Banksy Against Dystopia

Architecture and Power in London Today

written by Srećko Horvat

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In the past two years we had the opportunity to watch two excellent British science-fiction films depicting the near or perhaps distant future of the island we know as Great Britain. The first of the two movies, Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006), tells of London in the year 2027. Due to global destruction and ecological catastrophe no human child has been born for 18 years and human civilization as we know it is perhaps facing extinction. In the second movie, 28 Weeks Later (Juan C. Fresnadillo, 2007), the whole of the British population has been contaminated by a lethal virus introduced in the first part of the same movie. The military has secured a small part of London while ‘the living dead’, zombies, continue to ravage around. What connects these two post-apocalyptic films, apart from other characteristics, is architecture. In fact, thanks to efficient interventions by the directors of both movies London has been simply ‘polished’ in order to give us a glimpse of its near future, a future one can imagine. We are not talking of special effects or architectural interventions like those seen in Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) or Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985). On the contrary, London has been subtly turned into a dystopic city by emphasizing its existing urban characteristics. For instance, in both movies, Children of Men and 28 Weeks Later, CCTV cameras are strongly accentuated although we can see them at every step even today. From this perspective, the two movies seem not to belong to the genre of science-fiction, but to be a rather brilliant detection of the current state of affairs in which the abolishing of public places and civil rights has become frequent.


In the Children of Men there is one beautiful scene which navigates us directly to the title of this article. Our hero, Theo, pays a visit to a wealthy friend who lives in a building very much like the well-known Tate Modern. What all the film’s audiences must remember is a big statue of David, standing right at the entrance to a large room, or better, at the entrance to a private art gallery, or Guernica by Picasso hanging on the dining-room wall. As a matter of fact, in the midst of global decadence, while the only place which is still hanging on is London, a special class of people, like Theo’s friend, has been put in charge of preserving the most significant art pieces in history. What most viewers probably don’t remember is that at the very moment that Theo is getting out of the car they were able to see a piece of wall ripped out from somewhere and hung in the lobby of the same building showing the famous creation by Banksy, Kissing Bobbies. Apart from honouring Banksy’s work, the director’s selection of art pieces places in front of us some serious questions about the art market, and most of all it indicates that in some rather near future street art will be peer to all other arts. Or at least some street art pieces will be accepted as equal to other art pieces, like those made by Banksy.


The history of urban interventions, which, in spite of their mutual differences, can be reduced to a general notion of street art, goes back to the 1970s. Although the trend of painting graffiti, generally associated with the hip-hop subculture, existed before that time, street art is special for two reasons: the main means of expression is no longer just graffiti and urban interventions are nowadays very often connected with some sort of political statement. The best example of that fact are slogans from May ’68 Paris, which by their contents, if not by their form as well, go side by side with what today we generally consider being street art: Soyez réalistes, demandez l'impossible (Let us be realistic and ask for impossible!), On achète ton bonheur. Vole-le (They are buying your happiness – steal it!), Lisez moins, vivez plus (Read less, live longer!), L’ennui est contre-révolutionnaire (Boredom is counterrevolutionary.), Ni Dieu ni maître (Neither God, nor master!), Il est interdit d'interdire (It is forbidden to forbid!), etc. By casting criticism through the mass media against the national football team, even Jean Baudrillard said that the ‘genuine revolutionary media in May ’68 were walls and graffiti, serigraphs and banners in hands, a street where the word was being exchanged – all that was spontaneously written, dispatched and sent back, moving, happening at the same place and at the same time, mutual and contrary.’ Moreover, according to Baudrillard, the street is an ‘alternative and subversive form of all media because the street is not like them, objectified support of messages without response, a remote transit web; the street is a clear space of symbolic exchange of the word, fugacious and mortal as it is, the word which does not reflect its meaning when displayed on the platonic screen of the media.’[1]


It is exactly within this context that today’s street art is to be understood. Both classic graffiti and street art share the same awareness of ‘having the right to send a message’. The street becomes their medium, but they are separated by the intention to make the message even more subversive preserving it, at the same time, from being lost due to mere ‘Art for Art’s Sake’. It is in this sense that we can consider Parisian graffiti to be the origin of street art. The name of Blek Le Rat should be mentioned here as the name of the greatest street artist in Paris, who was among first to use templates instead of ‘classic’ graffiti methods. Moreover, it was Blek Le Rat who was first to draw little rats on streets, a motif that was to make another artist famous later on, Banksy. Banksy himself made the following statement in the year 2005: ‘Every time I think I drew something at least a bit more original, I discover that Blek Le Rat had already done that. Only, he did it twenty years before me.’ Another important figure of street art is certainly Jean-Michel Basquiat, a New York artist who also made his beginnings with graffiti as a medium in order to finish in neo-Expressionism during the 80s. Instead of creating classic graffiti, which had a tendency for aesthetic perfection, he used to write the famous ‘SAMO’ slogan over Manhattan buildings, the abbreviation for same ol’ shit. In one of his ‘early’ interviews he gave to Glenn O’Brien, the journalist called him a ‘language-oriented’ graffitist, which probably is the most appropriate description. It points out the most important difference compared to previous graffiti. Besides that, Basquiat was most likely the first ‘street artist’ who entered the world of profitable arts, helped, or not at all, depending on the point of view, by no less than Andy Warhol.


