  Banksy’s street-art also points in the direction of a teamwork. Some of the stencils in recent years are large format and complex,  and it would be an impossible task for a solo artist.

In the summer of 2009, Banksy mounts his most important exhibition up to date, ”Banksy vs Bristol Museum”. It’s a massive effort with approximately one hundred new pieces as well as some of the stuff from ”The Village Pet” the year before. It becomes the most visited art exhibition in the UK ever. Kate Brindley was one of the museum directors at the time and she explains in the book ”Banksy, the man behind the Wall” by Will Ellsworth-Jones:

It was like a big sort of Changing Rooms. We shut the museum and it all came in. The only reason we could do that was because they (The Banksy team) had the manpower and the finances. They were incredible professional. I am used to putting on exhibitions but it was done in such a large and accelerated fashion. It was like working with a film crew”.

There are many reasons to believe that the creative core is also a teamwork of let say, three persons. It’s difficult to explain Banksy’s enormous production as a one-man effort: More than thousand different pieces of artwork over 20 years in different genres in a wide array of techniques and styles. Add the film, the books and the organization of the big exhibitions and the theory of the single Banksy is impossible to support.

Misdirection

Key elements in Banksy’s artistic content is the playfulness, the accessible political message, the mischief and the constant provocation of the art establishment.  On another level, there is the narrative of mystery and subversion, held together with a masterful use of misdirection.  The illusionist takes us from A to B, but by sleight of hand and misdirection, he makes us create the wrong narrative.

The misdirection is used in many ways, mainly by the use of “different”  persons fronting as Banksy.  Is it the same person who presents himself as Banksy at Walls on Fire in 1998 as the person that appears in Exit Through the Gift Shop?  It doesn’t seem to be the same person that walks into Tate Britain in 2003 with a hidden painting as the person who went to Chiapas in 2001 with the Easton Cowboys. The different persons fronting as Banksy in different contexts are members of the Banksy team. Part of the trick is that we will never know, the Banksy team is extremely tight, very well paid and under a lifelong contract.

Other elements of misdirection are the pieces of information Banksy gives away in interviews by e-mail. Some of these interviews are found in Will Ellsworth’s excellent book ”The Man Behind the Wall”. A recurring theme is an issue of being anonymous. Banksy’s standard explanation is by going public he would be signing his own sentence to prison. That was true in the earlier days but definitely not after the major successes with Barely Legal in 2006 and “Banksy vs Bristol Museum” in 2009. From that moment any town council with a Banksy on its public walls had a free tourist attraction.

The social experiment side of Banksy

“Social experiment” is a growing genre within contemporary art. Artists like Caroline Woolard and Marina Abramovic fuse art and social experiments to challenge the way we live our postmodern lives. The film “The Square” by Ruben Ostlund is another example. If we perceive the entire Banksy phenomena as a piece of art in itself, there is unmistakenly a social experiment involved. Banksy not only challenges the art establishment, he questions our approach to confirmation bias, social constructionism, cognitive dissonance, and the collective narrative we create as a group of followers. Banksy is a ‘cultural identity marker’ for millions of persons around the world.

An example of a social experiment is the creation of the artist Mr. Brainwash. In the film “Exit through the gift shop”, Banksy and the chaotic filmmaker Thierry Guetta trade places in the middle of the film and the Banksy team transforms Guetta into Mr. Brainwash. The experiment shows that talent and artistic intention can be replaced by sheer hype.

Banksy and geography

Roughly half of Banky’s production is street art, the rest is oils, acrylics and spray on canvas and other materials. There are also sculptures and installations. Approximately 80 % of Banksy’s street art is painted somewhere in the UK, mainly in London, followed by Bristol.  Approximately 13 % is painted in the USA and Canada – LA, San Francisco, NY, New Orleans, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, Toronto, and Sundance.  Approximately 7 % in the rest of the world, especially in Europe and Palestine. In continental Europe, we find Banky’s stencils in Paris, Calais, Vienna, a few in Barcelona, Berlin, Rome, and Napoles.  Outside Europe, Palestine and North America, there are only a handful Banksys: A few in Tokyo, one in Australia and one in Mali, Africa. The only confirmed works in Latin America are the freehand paintings and a few stencils in the Chiapas region. I might have forgotten some places, but, the conclusion is that Banksy’s street art is concentrated in UK and US, with Palestine in the third place. The top five Banksy locations are London, Bristol, Los Angeles, New York, Palestine.

