A work by avant-garde filmmaker Joe Gibbons.


In the rarefied world inhabited by performance artists, gallery owners and MFA candidates, there is something called “non-collectible art.” Making this art doesn’t produce something that someone can buy and take home, like Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” or Marcel Duchamp’s urinal. Even a Banksy mural could, in theory, be part of a collection. Instead, non-collectible art might be an experience or the document of an experience — like the time Chris Burden filmed himself getting shot in a California art gallery.

[Chris Burden: Why “extreme’"artist was shot, kicked and crucified]

Joseph Gibbons, an avant-garde filmmaker and former lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has taken this aesthetic to a new extreme. Gibbons pleaded guilty to burglary this week after he robbed a bank in Manhattan — and filmed the robbery for use in a future project.

“He was doing research for a film,” Gibbons told his cellmate after he was arrested in January, according to the New York Post.  “It’s not a crime, it’s artwork. … He’s an intellectual.”

The Capital One teller who gave the camera-wielding Gibbons $1,002 on New Year’s Eve after the artist passed her a note announcing the robbery, as the Boston Globe reported, presumably wasn’t contemplating where the heist fit into the filmmaker’s oeuvre. Nor was a bank teller in Rhode Island, where Gibbons allegedly pulled off a similar crime/performance in November, making off with $3,000.

Such alleged crimes, of course, make great tabloid fodder — the New York Post called Gibbons “a wacky former MIT professor.” But while Gibbons was not immediately available to explain his actions, his bona fides are not in question. He’s received a Guggenheim fellowship and shown work in the Whitney Biennial — the film “Confessions of a Sociopath,” which offered a semi-fictional dramatization of his self-destructive behavior, including substance abuse.

“They want me to get a job,” Gibbons said in the film. “… You know what I told them? I’m Joe Gibbons! I don’t need a job!”

The work is a little bit ridiculous, a little bit pathetic. People like it.

“Gibbons’ work in film and video is characterized by a time-honored approach – that of the artist’s use of his own life as source material, a laboratory for self-observation and experimentation,” a biography on MIT’s Web site reads. “… Blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction, self and persona, his films and tapes combine a desire to connect, to confess, with a contradictory impulse to confabulate and dissimulate.”

Dissimulation seems to be a fundamental part of the Gibbons modus operandi. This is an artist who lives between truth and myth, shaping one to fuel the other.

“I thought I’d just cultivate a different problem in myself to make a film about it, but I couldn’t really continue that, and that was also not really true,” he told the journal Big Red and Shiny of one project. “The film was a rationalization for the drugs.”

The inspiration for this madness and/or pseudo-madness? Arthur Rimbaud — the same devil-may-care French poet who inspired Jim Morrison.

“That was a big inspiration on me,” Gibbons said. “The symbolist French poet, Rimbaud’s dictum that the poet should consume all poisons and go into the unknown, the depths of degradation to bring back his findings, that I read when I was a teenager and it made a big imprint.”

Whether Gibbons’s Manhattan robbery was real or a put-on, he will be sentenced next month. In the meantime, the art world has his back: Gibbons is the intended beneficiary of an ongoing crowdfunding campaign, and the Queens Museum has offered to screen the footage of the robbery, according to the New York Post.

“You never can tell if the character he is playing is actually him or a work of fiction,” Vincent Grenier, a filmmaker and professor at Binghamton University, told the Globe. “For him, it’s been a fertile arena to play in the boundary between reality and fantasy.”