Joe Gibbons, the Bank-Robbing Filmmaker
For this former MIT instructor, art imitated life—a life of crime. Is Joe Gibbons an artist who robs banks—or a thief who makes art?
Outside the bank in New York City’s Chinatown, Joe Gibbons asked his pocket video camera if he should really do it. This wouldn’t be easy—not like the bookstores, not like the shops he’d walked out of with champagne. On one hand, he might upset the teller, like the one in Providence who’d seemed so shaken. On the other hand, he was out of money again.
So at 1:50 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, minutes before the Capital One branch on the Bowery in Manhattan was to close for the holiday, Gibbons walked into the bank and got in line. He told himself this was an experiment, just to see what would happen next. Afraid he was attracting odd looks, Gibbons took off his wool hat, revealing his silvery hair. His video camera, the size of a deck of cards, waited in his pocket.
When his turn came, Gibbons walked up to the teller and handed him a deposit slip with a note on it that read: “This is A ROBBERY—LARGE Bills—NO DYE PACKS/No GPS.” Then Gibbons took out his video camera, set it on the counter and pointed it at the teller. It was pink and silver, like a kid’s toy.
Another customer interrupted to ask a long question in Chinese, and Gibbons waited as the teller answered. Then the teller took $1,002 in cash from his drawer and handed it over. Gibbons’s camera recorded the transaction, as did the bank’s camera, up above. Gibbons grabbed the cash, stuffed it into his messenger bag, and left.
As Gibbons ran for the subway, still filming, he felt the dye pack explode.
Eight days later, police detectives arrived at the Bowery Grand Hotel, a $45-a-night flophouse a half block from the bank. The desk clerk told them the robber in the “wanted” photo looked like the guy in Room 100. Sure enough, Gibbons answered the door. From the hallway, the detectives noticed the pink-and-silver camera lying on his bed.
At the station, Gibbons no longer had his camera to talk to, only police and paper. He confessed to the detectives, then wrote out a three-page narrative as vivid as a screenplay, with establishing scenes that evoked a pill-popping alcohol haze, a neurotic narrator delivering an internal monologue, and a flashback that led to the action. Not only did Gibbons confess to the Chinatown robbery, he also wrote that in November, “with great trepidation,” he’d robbed a bank in Providence. He included a motivation for the main character, the same bizarre one he’d given the teller: that the money was “for the church.”
Days later, he’d explain his motive differently to a New York Post reporter. The bank heists were part of an art project, he said, another entry into his oeuvre of experimental cinema.
“I read the works of Arthur Rimbaud, who essentially believed a poet had to descend into the depths of all that was bad and report back,” he said. “This whole thing has been one long project about discovering the disenfranchised portions of society.”
Before he became a bank robber, Joe Gibbons had made a name for himself as an artist. At 62, the avant-garde filmmaker is a 30-year veteran of Boston’s underground film scene: He spent nearly a decade teaching video and visual arts at MIT, his short films have appeared in the art world’s prestigious Whitney Biennial, and he has won a Guggenheim Fellowship and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. After his arrest, cinema programs in six cities, including New York, San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon, held screenings of his films, with ticket sales meant to help him get back on his feet once he was released from jail.
One of them, the Los Angeles Film Forum, noted that the New York Post’s coverage of Gibbons’s arrest had included the phrase “visual artist” in dubious quotation marks. “Well, to hell with the New York Post and to hell with the banks,” the program notes read. “Joe Gibbons is not only an artist, but a truly great artist, one who has for decades blended autobiography and fantasy into a richly confessional, bitingly hilarious, unparalleled first-person media/dream-fulfillment.”
For decades, his films have tested the boundaries between art and life: Often the sarcastic, manic, lawbreaking main character is played by Gibbons himself. It’s not always clear whether he’s acting. “He’s a precursor to the selfie generation,” says Maxim Pozdorovkin, a documentary filmmaker and former student of Gibbons, “because of the films he’s made, and where the culture has shifted, to using self-documentation to cultivate a persona.” But Gibbons’s work has also explored a darker boundary—the one between art and crime. “There was this fascination with criminality and theft in some of his work,” says Benjamin Gerdes, a former teaching assistant of Gibbons’s at MIT, “but there was also a lot of playfulness around that.”
