From the little-known details of the summer that turned a seaside town on its head to speaking to an actor who accidentally got involved
Three years ago, Farhath Siddiqui woke up on the morning of August 14th ready for another day of training following a casting call that had gone out a few weeks prior. The casting call detailed upcoming filming to take place in the once thriving – then abandoned – Weston-super-Mare seafront Lido; Tropicana. Totally unaware, Farhath and the hundred other ‘actors’ hired for a non-existent motion picture film were to become part of one of the most provocative large-scale guerrilla art installations in decades: Banksy’s Dismaland.
Released to the press a mere two days before its grand opening, Dismaland saw the decayed and forgotten Tropicana turned into a Banksy dreamscape. In lettering mirroring iconic Robert Nava’s, ‘Disneyland’ font, ‘Dismal guards’ welcomed guests in a post 9-11 send-up of airport security checks. Including the artworks of 58 international artists such as Damien Hirst and Dietrich Wenger, Dismaland conjured the apathy and cynicism of Banksy’s earlier street art with the colossal financial budget of a man whose work has become synonymous with some of the most outrageously wealthy people in the world.
Alongside rife critical debate, much attention belonged to Banksy’s choice of setting. Away from his Bristol birthplace and global art centres he typically frequents, Weston-super-Mare became as much part of the mystery of Dismaland as the artworks themselves.
The troubled story of Tropicana and its role in Banksy’s ironic post-industrial, post-post modern dark Disneyland fantasy is as much a mirror to history as it is to the town of Weston-Super-Mare itself. Built in the Art Deco style familiar with the 1930’s and previously known only as the ‘The Pool’, Tropicana evoked the almost-sun-kissed, mobbed beaches of post-war seaside resort towns across the English coast. Once sporting the accolade of Europe’s largest open-air swimming pool, its glory days are forever captured through the gift shop postcards that adorn the shelves of the cafes dotted along the pier.
In better times the lido was home to beauty pageants, and in the 80s, its stark concrete interior was upgraded with fruit-themed waterslides and fountains more at home in LA than 1980s Weston-Super-Mare. However, the heady days of Tropicana were swiftly ended when it was shut down and abandoned in 2000.
A symptom rather than a cause, the closure of Tropicana became a very real symbol for the degradation and economic decline of coastal cities around the UK. Against the quickly gentrifying Brighton and Hastings, Weston-Super-Mare lies in real contrast to the inflated property prices and significant cultural investments going into other beach towns. Yet, in the course of Banksy’s career, the targeting of cities outside of the art world has become a familiar pattern in his work. Only a few months ago, Banksy’s stencils appeared in and around Hull, tagging the side of a disused bridge and sparking a frenzy of interest across the globe.
Similarly out of the art world, Siddiqui and a hundred or so other Weston-Super-Mare locals found excitement in a supposed new film being planned by faux production company ‘Nightfox’, “I mean I had no idea. It was so weird, seeing the cranes go up, wondering what was happening…” Farhath tells me, as we walk around the newly reformed Tropicana, temporarily made into a family friendly fairground named ‘Funland’ ahead of a two-month-long blistering summer heatwave.
“At first I was disappointed, I thought it was going to be a film, that’s what I had signed up for” – Farhath Siddiqui
An aspiring film director, Farhath was 19 when adverts came out in the local paper for runners and extras needed as part of the production for an unnamed film. Unbeknownst to her at the time, the advert in the paper was a rouse, a ploy to get adventurous residents into the Royal Hotel for an audition process that involved, “pretending to sell coconuts”, as well as group exercises more reminiscent of a high school drama class than an official interview.
Behind the scenes, the heady excitement of a potential Hollywood film was mired by the possibility of bureaucratic disaster. Liaising with North Somerset Council, only three members of staff knew the reality of what was going on. Signed to nondisclosure agreements drafted up by Banksy’s team, responsibility lay with the seafront and events manager, the chief executive of North Somerset Council as well as Leader of the council, Nigel Ashton. With public pressure already mounted against the council following attempts to turn the abandoned Tropicana into a hotel and carpark, Banksy’s ‘Dismaland’ was in many ways a last-ditch attempt to save the venue from developers. A logistical nightmare, for it to be kept secret, high skyline installations were to be unveiled last, with all information as to the realities of the project kept to an absolute minimum.
“We were told to repeat the line, ‘Welcome to Dismaland’, and we were told not to smile. Don’t be friendly,” says Farhath, remembering the day before Dismaland’s opening, when all was revealed. “At first I was disappointed, I thought it was going to be a film, that’s what I had signed up for – but it became bigger than that.”
Bigger is perhaps an understatement. Within hours of the press release going live, media crews were travelling across the country, camping outside the now-completed Dismaland and bringing the world’s TV stations to the shores of North Somerset. With tickets fruit-themed at £1 and a free ballot for local residents, Banksy’s Dismaland attracted 200,000 visitors in its 36-day stint, more than the V&A’s blockbuster Alexander McQueen show and the Tate’s Matisse exhibition that same year.
Queues round and across the seafront followed. Tickets sold out every day, and soon talk turned to faults within the fantasy arena of Dismaland. Trounced by critics, Dismaland was decried for being a gimmick and, at its worst, a gross send-up of Weston-super-Mare. In newspaper write-ups, the greyish setting became a shorthand for the town itself. Banksy’s Dismaland was declared by some to be no more than cruel mockery; “art as clickbait”.
