By VITTORIA BENZINE September, 2021
On Friday, October 1st, Cosmic Wire will host an online auction offering the last remaining fragments of Banksy’s 2014 public installation, Spy Booth, once feared to be destroyed and left for dead over five years ago. Espionage means more than just sneaking around—Cosmic Wire knows any spy worth their salt can assemble an entire story from just a few pieces. After all, they were the ones to close this cold case, finally determining the lost mural’s fate and salvaging its remains.
Only nine sizable shards of this controversial artwork endure today, depicting in full the faces of the three spies from Banksy’s installation. Cosmic Wire has upped the ante by pairing this nine-piece lot with a one-of-a-kind NFT made from a photogrammetry scan of the parts, immortalizing their facades for the rest of time… just in case. “The bricks will be shipped to the winner in blast-proof secure cases with tracking and insurance,” their site assures potential bidders.
Banksy’s recognizable Spy Booth artwork first appeared on the streets of Gloucestershire, England in 2014. Reacting to the then-recent revelations of Edward Snowden’s info leaks exposing worldwide government surveillance, Banksy painted three 50s-era spies surrounding an actual phone booth in Cheltanham, just a few miles from GCHQ—the epicenter of the UK’s government surveillance operations. The spies’ classic trenches, black sunglasses, and vintage equipment not only elicited immediate archetypal associations with espionage, but also with an historical era where hysterical McCarthyism ran rampant—a time eerily parallel to the past twenty years, where counterterrorism has been used to shield intrusions of privacy carried out by first world governments around the globe.
Given this socio-cultural moment’s ravenous hunger for an artist like Banksy, Spy Booth caused an enormous stir when it popped up in the affluent town. The work's controversy didn’t stem from its subject matter, but from questions of ownership and responsibility that ensued. Banksy painted this piece on a Grade II listed building, meaning the government had deemed the structure "of special interest, warranting every effort to preserve it,” even before any artwork arrived. Owned by local resident David Possee, the building Spy Booth had been painted on was also falling into disrepair, its plaster rendering chipping apart. In a local radio interview cited by Widewalls, Possee recounted the paradox his inadvertent art acquisition had plunged him into—local officials required him to repair the building per municipal code, but at the same time punished him for bringing the precious and fragile Banksy into harm’s way when he attempted the mandatory repairs.
One has to wonder if Banksy harnessed this very specific placement to prolong the artwork’s public life, even to create a spectacle by turning the institution of local politics against itself.
In August 2016, the Guardian announced “Banksy's Spy Booth is feared destroyed as house goes under cover,” mere months after Widewalls reported “Banksy Artwork Spy Booth Valued at Million Pounds is Now Worth Nothing” due to vandalism and the building’s dilapidated state. Soon after, conclusive accounts surfaced that Spy Booth had been destroyed during building renovations, to the point it could no longer be reassembled. The artwork was declared dead and life moved on, even though many Banksy fans, especially in Cheltanham, were devastated. The local government decided not to press charges against Possee for the damage caused during his renovation, and returned the artwork’s remnants to him. From there, they quietly slipped into a private collection—until today, as Cosmic Wire begins rolling out the festivities leading up to the auction of these last visually striking pieces of Spy Booth.
To celebrate the reanimation of Spy Booth through Friday’s auction, Cosmic Wire is taking the festivities several steps further. First, they’ve pledged to donate 100% of the NFT royalty downstream proceeds from the auction to The Coalition for Rainforest Nations, “whose mission is to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) to stop deforestation.”
Cosmic Wire’s also opening up the Spy Booth celebrations to those potentially priced out of bidding on a Banksy, even in pieces. September 29th launches the Banksy Spy Booth Games, where participants can compete in a series of brain teasers and puzzles inspired by this artwork for a chance to win free NFTs and access to future Cosmic Wire NFT drops, giveaways, and VIP access. The auction industry offers a performative manner of selling, and Cosmic Wire has brought their A-game, exploring the new boundaries of this digital world which makes fine art more accessible to the public than ever before.
“We are genuinely excited to play a small part in time capsuling this crescendo of human culture and bringing it back to the people,” states Cosmic Wire CEO Jerad Finck. “This is what our mission at Cosmic Wire is specifically, to preserve and disseminate humanity's finest achievements. We feel we have really stumbled upon something spectacular with this piece, and we just can't wait to show the world."
Despite Banksy’s (hypothetically) best laid plans to keep Spy Booth on the streets, the work fell into disrepair and then obscurity after private and public interests had their tangential battle over it. Thanks to Cosmic Wire’s sleuthing, Spy Booth is finally back in the eyes of the public—the artwork’s best shot at sharing its message given the fact it’s been reduced to a mosaic of aesthetically powerful rubble. Once sold, Spy Booth will go back undercover, if only for a beat.
Banksy’s work has resonated on an unprecedented, nearly universal level, perhaps because the artist values spectacles just as much as principles. Cosmic Wire’s online auction participates in the phenomenon by celebrating this closed case with an imaginative array of online events. Join the Banksy Spy Booth Games, register to place your bid in Friday’s auction, and remember this moving artwork one last time—until, maybe, next time. WM
Vittoria Benzine is a street art journalist and personal essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity. Send love letters to her via: @vittoriabenzine // email@example.com // vittoriabenzine.com
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