Art, apes and the alt-right: when world’s collide.
In 1999, I traveled with my older brother, Steve, to London. 1999. We went through customs joking about being double agents and nuclear physicists and ha ha ha we all had a jolly good laugh, passports stamped, and welcome to Bonnie Old England! Boy what a simpler time that was, before the world grew so suspicious of… well, of all the people in it.
We made the trip to London because my brother had won a costume contest through British Air: in the build-up and buzz around the arrival of the new millennium, the year 2000, THE FUTURE, contestants were asked to dress up as a form of space travel. My brother inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey went as The Monolith: the the ominous black beings, alien machines that appear throughout history encouraging humankind to progress with technological development.
Look where that’s got us.
It was the first time in London for both of us, and we had a great time exploring the city and visiting all the monuments. But we were also looking for something a little more off the beaten path to do. So we checked Time Out, and found that we happened to be in town at the same time as the monthly meeting of the Ancient Society of Curmudgeons. That sounded fun, so we went.
We were expecting to settle into a bookshelved, fireplaced room full of grumpy old men with white beards barking at each other, sliding insults through the air with rapier wit in the way only the English can. Instead we wound up in the upstairs room of a tavern in Blackfriars, with a group of 30-something chubby, unkempt frustrated young men, who had apparently graduated from Speaker’s Corner at Hyde Park into a somewhat warmer and drier environment.
Speaker’s Corner is kind of a great thing — it’s a designated corner where anyone can get up and speak on any topic for as long as they like, as long as they’re not inciting violence or hatred. Instituted 134 years before Facebook, it’s a way to air grievances, recruit for causes and political movements, reveal conspiracies, share observations, basically shout out in all caps. Cat videos not included.
New York City doesn’t have any Speaker’s Corners. That’s because anyone can start shouting anywhere on the streets, day or night, and in certain parts of town, people often do. With no designated soap box, though, it’s impossible to tell the difference between the inspired and the insane. It’s like Reddit. In 3D. In your face.
At the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, the artists Nastja Säde Rönkkö, Luke Turner, and Shia LaBeouf — the actor Shia LaBeouf — have installed a live feed camera outside the entrance to the museum, and printed above it the words “He Will Not Divide Us.” From the installation’s website:
Commencing at 9am on January 20, 2017, the day of the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States, the public is invited to deliver the words “HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US” into a camera mounted on a wall outside the Museum of the Moving Image, New York, repeating the phrase as many times, and for as long as they wish.
Open to all, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the participatory performance will be live-streamed continuously for four years, or the duration of the presidency. In this way, the mantra “HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US” acts as a show of resistance or insistence, opposition or optimism, guided by the spirit of each individual participant and the community.
This is one of the first pieces of intentional protest art in response to the new American administration, although the artists do not call it protest art specifically — they leave it open to interpretation. The day it went live, crowds drawn by LaBeouf and some of his celebrity friends, chanted their mantra into the camera as Trump was being sworn into office, an interesting live-stream, real-time counter-act to a man who is himself a reality tv star, and who continues to pander for ratings. I wonder how many times technology voted for the new president.
The camera is mounted in a temporary wall, underneath the words He will not divide us. You walk up to the camera, say the words, and then leave… or stay, chant, do a little dance, hug your friends… sending a message of unity and hope to fellow Americans, to the world.
You can log into the live feed from your laptop or phone, provided your phone has the technology and enough memory to play the video. My phone just updated its operating system, and now I only have enough memory to do one thing, before my phone freezes up, like I’ve been granted a single wish from a curmudgeonly genie. So I have to choose wisely, and in Berlin, I choose maps.
The live feed appears on your screen in a block, so you can either watch the live feed — which, at certain times of day, is just an empty street — or you can scroll back and watch what happened over the previous 8 hours.
During the first day or two of its installation, the work was both a curiosity to be investigated and celebrated. People were pretty good-natured, complied with LaBeouf’s only rule to “be nice”, and chanted enthusiastically and peacefully. A local blogger for Buzzfeed visited the spot, excited to recognize some of the people she had been seeing on camera the previous three days, and got caught up herself in the spirit of peaceful protest, love, inclusion and general good feelings.
