Saturday, November 01, 2008

The Village Pet Store: how Banksy made my Halloween special.

As planned, on Halloween night my love and I braved the West Village to make it to the final night of Banksy's first animatronic installation: The Village Pet Store and Charcoal Grill. Our expedition was both a failure and a success - the shop was freaking closed. But, luckily, most of its wonders are easily viewed from the front windows. I can't say I wasn't disappointed, because of course I was. But at least I got to see as much as I did; this is the kind of thing that tortured me with inaccessability before I moved to New York.

Inside and beyond our reach were all the nifty details to make it look like a real store, such as plastic aquarium plants "for sale" and bags of pet food. The case of reptile-sausages, being against the far back wall, were somewhat visible through obstruction, but the pictures I got are basically total crap. The fishstick bowl was a straight shot from the glass door, but it seemed to have suffered some kind of breakdown: the fishsticks were barely moving. It was more like they were just floating around - in the video on the pet store website they're quite lively. I would have liked to see their wrigglings in person, but alas. So it goes.

We missed the monkey - he was barely visible from the front. But honestly he was pretty spooky, plus it's rude to interrupt people while they're watching porn, so I'm alright with that. We also missed the chameleon, which I would have liked to get a good look at, but I've seen pictures. He didn't move I don't think, so it's not such a great loss. The nuggets were probably the most amazing/intriguing/creepy thing, and they were right in the front window.

I managed to take a little bit of not very good video of them, which you'll find below. I've never really used the video function of my digital camera so you'll just have to excuse the quality. At the very end of the clip is a few seconds of Ms. FancyBunny; watch carefully or you'll miss the nail file action and the facial twitching.

Even from the wrong side of the glass, the pet store was truly something different. I mean, that's clear enough from the website, or for that matter just from a description of the concept. But to see it in person is definitely an experience. And that experience was enhanced, or at least affected, by the other people who were having it along with us. The vast majority of them were simply passing by, either going to or trying to avoid the parade on the next avenue over. On Halloween night the West Village is charged with a tangible energy, if only because of sheer numbers of people, and hilarious or incredulous comments came from almost everyone who walked by. By far the most common comment made was, "Is that real?" This was directed to the "leopard" on the far righthand side. The best part was, the most common response was "Of course it is, it has to be real; it's in a pet store."

Once people made it to the middle window case - the bunny rabbit wearing makeup and pearls - and finally to the far lefthand enclosure which held a mama rooster and her little baby chicken nuggets, almost all of the onlookers got the idea that there was something funny going on. However, there was one fully grown and apparently sober man heard to say, "Those can not be her baby birds." Most people seemed to miss the closed-caption camera birds altogether.

Other fun comments overheard: "I wish it was sweet and sour sauce instead of bar-b-q" (referencing nugget nutrition), "I could go for a six pack of chicken nuggets right now" (predictable and without need for explanation), and "I'm just going to come back tomorrow to make sure he's in a new position" (as to the "leopard". If only they could have gone inside to see that he's just a sheath...). To their credit, it did have very realistic breathing movements. To their discredit, a goddamn leopard? In a pet store window on Seventh Avenue? Really?

Sadly, in the hour or so that I hung around outside, fruitlessly hoping that these guys would let us inside, the overall jist of what I picked up was this: people did not get it. The only ones who did were those who'd come specifically to see the installation. Which begs the question: what, exactly, were they supposed to get?

I don't know that Banksy has come out with any kind of "artist statement" about the "meaning of the piece", but I do think that a couple of things are pretty obvious. Clearly there is an indictment generally of the way we treat and use animals in our current society. To me there also seems to be some commentary on how processed and detached from real, live animals our meatfoodproducts have become. And what about the chameleon? Well, I think maybe he's just supposed to be cool lookin'. I mean, can it really be a Banksy installation without some graffiti in it?

Banksy has taken some heat for a project he did in 2006 involving painting an elephant. That is, applying paint to the entire body of a live elephant. I've seen some references to this being cruelty to animals, et cetera. Naturally it piqued my interest. But in looking into it, I've found no mention that the elephant herself showed any signs of duress during the four day installation. In fact her trainer/handler thought she was just fine, and in videos she's hanging out eating hay. If she were upset about the situation, she'd be letting people know about it - elephants are pretty self-aware and pretty vocal - and when they're truly uncomfortable or compromised they're not going to be snacking.

I basically think that this kind of thing comes down to the comfort of the animal. The paint was non-toxic, the elephant was really just chilling out - so the only actual problem seems to have been semi-hysterical, self important "animal rights activists". Did I mention that the show was in L.A.? This is in a completely different category than that one crazy ass whose exhibit was to starve a dog to death. Whether he actually did starve the dog until it died or just made it look that way, him I'm not so hot on.

And as far as the pet shop goes? Well, many of us in the vegan community have found it quite intriguing. Personally, it is my hope that even for the people who were beyond baffled by the store, there will be some impression left. Some nagging thought, some disquiet that arises from within them the next time they get the idea to stop by McDonald's for some nuggets or bring home some weiners. Maybe they'll remember that nuggets do not come from a factory; that those objects did in fact, one day long long ago, begin as living things. Perhaps, even if they don't realize it yet, a seed was planted: one that makes them feel that strange things are afoot at the grocery store.

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