Monday, August 24, 2015

Banksy To Disney: It's A Small World, LOL!

If you boil down my public relations portfolio to three types of clients, the triumvirate includes, in no particular order, arts, Olympics and theme parks (more broadly "attractions").

From time to time there are overlaps among these genres of business.

Olympics meets arts at the Cultural Olympiad. Or theme parks coincide with the Games as sports venues become attractions (like Beijing's Water Cube turned water park), or new destinations are born around an Olympiad (the new-in-2014 Sochi World theme park, for instance). 

But unless you count art museums as attractions -- as my client International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) does for their membership base of permanently-affixed destinations for fun and learning -- it's less common for the news cycle to blend theme parks and the arts.

And that's not all that's uncommon about the new art installation titled Dismaland now open on the west coast of England. 

In case you haven't read the reports and seen the videos or photo galleries, Dismaland is perhaps the world's first 'bemusement park' now open in Weston-super-Mare, a coastal town three hours from London by train.

The hometown newspaper Weston, Worle & Somerset Mercury has some great galleries and daily updates like the pop-up park's first wedding.

Dismaland is presented by the artist Banksy, who recruited a few dozen other modern and contemporary artists for his secret-until-last-week installation at an abandoned beach side pool attraction named the Tropicana.

While the Weston-super-Mare locals were told a movie production would take over the abandoned Tropicana for a feature film setting, Banksy & Co. quietly assembled numerous rides and experiences inside its walls.

A wave of publicity began around August 18 as external signage and black flags went up, and by last Friday several global news outlets carried the story of Dismaland's opening weekend.

The installation remains in operation through much of September. 

Banksy has some major league art friends. Two favorite names -- Damien Hirst and Jenny Holzer -- leaped off the screen when my friend Brian first told me of early Dismaland reports in the Wall Street Journal.

A look at the complete list of artists yields a who's who compilation of known or rising stars of modern and contemporary artists, skewing heavy on the cynical scale through their conversation piece (and critically acclaimed, bold and unforgettable) creations. 

I fell in love with Holzer's work at her Walker Arts Center installation in Minneapolis in 1991, on my
first 'adult' visit to a museum during the autumn of my college freshman year.

She had me at Truisms and her carved benches at the High Museum of Art (a client from time to time) and other museums always make me smile. 

My first Hirst encounter arrived in 2012 at the Tate Modern's Cultural Olympiad exhibition the day after the London Olympics ended three years ago.

Something about a bovine head decomposing in a fly-filled glass box, or a great white shark encased in jello, or a live butterfly room followed by several canvases made from tens of thousands of butterfly wings, not surprisingly stays with the museum visitor.

Hirst's anatomically correct (inside and out) carvings of male and female medical school models, and gazillion-dollar diamond-encrusted skulls, also made an impression. 

Banksy's Oscar-nominated documentary film "Exit Through The Gift Shop" introduced me to his work -- then mostly a distinctive graffiti or tagging pieces -- making me an instant fan.

Banksy's Olympic street art intrigued me on the lead up to London 2012 (though I never did find any of it in person, likely due to collectors' theft or authority figures covering up Banksy's handiwork).

I theorize that one episode within "Exit Through The Gift Shop" itself created the foundation for Dismaland.

In the documentary, Banksy and a filmmaker accomplice embarked on a mission to install a temporary work of art -- an inflatable 'Guantanamo Bay prisoner' -- inside a fenced ride area of Disneyland. After purchasing tickets and making their way through the Happiest Place On Earth, Banksy did successfully deploy the smuggled work while cameras rolled.

It's safe to say Disneyland's security team was not amused.

According to the documentary narration, "While Banksy went on the rides, [the filmmaker] was introduced to a different side of the Magic Kingdom."

I won't spoil the film by revealing details of that experience, but it's a solid bet the shared adventure and its outcome planted many seeds for today's Dismaland, and last week's installation opening may be the result of more than five years of planning.

And, oh what bemusements await Dismaland visitors!

