Dismaland – a puppeteers perspective

Dismaland signRight in the middle of the seafront of Weston-Super-Mare near Bristol is an old dilapidated Lido (bathing resort). This faded and crumbling building is literally on the beach of the Severn inlet which forms the dividing line between South Wales and South West England. This was once The Tropicana – a resort that Banksy has said he remembers fondly. His reputation is such that his work has immense value and he seems to try to make sure that those who profit from this value are those he would really like to benefit as well as commercial art dealers and financial speculators. The Tropicana is raising money to survive and renew itself and this temporary attraction has given the place a much-needed publicity boost.

A few years ago Banksy decided to ‘modify’ the Bristol Museum – with full permission of the museum. A few rooms were for Banksy to display creations, but also carefully placed in the permanent collection were little modifications for the visitor to hunt down and find for themselves. Dismaland takes this concept several steps further and includes work by lots of different artists as well as displays and information stands by community groups and open opportunities for visitors to agree to be exploited as visitors for as much as they feel comfortable with, in the classic theme park/visitor attraction method: overpriced food and drink, a gift shop, paying extra for the ‘have a go’ stands.

Price of entry is absurdly low – 5 pounds online, 3 pounds on the door if you’re lucky enough to get in without prebooking. There are timed session entries so be willing to arrive early and queue for a few hours to get a walk-up ticket. I was lucky as I was on my own and grabbed the final one that nobody else could use as they were in groups of two or more.Dismaland castleThe absurd black and white cardboard security scanners and desks as you enter are silly, but it’s the mock security guards staring soullessly at you that gives you a hint of one of the many really nicely thought-out touches of Dismaland – the staff are all performing the opposite of ‘customer service’. A kind of ‘customer disservice’ in which they are moody, grumpy, depressed, rude and unhelpful.

Once on the site a terrible elevator music is playing over the tannoy with occasional announcements that are knowing and sarcastic. I was pretty much the only person there (apart from babes in arms or pushchairs) who wasn’t experiencing all this through a device, cameras and phones were constantly in between the eyes of the visitors and what they were meant to be looking at. The central display of Sleeping Beauty’s crashed coach lit by the strobe of paparazzi flashes for me had an echo when appearance of the figure of death riding a dodgem car, large scythe in place of the upright electrical pole at the back, was similarly strobe lit by the hundreds of flashes of camera phones in the opening seconds of ‘The Dance of Death’. If people were appreciating the irony, it wasn’t stopping them from indulging in recording every second of their experience.

Dismaland coachDance of Death

Long snaking queues of people waiting to enter the small spaces threatened to intersect in the relatively small open areas. A small outdoor movie screen showed selected animations, there were several places to buy food and drink. A Punch and Judy booth had a sign which warns of scenes of domestic violence. I never find out if there was actually a puppet show that went with the booth.

There were marionettes however. A puppet stage made out of scrap and modern detritus features four almost human sized marionettes with bodies made of clothing and heads and hands made from more scrap and detritus. One head was made from a car licence plate.

Dismaland puppets

They are controlled by aluminium poles jigged about by a bored looking attendant, but he poles are available for anyone at the upstairs bar to have a go at if they want. Not many did.

As a gallery of works of art that offer a cutting edge, dark, dystopic view of present day society Dismaland has a lot to offer, in a format that is wonderfully disrespectful of the efforts of commercial capitalism to commodify activities and displays. The highlight for me was the three classic ‘have a go’ stands you commonly see at funfairs – hook a duck, the rifle range and drive the boats. These were so ironic that it was morally ambiguous to actually have a go – do you really want to hook a duck from a floating oil slick, take pot shots at targets dressed up in bling and black urban street wear or drive boats of refugees to crash into each other among the floating bodies of the drowned?

Dismaland boats

I thought no-one would pay an extra pound or two to indulge in something so uncomfortable, but the occasional visitor seemed to be willing. The rest of us, in our queues, stared on in horror.

Dismaland – a puppeteers perspective

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