But Banksy, as opposed to Basquiat, is still an enigmatic figure. Although he himself recently entered the world of the art market, Banksy still stands by his principles – he remains anonymous and, allegedly, does not make any profit out of his work. He entered the art market when Christina Aguilera bought the original of his Queen Victoria, depicted in a lesbian act, for ₤25,000. All of a sudden, he became a new Andy Warhol (or Basquiat, for the sake of the matter). In 2006, Sotheby’s sold his pictures of Kate Moss for ₤50,400, while at the same auction his green Mona Lisa was sold for ₤57,600. Only few months later, in February 2007, Sotheby’s sold his work titled Bombing Middle England for the enormous amount of ₤102,000, while in that same month the owners of the house which happens to have this particular graffiti on its façade decided to sell the entire house to an art gallery. In April 2007, a record was reached: Banksy’s work titled Space Girl & Bird hit the roof with a price of ₤288,000.


Despite the popularity of his art pieces, there is very little information about Banksy. Allegedly, he was born in Bristol in around 1974. He never sells his work to commercial galleries. He even came once to Sotheby’s and wrote ‘We are getting rich on Banksy’ (in case you had any doubt, the slogan was sold next day for ₤16,999). When in May 2005 he won an award as the greatest British living artist, Banksy, clearly, did not show up at the award ceremony. What Banksy thinks of the arts establishment he showed with a subversive action in March 2005 when he simply hung his art pieces on the walls of New York’s most revered museums: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Brooklyn Museum and American Museum of Natural History. When asked why he did it, Banksy briefly answered: ‘These pieces are good enough to be there, so why should I wait.’ He gave a similar answer when he was asked why he put a picture of Mona Lisa with a yellow smile in the Louvre in 2004: ‘To actually go through the process of having a painting selected must be quite boring. It’s a lot more fun to go and put your own one up.’ When in one interview he was asked what was the most perfect untraditional piece of art he had seen outside a museum, Banksy said: ‘The most perfect piece of art I saw in recent times was during an anarchist demonstration in London a couple of years ago. Someone cut a strip of turf from the grass in front of Big Ben and put it on the head of the statue of Winston Churchill. Later, the demo turned into a riot, and photos of Winston with a grass Mohican were on the cover of every single British newspaper the next day.’[2]


Banksy’s understanding of art as a subversive and political tool is even more visible in his work. A great number of his pieces are directed against CCTV cameras, which keep overwhelming Great Britain more and more. One of the best examples of his attitude towards CCTV cameras is, for sure, the graffiti with the slogan What are you looking at? near a camera in Hyde Park, London. It is exactly with that inscription and a camera pointing at it that Banksy actualizes the semblance, to use Plato’s, or Lacan’s terminology respectively, that there is a democracy in power in Britain, and not a ‘surveillance society’. According to one study, there are 500,000 cameras in London, whereas in the whole of Great Britain there are about 4,200,000, which means there is one camera for every 14 people. A regular person, going to work, to school or to college, or a person pursuing all different kinds of jobs around the city can be recorded up to 300 times just in one day.[3] In 2003, so-called Talking CCTV cameras were installed, for video surveillance with loud speakers through which security officers can admonish passers-by. The reason behind it was: these ‘talking cameras’ serve to prevent people ruining the city streets, to prevent vandals from drawing graffiti and to prevent passers-by from littering the pavement. That the ‘ordinary’ British do not go along with this new situation was confirmed by a YouGov survey, published at the end of 2006, which showed that 79% of Britons consider that Great Britain has become a ‘surveillance society’.[4]


All this suggests that we already have one foot in the dystopic world described by Philip K. Dick in his novel Minority Report, of which a movie was made, directed by Steven Spielberg in 2002. In this novel the concept of control is conceived as foreseeing and preventing crime. A policeman’s job is no longer detecting criminals who committed a certain crime in the past, but finding criminals who will commit a crime in the future. Minority Report is a perfect illustration of the world after September 11, because control becomes interactive, sophisticated technologies are being used, like biometry (the analysis of physiological and behavioural characteristics designed to determine or disclose personal identity by examining someone’s finger tips, iris, hand geometry, etc.), RFID (Radio Frequency Identification), etc.


