Weston-super-Mare’s Dismaland, variously billed as a “Bemusement Park”, a “festival of art, amusements and entry-level anarchism” and even, “a crash course in postmodern despair” is the brain-child of British street artist Banksy.
Open until the end of September at the Somerset beach resort, Dismaland is probably all of the above.
By Charles Read
It is an art show for sure, a theme park of sorts but also a satire on many things – consumerism, the attractions business and, perhaps most affectionately, the British seaside holiday. I found it hugely entertaining, provocative and inspiring. But why, what did I learn and was it really such a dismal experience?
Oh I don’t like to be beside the seaside: 13 reasons why Dismaland is a unique must-see
1. Ticketing and Admission: Disappointing
Ticketing is a an important business in the attractions industry, with companies such as Gateway and accesso leading the way in making the whole entrance/admissions procedure a smooth and trouble-free enterprise. A relationship is fostered with the guest as soon as they visit the attraction’s website. The buying process is a simple affair. Not so at Dismaland.
The chatter online is that the difficulties encountered when trying to book tickets via the official website for Dismaland are deliberate and the frustration, bewilderment and angst are in fact an ideal and carefully calibrated way of preparing guests for what Banksy and his collaborators hope will be a thoroughly disappointing day.
2. The Location: Dispiriting
Location is vital for a theme park’s success and the right site and topography can enhance the visitor experience, providing views and vistas of an unforgettable nature. Hong Kong’s Ocean Park for example, is built high up on a lush forested peninsular, affording roller coaster riders magnificent views over the bay.
Weston-Super-Mare was chosen as Banksy holidayed there each year as a child. It is a predominately grey town and feels neglected and unloved. When I visit there is persistent drizzle under a slate grey sky. Approaching the long queue is a dispiriting experience.
The town’s Lido, which first opened in 1937 is now faded and dilapidated. Once a popular attraction and home to Europe’s highest diving boards it has been closed since 2000. It is a natural site for the park.
Harking back to his summer holidays, Banksy told the Weston Mercury, “I hope everyone from Weston will take the opportunity to once more stand in a puddle of murky water eating cold chips to the sound of crying children.”
3. Customer service: Disinterested
Savvy park owners have long since known that treating your visitors with respect and kindness is a central pillar to an attraction’s success; after all happy guests will spend more. Disney employees or “cast” are schooled in the fine art of looking after the park’s guests and any inquiries are met with a smile and a genuine effort to help.
At Dismaland the staff are bored, disinterested and sullen. There is a profound lack of interest in their job, an obvious irritation with the presence of visitors and impatience with their behavior. Any inquiries are met with a blank countenance and an unwillingness to help.
The disdain with which guests are treated is manifest in the number of people carrying around balloons by David Shrigley, a Turner-nominated artist, with the slogan – which like the very best strap lines is both simple and effective – “I am an imbecile”.
4. Games/Midway: Distasteful
Secondary spend is vital in the theme park business, with as much of half of a park’s income coming from visitors spending more money once they have bought their tickets and are in the park. Arcade games and smaller interactive games are a staple at many parks and Dismaland is no different. The games though, are.
Woody Allen’s joke in the sixties, about his father’s concession on the Coney Island boardwalk (where you knock over milk bottles with baseballs) neatly summed up the futility of your average midway game.
“There was a tidal wave when I was a child. It ripped up the boardwalk and did about a million dollars-worth of damage. The only thing left standing were those little milk bottles.”
“Knock the Anvil” also by David Shrigley, finds visitors faced with the insurmountable problem of trying to knock an anvil over with ping-pong balls. Any player who manages this wins an anvil. Is the prize the anvil in front of us or are there hundreds of anvils waiting to be given away? We are not told, though we are notified that delivery is not included.
The remote control boats allow the guest to control either a gunboat or a boat over crowded with asylum seekers. Unlike your average boat pond game it manages to be rather shocking, especially when your boat ploughs over some of the dead bodies bobbing around in the water.
The centrepiece of the traditional hook-a-duck game is a pelican dripping in oil.
I missed the Jeffrey Archer Memorial Fire Pit – a daily burning of the local lord and famed perjuror’s books – but enjoyed the puppet revue show constructed from the contents of Hackney skips.
5. Rides: Disconcerting
The safety of visitors is of paramount importance to the owners of theme parks and attractions across the world. Highly engineered, operated by carefully trained operatives the major theme park’s rides allow guests to enjoy a white kuckle ride secure in the knowledge that their experience is a safe one. The few rides at Dismaland are disconcerting as they appear to have been cobbled together by some bloke down the pub. The big (well, biggish) wheel trundles around in the traditional plane but also appears sligtly wobbly.
The caravan simulator wasn’t working during my visit and the crew member manning it wasn’t working either. Just sitting in a deck chair and responding to polite inquiries with studied indifference. It was safe to say that the professionals from ASTM International or the UK’s ADIPS hadn’t paid a visit.
Banksy alluded to the quality of the engineering in confirming why the attraction is only open for a very limited time. “We can’t extend the run because of technical calculations. We have tall structures which have been built and certified for one weather period. It gets windy there and we’re not insured for one minute past the last day of September.”
6. Cleanliness: Disagreeable
One thing that makes the top parks stand out from the crowd is the lack of litter. The fact that such care and attention to detail and pride in the appearance of the park is clearly important to the owners makes the guest feel welcome and appreciated. Disney leads the way but all the great parks are spotless, encouraging everyone from the CEO down to double up as a cleaner, picking up any stray crisp bags or cans as they travel through the park.