But, if Banksy is a teamwork, it’s pointless to perform an exact geo-profiling, a member of the team can apply spray paint on the pre-designed stencils. At the same time, the location of the street artwork is very well planned.  Nothing is done by chance or impulse. Especially after the shift towards more complex stencils around 2005.

Who is the creative genius behind Banksy?

The Banksy myth relies on the old philosophical truth: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. The project is organised according to this principle, i.e. there will be no “evidence”, at least in a foreseeable future.

According to a well-situated source in the Bristol street art scene, there are several prominent Bristol street artists involved with the Banksy project. One of them might be Tom “Inkie” Bingle, another one Robert Del Naja, also known as 3D. Other staffers on the Banksy team might include James Ame, Wissam Salsaa, and Tristan Manco. But who is the creative leader? The beauty of it all is that we will never know for sure, because –  who would confirm? We can only make more or less qualified guesses.  Here comes one:

There are surprising parallels between Banksy and the multitalented Derren Brown. Just like Banksy, Derren Brown is a lot of things to different persons. For some, he is a magician or a psychological illusionist. For others, he’s one of the best hypnotists in the world. For yet others, he’s a brilliant painter, a writer or even a philosopher. He’s also a charismatic performer,  a driven photographer and a taxidermist. He’s a leader of a tight production team which knocks out groundbreaking stage shows every two years.  And he’s a master of misdirection. And just like Banksy,  he left Bristol for London in the year 2000.

Derren Brown Selportait
Derren Brown. Self-portrait.

For non-British readers, it can be difficult to understand how Derren Brown could fit in the Banksy role, but for an initiated British public it makes some sense. Derren Brown is a tremendously intelligent person who would be perfectly capable of covertly influencing us on how to interpret the Banksy phenomenon. And he is a prolific painter with an exquisite technique.

Derren is recognized as one of the most skillful hypnotists in the world today.  In one of his books, he relates how he met Richard Bandler, one of the co-founders of NLP.  Derren Brown is openly critical to many aspects of NLP, but at the same time, he uses techniques inspired in NLP frequently. According to several sources in the field, he has taken the more spectacular side of NLP to a level never seen before. Derren Brown claims he can’t read minds, but, by being able to read a persons body language, eye movements, muscle movements, tone of voice and other autonomous signals he comes as close as one can get to reading minds. He’s very clever doing the opposite – making us think what he wants us to think with the help of small embedded cues in a constant flow of words. He’s a skeptic and an atheist, he has made numerous television specials where he attacks and reveals what he labels as  ”false belief systems”,  such as religions, astrology, and spiritism.

In 1999 Derren is on top in Bristol. A local star, mentalist, magician, stand-up, painter, and showman. At the same time, Channel 4 is looking for someone who can challenge David Blaine. Derren Brown is contracted to do the series Mind Control. In early 2000 Derren moves to London and he begins a frenetic work filming different episodes of Mind Control on the streets of London.  After Mind Control comes “Trick or Treat”, the Experiments and other groundbreaking television formats created by Derren Brown. In 2003 he launches his first stage show, “Derren Brown Live” which connects to the English tradition of illusionism mixed with NLP, misdirection, sleight-of-hand magic, hypnosis and showmanship.

Creative in different areas and enormously productive. Unassuming and humble.  His known agenda is atheism, he is close to Richard Dawkins and Alain de Botton. Humanistic and rationalistic. One of his messages is anti-bullying, a subject he touches in his stage shows but also in The Experiments. His latest book – Happy – is about the virtues of stoicism. Banksy has made a few hints in stoistic direction, among them the “What we do in life echoes in eternity”, a quote from Marcus Aurelio, one of the most prominent stoics. Just like Banksy, he is an active anti-Brexiteer.

