Fieldnotes: Dismaland Bemusement Park
I made my way back from the recent RGS/IBG Annual Conference in Exeter, stopping at Weston-super Mare – a seaside resort on the coast of the Bristol Channel in North Somerset. It’s one of those places like Skegness or Blackpool – ‘traditional’ seaside holiday destinations that have struggled to complete with cheap international travel and the offerings of the Continent. Weston-super Mare’s latest attraction, however, had been successful at putting it ‘back on the map’ as a place to visit.
Dismaland Bemusement Park is a temporary art exhibition curated by street artist Banksy, themed as ‘a sinister twist on Disneyland.’ Based in the now disused outdoor swimming venue the Tropicana, the installation performs, as Banksy described, ‘a family theme-park unsuitable for children.’
There are some big art names involved in the almost 60 contributors – including Damien Hurst, Jenny Holzer, as well as Banksy himself. I was less attracted by the art itself, but rather by the performance of a intentionally dystopian space. The first hurdle, however, was getting in.
Given its international attention – alongside stellar list of artists – the event was going to be popular. When ticket sales became available through the Dismaland website the site couldn’t handle the traffic and crashed – unfortunate for me as I was due to fly out of Auckland and wouldn’t have internet access for almost two days. So, by the time I’d arrived in the UK and got connected all tickets for the following week had sold.
There was speculation that the website’s poor performance was actually intentional – all part of the dismal experience. While a compelling idea, knowing something about website technicalities I think the organisers just underestimated the popularity of the event. However, it meant that the only way to gain entry was to turn up on the day, however there were no guarantees.
Catching the earliest train from Exeter I arrived at Weston-super Mare at 9.00. By 9.30 I had joined a queue of about 200 or more people. The grassed area in front of the old lido had been loosely organised with metal fencing. A long zigzagging queue for the online ticket holders with a smaller linear area for the ‘walk ups’. I couldn’t see anyone official around to ask, so I checked in with the people in front of me – was this the right line? They thought it was but weren’t sure themselves. The other line was filling fast – I hoped we were in the right place because I knew if we weren’t there’d definitely be no getting in.
We stood in place for an hour and a half with the line hardly moving before we’d eventually discover our fate. Just after 11am an ‘official’ turned up with a loud hailer. They could only let the first 100 walk-ins through then; they‘d come back at 3pm to see if they could let any more in – there were no guarantees – ‘have a dismal day’. I decided the wait would be worth it – and I’d use it to find out a bit more about my fellow queuers.
June and Amy (not their real names), a mother and daughter in line just in front of me, had come down from Birmingham early that morning to see the exhibition spurred by Amy (the daughter) who ‘really wanted to see it.’ June wasn’t so fussed – ‘I’m happy to give my place up if it means Amy can see it,’ she said. They knew Banksy’s work but didn’t really know what to expect. But they’d come all this way now, so a five-hour-plus wait was probably going to be worth it.
Susan and Paul (not their real names) were a married couple from Bristol. They were used to ‘seeing Banksy everyday’ but wanted to come and see this event as it looked to be ‘a bit different’. Besides, they had family in Weston-super Mare, so it was an excuse to visit them as well. Susan had been wanting to visit EuroDisney for 15 years – ever since they’d met – but Paul wouldn’t let her go – he ‘doesn’t believe in it’ she said. Paul had a critical outlook, ‘It’s not for your kids,’ he said, ‘but for your wallet... This (meaning Dismaland) is how Disneyland should be.’
In fact Susan and Paul had two kids – a three and a five-year-old – but they didn’t bring them because it would be ‘too traumatising.’ Susan’s daughter was ‘all into’ Disney princesses, she explained to me, and if she’d brought her here and she saw the Cinderella’s pumpkin coach crash installation she’d be ‘explaining that to her for a year’. ‘It’s not worth it,’ she said, ‘it’s not for kids.’
But surprisingly there were a lot of kids being brought along. Dismaland was being seen as a family event. In fact it was attracting people of all ages and backgrounds.
Just after 3pm loud-hailer man return and informed us that they would let in 250 more walk-ins. The crowd cheered (seriously). It had been a long wait, but an unseasonably warm and sunny autumnal day, so almost pleasant rather than dismal.
After paying the £3 entrance fee I moved to the first security check. I had a full travel bag and was worried that they’d want to go though it all. I chucked and pack on that table and said somewhat flippantly that it contained ‘a laptop, some pyjamas and lots of socks.’ ‘No marker pens?’ ‘No.’ ‘That’s fine.’ Too easy.
