Everybody be cool, this is an art performance!

 Jesse James (1939), Henry Fonda, 20th Century Fox
 Joe Gibbons
 Take the money and run (1969), Woody Allen, ABC Pictures

Filmmaker Joe Gibbons robbed a bank. That was just a performance, he said after his arrest. Now he is going to prison. The question remains: Was this a very bad robbery or really good art?

While today’s social media has created an avalanche of diary-style narratives of even the most pedestrian lives, artist and filmmaker Joe Gibbons has always known that drama, not the ying and yang of career and holiday imagery, is the fodder of an interesting story. Since 1976 he has made over 20 films and videos, mostly starring himself as the main character. Not unlike the material seen online today, shaky camerawork, careless lighting, and crappy sound marked his oeuvre. He framed his persona in claustrophobic studies of mental health, crime, and drug addiction, exploring the milieu of heroin addicts, bums, and low-lives with a method-actor’s verve. In his candid confessions, the edges between character and person were carefully blurred and gave the audience a rare feeling of complicity. He soon gained somewhat of a cult following in the art world and the films were shown at MoMA, the Centre Pompidou, and the Whitney Biennial.

Now it seems Gibbons has taken his self-exploitation a bit too far. On July 13th Gibbons was sentenced to one year in prison after pleading guilty to third degree robbery of a Capital One Bank in Manhattan on New Years Eve. Armed with a tiny silver and pink foldout video camera, he passed a note to the bank teller reading: “THIS IS A ROBBERY. LARGE BILLS. NO DYE PACKS / NO GPS.” Hardly intimidated by the grey haired bespectacled gentleman, the bank teller did not precisely follow his instructions. She reportedly handed him $1,000. As Gibbons made a run, the dye packs hidden in the wad of cash exploded. His pink and silver camera was not the only lens trained on the heist: surveillance cameras traced him to Room 100 at the Bowery Hotel just a few blocks from the bank, where he was arrested a week after. After pleading guilty in court last week, he received his one-year sentence with absolute calm: “I have nothing to say, your honor.”


The 61-year-old seemed indeed strapped for cash, but according to the New York Times Gibbons claimed the heist was part of a new artistic endeavor. For a decade and a half he had been employed, sort of. He held a visiting residency at Bard College in the 90s and was an MIT professor from 2000 until 2010, when the cash started to dry up. Since then his productivity has stalled and it seems unlikely this thrift was intentional.

Capitalism and a real job never seemed like Gibbons’ idea of fun. This was most grippingly depicted in his 1985 feature-length film “Living in the World” and his 2002 short “Confessions of a Sociopath”. In the latter film, one suspects that Gibbons might be alluding to his future crime when he says in a somber tone: “I’m Joe Gibbons. I don’t need a job. I just take what I need.” Pausing briefly he then adds: “just kidding”

Following his arrest, art critic and curator Ed Halter organized a benefit at the Brooklyn-based Light Industries, a center devoted to art screenings and events. Halter was hardly surprised at the turn taken by Gibbons work: “As soon as I read the first story that hit, it did strike me that the act was in keeping with his work as a whole,” he said to Spike Art Daily. “One thing I want to make clear, however, is that Joe isn't exactly the fringe artist that the press has made him out to be. Among critics and fellow filmmakers, in the world that follows artists' films at least, Joe is revered – and adored, really – as one of the most important artists of his generation.” Friend and fellow filmmaker Peggy Ashwesh (“Beirut in Outtakes” and “The Third Body”) has also rallied support and attempted to raise $15,000 on the crowd-sourcing platform Indiegogo for Gibbons. Unfortunately the pledged funds fell short.

Other artists have explored the territory of the “endurance performance”, a term coined by the form’s high-priestess, Marina Abramovic. Perhaps Gibbons was inspired by Tehching Hsieh infamous “One-Year Performances”, where the artist locked himself in a cage-like box and asked a lawyer to notarize the process. The idea of using a US prison as a studio for an art project with wards as unpaid extras, however, seems like an exaggerated, self-punishing radicalization. 


Gibbons’ previous forays into the criminal world were of a lighter note. In these, his self-deprecating humor would erupt like uncontrolled hiccups, similar to Andy Kaufman. Even the clumsy attempt at a bank robbery in Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run” springs to mind. In this film, the inept robber hides his camera in a loaf of bread to stake out the bank, and finally ruins the hold-up by misspelling the word “gun” on his note to the bank teller. While no one doubts Gibbons has another ace up his sleeve, let’s hope his ending is not as half-baked as Allen’s.