Derren Brown is a keen explorer of the collective psyche. He has shown his ability as the Stanley Millgram of our times in a string of very sophisticated productions. In them he has explained concepts like social compliance, group psychology, creating a cult, placebo, guilt, etc. Most of his production can be found on youtube, search for Derren Brown and The Experiments or The Events.

Same periodicity – same team?

As mentioned before, Banksy has organised a number of art shows, the latest being The Walled Off Hotel.  The periodicity seems to be more or less every two years.

Derren Brown uses more or less the same intervals which curiously fits Banksy’s schedule of big art shows fairly well. Every two years he comes up with a new show which premieres in London and then goes on tour around the UK. Derren has a production team of writers, art directors, craftsmen, logistics, etc.

  • Something wicked this way comes,  March to May 2005 in London  and on tour in the UK during June 2006
  • An evening of wonders,  27 April to  17 June 2007 in London, and on tour in the UK between February to  June  2008
  • Enigma, 17 April until 15 June 2009 in London – and on tour in the UK between February to April 2010
  • Svengali, 9 March 2011 –  11 August 2012 in London
  • Infamous, March 2013 – July 2013 in London – and on tour in the UK from February to  April  2014
  • Miracle, November  2015 – January 2016 in London. On tour in the UK from April to July  2016.
  • Underground: May – June 2017 in New York. September –  November 2017 in London. The UK Tour starts in Liverpool, 3 April 2018.

Mere coincidences?

There are loads of religious references in Banksy’s work: Toxic Mary, Christ with Shopping Bags, Forgive us our prayers, Fallen Angel, Silent Night, etc etc. For a street artist, it’s highly unusual such a focus on religion. Derren Brown was brought up as a Christian, in his books “Confessions of a conjurer” and “Happy” he brilliantly narrates the process of going from a firm believer in the Christian God to being one of the leading atheists in the UK.

There are also several gay references in Banksy’s work: Kissing Coppers, Beanfield, The Sixtin Chappel, etc. With the exception of Keith Haring and a few more, it’s highly unusual such a focus in any artist coming from the macho world of street art. Derren Brown is very open about his homosexuality, he told us the story of his coming-out in his stage show “Infamous”. Derren Brown has been an important influence in normalizing our views on any sexual orientation, at least in the UK.

The subconsciousness of Banksy

Derren Brown is an expert on how the subconscious mind works. He has shown his skills in groundbreaking television series and specials, such as The Experiments, as well as in his stage shows. It’s easy to discard or trivialize his work, but for anyone who is into NLP or hypnosis his work is much more sophisticated than it seems at first glance.

Banksy has developed a pictorial language that has very much to do with the subconsciousness. There is almost always a contradiction in his pieces that captures the mind of the viewer. It’s the girl who hugs a bomb instead of a teddy bear. Or the policeman who lights up a joint. The contradiction is also present on a higher level and what is perceived at first hand as trivial and accessible is more complex than was said from the beginning. The consistency in delivering contradictions between the picture and the underlying message has a lot do with Ericksonian induction to hypnosis. The overflowing and confusing of the ”critical factor” that separates the conscious from the subconscious facilitates a deeper understanding of the piece. The contradictions are also key in the overall concept as we mentioned before. The anonymous artist that seeks fame. The subversive antisystem icon yet one the best-paid painters in the UK.

The contradictions and the confusing twist are also at the center of the film ”Exit through the gift shop” where the viewer is faced with a change of subject and object in the middle of the film: The initial filmmaker Thierry Guetta becomes the new Banksy and Banksy turns into the filmmaker. The same contradictions and confusing twists were central elements at Dismaland, the sad amusement park.

An important detail at Dismaland in this direction was the music: a 120-second loop at full volume with Hawaiian music in minor only interrupted every 15 minutes by voices of sad children with confusing messages. I wasn’t the only one finding myself almost in a trance-like state.