On the Dismaland site the shell of the old lido is still very visible. Crumbling walls, broken paving slabs and piles of rubble all testament to a once much loved seaside attraction. Even the queue lines sport the occasional drinks bottled or beer can, artfully discarded (or placed) along the route. The opportunities for guests injuring themselves are huge and varied and lawyers in the tripping and slipping business must be salivating.
There is a disclaimer on the website; “Contains uneven floor surfaces, extensive use of strobe lighting, imagery unsuitable for small children and swearing. The following are strictly prohibited in the Park – spray paint, marker pens, knives and legal representatives of the Walt Disney Corporation.”
7. The Beach: Displeasing
Dismaland is not only a parody of a theme park (and on a much lesser note of a well known theme park owner) but it is also an affectionate swipe at that grand old British institution, the annual seaside holiday. From the tired looking deck chairs arranged in semi circles radiating out from the Punch and Judy show and the outdoor cinema to the crazy golf and the sand pit, the park harks back to the seventies before cheap flights made foreign travel available to the masses.
8. Cinema: Disheartening
The cinema is a showcase for some brilliant short films. These include Chris Capel’s riff on the “Saw” movies (see below). Other highlights are a remarkable and baffling traffic and pedestrian mash-up and a breathtaking look at a New York home to theme park rides (above), both by Black Sheep Films. I sat for over an hour in the drizzle, with a damp packet of popcorn; a very English holiday experience.
9. Legal action: Discouraging
Banksy has stressed that Dismaland is not about Disney. “I banned any imagery of Mickey Mouse from the site” he says. However, the Mouse is ever present. The logo’s font, the mouse ears worn by the staff and the frequent references in the installations all reference the company.
Disney has never been shy of litigation – it is easy to imagine a room of expensive lawyers scratching their heads. The company has remained, as the Daily Mail pointed out, ” tight-lipped” about this, “family theme park unsuitable for small children”.
In truth the UK’s recent legal changes covering Parody – meaning brands can legiimately be lampooned – protects the attraction. In the States things might be different and a Dismaland USA looks unlikely.
10. Hard Work: Dissatisfying
One thing I have learned over the years is that making a theme park work is not easy. Investors looking for a quick return on their money can easily find safer bets. The vast amount of work that goes into a theme park can be unnoticed and unappreciated by visitors. As Banksy has realised, even satirical theme parks are hard work. “We spent three weeks carving the foam wheels for Cinderella’s carriage and nobody notices them at all”.
11. Art Installation: Displeasing
Dismaland is, without doubt a superb art show. As Bansky says, “This is not your average sugar-coated fantasyland selling scrapings from the Hollywood floor.” 50 artists from 17 countries showcase their art. Much of it is inspiring, striking and thought-provoking. Highlights for me included:
Darren Cullen’s “Pocket Money Loans Shop” where kids can borrow money at an interest rate of 5, 000%. In front of the counter is a small trampoline. It enables young applicants to bounce up to read the outrageous small print.
Jimmy Cauty’s, superb model town is called “The Aftermath Displacement Principle”. It imagines an entire community struggling with riots, huge civil disobedience and all manner of other catastrophes. It’s Hieronymus Bosch reimagined by Hornby. Police figures, in yellow hi-vis jackets sit on the edge of the set, breaking the fourth wall or just plain exhausted.
There are numerous works by the Bristol based former street artist, Banksy. Some of these allude to the theme park world. So, a killer whale jumps through a hoop from a tiny toilet, (wonder what that’s about?). In another a mouse – guess which one? – is mid way through being eaten by a snake. Most noticeably, the park’s focal point, a suitaby ramshackle castle, houses Banksy’s take on Cinderella.
It’s the Disney princess alright, videos play Disney’s Cindrella as we enter. But the pumpkin is upended and the princess hangs lifeless from the carriage. A very 20th century pack of paparazzi crowd the scene taking photos. There’s more than a nod to princess Diana here too as the sirens in the background are French.
12. It’s (not) all about IP: Disgusting
Brands are big news in the theme park world. Whether IP is brought in or devised (or already existing) in house it is almost inconceivable that any new attraction should debut without its own character or story line and a barrage of branded merchandise to back it up. The only brands I encountered at Dismaland were Burger King (trashed on Jimmy Cauty’s estate) and Shell (embarrassed by Greenpeace in one of the cinema’s short films). This unbranded leisure space was refreshing and unusual.
13. A Cheap Day Out: Distressing
Theme parks are not a cheap experience. A family trip to a leading UK park will cost in excess of £100. Banksy has made Dismaland a cheap day out, just £3 to enter (£5 if tickets are booked online). Once inside there are precious few opportunties for secondary spend outside of £2 bags of popcorn and the bars. The branded clothing – T shirts and jumpers – are inexpensive. The bottom line though, is that Dismaland is not really a business. Furthermore, it is not altogether clear whether the income from tickets will even cover the cost of staging the attraction.
A Thoroughly Dismal Day Out
So, in summary a superb day out, a unique and eye-opening experience and worth fighting to get a ticket. (Sold out on the site but available through eBay).
Banksy expressed a little disappointment with his creation, feeling that it was a below-par amusement park. Paraphrasing Top Gun’s Stinger, he said, “The branding writes a cheque the event doesn’t cash “. In fact he has created a desperately dismal theme park. It is also a surreal, engaging and totally unforgettable visitor experience. A Kingdom that is very magic indeed.
Images: all images Blooloop except 1. Woody Allen courtesy Brian Hammill/Getty Images, 2 Banksy’s seagulls attacking a woman kind courtesy Kevin Murphy, Attraktion!