Across the road and into the entrance we came to the second security check; actually an art installation by artist Bill Barminski comprising cardboard body scanners, surveillance cameras, computers, walkie-talkies – complete with disinterested security guards. I should have taken pictures or engaged with them to see what the reaction would have been, but accustomed as I was to airport security checks I waited diligently to be ushered through the cardboard scanner. Chump!
I walked through the doors into the inner enclosure and just stood for a minute, a little dazed as I adjusted to the buzz of activity. To my left a set of macabre fairground-style booths and a Merry-go-round. Also a burned-out ice-cream van with a small children’s roundabout beside it. In front of me the main attraction – the gothic-styled castle behind a pond containing a ‘glitched’ mermaid Ariel statue and a crashed police van turned into a water fountain. To my right a Punch and Judy show, complete with reclining deck chairs, also eateries with appropriately themed offerings – ‘dismalafel’ anyone? There was much more beyond.
I made two circuits of the arena, accessing most of the easy-to-visit attractions or presentations. After a six-hour wait I’d only have a short time inside the event – I had at least a four-hour journey back to London ahead of me. That was somewhat disappointing as you could have easily have occupied yourself for almost the entire day.
I was impressed with what I did manage to see. And there was a lot going on: traditional art-type representations and installations, which I have to say I was slightly less interested in. But a good deal of interactive opportunities including bizarre and macabre takes on fairground attractions: remote-control boats overflowing with migrants; ‘Astronaut’s Caravan’ zero-gravity ride; Hook a Duck from the Muck game; Topple the Anvil (with a ping-pong ball) – you get the picture. I particularly liked the dismal performances by the ‘staff.’ They skulked around looking appropriately disinterested. Buying my souvenir programme the glum-looking young lady in the booth threw my £5 change on the counter, ‘There you go’ she said, not even looking at me. At one attraction I heard the attendant berate a teenager, ‘You’re not here to have fun. If you want that go to Disneyland.’ Superb.
Of course the irony was that the Dismaland experience was not really so dismal. Everyone seemed to be enjoying their visit – it wasn’t just me. People were right into it, with cameras and smartphones out to capture and share the novelty. I stood the back of the enclosure and observed the activity: selfie-sticks were the thing so you could capture yourself and your friends together smiling with the burnt-out castle in the background. I watched with amusement as a father coaxed his young children to pose by the statue of the Orca whale leaping out of a toilet bowl. The kids had no idea what was going on; the adults were loving it.
So why did Dimaland fail at being dismal? Well, perhaps it was that we knew it was all a performance: the surliness of staff, the dilapidated state of attractions, the gothic themes. And we could read Dismaland within the bounds of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque, that is through an inversion of everyday life – a ‘world upside down’. At first glance we might read this as the inversion of the modern amusement park – creating its dismal doppleganger. But there was more going on, of course. In explaining the concept Banksy points to Bertholt Brecht: ‘Art is not a mirror help up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.’ But then rhetorically asks: Which is fine, but what if you’re in a hall of mirrors and the giant hammer is made of foam?
So Dismaland is intended as a more realistic message to the next generation – that ‘the fairytale is over, the world is sleepwalking towards climate catastrophe.’ Sure, so it’s like taking the worst stories from the nightly news and putting them into a theme park.
Banksy’s work has been criticised as being too negative, and you can certainly understand why. Holding up the mirror to reality is one thing, smashing it is another but, of course, the really tricky thing is using creative practice in the imagining and enabling of alternative pathways. There was none of the latter here.
As I was getting ready to make my way out I bumped into June. I asked her what she thought of the event. ‘It’s great! Not what I had expected – not like a normal art show.’ Indeed. Did she have a favourite? ‘Oh, the castle.’ And what was it about that? ‘Well, it’s a commentary about [Princess] Diana...’ – and here she paused for a second, thinking, ‘...though I’m not quite sure how I feel about that.’ So perhaps challenging some perceptions after all.
And, so, beneath all the surface ‘fun’ of the Dismaland experience there is a more unconscious processing at work, which simply asks you to consider the things put in front of you. That for most people it seems is enough.
Though for me, walking out of the venue, I felt that I was leaving the fun behind. The real Dismaland is, of course, on the outside. That is the reality that we need to face, it’s just well hidden.
Still, I can highly recommend a trip to Weston-super Mare and Dismaland while it’s there. It’s a great experience for the whole family – whether they’re aware of it or not. And certainly the most fun I’ve had for just £3 in a long time.