How Shia LaBeouf created the first great art of the Trump era
It was 9 p.m. on Tuesday, and Queens, New York, was in the process of being drenched by a Nor'easter. The temperature on the ground was 36 degrees and dropping, with rain morphing into sleet and then hardening into pellets of ice. But none of the elements could deter the small crowd that had gathered to see what might be the first great art of the Trump era.
It was the fifth day of HeWillNotDivide.Us, a video installation by Hollywood star Shia LaBeouf and the artists Nastja Säde Rönkkö and Luke Turner. Situated on the north side of Queen's Museum of the Moving Image, "He Will Not Divide Us" is "open to all, 24 hours a day, seven days a week," and "will be live-streamed continuously for four years, or the duration of the presidency," the collective says. The public is instructed to repeat the words "he will not divide us" into a camera mounted on the wall for "as many times, and for as long as they wish." Viewers elsewhere can tune in to watch the live stream on the project's website.
Sometimes doing so means witnessing dance parties of dozens of people, complete with overturned buckets used to beat out the chant "He! Will! Not! Di! Vide! Us!" Other times there are just a couple of people standing around muttering "he will not divide us" quietly, almost inaudibly, to themselves. Rarely, though, is there no one at all.
When you visit "He Will Not Divide Us" in person, the signs of the pilgrimages are obvious. Old protest signs, a half-empty package of water bottles, and an umbrella lay abandoned at the base of the wall like offerings at a shrine. When I arrived, a young man with a half-eaten cheese pizza told me he'd been staring into the camera for two hours — the pizza had been delivered to the lot as a prank and the delivery man, frustrated to find no one to pay for it, left it with the man for free. Another woman in the lot said she had just stopped by to see what the installation was like; she, like I, lived in the area. While we were talking, a couple who had just gotten out of a Democratic Socialists for America meeting in the neighborhood swung through to offer us flyers.
As a group, we shouted "he will not divide us" a couple of times. Mostly, though, we ate pizza and talked about Shia LaBeouf yelling at a neo-Nazi.
(The author, left, eats pizza | Hewillnotdivide.us)
The Nazi incident occurred on the second day of the live stream. In the videos, you can see an out-of-place looking man in a hat approach the camera as a crowd of teens and 20-somethings stand in the background chanting the titular mantra. The man in the hat hisses something into the camera — "14," it sounds like, a reference to the number of words in a white supremacist slogan.
But then Shia LaBeouf emerges from the crowd. Wearing a red cap and looking scruffy enough that you would assume he was just visiting from Brooklyn, LaBeouf barks down the possible supremacist's messages with the chant "HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US! HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US!" LaBeouf's shouts drown out the disruption entirely.
Naturally, the video went viral.
— #HeWillNotDivideUs (@HWNDUS) January 23, 2017
Shia LaBeouf has not always been fighting Nazis. The actor is perhaps best known among a certain generation for his role as Louis Stevens in the Disney Channel show Even Stevens. Later, LaBeouf starred in the massively successful Holes movie, and followed up its success with Disturbia, the Transformers series, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in quick succession.
Then something changed. In 2014, LaBeouf showed up to the premiere of the film Nymphomaniac with a brown paper bag over his head, the words "I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE" scribbled on the front. "What caused Shi-Shi to do something as desperately attention-seeking as this?" PerezHilton.com mocked at the time.
But it was the beginning of a new era for LaBeouf. After the bag incident, he teamed up with Finnish artist Nastja Säde Rönkkö and British artist Luke Turner for their first installation together. The group put on what at the time was a strange and disorienting project called #IAMSORRY, in which LaBeouf could be visited by the public for intimate one-on-ones in a private room. A writer from The Daily Beast saw LaBeouf cry. Others mocked LaBeouf with angry tweets that sat in a bowl in front of him. LaBeouf alleged later that a woman had sexually assaulted him in the room on Valentine's Day, all while LaBeouf's then-girlfriend stood unknowing in line outside the room.
In 2015, LaBeouf, Rönkkö, and Turner began experimenting with live streaming. For three straight days, LaBeouf watched all of the films he'd appeared in for a project titled #ALLMYMOVIES. The entire time, LaBeouf sat directly in front of a camera that anyone could view online. A live audiences also queued at the theater, waiting for an opportunity to sit alongside him.
Before "He Will Not Divide Us," LaBeouf's work with Turner and Rönkkö was not especially groundbreaking. #IAMSORRY was a continuation of the tradition of "endurance art," which began its modern iteration with Marina Abramović's Rhythm 0 (1974), in which Abramović sat still and naked and invited the public to do whatever to her that they wished. Actress Tilda Swinton would occasionally go to MoMA to sleep in a box in the name of art. James Franco's very existence is another such example.
"He Will Not Divide Us," though, is a departure from LaBeouf's performances in #IAMSORRY or #ALLMYMOVIES. Instead of intensely — and occasionally violently — examining his own celebrity and objectification by his fans, the project is seemingly not about LaBeouf whatsoever. If it is about celebrity, it is only obscurely, in the Godlike inflation of He in the title. That He is, of course, ex-reality TV star Donald Trump, whose first presidential term will dictate the length of the live stream.
Of course, there are complications. The installation still bears LaBeouf's signatures, and it's worth remembering he became the star of his own show by shouting down a neo-Nazi rather than letting the live stream run its natural course. On Thursday, LaBeouf made headlines again, this time after getting arrested at the "He Will Not Divide Us" site on misdemeanor assault and harassment charges for allegedly grabbing at a man's scarf and pushing him to the ground. LaBeouf was released early Thursday, but #FreeShia still managed to become a temporary social media flurry.
But regardless of LaBeouf's inability to stay out of the news, "He Will Not Divide Us" is powerfully subversive, intensely interrogating what it means to be a witness and a participant in an age of "alternative facts."
Perhaps the most political act in an age of Orwellian "alternative facts" is keeping our eyes open — democratizing Big Brother. He is watching us, but we are watching him right back. LaBeouf, Rönkkö, and Turner volunteered to turn the camera on each other, and on us. It's a literal chorus of protest by the people, but broadcast like a CCTV feed, evoking the feeling of a surveillance state. It's not a coincidence that the art evokes both populism and fascism.
It is also no mistake either that the project found a home in Queens — the most diverse neighborhood in the entire world — and not at a more elite establishment like the MoMA in Manhattan. It is no mistake either that the frequent performers in the live stream are young: Most seem to be high school students looking to have some fun after class. "He Will Not Divide Us" is as much about that final pronoun as it is about the first. The future of Us is young, and it is not just white.
But how long can this on-screen utopia last? Four years is an impossibly long time for such a project to sustain itself. In all likelihood, viewers will one day stop logging onto the website. Passersby on the sidewalk will no longer hesitate and then cautiously approach when they see the words He Will Not Divide Us written on the wall. Teens will stop visiting the lot after school for impromptu dance parties.
In 2020, will anyone even remember that we once ate pizza in the snow, met strangers, and vowed in front of what felt like the whole world that we will not, absolutely not, be divided? Maybe that is the point. Maybe the real project hasn't even started yet. Maybe "We Will Not Be Divided" is about the empty spaces, the silences, the sad look of the lot at 3 a.m. or, perhaps one day, at noon.
So: Are you watching?