Occupying a strange time in recent history, Dismaland opened on the precipice of the political carnage that was 2016’s Brexit vote and Trump’s presidential win. The issues discussed in Banksy’s Dismaland, that of immigration, growing intolerance on the left and right, sexual harassment of women and a deep distrust of the police, were eerily timely. In the wake of #MeToo, Banksy’s “Peeping Boys”, a stencil of two young kids peeping through the shower curtain to catch a glimpse of naked, female flesh, reads as an ominous foreshadowing of the events of 2017. However, in the playfulness of some of the works, most notably Julie Burchill’s Jimmy Saville themed Punch and Judy and Damien Hirst’s “Pickled Unicorn”, the messages brought up seem lacklustre following the extreme political instability being felt around the world. What was a provocative jab has, in the three years since its opening, now dulled considerably. As art takes on a more direct and activist orientated role, Banksy’s ‘Bemusement Park’ has seemingly faded from the collective memory of the art establishment.
Unsurprisingly, in the years since Dismaland, Banksy has become something of a meme. In posts collected by members of the page ‘Thank Mr Banksy’, terrible social commentary art is shared in homage to the man himself. However, away from millennial cynicism, there is a unique affection for the anonymous artist within Weston-super-Mare. For Farhath, her stint as a ‘scowler’ at the infamous non-amusement park put her on the face of newspapers around the world. As famous guests mobbed the town, Farhath recalls meeting the comedian Jack Black, greeting him with a nonplussed stare and mouthing “you what?” in his direction. Indeed, the memory of Jack Black wandering the streets of Weston-super-Mare has been turned into its own kind of local mythology.
The quasi-mythical nature of Dismaland has not been forgotten, not least by JPS, a Weston-Super-Mare native and local street artist. Ignoring the accusations of Weston as miserable, grim, and melancholic (most notably by art critic, Jonathan Jones) look around the town and you can see its paved with street art gold. Whilst Banksy’s few acts of Weston street art are cherished by the sometimes tourists who head to Weston, it’s the work of JPS and his protegée, Fawn, that really sing.
“Banksy made me who I am,” states JPS, as he explains to me a life-altering trip to Bristol Museum in 2009 via Skype from his new home in Bavaria, Germany. A former drug addict, JPS was living on the top of an abandoned hotel in Weston when he saw Banksy’s seminal Banksy vs. Bristol Museum exhibition.
“My mate asked me if I knew of Banksy. I mean, I’d heard his name and to be honest I wasn’t really bothered, but he made me go to this Bristol Museum show with him. I was pretty drunk when I went but I was completely blown away. I saw his work and realised, I’ve wasted my life, I can do something similar to this.”
Now a local celebrity, JPS’s work and relationship with Banksy have since taken on different layers of meaning since he started working nine years ago. “In the first couple of years, I wasn’t respectful to Banksy; I was cocky. I was a drug addict with a big head and it was only a couple of years later that I really sat myself down and thought, you know, if it wasn’t for Banksy then I wouldn’t be alive. So now I respect the king.” Such acts of cockiness included mimicking Banksy’s style, creating fake Banksy’s designed to piss off “The King” and fuck with a national press desperate to report on Banksy’s latest acts of public disobedience. It’s brought the two artists into an uneasy yet ultimately respectful relationship. But the myth of Banksy remains. Like most, JPS has never met the man behind the stencils.
“As much as I like to think he came here to piss me off, I think in some kind of a way he was trying to give something back” – JPS
But why Weston-super-Mare? In interviews, Banksy has cited the appeal of “low-income holidaymakers” as an audience to his art. He’s also paid note to the evocative feelings that are conjured when discussing the British coast as well as “the advantage of putting art in a small seaside town where you’re only competing with donkeys.”
JPS however, hints at something more behind the cocksure, clickbait-ready lines designed to deliberately rattle the public and press. “He’s from Bristol, so he obviously came to Weston and Tropicana as a kid. I was the same, I grew up going there, swimming in the lido, and everything during the summer, and then years later it just gets completely abandoned... As much as I like to think he came here to piss me off, I think in some kind of a way he was trying to give something back.”
The tangible feeling of a new era of opportunity for Weston-super-Mare was shared by 19-year-old female street artist, Fawn. Trained up by JPS, she is one of many northern residents inspired by Dismaland and knows how to make a mark on the town in her own way. “I’m even thinking about moving onto political art maybe…” she says, as we stalk her work, displayed on the various carparks, pub walls, and side streets of central Weston. Keen to keep her identity anonymous and hiding her street-art-making from friends, Fawn is the natural byproduct of Banksy’s work while maintaining an artistic style and purpose that is completely her own. The impact of Dismaland on the psyche, hopes and dreams of a community here, cannot be underestimated.
Three years on, how do we begin to judge the critical worth of an artwork like Dismaland? In the immediate aftermath and the months following its disassembly, Dismaland became just another spectacle to have occurred on the art world map. Works were flown out and carted to private buyers or alternative exhibitions, with all that remains a 15ft high Banksy pinwheel that has been left on its side to scorch in the sun.
For Farhath, he recalls, “Weston never felt more alive for me than during those six weeks.” For other residents, the fact that a guerrilla art installation was enough to bring people as far away as America was enough to reignite civic pride in a town that had for too long been ignored. With work still to be done in terms of reinvesting the cultural attention of Dismaland into other DIY art projects within Weston, the real legacy of Banksy’s pet project remains to be seen. However, for the residents of Weston-super-Mare, their lives have been in some small way altered by an artist whose face they will never see or recognise. I’m sure if they could, they would give him their thanks.
Relive what happened when Dazed went to Dismaland here