LaBeouf has been accused of installing this art project as a way to get attention, or at least by adding his name to draw attention to the work on behalf of his collaborators. But LaBeouf isn’t just a Hollywood celebrity who does “art” so he can feel like a real artist from time to time. LaBeouf, Ronkko and Turner have been collaborating on performance pieces since 2014. Prior to this installation, their work has mostly been focused on questions of celebrity, fame, narcissism, and technology, and the roles and effects of these things on their own generation. LaBeouf is very much a part of these projects, and a part of the group, often offering up his own position as a point for examination and potential ridicule. He’s the real deal. It’s pretty impressive.
As a group, they are dedicated and committed and funny, a sort of new generation amalgam of The Yes Men and Andy Kaufman – it’s difficult to find the line between art and comedy. Their work almost always invites public participation, is both intelligent and clever, almost every title using a hashtag, like the performance piece #metamarathon, where the artists invited the public to join them in running 140 laps around the State Museum in Amsterdam, while a symposium on metamodernism took place inside — a meta performance literally running rings around metamodernism. Or the piece #allmymovies, where the public was invited to join LeBoeuf as he watched all his movies in reverse chronological order, 24 hours a day for three days in a row, neatly referencing the iconic brainwashing scene from teen anger film A Clockwork Orange in a smart, sardonic comment on the line between self-reflection and narcissism.
The group has a focused interest in broadcasting as part of their work, often via live feed and for 24 hours, both to receive transmissions from the public to be used in performance, as well as to transmit their performance to the public.
At the Museum of the Moving Image, the public and its interaction with the camera was the basis of the work, but in the two weeks the camera has been live, the work has become more about the public and the idea of the camera itself, and the opportunities it provides.
As word got round on the internet, especially on the newsfeeds and message boards such as Reddit and 4Chan, people decided to troll LaBeouf and the work itself, knowing everything they did would be live-streamed. The lure of going live, on air, of a captive audience, of being a star even for a few minutes, has been too much to resist. It’s like Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame.
People wearing Make America Great Again hats — the uniform of Trump supporters and the badge of the alt-right — started showing up in the crowds. Young men with all kinds of pro-Trump factoids and alt-right memes, delivered with disturbingly fixed smiles plastered their baby faces. And by baby face I mean the face of a baby — most of the people who stand in front of this camera are below the age of 30.
This is of course one of the things that makes participatory performance exciting — the risk that it either creates complete chaos, or total communion with the public. But the public here have become the performance, for better or worse..
While he was still on site, the pranksters harassed LaBeouf mercilessly. There was a video that went viral on social media when a neo-nazi stepped up to the camera, was very friendly to LaBeouf “heeeey Shia” he says, and Shia is game, lets the guy throw his arm around him in brotherhood. Until the guy says “Hitler did nothing wrong”. LaBeouf pushes him away and walks off, understandably angered. Not only does LaBeouf rather obviously work towards the opposite of that, but he’s also Jewish. To the prankster’s delight, it was LaBeouf who was arrested for attacking the bystander, baldly stating to the police that the attack was unprovoked, even though he knew the camera had recorded it all.
The installation also tests the limits of free speech — something the American press is finding increasingly difficult to do, while at the same time members representing the current admin come up with facts so alternative, they have no relationship to reality. I mean, when your own government says whatever it wants into live feed news cameras, why can’t you?
Saying whatever you want was part of Trump’s campaign platform and belongs to the long laundry list of complaints his supporters have against the changing times, what Trump and his group call political correctness — you can’t speak the truth in this country anymore, said Trump on the campaign trail, which in itself is an alternative fact because: you can. What is no longer tolerated, as a sign of common decency and evolution, is bigotry and racism and sexism, anti-Semitism and hate speech.
Except, now it is again.
