Friday, 13 May 2016

Banksy’s Dismaland and theme parks as an art medium

I want theme parks to be taken seriously by academics. I want them to receive the same critique that fine art, literature, film and now gaming "enjoys". Firstly because I just find it interesting to read someone else’s over-thinking on my favourite subject, but also because I like to think it benefits the medium in some way. When questions get asked about the lacking female representation in gaming for example, some developers respond with increasingly better female representation in gaming. It's far from perfect, but we're on a road started by that discussion. Criticism matters.

Photo by Nic Jenkins

But where advances in home technology have made it possible for any average Joe to make a film or video game if they so desire, giving individuals a voice within those mediums to tell their own stories about their own world views, that will never be true of theme parks. Never. And I think this is what stops theme parks from being considered true art. In order for a theme park to survive, the audience must be mass, the messages accessible and the symbols instantly recognisable. To be controversial would be suicide for a theme park. But we need to stop thinking of “such and such isn’t art” as an insult as well as remember that “art” can mean very different things to different people and contexts.

Low budget attractions do of course exist, but “low budget” in attraction terms is still huge amounts. The haunt and scare maze industry in particular produces some groundbreaking stuff. There, small teams of creative people can do pretty much whatever they want to do for an audience as niche as they desire. I even know of people who’ve put together these things in their garages. Horror as an entertainment genre is so popular in part due to the comparative ease in which it can successfully stir an audience. When you say something creative is “easy” there’s this assumption that this means it’s lesser in some way, but I assure you that is not what I mean. Biologically, danger is way more important than enjoyment, so it is necessary for our brains to respond to any threat immediately and with upmost seriousness. Jump scares work, they are undeniably successful despite being “cheap” and when our rational brains chime in to remind us that we choose to be here and this is mere entertainment, we laugh at ourselves for being scared. Horror clichés play a part too in that they can be more successfully created with lower budgets, with darkness and faux grime hiding imperfections in build and rendering quality.

I was always taught at school to make artwork about stuff that has meaning to me, about stuff I understand, about issues or social matters that affect me. Because only then does it carry the weight of my knowledge, understanding and emotion. It has meaning. It has impact. It says something unique; it says something only I could say. Only then, is it true art.

So when a friend asked me if I thought Dismaland was a theme park… I said no, it’s an art installation, obviously. And the more we talked and thought about it, I realised that Dismaland is perhaps exactly what would happen if you tried to make a theme park that carried the same “meaningful” weight as fine art. It just… Well, it breaks the medium. Without the budget for proper rides, without escapism and without joy… A theme park isn’t a theme park anymore. Dismaland has attractions sure, it has scenery, but those things aren’t what make theme parks theme parks. When I first heard about Dismaland, I read the whole thing as a comment on the relationship between all the crap that goes on in the world and the tools we use to distract ourselves from that, such as film, video games and the poster child of escapism, theme parks. As a physical space – an installation or gallery and not just a single 2D artwork - it made sense that theme parks would be the vehicle to carry that message, as they too are physical spaces people visit and explore at their own pace.

I wish I could have gone to see Dismaland. I do actually enjoy contemporary art sometimes, because I enjoy looking at cool stuff and that’s probably the same reason I like museums, theme parks and… The Internet.

One thing that always annoyed me during my art education was the lack of explanation fine artists would give for their work. I want to know what they were making art about, not my undoubtedly wrong interpretation of the works, because what’s the point in spilling your first hand experiences into your art to then never explain it? To me, a lack of explanation is indicative of lacking reasoning, of gaps in your artistic message. So I went looking for what I knew would be minimal amounts of explanation from Banksy and his cronies, stumbling upon this quote: “I guess you’d say (Dismaland is) a theme park whose big theme is theme parks should have bigger themes”. I lost my temper.

Theme parks are inherently escapist. That’s literally their core purpose and when you take that away, what you’re left with is not a theme park at all. I think there’s more to theme parks than escapism for sure, but to suggest that theme parks should stop trying to distract us from the awfuls of the world and concentrate on “bigger” things is such a gross misunderstanding of what theme parks are and why they even exist in the first place. It criticises the kind of people who enjoy all “meaningless” entertainment (so, everyone). Banksy’s quote cannot be interpreted in any other way… Dismaland is saying “how dare you go off and enjoy yourself, get back here and pay attention to the migrant crisis!” I object to being told what I should care about, regardless of whether I care or not about that thing. And I object to blanket criticisms of mass consumer culture, I object to all blanket criticisms.

You're an imbecile for enjoying theme parks.
Photo by Nic Jenkins.

Insulting people who enjoy popular culture is a favourite pastime of art world, I even recall my lecturers doing it at university. The Dismaland collection is weirdly problematic in the way it depicts a run down, shoddily built, miserable version of a big budget American theme park – such as the Disney parks and their kin. This parody is too close to the wider theme park reality, by accident. Many real amusement parks the world over look just like this, complete with copyright infringement, slightly wonky fiberglass characters, dirty, crumbling scenery and miserable staff. This is the theme park reality for many thousands of people, not an ironic portrayal of them. And the UK’s premium theme parks owned by Merlin Entertainments have several attractions who have built purpose-made grungy, derelict scenery to tell their gritty, unconventional stories of apocalyptic terror, gruesome horror or abstract expressions of the human condition and our dreams. Banksy’s dismal Disneyland was created whilst wearing theme park blinkers… Did anyone involved actually visit a park outside of Disneyland Paris? To say theme parks should have bigger themes is ignorant, but even more so when you point out that, actually, they often do. Ironic though it is, if I was going to pull up one solid example of a theme park with a “bigger theme” in the same sense that Banksy implies, it would be Disney’s Animal Kingdom, a park who’s “big theme” is conservation of the natural world, white man is evil, save the planet! But at Animal Kingdom, those messages are told subtlety with storytelling to convey a more thought-provoking and intelligent message than at Dismaland. The artists involved made up their pretentious minds about theme parks and the people who visit them before they’d begun, but if they had only visited a variety of attractions with an open mind, maybe they’d have seen a different world – the one I explore on this blog.

