Neutrality, narratives and neo-Nazis: Examining HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US by LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner
How false narratives and claims of institutional neutrality undermined an artwork and put the artists and participants at risk.
On January 20th, 2018 the social media accounts of the art collective LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner shared an image using the hashtag #MuseumsAreNotNeutral, a campaign and hashtag created in August 2017 by LaTanya Autry and Mike Murawski. The image is a projection of black block letters that read, “He Will Not Divide Us” which illuminate the facade of the Museum of the Moving Image (MOMI) in Astoria, Queens. The projection “effectively dwarfed the museum’s name on the ground floor entrance with the project’s mantra” (Dell’Aria, 2019) and serves as a bold reminder of MOMI’s abandonment of the ongoing durational artwork HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US, and the effects of the museum’s misguided and hypocritical attempts to maintain the myth of institutional neutrality. As described by Dell’Aria, “this temporary occupation of the museum’s façade was a form of protest and institutional critique that reminded viewers both on site and online of the institution’s failure to support the project”.
In claiming neutrality and refusing to take a stance against misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and obscene speech and behavior taking place on the museum grounds, the museum failed to maintain many of core standards of museums as defined by the American Alliance of Museums , specifically those falling under the heading of Public Trust and Accountability. Even well before the museum abandoned the artists and removed the installation on February 10, 2017, MOMI’s decision to remain neutral had already resulted in the desertion and alienation of current and potential participants and audiences, specifically those who were the targets of hate speech, harassment and physical threats. Furthermore, despite the museum’s claims of neutrality, their actions and decisions demonstrate quite the opposite. Their complicity empowered the egregious behavior, sabotaged the project, and undermined the intention of the artists. In a time when we are asking institutions to reflect on neutrality, the events surrounding this artwork present a cautionary example of the danger of using neutrality as an excuse for maintaining a status-quo that promotes systematic oppression, especially when institutions are given the opportunity to empower and support artists and audiences who seek to challenge this existing state of affairs.
The artwork HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US was created by the art collective LaBeouf, Rönkko & Turner who have been collaborating since 2014. The practice of these three artists, Shia LaBeouf, Nastja Säde Rönkkö and Luke Turner, explores connection, community, empathy, emotion and humanity through participatory projects that exist in both digital and physical space. Commencing on January 20, 2017 the participatory project invited the public to deliver the words “He will not divide us” into a camera that was mounted on a wall in an outside courtyard of MOMI. The mantra was painted on the wall above the camera in bold black letters and a placard to the left described the artwork. This open, outdoor format welcomed participation by all, 24/7 for the duration of the presidency. The livestream was viewed around the world and provided a catalyst for connection on various social media platforms by the audience and the participants through a unifying and shared experience.
According to the website (www.hewillnotdivide.us), the mantra of “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”. Early on there was a spirit of optimism and enthusiasm, with large crowds chanting, singing and dancing. The inspiration, unity and hope surrounding the project was noted in multiple articles and on social media. As was also expected, the space welcomed constructive debate, with different viewpoints being presented productively, thus addressing the artwork’s intention of resisting division through connection and conversation. Word of the project quickly spread via social media and news platforms, which unfortunately, and perhaps at times intentionally, misrepresented the artwork. More often than not it was incorrectly identified as an anti-Trump protest by actor Shia LaBeouf.
The false narrative that this project was a protest against Trump by a Hollywood celebrity spread virally and internet forums such as 4chan/pol and r/thedonald organized an online campaign to disrupt what was incorrectly represented as a partisan statement against Donald Trump. Individuals began appearing on the stream with confusing, disruptive and at times, hostile behavior. Signalling others familiar with the inside “jokes”, memes and internal culture of the online forums, they engaged in offensive and threatening conduct that was directed towards many of the participants. An online component encouraged them and engaged in virtual harassment campaigns against many of the participants,which resulted in several members of the public being threatened and even doxed (personal details such as home address, workplace, cell phone number being released widely to the public). This type of hate and harassment is often incorrectly defended as ironic and harmless, but as scholar Whitney Phillips points out, claims of ironic trolling and “just joking” defenses are extremely dangerous because the speech and actions are still taking place and are harmful regardless of the claimed intent, “it’s as if the intentionality behind a hateful utterance takes away from the fact that a hateful utterance was hateful” (Green, 2016). These claims of ironic harmless trolling have been invalidated on several occasions where the calls for violence have proven sincere, as evidenced by this case, and the events in Charlottesville. Despite the “trolling” defense of those committing the harassment and calls for violence, the truth is that the artists and participants have been, and continue to be attacked and threatened by white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other hate groups who attempt to hide behind the false irony of internet trolling behavior.
The presence of differing opinions was always a welcome part of the work, however threatening and harassing behavior directed at marginalized and minority groups was certainly not, and, had the installation been inside the building it is hard to imagine that any such behavior would have been tolerated by the institution. Despite the fact that the exhibit was on the museum grounds, and thus in the museum space, MOMI seemed to view the grounds of the exhibit as a more accepting space for inappropriate behavior. Attempts by the artists onsite and other participants to protect those being targeted were only met with renewed vigor by those conducting the harassing campaigns. The artists and the museum both recognized that the pervasive presence of threatening and hateful speech and behavior needed to be addressed. A statement by the museum in the first week attempts to address the false media narrative and addresses the incidents of hate speech, stating that “as an institution devoted to inclusion and diversity, and as a site for everyone, the Museum condemns hate speech in all its forms”. However, despite this proclamation by the museum, artist Luke Turner notes that the museum failed to respond positively to their request that the museum place signage on the site that would address the use of hate speech and provide the number for the statewide hotline to report discrimination and bias. The artists also expressed concern that NYC obscenity laws were being broken on the site of the installation. The museum responded by countering that such signage would force the museum to make choices about what officially constitutes hate speech, stating that “the museum is not in a position to say what is and isn’t hate speech and what one is allowed or obligated to do” (Bernstein, 2017). This claim of neutrality and inaction not only allowed, but empowered those attacking the participants and the project, and further disenfranchised anyone unwilling to expose themselves and their families to the vitriol.