The museum is storing the tape — as we learned when the NYPD watched the tape about LaBeouf’s alleged assault. The camera picks up LaBeouf telling the police who arrested him to get the tape from the museum staff: “just tell them you’re the police and you want to see the tape” — I watch this and I think: see, that’s America too, the ability to speak to the police like that. Not that LaBeouf was disrespectful in tone, but that he had the freedom to, essentially, tell the cops how to do their job.
Back in London, the Curmudgeons had done their time on Speaker’s Corner, and now were members of a 300 year old society of grumpy men. But their speaker’s corner habits were still there, and during the meeting each of them stood up and ranted about the national health care system, or unemployment, or the royalists, or Tesco. I don’t think they were used to having an audience, because my brother and I were the only other people there.
At the end of their rants, they invited “anyone in the audience” — which would be me and Steve, of course — to speak, not expecting us to take them up on it. But my brother Steve is an improv star, loves public speaking and being on stage, and jumped on the opportunity to talk about something that had been bother both of us during our entire trip: the cameras.
What’s fascinating is how quickly tribes and communities have formed around this installation, protocol been established, and a routine put in place. On the one side are the kids who appreciate what LaBeouf is trying to do, support his message of unity and try to spread it through their own words to the camera as well.
On the other side are the kids who use the camera to communicate with each other, feed off each other and egg each other on to more and more hateful statements.
In the middle is the camera, the Monolith.
The protocol has become this: you walk up to the camera, say whatever you’re going to say, and if you’re done you step aside or walk away to allow others to speak their piece in relative privacy, which is bizarre logic since they’re speaking into a live-feed video being broadcast all over the world. But still. That’s what they do.
If you’re not done, you hang around on camera, scroll through your feed — Reddit, 4Chan, whatever — and you take live questions and prompts. You respond, sharing your opinions, revealing conspiracies, air your grievances, do shout-outs… still no cat videos.
The installation has become so well known now, that people who follow the threads journey to New York for the sole purpose of being on camera, again spurred on by ratings — the popularity of a news thread, of “numbers” that support or don’t support the speakers / performers. The whole thing has simply looped back to the basic principles of Facebook, only now it’s on a sidewalk in Queens.
It’s a speaker’s corner that anyone can visit, where all can be heard. Judging by its popularity, especially among the pranksters of the alt-right, it’s a channel that was desperately needed, because who travels in real time for the specific purpose of standing in front of a live-feed camera?
At night — morning over here in Berlin — the feed is disturbing. The trollers come out – they make jokes about shekels and Shabbat, advising people to sing a song about “die die die” to their exes or “just a girl you don’t like.” They pull ski masks over their heads and scream in fake Arabic in ISIS impersonations, they read passages from the Bible. They’re articulate and intelligent young men — because they’re all men — and they are hateful. And by hateful, I mean full of hate. It feels like you’re watching one of those Where Are They Now specials about the boys from Lord of the Flies.
At 4am New York time, a rowdy group of young men have the camera to themselves. Amidst Satanic singing and someone playing a plastic recorder, two young women walk up, apparently wanting to speak into the camera, but they’re understandably wary of this group of young men. They hang back. I think I hear one of the guys say they’re Trump supporters, and the girls go away.
In a brief moment of silence a guy in fatigues and a black Make America Great Again hat steps in front of the camera, clasps his hands as though in prayer, and says with a gentle smile but with sincerity, “He will not divide us… because that is not his intention.” And steps off camera again.
There are aspects of religiosity to this entire installation — on an earlier day I watched Shia LaBeouf repeat “he will not divide us” over and over, bobbing his torso like pilgrims at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. The idea of the mantra is, of course, the most simple power of language: if you repeat something often enough, you start to believe it and it becomes true. You can actually speak something into being, which I believe is what LaBeouf and his colleagues are trying to do here. It’s a direct counter-measure to the chants repeated during the campaign and even the alternative facts repeated during the early weeks of the new administration.
