Tag Archives: Banksy

Banksy and digital art – making it and saving it

Banksy’s newest piece of street art has caught my attention twice this week – first for the work of art itself, and the powerful way that it incorporates digital media, and second for the clearing away of the work, and the way it’s being saved for the public digitally.

So let’s start with the work of art itself. It turned up last Saturday across the street from the French Embassy in Knightsbridge. At its centre is the iconic illustration of Cosette from Les Miserables, but with yellowy tears running from her eyes, and gas from a nearby canister clouding her body. Most have read it as a critique of the French government’s use of tear gas in refugee encampments in Calais.

Photo: banksy.co.uk
Photo: banksy.co.uk

This isn’t the first time Banksy has used his work to speak out against the treatment of immigrants and the dangers of xenophobia – for other examples see here and here. It is the first time, though, that he’s included a piece of digital technology that invites viewers to take his image a step further, and to have a look for themselves at the media footage he’s responding to.

Photo: AP/Alastair Grant
Photo: AP/Alastair Grant

That’s right, a QR code. One of those black and white little squares that you really only see in marketing materials these days. In his book The Emergence of the Digital Humanities, Steven E. Jones takes a swipe at these pieces of low-fi, quasi-digital kit, largely for their ineffectiveness (who actually takes the time to scan them?) but also for their feeble and rather outdated gesture towards some other dimension known as ‘The Digital’. I pretty much agree – I downloaded a QR reader to my phone a few years ago when we got an app-based walking tour in Stratford, but it never really worked that well, and eventually I deleted it in order to make space for something else. But Banksy’s use of the QR code really caught my eye, and got me thinking about how it really can work, provided that the thing it connects you with is something genuinely interesting, useful, unexpected, and important.


As the video above shows, Banksy’s QR code links the viewer to media footage of the very event he is critiquing, and in doing so it layers art with reality, painting with video, street art with newsfeed. It is multimedial and multiexperiential, inviting us not only to revel in his satirical comment, but also to witness a few, harrowing minutes in the lives of people just 100 miles away from London. In a strange way, Banksy’s painting makes this live footage become ‘real’, rather than the other way around. By inserting it into the well-heeled streets of Knightsbridge, by giving it context outside of the numbing repetitiveness of the nightly news, by making it a part of a conversation, it focuses viewers’ attention and creates new impact.

It’s interesting too that the best video documentation of the painting that I’ve found – the piece embedded above – was created specifically for Facebook by the social media outlet AJ+, and doesn’t exist separately as an independent URL. It’s meant to be shared, and unlike the versions that I found on more traditional news sites, it actually mixes in the video footage opened up by the QR code. Plus, it forgoes the heavy, didactic narration of the news presenter and chooses instead to frame the piece through music and single lines of written text. The effect, for me, is far more engaging, exploratory, immersive, and powerful.

Now, the coda – like so many Banksy pieces these days, this one has already come down (or at least part of it – while the bulk of the image was painted on a piece of easily removed plywood, the tear gas can is on the base of a stone wall). Given the price that Banksy’s works now go for, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it makes its way into a private collection. But before the removal occurred, a man from Google came with the company’s Streetview kit to digitally record and document it. In a few months, and certainly a few years, this may very well be the only high-quality, officially archived ‘copy’ of the work available to the public. So what started off as a mixed media piece on the streets of London might ultimately end up as an entirely digital one in the clouds of the internet, increasingly managed by the empire of Google.

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A smile is more than showing teeth

Cover art

It’s been a long time since my last post, and I’m afraid it’s going to be quite awhile until the next one too, due to the need to once-and-for-all finish my first solo-authored book (started in my PhD days…!). But I wanted to write a short something to mark the new year, and also to reflect on a couple of digital things that actually relate to the book I’m finishing. That project is on the history of emotion and specifically sadness in Shakespeare’s time, and in many ways it’s a world apart from the ideas about Shakespeare and digital culture that I’ve been discussing on this blog over the last year. It has involved lots of archival work, dusty rare books, histories of medicine, and histories of religion — seemingly very different territory from this blog — but it’s also led me to read and think lots about why and how we feel things, and how different cultural, artistic, and indeed technological influence may shape how that process of feeling works.

Which is where the digital comes in. I haven’t written much at all about emotion and digital culture so far, but it’s something that’s been on my mind for a long time, from watching films like Her to seeing photographs of Banksy’s depiction of modern love to listening to St. Vincent’s most recent album on repeat. To pursue that last one in a bit more depth — like many people, one of my new year’s resolutions has been to get outside and get moving more, and over the past few weeks I’ve gotten back to a bit of running, and a bit of simultaneous music-listening in the process. I had already heard a few songs off St. Vincent on the radio and tv, but listening to an album with headphones on, while you’re doing something you don’t especially enjoy, has a special power to focus the mind.

Love: that special glow.

What I hadn’t realized until recently is how much of the album is about life in a twenty-first-century digital world, and the kinds of emotions it leaves us with — or, as it happens, without. ‘Call the twenty-first century, tell her give us a break’, St. Vincent sings in the penultimate track, ‘Every Tear Disappears’. That song also begins with the title of this post: ‘Oh a smile is more than showing teeth’. It’s a lyric that caught my attention first and foremost because it inadvertently poses a challenge to one of the most influential, and yet contested, methods of studying emotion across different cultures — the recognition of facial expressions. Spearheaded by a man named Paul Ekman in the late 1960s, this method asks people from different parts of the world to identify emotion based on a set of photographs, and the resulting evidence has been used to make a case for what Ekman calls ‘basic’, or universal, emotions across cultures:

http://thepositiveblog.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/expressions-2.jpg
Ekman’s ‘basic’ emotions

But without going too deep into the tangly history of the study of emotion, the other thing that this lyric from St. Vincent made me think about was how our experience of technology impacts on our sense of emotional identity and capability. The first single off the album, and as far as I’m aware the most successful track to date, is a song called ‘Digital Witness’. Featuring the repeated, tumbling refrain, ‘People turn the tv on it looks just like a window’, the playfully techno-critical song evokes for me elements of the Buggles’ 1979 hit, ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’. ‘Pictures came and broke your heart, we can’t rewind we’ve gone too far’, that tune tells us over and over again, as it semi-ironically mourns the loss of one form of entertainment technology as a new one swiftly takes over. And even if you don’t remember the words to the song, you may very well recall that the music video for it was used to launch MTV to the world in 1981.

Nearly thirty-five years later, the video for ‘Digital Witness’ tells its own story of digital — and implicitly psychological — change. St. Vincent herself, with her candy floss hair, is the central focus, always drawing our attention despite the fact that she never looks directly at us. Instead, she looks just off and above camera, like someone watching a tv screen at a bar while they half carry on with conversation. The eerie, de Chirico-esque landscape she travels through is colorfully vivid, but weirdly devoid of human agency or vivacity. There’s a gently, if beautifully, lobotomized feel to the aesthetic, and presumably one that’s not incidental to the title and lyrics of the song. And while I should say that I don’t fully agree with the idea that technology turns us into drones, it’s still an argument that’s worth making.

As a historian of emotion there’s no doubt in my mind that technology is changing us, in potentially fundamental ways, but I don’t necessarily see that as intrinsically bad — just something that we need to keep a firm eye on, and not one that’s partly askance while we do something else. If anyone wants to read more about the study of the history of emotion — without which ‘there will be no real history possible’, the great Lucien Febvre suggested — then have a look at a review essay of the field I wrote a couple of years ago. Please wish me luck as I move into the final stage of revisions, and look for more posts here later in the year!