Gibbons’s most critically acclaimed film, which he says is mostly autobiographical, is titled Confessions of a Sociopath. In it, Gibbons films himself as he shoplifts books, brags about stealing a painting from a museum, and shoots heroin. “I’m Joe Gibbons!” he rants in a key scene. “I don’t need a job! I just take what I need!” He cackles, then adds: “I’m just kidding about that.”
“He’s working through his own psychological problems more or less right there on the screen,” says friend and fellow filmmaker Craig Baldwin. A MoMA curator agreed, writing that Gibbons’s work seemed “to tread a precariously thin line between improvisatory performance and psychic disintegration.” This was praise, not criticism. Gibbons came of age in an artistic moment in which “transgression” was a watchword, when the avant-garde’s eternal interest in testing social and artistic limits was expressed in diary films on handheld camera, and when performance-art daredevils and protesters offered themselves up as human canvases.
Art wasn’t just something Gibbons lived for, it’s something he used to justify his obsessions and compulsions and to redeem something from them. He often described his thefts, drug use, and voyeurism as research. As self-deluding as that sounds, those obsessions, explored with a disarming, shocking humor, became the subjects of some of his most acclaimed work.
But art can become an obsession all its own, especially art about oneself. For a while, Gibbons seemed to find an equilibrium, a way to balance his life’s peculiar risks and rewards. He found artistic success, other subjects to film, a teaching career, a long-term relationship with a fellow filmmaker. Then that balance was upset, the old justifications didn’t work anymore, and his compulsions spun out of control.
Gibbons walked into the visiting room on New York City’s Rikers Island wearing a gray, baggy shirt and pants. His hair was jail-short, his face thin and sharp-angled, his rectangular glasses a little crooked. He nodded and smiled at me as he approached the undersize chairs and table. He had a nervous affect, looking to one side or the other more than he made eye contact. He told me as much of his life story as he could fit into an hour.
Born in Rhode Island, he moved to San Francisco after college, where his energy and humor made him a popular figure within the city’s art scene. “Parties would begin all over again if he showed up,” recalls his friend Abigail Child, a filmmaker who now teaches at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts.
At one of those parties—an Oakland Museum event honoring artist Richard Diebenkorn, in October 1977—Gibbons went into a room full of 1,000 people, yanked Diebenkorn’s painting Scissors and Lemon from the wall, and stuffed it into his coat. “Well-lubricated with opening nite [sic] champagne, I managed to slip past the 3 security guards and 20 museum officials and disappear into the criminal darkness,” he later wrote. Gibbons tried to mail the painting to a TV station and hold the frame hostage, but police arrested him first. Not licked yet, he told reporters he belonged to the Art Liberation Front and released a “communiqué,” signed “Joseph Gibbons-Gibbons, ALF Minister of Information,” that defended the theft as a blow to “pretentious and overbearing” art institutions and promised ALF T-shirts to anyone who sent $15 for his legal defense. “[It] looked like an innocent prank at first—with my clean record—but less and less so with each subsequent arrest,” Gibbons wrote in an essay for Radical Light, a book about alternative film in San Francisco. According to his essay, Gibbons shoplifted hundreds of cartridges of Super 8 film stock while living in the Bay Area. He needed them to fuel his filmmaking habit.
“When he did these things, the courts wouldn’t know what to do with him,” Baldwin says. “To put him in jail would be ridiculous; he’s not violent in any way. Plus, he was white.”
