“Commencing at 9 a.m. 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.” So states the website for HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US, the most recent exhibition by performance artists Shia LaBeouf, Nastja Rönkkö and Luke Turner. Since its commencement last month, the project has gained much attention from the media, Internet forums and the public.
Though not their first project to stretch art’s already nearly indistinguishable boundaries, this may be LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner’s most ambitious project to date, due to its intended length. The exhibition’s website states, “Open to all, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the participatory performance will be live-streamed at www.hewillnotdivide.us continuously for four years, or the duration of the presidency.” The performance was suspended on Feb. 10, but has since reconvened in Albuquerque as of Feb. 18.
Performance art has a controversial history. Many do not see it as a legitimate form of art for many reasons, one of which claims that participatory performances are too similar to social experiments. Regardless of the accuracy of this claim, I find it important to consider what participatory performances reveal about human society. So to understand what HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US is trying to say, you must look at what is being said by the people, both as participants and as respondents to the project. Here is what I heard them say:
A call for unity: This response was the most common (though not the most vocal). Actor and rapper Jaden Smith was the first person on the livestream, and he began as instructed by the project: by repeating the words “HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US.” As others joined him, he led them out in a call-and-response. Others followed suit when Smith left, including LaBeouf. Even without a leader, many visitors murmured the mantra on their own or in groups. I found tweets and articles that shared the view that this project was a platform to demonstrate unity. Some saw this as an act of defiance to the President, others as a statement of affirmation. Regardless of the personal interpretation, many gathered to repeat the mantra and show solidarity.
A publicity stunt: LaBeouf’s Hollywood career has achieved some success, but never abundantly. For this reason, many believe that LaBeouf has taken up performance art as a bid for attention. One popular narrative is that LaBeouf is growing more out of touch with reality. Advocates for this interpretation often cite incidents from two years ago: LaBeouf abruptly left a press conference; showing up later at the premiere of Nymphomaniac wearing a paper bag with the words “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE” on it; wearing the same paper bag during the #IAMSORRY exhibition. Add to this a few arrests and scandals, not to mention his other art projects, and you’ve got your case for insanity. Under this theory, HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US is just his most recent half-baked attempt to stay relevant.
An attack on President Trump: Framed by Donald Trump’s presidency, this exhibition can feel like a four-year-long protest. For Trump supporters, the notion that a livestreamed platform to express more displeasure with Trump can be frustrating, because they think HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US is meant to undermine his presidency. Scrolling through the tweets using the #HWNDU hashtag, I found many responses that claimed LaBeouf and his “cronies” were, ironically, the real ones dividing this nation, barring any progress that President Trump might hope to accomplish. According to them, it’s just another way that “liberal snowflakes” and the “Hollywood elite” are ruining the country.
A subset of people who viewed the project as an attack responded in like manner. Individuals began arriving on site to disrupt what they saw as the intended purpose of the project. They criticized LaBeouf and democrats, held up signs, and harassed other demonstrators. One of the earliest incidents featured a man whispering “14-88” into the microphone, which are neo-Nazi code words, followed by LaBeouf blocking him from the camera’s view. Within days, more altercations with LaBeouf occurred, leading to his arrest when he allegedly attacked one such instigator.
Soon, groups from online forums such as 4chan were organizing other ways to cause problems for the art project, or commandeer the livestream for their own purposes. Methods of opposing the project included trolling other demonstrators, using the platform to soapbox alt-right opinions (a common phrase used on the livestream was “dropping red pills”), and harassing some of the frequent participants in their personal lives. The most disturbing part of this emerging culture of protestors was the presence of neo-Nazis. As mentioned before with the man who said “14-88” into the camera, there were people who used the livestream as a place to flaunt these views. Emboldened by mutual solidarity, groups of neo-Nazis gathered frequently, sometimes pouring milk on themselves in a celebration of whiteness. When the livestream was shut down by the Museum of the Moving Image due to the growing number of violent incidents, many accounts on Twitter claimed they had “defeated” LaBeouf and his challenge to the President. This, to them, was another victory of Trump’s America.
A source of entertainment: Some found the aforementioned disruptions of the performance art exhibition amusing. Many of these disruptions were done in a taunting way, often featuring dance sessions and trollish behavior. Some of these disruptions incited meltdowns from other demonstrators—including LaBeouf’s response to harassment, which led to his arrest. Because of this, each day held potential for unpredictable events to happen. On a few occasions, pizza was delivered to the site. People watching from home began viewing the livestream not as an art exhibition but as a TV show, with certain participants attaining “celebrity status.” People would ask on Twitter, “Did I miss a good episode today?” “Do you think next season will be as good as this one?” or “Will the museum cancel the show soon because of the violence?” I suspect many of these reactions are in alignment with the disruptors, because treating the project like comedy isn’t far removed from treating it with ridicule.
A participatory performance: The online description for the exhibition reads, “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.” Significant to this statement is the use of “or;” in all of LaBeouf, Rönkkö and Turner’s performance art, they emphasize the reactions of the participants, which can be seen in their use of hashtags to make the projects accessible to modern audiences. As with those projects, HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US is meant to highlight the way people respond to the project—hence the livestream. Initial reactions demonstrate the dichotomy illustrated in the quote; some saw the livestream as an opportunity to resist, and to insist that “HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US.” Some used it to show opposition, and some to show optimism. And yet, some used it to resist and oppose the project itself. Each response is valid, and contributes to a definition of what the project means. As the artists say, the exhibition is “guided by the spirit of each individual participant and the community.” So what has HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US shown us about our country?
Looking at the different responses that I outlined above, we see people who are worried about what will happen to the United States during the Trump administration, and so they want to deliver the message that they will fight against division and stand together. We see those who ignore the message of the project, focusing instead on the artist behind it. We also see those who want to obstruct a form of protest that they see as a challenge to their President’s authority, as well as those who find the whole situation as a big joke. In a way, these responses serve as a microcosm for how people are viewing the political state of our nation. What they reveal is not necessarily comforting.
To me, it says a lot about the current state of our country that there were people whose immediate response is to feel like an art exhibition is targeting their President and subversively trying to divide the nation. When the livestream was shut down they declared that “LaBeouf failed to divide us!” But I think perspectives that see the livestream’s suspension as a victory or a failure are missing the bigger message being made by the performance art. The fact that we, as U.S. citizens, could not unite in this endeavor is discouraging, because if a simple exhibition like this incites such division, then what hope is there to unite on bigger issues? You might think of this project as an experiment, asking the question “Will he divide us?” I’m afraid the answer might be “Yes.”
The livestream to LaBeouf, Rönkkö and Turner’s HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US can be viewed at hewillnotdivide.us.