Traditional Jewish law dictates that the four letter name of god never be spoken — a tradition that was initially carried into Christianity and substitute forms employed: the Lord, the Holy Spirit, and the initial capped He. The idea is that the deity and the name is so awesome, that they transcend typical human reverence, reaching beyond the power of the spoken word and the ability to name. Seeing as our entire world is basically balanced on Judeo-christian structure, this basic idea of the power of a name — to speak or to avoid — has, for better or worse, seeped into our daily experience.
So the thing that bothers me about this installation, the title and the mantra, is the pronoun HE. It’s implicit that the artists mean Trump. But not naming names and attaching this pronoun to the rest of the sentence “will not divide us” infuses the whole thing with an almost divine power — like Voldemort, aka “he who shall not be named.” The Harry Potter series are a huge influence on LaBeouf’s generation, and I wonder if some of this mythology hasn’t crept into the logic here, again forgetting that this mythology works both ways. Don’t forget that the devil was an angel too. And every dragon slayer knows, if you know the name of the dragon, you own its power.
What LaBeouf’s installation has done is speak Trump’s forgotten people into existence, like a golem brought to life. Whereas before this group stayed on their smartphones, hid behind computers, anonymously terrorizing each other and the general public whenever they could, now they’re coming out, standing in front of the camera, entertaining their friends while probably, at the same time, being mercilessly ripped apart by them, showing their faces for the whole world to see.
As pre-millennial Americans, my brother and I were shocked to see cameras everywhere in London: on the Tube, in the parks, outside the public toilets, in the squares. They were so numerous that one of the tabloid dailies ran a weekly contest: they printed a CCTV capture of a random citizen, and if you could identify yourself you’d win a thousand pounds.
At the Ancient Society of Curmudgeons, this is what was bothering Steve. “You have no right to privacy and no independent agency over your own lives,” he said. “You are always being watched. Doesn’t this bother you?”
“Well,” huffed and puffed the Society, “the IRA–”
“And what’s worse is,” my brother went on, you’ve turned it into a game. But the last Irish Republican Army attack was two years ago, and the Belfast agreement has been ratified. And yet, you participate in the erosion of your own civil rights. Why is that ok?
Remember, this was 1999, when the greatest threat to the world was Y2K, the moment when all of society — too reliant on modern technology — was supposed to come crashing down because the world’s computers couldn’t handle the date rollover at the dawn of the new millennium.
At 9:30am in New York, a couple takes turns on camera. He talks about respecting the military, cops & firefighters, about how everyone is valued but Trump is our president and we have to stand behind him. Then he steps away, puts on his headphones to give his girlfriend her private moment in front of the camera too. She says she supports everything he just said, that America is diverse, that we’re raised as individuals regardless of religion or politics, we all have a right to be here, America is a welcoming place… and then she drops her voice — I don’t necessarily agree with what he said about… “ I didn’t catch the specific thing she doesn’t agree with, but the fact that she doesn’t want her boyfriend to hear is both hilarious and heartbreaking.
Someone passing by on the street yells “good morning!” Another guy suddenly thrusts his head in front of the camera and says “See that? That was just a random person showing love. If he could do that, that means you could too.”
On other days, in the early morning hours just after dawn, the camera just picks up New York City life. One morning, two cops walk down the street on their morning beat, bantering back and forth, joking in that gruff way of New York City cops, their voices lingering even after they’ve walked out of the camera’s range. The mics pick up their Queens accents, talking about coffee and the weather what they’re going to do today. It’s a beautiful little slice of New York life.
I check in on the camera again before I record this episode. See how the people who come out during the day are doing. It’s mid-morning over there, a crisp, bright sunshiny day in New York City. But the supporters aren’t there. The trolls are. The guys that usually go home at sun-up are now standing in front of the camera in their Make America Great Again hats. They’re no longer hiding in the shadows, but have come out into the light, talking their tough talk, and scaring away anyone else who comes up to use the camera too.
In the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, the monolith first appears to a community of apes, already split into two tribes. The appearance of the monolith enlightens them, inspires them to look at their environment in a new way: dried bones, sticks and stones are suddenly tools that can be used to dig or hammer, to scoop out bowls or build shelter, or to beat each other and scoop out graves. But they all start out with the same tools.