The scene when John Anderton (Tom Cruise) walks through a store and, thanks to RFID, is addressed by an invisible ‘Big Brother’ suggesting, based on data of his socio-economical status and geo-demographic characteristics, which products might be the most suitable ones for him, is not just science fiction, but a future already present today. As David Lyon shows in his book Surveillance Studies, special loyalty cards issued by superstores are the main means of tracking customers’ purchases and preferences, data which serves to create various consumer profiles and classifications. Once affinities and shopping intervals of customers are established it can greatly help in targeted marketing, leading to an increase in the corporation’s profits.[5] However, as much as Lyon’s book is instructive because it explains different aspects of control bringing them in connection with Bentham, Deleuze and Foucault, the author is mistaken when alleging: ‘To use infra-red devices to see into a blog-writer’s room at night would infringe personal rights and invade private space. But for blog-writers to describe their nocturnal activities online that is considered their inalienable right to free expression.’ What is problematic in this statement? We are dealing here with one crucial difference: in the first example, the blogger did not give permission for his privacy to be invaded, while in the second he did. This is what reinforced video-surveillance is all about in Great Britain after a terrorist attack attempt in 2007.[6] Today, there is almost no place – and not only in Britain – where, without our permission, we are not daily exposed to cameras; in trams, stores, banks, on the roads, etc.


In this sense, today’s society is just a radicalisation of the trend of control, which has already been ongoing for several decades, but what differs it from standard methods of control is its characteristic that more than ever the most advocated reason for it, just like in Dick’s novel, is crime prevention – we are all suspects even before committing any crime. Here we can quote what Hannah Arendt wrote thinking primarily of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, and not of ‘democratic’ Britain: ‘From a legal perspective, totalitarian substitution of suspected transgression by possible crime is even more interesting then converting a suspect into a real enemy. Possible crime is considered to be nothing less unreal then the real enemy. A suspect is arrested because he is suspected of being capable of committing a crime which more or less fits his personal profile (or his suspected personality) – a totalitarian version of possible crime based on the logic of anticipation.’[7]


Of course, in the era of political correctness, such graffiti cannot survive for long. What Banksy did here, on the other hand, is ‘fight back’ by depicting a schoolgirl searching a soldier, taking his message and criticism of social reality to the extreme. As if what the artist wanted to say is: ‘It is not the schoolgirl who needs to be searched – it’s our soldiers!’


With his politically incorrect graffiti, which shows a policeman searching a little schoolgirl, Banksy is again referring to that state. At her side are a teddy bear and a schoolbag. Except for being politically incorrect, because it primarily makes an association with paedophilia, this graffiti is at the same time an excellent criticism of the ‘totalitarian switch between suspected transgression and crime’ which is no longer characteristic of some former and only seemingly distant totalitarian systems or science-fiction projections like Minority Report, but is a characteristic of England today. Let us take as an example the case of Jean Charles de Menezes. A young man by that name was killed only a few days after bombs exploded in the London underground just because his ‘clothes and behaviour seemed suspicious’. The policemen who, during their routine working day in the underground, killed that young man who wore a jeans jacket and for that reason was suspicious, have never suffered any consequences up to now. The official justification said that Menezes looked like a terrorist. This story teaches us that the definition of ‘bad guys’ is becoming more and more arbitrary. Just wearing a jeans jacket seems to be enough. As shown on the latest British police posters: it is enough to carry two mobile phones, a camera or be doing something suspicious at home to fit the terrorist profile and be denounced as a terrorist.


Only few months after these posters become public, there was a comic response to them at the artistic level of Banksy on the Internet. Instead of a stills camera, CCTV cameras were superimposed on the poster saying: ‘There are thousands of CCTV cameras filming and taking photos of you each day. But if you, as a subject in this free and pleasant land, are wearing a camera, then you are suspected of being a terrorist. Isn’t there something weird in this?’


Let us summarize what has been said so far. It is not by chance that in Britain in the last few years dystopic movies like Children of Men, 28 Weeks Later, 28 Days Later, V for Vendetta, and others are being filmed. All this can be described as a symptom of a broader phenomenon and a reflection of the surveillance and control society which already today makes London a city where architecture and power are inextricably connected. Moreover, architecture serves as a means of installing power. Art pieces like those made by Banksy are praiseworthy since they emphasize that relationship. We could even go so far as to say that Banksy, by subverting the established rapports of power, manages to create an awareness of the dystopia of our present time. The future has already come.

[1] Jean Baudrillard: For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign

[2] The whole interview is available at:

[3] Michael McCahill & Clive Norris, ‘CCTV in London’, working paper No. 6,


[5] V. David Lyon, Surveillance Studies. An Overview, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2007.

[6] It is indicative that German internal affairs minister Wolfgang Schäuble, not long after the attacks in July 2007, using the ‘danger of terrorism’ as an argument, demanded reinforced video-surveillance of the centres of large cities in Germany. This will probably happen after a terrorist attack atempt in Frankfurt.

[7]  Hannah Arendt, ‘Totalitarizam’, Politička Kultura, Zagreb, 1996, page 175.