In July of 2015, I was sitting in a hotel room in Melbourne, Australia, watching the news, as I prepared to go out for the Gertrude Street Projection Festival, when I saw news confirming that Banksy was building Dismaland.
Drone footage displayed the tattered castle as well as the tweaked tractor trailer and fuel tanks, and I was sold. Right then and there, I decided I was going to go to Dismaland.
A recurring theme of Dismaland was buying stuff…so….
Yes, the picture above may be the worst picture of Dismaland I could possibly have taken
Because that was the whole point, wasn’t it?
The world, and my work had taken particular interest in this “theme park,” not tacitly comprehending that it wasn’t a theme park, it was an art show or site-specific installation depending on your interpretation. Hey buddy, it’s art, it’s whatever you want it to be. THERE ARE NO RULES.
So, I hatched a plan to go without anyone at work knowing what I was doing. I was determined to not miss a day in the office, while still experiencing this. Fortunately for me, Dismaland was taking place in September, and in the USA, there is a three-day weekend in September: Labor Day. I began to put the pieces together.
The ticketing site used for Dismaland failed…yes, dismally…upon its initial rollout. Some said it was performance art, but seriously, Banksy’s got better things to do than create a non-functional ticketing site to piss people off. No, it was just the kind of glitch that happens all the time when a major internet goes live. Every six months it seems like Apple’s website crashes when a new iPhone or Apple Watch becomes available for sale. Staying ahead of the masses is really hard, and the only case of things going according to plan from the get go that I can think of, was Carmageddon in Los Angeles. But then again, it didn’t involve a website or buying something like a phone or event tickets, so it’s not the greatest comparison. In fact, it’s a terrible comparison. Really, no website works on day one. Not healthcare.gov, not the Jon Stewart/Bill O’Reilly debate live stream, not the Apple Store, and not Dismaland tickets. It’s normal.
I succeeded in getting a ticket to the event, and booked my flight and car. It would be a whirlwind. The plan was to take a red-eye out on Friday night (with a layover), landing me in Heathrow in the early evening on Saturday. I had chosen a timed entry into Dismaland on Sunday in the late afternoon, so that I could see it during both daylight and at night. But this also meant that I would have the morning and afternoon free to myself, and I wasn’t going to let a trip to England go to waste, so I booked myself a ticket to The Making of Harry Potter at Warner Brothers Studios Leavesden. So, I landed, hopped in my rental car, and darted off to my hotel in Reading to collapse after a very long day/night in airports and in the air.
True to form, I would wind up oversleeping. But I actually love driving right-hand-drive, and stick shift at that, so a spirited drive out to Warner Brothers was totally in my wheelhouse. I wound up having a great time at the Harry Potter exhibit. You can read all about it here. My time there was so great in fact, that I realized I was late to Dismaland = more spirited driving.
I drove like a male cheetah on his way to a female cheetah in heat down to the Tropicana in Weston Super-Mare and easily found parking (parking is always super easy to find in England for me, maybe that’s the one thing in life I’m always lucky with) and fortunately, Banksy had spray-painted directions on the sidewalk to the event, where naturally, there was a serpentine line to get in. The staff did a great job of appearing miserable and hating all the guests, but I had a hard time telling whether they had been hired because they were bad at this sort of thing, or if they were all classically trained actors in the roles of a lifetime. At the security check-point (constructed largely of foam core and gorilla tape), the guard looked at me like I was an underage drinker in a gay nightclub in the 90’s, translation: she wanted me to leave.
But that was the point wasn’t it? Miserable employees making for miserable experiences for guests. Another “cast member” sat in a van throwing Dismaland programs at guests who passed by or who had the audacity to ask him for one. If you stopped to pick one up, he would fling water at you from a water bottle. Another cast member went out of their way to put their hand in front of my camera lens every time I tried to take a photo of the sculpture of Mickey Mouse being devoured by a serpent. Others would just stand and stare, utterly dead on the inside, at guests. The only cast member who appeared to have broken character, was a bartender who was in a truly cheerful mood as she served me up a can of something-I-can’t-remember.