Looks just like theming found near Swarm at Thorpe Park...
Photo by Nic Jenkins

This could be anywhere.
Photo by Nic Jenkins.

...As could this.
Photo by Nic Jenkins

Banksy said the work was not a dig at Disney, and that he banned any imagery of Mickey Mouse from the site” whilst a number of the works, including the show title, are clearly a reference to Disney and kin, the staff even wear Mickey ears. Is ...Is that supposed to be a joke? In order to make a non-theme park look like one, you have to use such iconography. 

The orca jumping out of the toilet bowl is obviously a criticism of SeaWorld, how could it not be? But no matter which way you interpret the works, they insult the people who visit amusement parks whilst failing to be socially relevant to those same people, the location with which they are on display or the artists themselves. If it’s saying theme park show animals are kept in shit conditions, only removed to perform tricks for spectators to gawk at, you’re insulting the morals of those who visit and making a political statement about zoos and aquaria. If you’re saying that the products of the theme park itself are shit – which is kinda the theme of the entire show, that theme parks are naff because they are meaningless and not deep, meaningful, important art - you’re insulting the audience‘s taste and intelligence - both of the original product and of Dismaland. Keeping cetaceans in captivity has been against the law in the UK for some time and I’m not sure if there’s a single individual left to forcibly educate on the SeaWorld matter post-Blackfish. Who is this art for?

Photo by Nic Jenkins

What we’re left with is an illustration that makes people feel clever, everyone gets it and nods their head approvingly like sheep. It is accessible, meaningless fine art that is mocking mass consumer culture for not being deep or meaningful enough? What? Maybe that was the point, maybe it’s supposed to be making fun of itself, but that doesn’t change how insulting it is to both leisure attraction visitors and, in that case, the “entry-level” art appreciators who find it meaningful. Parody of this kind is problematic, because as a live piece the similarities between the enjoyment received from the source and from the parody are too great. This brilliant comment from a fellow theme park fan encapsulates that  Dismaland charges an entrance fee, provides countless opportunities for gormless selfies and opens during the peak school holidays. But it's a parody, so it's, like...different, right? It's superior to all those other cynical tourist attractions, right? - Serena Cherry

Photo by Nic Jenkins

Banksy’s work has always been accessible art for the masses. Anti-establishment street art that depicts easily interpreted images about the daily lives of the average person. That hasn’t changed, but the audience has. Now that Banksy is an artist and not a vandal, a different set of people appreciate his works. Banksy himself even describes Dismaland as “entry-level anarchism” and that’s exactly what it is! Which makes everyone standing around smiling and commenting on how clever it is, because they - just like everyone else - “got it” all the more annoying. I’m not saying simple art is bad, in fact quite the opposite, I just can’t stand this hypocrisy and ignorance from both artists and appreciators.

So clever.
Photo by Nic Jenkins

“I heard someone on the radio say: ‘It’s not art unless it has the potential to be a disaster.’ said Banksy in an interview. That’s why theme parks aren’t art, I guess, because they cannot risk being a disaster. That’s why mainstream anything isn’t true art. But hey, I guess that means Dismaland isn’t art either… Since nothing in it is all that problematic and it comes from Banksy – a name with power. It’s all easily understood art for the masses. The true irony of Dismaland is how popular Banksy himself has become, as one article wrote he regurgitates in sixth-former-style cynicism the prejudices of the chattering class. Precisely. It’s the kind of social criticism you’d expect to see at an end of school art show put together by 16 year olds about stuff they don’t really understand or have any experience of.

There’s a lot more that could be discussed about Dismaland, but I wanted to focus on what was relevant to theme parks for this blog. But here’s one more point which I think should be addressed… The location of Dismaland in Weston-super-Mare, at an abandoned and derelict outdoor swimming pool that has remained unoccupied for over a decade, is important. It was a leisure space, the locals want something done with the wasted space and Dismaland was hailed as a positive thing because it did that. But… Dismaland is a critique of leisure. It was a big middle finger to the people of Weston-super-Mare, not a supportive hug. Dreamland reopened in Margate this year with half the publicity that the temporary Dismaland received. Dreamland is the wonderful success story of revitalising a British seaside town with nostalgic amusements. It is what the people of Weston also deserve; a celebration of amusements and their meaningful history. Leisure spaces are important, they are valued as social, visceral and honest places in which people can be themselves. Where people can enjoy themselves and watch others enjoying themselves, where people can be happy, healthy and rekindle more primitive emotions that the contemporary world around us has no room or time for. Laughs, screams and dreams. We’ve lost sight of that somewhat since the early days of pleasure beaches.


  1. Expanding on one of your excellent points, I wonder how many people from Weston Super Mare actually went to Dismaland?
    Weston is primarily a blue collar, working class area. Many people who live here are likely to work hard to pay to take their family to Disneyland.
    Bit of a slap in the face for Banky so install a piss-take of it right on their doorsteps. Should have saved this hipster day out for Shoreditch.

  2. I agree that Dismaland picked some low-hanging fruit, but it's fruit that no one else has picked yet and I think it needed to be cleared so that way next time we can start reaching a little bit higher.