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Banksy's Spy Booth
Transcript of Banksy's Spy Booth
contrast with the white wall
Experienced street artists know how to turn the environment into their medium, considering the unique terrain in their piece and re-purposing its elements to compliment their ideas. With the way these trench-coated spies frame this booth, Banksy transforms the iconic glass box into a symbol of the private lives of common citizens and ensured that whoever uses the telephone within will feel uncomfortable.
Banksy considers two perspectives for his intended audience, one of the passerby and one of a public telephone user from within glass of the booth itself. The view of the passerby would perhaps produce a warding effect, fertilizing the subconscious seeds of distrust already sown by the media. The view from inside the booth creates a sense of discomfort. This viewer, despite knowing that the figures don't exist, would be reminded of the reality of government surveillance.
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Electronics take on smaller, more obscure forms as technology advances. In particular, the physical form of surveillance devices are often unseen, easily concealed, or tucked away within larger machines. In spite of this this, Banksy depicts his figures handling outdated microphones and hefty tape recorders to suggest the ridiculous determination of the government to keep tabs on its citizens. He uses the intrusive forms of satellite dishes and tape to give wireless communication a more instantly recognizable form. He even incorporates a real satellite already present in the environment to add three-dimensionality to his piece and adds a layer of tangeability.
Banksy employs repetition in portraying these agents, rendering the spies as nearly identical. Their matching clothing and colors depict the British government as a collective, one whose agents who mindlessly serve and conform to a paranoid agenda. This likens intelligence agencies to a hive-mind, a machine collective willing to act against the wishes of an oblivious public. Though the audience perceives these figures as three separate agents, their shared features blur this distinction, further obscuring their already nonexistent identities.
Given the ubiquity of telephone booths peppering UK streets, Banksy's choice of canvas deserves a closer look. Regardless of his intent, the wall lends Banksy's theme a great deal of meaning and power. By way of contrast between the lighter background and the dark coats of the figures, the wall very easily serves as a signifier of then recent media attention of covert surveillance activity.
This piece was created in 2014 after burgeoning media exposure of government surveillance practices. It's likely that it not only alludes surveillance measures taken by the British government but also to Edward Snowden's release of classified material documenting surveillance operations planned by the NSA in 2013. Like cockroaches caught in a flashlight's beam, these symbolic agents lose their advantage. Despite the suggestions of secrecy, these agents have nowhere to hide.
The figures don old-fashioned, stereotypical spy regalia that might have been worn in the mid-twentieth century. In this way, the iconic imagery transmits a cultural message to the telephone user that conjures ideas of romantic espionage, peril and suspicious activity. After the initial reaction, the realization that they themselves are the suspected party soon follows. There is a comedic tone here, one that ridicules government efforts to heavily monitor the casual communications of the general public. In this way, the depictions serve two purposes: to expose the truth of government intrusion in telecommunications and to lampoon civilian surveillance.
The lifeless faces of the figures express the cold, mechanical, calculated way in which the government collects information on the public. The expressions alone signal Banksy's message powerfully, hence why the piece has no need of linguistic messages. These mere shades of human beings depict government surveillance efforts and the agents who carry out these initiatives as shameless in their endeavors, compelling viewers to consider just what kind of presiding body invades the quotidian lives of its commonwealth. Banksy's desired reaction emerges in the wake of these perceptions made by his British audience who is already accustomed to the classic notion of government as an overreaching entity. He intends for this piece to push viewers toward awareness, indignation, and possibly revolution.