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Heist or art? Ex-MIT lecturer pleads guilty to bank robbery

Joseph Gibbons at the Capital One branch in Manhattan on New Year's Eve. (NYPD)NYPD
Filmmaker Joe Gibbons.Handout

In a case of art imitating life, life imitating art, or maybe just a mash-up of the two, Joe Gibbons, an acclaimed avant-garde filmmaker and former lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is scheduled to be sentenced next month for robbing a New York City bank — a crime he captured on video.

Gibbons walked into a Capital One branch on Manhattan’s Lower East Side on New Year’s Eve and reportedly handed the teller a note announcing the robbery, using a pink-and-silver video camera to capture the transaction as the teller handed him $1,002, authorities said.

Gibbons, who pleaded guilty this week to burglary in the third degree, reportedly planned to use the heist footage in an upcoming film.


“He was doing research for a film,” cellmate Kaylan Sherrard told the New York Post following Gibbons’s arrest in January. “It’s not a crime; it’s artwork.
. . . He’s an intellectual.”

Gibbons told the Post that the heist was for an art project, while admitting that he was also desperate over “not having any money and not having a place to stay.”

He has been held in detention in New York since his arrest, and did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the Globe. His court-appointed attorney, Eric Williams, declined to discuss the case by phone on Tuesday, saying, “He doesn’t need any additional exposure at this point.”

Prosecutors had sought a sentence of one to three years, according to the Post, but Justice Laura Ward offered one year as part of a plea deal.

Gibbons, 61, was a lecturer in MIT’s program in art, culture, and technology from 2001 to 2010. A longtime provocateur with a deadpan sense of humor, he is no stranger to filming himself performing transgressive acts.

“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, said by phone on Tuesday. “For him, it’s been a fertile arena to play in the boundary between reality and fantasy.”


Gibbons has often blurred that line in his own work, going as far back as a prank in 1977, when the filmmaker “liberated” a painting by Richard Diebenkorn from the Oakland Museum by tucking it under his shirt. Gibbons, then 24, later returned the painting, but kept the frame as “ransom,” a negotiating ploy for a mock activist group, the Art Liberation Front.

Existing somewhere between autobiography, cinema verite, and performance art, his 2002 film “Confessions of a Sociopath” features Gibbons shoplifting, shooting heroin, talking to his parole officer, and being analyzed by a psychiatrist. Meanwhile in his 1995 film, “Barbie’s Audition,” Gibbons interrogates one of the iconic dolls, demanding, “Who were you out with last night? Who were you out with!”

Watch the trailer of “Confessions of a Sociopath:

Gibbons’s flair for experimental filmmaking earned him a 2001 Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship. His work has been exhibited four times at the prestigious Whitney Biennial and at the Museum of Modern Art, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art.

According to his bio on MIT’s website, Gibbons has also been recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities for works that blur boundaries “between fact and fiction, self and persona” and “combine a desire to connect, to confess, with a contradictory impulse to confabulate and dissimulate.”


The filmmaker has said he was influenced by the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, and that his autobiographical form of filmmaking demands he become personally involved in the transgressive experience in order to mine it for art.

“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 on me,” Gibbons told the online art journal Big, Red & Shiny.

Gibbons explained in the same interview that he “worried if I had enough problems within me that I could exploit. So when I ran [out] of my own — I started creating them.”

Sarah McDonnell, a spokeswoman for MIT, confirmed that Gibbons worked at the university for nine years but declined to give “additional information” about why he left MIT.

“He’s not led a normal life,” said Grenier, who considers Gibbons a friend. “There is a side of him that’s very, very straightforward and there’s nothing about him that’s so transgressive. In many ways he’s a normal human being, but maybe he’s trying to shake that normalcy” for his art.

“He’s a risk taker, but he eventually slammed into a wall,” said friend Emily Breer, a fellow filmmaker who put Gibbons up for seven months after his life “fell apart.”


Reached Tuesday, Breer said while she thought Gibbons was brilliant, his latest turn was beyond the pale. “It’s the messy edge of art and life, don’t you think? We don’t really go in and scare some bank teller for some art project,” she said. “What makes him special over some other desperate person that goes into a bank because they need money?”

Gibbons, who appears to have a LinkedIn page listing his occupation as “video editor/consultant” for Fugitive Productions, allegedly staged a similar robbery in Rhode Island in November, when he filmed himself stealing $3,000.

Since Gibbons’s arrest, many in the art world have voiced their support for him. According to the New York Post, a curator at the Queens Museum wants to invite Gibbons to show footage from the robbery once he is released. Artists have written letters of support and helped raise more than $8,000 to support him via the crowd-funding site Indiegogo, where multimedia and installation artist Tony Oursler called Gibbons “a national treasure, an ingenious artist and an inspiration.”

Gibbons is scheduled to be formally sentenced in Manhattan Supreme Court on July 13.

Gibbons appeared in Manhattan Supreme Court on Monday.Jefferson Siegel/New York Daily News/New York Daily News


Art review: Pointing out creativity’s goofy side (July, 2007)

Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com.