By the end of our trip to London, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had killed 15 students at Columbine High School. And a year and a half later, American’s civil rights and liberties were systematically stripped under the Patriot Act and Homeland Security in the aftermath of 9/11. And only 2 years after that, we had the technology to have video chats on our computers. By 2006, half the world’s mobile phones had built-in cameras. And an entire generation of kids grew up on and performing for the camera: from first steps to first selfies, first pimples and periods, first time getting high or drunk with friends, first gang rape, first suicide, first murder. When there are cameras everywhere, everyone is a reality TV star, but there never seems to be a reality TV hero.
It will be interesting to see what’s happening in a month from now, in a year. In four years — the duration of the project. It will be interesting to see if the camera goes from being a tool for communication to a window onto America. [Ed: it only lasted three weeks!]
For now, the trolls have taken over — as they have been doing with everything in their quest to destroy anything that’s remotely beautiful. I find this so confusing — don’t they get it? Don’t they know? Don’t they understand that the music they listen to, the movies they watch, even the dumb hats they wear were created by actual people — composed by someone, written by someone, even designed by someone. Even the technology they’re so loyal to — these things didn’t just get spoken into existence. They had to be invented, created, by real people, humans that were inspired and motivated by the world around them — why would you want to destroy that? And don’t they understand that by being on this camera, they are art, too?
I visit hewillnotdivide.us – the installation’s website. Morning in New York. A young African American girl stands in front of the camera, scrolling through her newsfeed on her phone, I guess deciding which thread she’ll respond to. She has a large rolled canvas tucked under her arm. Eventually she unfurls a painting of Shia LaBeouf, at least the upper half of his face. She holds it up to the camera. It’s a good painting. The girl has talent. The face is painted in a modernized cubism, although possibly more influenced by Chuck Close. LaBeouf’s hair and cap are rendered in illustration — a mix of anime and R. Crumb. The eyes are expressive, full of concern and pain, possibly compassion. It’s a nice painting. I hope a lot of people got to see it and not just me.
In the background, here comes the girlfriend from the other day, weirdly, — people camp out, it’s now their place to be. The girlfriend heads to the museum building and parks herself against the wall, waits her turn for the camera.. The artist girl rolls the painting up, and goes back to her phone.
The artist girl is so wrapped up at staring at the screen on her phone, she seems to have forgotten she’s on MY screen, on camera on a live feed to anywhere in the world. It’s an interesting performance of privacy, actually. The girl in the background has spread a blanket on the winter ground, she’s putting Chapstick on her lips. A car drives by. There is the slight movement of everyday life all around, but the girl herself is still as a statue. It’s just her and her phone, her head down, her hoodie obscuring everything but her mouth.
Here comes someone else who walks right up to the camera for the purpose of taking a picture of it. At the same time, the artist girl finally moves, tucks the rolled painting under arm and turns away, heads to the museum building and takes her own place in this strange holding area, about 10 feet from the girlfriend, neither acknowledging nor interacting with her. He may not divide us, but no one seems to be uniting much either.
The newest visitor walks away,down the sidewalk and disappears. The artist girl parks her backpack, puts on a third coat over her other two, and while she’s navigating the sleeves of it, the girlfriend takes a few hesitant steps away from her blanket and towards the camera. She keeps an eye on the artist girl to see if she’s going to stay put. She is. Girlfriend’s pace becomes a bit more sure and she walks along the museum sign and then drifts over towards the camera, looking into the distance or down, hands in pockets, as though she’s not really coming over here to speak, she’s just taking a walk that happens to be headed this way. Oh here she is, arrived. Hello, girlfriend from the other day.
He Will Not Divide Us can be visited and participated in at the Museum of the Moving Image, 36-01 35th Ave in Queens, New York. Or you can watch online at www.hewillnotdivide.us, available now until the year 2020, or the end of the Trump presidency, whichever comes first.
Brought to you by Susie Kahlich from Artipoeus