The photographer

Derren Brown is a multitalented person. A brilliant painter, a prolific writer, a tremendous performer but also a skilled photographer. A collection of Derren’s street photography will be published as a book during 2018.  Some of his shots have some resemblance to well known Banksy motives.

 

A sample of Derren’s street art

Pointless geo-profiling, but anyway…

Looking at the latest street art events, the chronology would be the following:

  • 14 March 2018. Banksy paints the brilliant “rat in the clock” at 6th Avenue in New York. The day after the big mural in support of Zehra Dogan is unveiled. Derren Brown appeared at James Corden’s Late Late Night Show in LA a few days before, on 8 March. Derren Brown is preparing for a show on Broadway in the fall of 2018.
  • 26 January 2018. Banksy paints “Draw the raised bridge” in Hull, UK. Derren Brown finished his stay at Playhouse Theatre in in London in November 2017 and is preparing for his UK Tour, which starts in April 2018.
  • 17 September 2017. Banksy paints a Basquiat at the Barbican in London – Derren Brown is performing Underground at the Playhouse Theatre in London
  • 7 May 2017. The enormous Brexit mural in Dover. At the same time, Derren Brown is performing his stage show “The Secret” in New York. But, he had some days off, and London is just a six hours flight away. Anyway, the enormous mural with the necessary scaffolding couldn’t have been executed by one person. A clear example of a complex piece of street art and a team at work.
  • 6 June 2016. The stick figure with the Hula Hoop in Bristol. Derren Brown is on a UK tour  with Miracle which he performs in Bristol 4 and 5  June 2016
  • 25 January 2016. The “Les Miserable” stencil in London. A few days earlier Derren has ended his stay at the Palace Theatre with his Miracle stage show.
  • December 2015. The refugee stencils in  Calais, France. Derren is performing Miracle across the channel at the same time

And one can go one like that and find a high degree of coincidence in both artists schedules, but not entirely conclusive.  I think it’s more important to look at the overall picture, especially the periodicity of the production teams when it comes to the big events such as Better Out than In, Dismaland etc.

Besides Derren Browns and Banksy’s periodicity, as mentioned above, one can point to a series of documented facts:

Banksy had a frenetic stenciling activity on the street of London between 2000 and 2004. During the same period, Derren Brown and his production team had a frenetic activity on the streets of London shooting up to 100 clips for his “Mind Control” and “Trick or Treat” series.

Banksy initiates his US street art in the fall of 2006. Derren Brown has filmed a few specials in the US from 2005 to 2010, among them “Messiah”, where he exposes new age faith healers and other scam artists. In 2010 he spends time in the US filming “Miracles for Sales”. Besides these two specials, Derren has filmed quite a few smaller episodes in the US at different times.  Banksy’s US activity can be resumed in the following way:

Only the “Street art tour in the spring of 2010” is in conflict with Derrens stage show schedules in London and UK. But, the Enigma tour had some days off, and, as we said before, the pre-designed stencils can be applied by the team.

Derren’s Twitter confession

In January 2012,  Derren Brown posted ”I’m Banksy” on his Twitter account. A few weeks later he explained his confession as a hoax. For such a brilliant person as Derren Brown, it was not a very brilliant ”hoax”. It can be interpreted in two ways:

  1. Misdirection: If Derren was feeling that the heat was building up for some reason, it would be a typical reaction of Derren to confess and then later take it back. Derren always wants you to reconsider your choice. In this case, and on a larger scale, the purpose would be to create confusion –  ”If Derren is Banksy, he would never go public and admit to it.. etc etc”. 
  2. The “I’m Banksy” tweet was posted at a time when there had been very little Banksy activity for some time. The hypothesis goes that the Banksy team was considering to split up. Derren’s tweet might have been a step to force the team to go public.

And there are several other punctual parallels between the two of them. I will be back soon for more information.

The Derren Brown / Banksy essay was published originally by Rikard Anderson in October 2015 in El Triangle, Barcelona’s leading weekly magazine, focused on investigative journalism. http://www.eltriangle.eu