For his first major work, the 1978 film Spying, Gibbons secretly filmed his neighbors as they sunbathed, watered their gardens, paced on their balconies, kissed their lovers in bed, and practiced yoga naked on a roof. He set out to make a high-concept film about voyeurism in Hollywood, he told me, but ended up exploring his own voyeurism instead. Spying became something of a hit in avant-garde film circles. Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman called it “hilariously perverse” and named it one of 1978’s 10 best films.
Soon after, Gibbons began to point the camera at himself. Dark early shorts showed Gibbons smashing bank windows and documented his and his friends’ heroin use. His comedic skills emerged in Confidential Part 2, from 1980, in which a young, handsome Gibbons turned a sultry gaze on the camera and talked to it. “See, a relationship like ours, people just don’t understand,” he said. “They’re not ready for it yet—a machine and man relationship.”
During his time in the Bay Area, Gibbons was apprehended while stealing champagne and books, according to his essay. A court record shows Gibbons eventually pleaded guilty to a felony charge in Oakland, for stealing the Diebenkorn painting. Instead of a year in prison, Gibbons wrote, the judge agreed to send him to a Massachusetts drug treatment program. “This meant the fulfillment of one of my teenage dreams,” he wrote—“to attend McLean Psychiatric Hospital, the finishing school for so many renowned poets of the fifties and sixties and musicians of the seventies. The only downside was that no cameras were allowed.”
When he was released from McLean, Gibbons moved to Boston, where he shot his first feature, Living in the World, about “a disenfranchised Everyman [struggling] to re-integrate himself into society” who “fails and turns to crime.” Living in the World was an “auto-documentary,” but afterward, Gibbons veered toward more-fictional films. In the mid-1980s, he made two parodies of French New Wave cinema, Deadbeat and Fugitive in Paris, both of which featured plots involving bank robbery. In Deadbeat, scenes shot on location in France show the exteriors of several banks as Gibbons runs from them. “I’ve been robbing banks in Boston, New York, San Francisco, Chicago—all over the goddamned United States!” his character brags. In Fugitive in Paris, a later version of Deadbeat, Gibbons’s character can’t bring himself to break the law, but his French girlfriend, Coco, does. Talking to me at Rikers, Gibbons claimed he filmed on the Champs-Élysées with capped prop guns, until police stopped him—not for waving guns outside banks, he says, but because camera tripods aren’t allowed on Paris’s famed boulevard.
Gibbons’s girlfriend was played by Corinne Mallet, his real-life girlfriend at the time. Reached in France, she says Gibbons’s work sprang from an exploration of limits. “He had to really imagine that character who would love to break the law,” Mallet says today. “He was fantasizing that character a lot.”
Gibbons continued to shoot his films in Super 8—gloriously grainy film stock for light, handheld cameras, often used for home movies. Abigail Child, his friend and fellow filmmaker, says his films achieved a visual beauty that was rare for the medium. But in the 1990s, as Super 8 became obsolete, Gibbons began making short one-take films in Pixelvision, a super-lo-fi, black-and-white video format shot on a Fisher-Price toy camera. Several films show him talking to his friend’s dog, Woody, as they walk in Boston parks. In Elegy, Gibbons visits a cemetery and asks Woody about autumn, family, and death while the dog listens, pants, and wags his tail. “Do you ever stop to think about your mother, Woody?” Gibbons asks. “Or your father? Or where you came from?” He also filmed several Pixelvision shorts with Barbie and Ken dolls. In Barbie’s Audition, Gibbons plays a sleazy film director who tries to seduce a young actress Barbie; in Multiple Barbie, he plays a psychoanalyst who gets attacked with a hammer by a Barbie with multiple-personality disorder.
In 1993, Gibbons made another feature-length film, The Genius, a Frankenstein-themed art-world satire that played at art houses in several major cities. Gibbons costarred with Karen Finley, the performance artist who’d famously lost a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1990 because she performed nude and covered in chocolate. Gibbons played Desmond, a scientist who could switch people’s personalities. Critics generally agreed that The Genius was a hot mess, heavily improvised and spottily funny, though the Chicago Tribune said Gibbons shifted personalities “with real flair.”