But then I stopped to think about this a little more: I’ve never actually interacted with a pleasant bartender in England. They’ve always made me feel just a bit uncomfortable, perhaps because I’m an American, or maybe that’s just the traditional bartender way in England. You know, the exact opposite of the USA where bartenders dress to amplify certain parts of their anatomy and flirt with single lonely guys to extract extravagant tips from them? I’ve never fallen for that, no sir, not me.
If you think I’m digressing here, I’m going to go way off the topical rails in a second so hang in there with me.
The point here is that a cheerful bartender is not my norm in England, so perhaps even this was a part of the script, meant to confound and confuse visitors as well.
To me, Dismaland was a statement of protest against the turn theme parks took a few decades ago, away from optimism and opportunity, and toward pure escapism and fantasy, and Banksy and a cadre of invited artists did this in the coarsest and most abrasive way they could, what with art pieces that included remote control boats filled with desperate migrants in as well as floating dead migrants that you can choose to avoid or collide with. Remote control boats like these used to be a mainstay of smaller theme parks. Even Disney had them at one time, remote control cars as well. There are arguments to be made for and against this sea change in intent in theme parks. Disney, because it is the leader in the field is the easiest one to draw from in terms of examples. It is also, conveniently enough, the theme park company that inspired Dismaland for obvious reasons.
If we look at EPCOT Center, its origins are based in the World’s Fairs of the past (fun fact: these still happen and are still worth going to). From the 80’s through the mid-90’s, EPCOT’s charter wasn’t entertainment, it was “edutainment.” You went there, and you learned things. You learned about human health. You learned about the environment. You learned about the history of transportation. You learned about cultures, civilizations, society, technology, and innovation. But the park did not shy away from issues either. The wonders of life pavilion had a section on the detrimental effects of things like alcoholism and tobacco use. The Living Seas had areas dealing with endangered species like manatees. World of Motion acknowledged the inevitable futility of fossil fuels (something I admit that, until I make more money, am complicit in using a lot of) and presented an array of alternative energy options. It was real.
Over the past ten years EPCOT has slowly but surely evolved into a further celebration of the Disney and Marvel brands, which is a left turn away from its original themes, goals, and objectives. There are arguments to be made for and against this. While the world seems to have made great advancements in the areas of personal technology, we have been devolving socially, and I can see how it would be challenging for Disney or other theme park operators to present this to guests while also creating an enjoyable experience. I can also see why they wouldn’t want to. Negativity is bad for business, and children and families need a break from everything they see in the news all day.
The point Dismaland was making, by going off the deep end in the opposite direction, was that you can still strike that balance between inspiration and awareness. If today’s theme parks are saccharine cotton candy sprinkled with sugar and dipped in whipped cream, then Dismaland is the Fear Factor bile milkshake. And somewhere in between are the vegetables you aren’t a huge fan of, smothered in the salt and butter that somehow makes them delicious.
But in spite of all of this, and according to Banksy, Dismaland was a failure. And to a degree, it was. I did not see a single person there having bad time. I did not see any solemn faces. I did not see any minds changed. Instead, I saw people entertained by the remote-control immigrant boats. People were laughing at the sculpture of a woman being attacked by seabirds. People were deliberately picking up tour programs when they saw that they would get hit with water. The whole experience was, dare I say it, fun. The real irony here being that you see no shortage of people having a rough time in actual theme parks.
This is something about Banksy that I find particularly interesting, his ability to bring out the worst in passive people who claim (sometimes) to be progressive. He always manages to be one step ahead in bringing out peoples’ stupid sides. I fell for it too and gobbled up as much Dismaland merchandise as I could carry. Of course, the joke was on me when I lost the limited numbered James Joyce print (‘Here for a good time, not for a long time’) I bought, so I guess I’m included in that lot. But long before Dismaland was a thing, I was regularly donating to public school charity programs like Donors Choose, and trying to lessen my impact on the environment where possible by walking instead of driving, and patronizing as-locally-or-as-ethically-responsible-as-possible small businesses…which often leaves my wallet smoldering, but that’s what paying people living wages these days means.
And that’s really all those people represented in those little remote-control boats were looking for: to learn, and to earn a living wage.