Outdoor highlights (er, lowlights) spotted online so far include:
  • Entry queues for several hundred ticket holders (with wait times authentic to many theme park experiences), after which guests are curtly greeted by black and white-clad security guards and signs banning everything from weapons to underwear
  • One Shamu-like orca leaping from a toilet toward an awaiting trainer's hoop
  • A park bench on which a woman is swarmed, Hitchcock-style, by attacking seagulls
  • Midway games including 'Topple the Anvil' (featuring the metal tools straight out of Looney Toons' Coyote and Road Runner episodes), and 'Hook the Duck' at which players attempt to rescue petroleum-covered rubber duckies from an oil spill (hint: the hooks are mismatched for an impossible latch)
  • More oil spill adventures on an unplayable golf putting green nicknamed "Mini Gulf" (the top half of the "o" rusted and broke off)
  • A not-so-merry-go-round carousel ridden by protesters and a knife-wielding purveyor of lasagna
  • Park employees clad in day-glow "Dismal" branded vests, with some offering black Mylar balloons bearing the message "I AM AN IMBECILE"
  • A massive, pretzel-bent tanker truck sculpture, with matching impractical picnic tables belched out of (and still attached to) rolled sheet metal (or is that bath tissue?)
  • Motorized boat game through which players steer Mediterranean refugees or pursuant coast guard cutters 
  • Children's sandbox play area with built-in micro-loan bank charging only 5,000 percent interest
  • Caricature artist who only sketches the backs of her customer's heads
  • Selfie holes featuring blank outlines or cutouts for group photos with ISIS soldiers
  • A new twist on the pop-up puppet show featuring Punch & Judy
  • Book burning featuring glowing works by local author James Joyce
  • Several "traditional" Banksy street art works spray-painted about the Dismalandscape.

The creepiest and perhaps coolest, edgiest works are inside a custom-built castle, the centerpiece of the installation. Inside its doors visitors explore:

  • An fan-suspended beach ball precariously hovering over a few dozen skyward-pointing (and sharpened) steak knives
  • A miniature urban landscape featuring only police and media crews in the hours after a Ferguson, Missouri-like violent event
  • Canvases featuring a truck full of weapons-clad ISIS soldiers (driven by Cookie Monster) and pollution-blackened Los Angeles skyline with one surviving color billboard for the real Disneyland
  • Holzer's latest, brilliant word-infused works, including one stating (paraphrased here), "Keep Your Church Out of My Sex Life and I'll Stop Having Sex In Your Church"
  • Bumper car demonstration featuring The Grim Reaper with soundtrack provided by Blue Oyster Cult

The most shocking work of Dismaland may be Cinderella's overturned golden carriage featuring a dying princess hanging out of the crashed vehicle, illuminated only by the strobe flashes of paparazzi cameras.

With the approaching anniversary of Princess Diana's fatal crash in Paris, this work is bound to remain a conversation piece (it takes one's breath away).

Looking at the actual rides installed at Dismaland with some knowledge of what buyers seek at IAAPA Attractions Expo each November, I cannot help wondering whether Banksy or any of the other artists attended the trade show in Orlando in recent years.

After all, some IAAPA member ride manufacturers likely provided the customized carousel, space ride (made to look like a camping trailer gone off its hitch), miniature Ferris wheel, the aforementioned bumper cars and other on-site thrills. What remains unclear is whether paying customers are allowed on the rides (for safety's sake, I hope if rides are permitted then operator protocols are in place).

I've been pricing flights to London and train tickets to Weston-super-Mare and for about $1,800 for a five-day journey from Atlanta, a trek to Dismaland my be slightly out of my budget. But then again, a week in Orange County, California, might be about the same range, right?

Since Dismaland includes its own signs instructing everyone to "Exit Through The Gift Shop" one might expect an expensive glossy catalog may soon be available as an alternative. Consider this blogger delightfully Banksy-bemused.

Most photos via Reuters except the Damien Hirst image at Tate Modern photo by Nicholas Wolaver


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