The museum sent a conflicting message, claiming to condemn hate speech in the statement, but at the same time refusing to work with the artists to take any action against it. Despite what appeared to be an understanding of the intention of the project and support of the artists, the museum began making decisions in the name of neutrality that put the participants at risk, undermined the artists and changed the trajectory of the project. While the museum acknowledges that the project was being misrepresented in the media, no effort appears to have been made by the museum in the articles and interviews to change that narrative (the majority of the articles and videos about this project contain inaccuracies and blatant lies). In an egregiously poor decision, the museum allowed council member Jimmy Van Bramer, an museum ex-officio Board member, to hold a partisan political rally on the site of the installation, further pushing the false narrative that the project was an anti-Trump protest. The image of the artwork was used to advertise the rally, the space of the installation was co-opted, and the artist’s live-stream pirated on Van Bramer’s Facebook page without the artists’ knowledge or permission and neither the event nor Van Bramer’s website mention or credit the artists. It is hard not to notice the hypocrisy involved in MOMI deflecting its responsibility to keep the installation safe and accessible to all under the guise of neutrality and then turning around and undermining the artists by allowing one of its Board members to put on a partisan display that co-opted a non-partisan performance piece without attribution.
The communication between the artists and the museum eroded as the proposed solutions and compromises presented by the museum were not tenable and altered the intention and integrity of the artwork. Subverting the project’s intent, the museum erected gates and limited the number of participants and length of participations, without consulting or notifying the artists. The artists received an insistence from the museum’s lawyer that the camera be moved into a small hidden area behind a door, which would obviously have changed the artwork dramatically. The fact that an institution ceased support and then attempted to drastically change the nature of an artwork is quite alarming. Also alarming is that the artists report that the museum refused to respond to emails or requests to meet with the museum and instead, removed the installation without notifying them. The artists were made aware of the museum’s decision to abandon the project only after the camera had been removed (and damaged in the process) and the wall with the wording had been painted over. Not only did the museum compromise and attempt to change the nature and intent of the installation, but it damaged and destroyed the work of the artists. In a systematic look at the participation at the Queen’s location, Dell’Aria notes that “MoMI’s abrupt termination of the project (in the artists’ terms ‘abandonment’) sets a disturbing precedent for allowing online harassment to stifle art exhibition.”
The museum’s stated reason for shutting the project down was public safety, citing the surrounding community’s concerns, but also claiming “multiple arrests” when NYPD confirms there was only one arrest on the grounds (Tempey, 2017). The artists report that they were only made aware of one actual complaint, which was a noise complaint during the first weekend, and they met with that person to address the concerns. In the statement describing the decision to end the project, the museum highlights the arrest of one of the artists as a reason for the site becoming a “flashpoint for violence”. They neglect however to indicate that the misdemeanor arrest happened as the artist was attempting to protect the participants from someone claiming to be an ISIS bomber (Cliff, 2018). Furthermore, the charges were dropped due to insufficient evidence that a crime took place at the outdoor art installation (Goff, 2017). The bias in their statement further incited those who believed the falsehoods regarding the events and that, along with the political rally, further empowered the detractors, which included members of ADL and SPLC-specified hate groups such as Identity Evropa who appeared on the stream chanting “You will not replace us”, a chant that later became more widely known when tiki-torch waving neo-Nazis chanted it while marching in Charlottesville in August 2017.
The artists’ response appeared on the stream, white letters on a black ground stating “The Museum Has Abandoned Us” further explaining via their social media that the MOMI had abandoned the project, but “the artists, however, have not”. A statement by the artists on February 18th described the abandonment in more detail and announced the project’s move. The events following the abandonment of the project can be seen as a direct result of the museum’s unwillingness to take a stand. In an interview, Turner speaks about the museum’s decision to claim neutrality, “their refusal to take a stand is really grotesque and horrifying. They extricate themselves, tried to absolve themselves of any responsibility. Then we as artists became targeted; the work became targeted” (Cliff, 2018).
After the Museum of the Moving Image abandoned the project, it was relocated to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where both the project and the participants continued to be harassed and targeted. The camera was vandalized and participants were harassed. There were threats of physical violence, including vehicle attacks by far-right extremists, which once again, put the artists and the participants in danger (Shaw, 2017). The artists then changed the format of the work as the attacks and threats clearly illustrated it could not continue in its open camera format safely.
The new format appeared as a flag with the slogan “He Will Not Divide Us” appearing on the stream. The location was not disclosed and it is obvious that after the many incidents that had already taken place against the project, the artists and the participants, a precautionary measure was being taken in this decision. That the project continued demonstrated the artists’ commitment to a call to resist the normalization of division, despite being attacked by the very people who encourage separation and thrive on divisiveness. An article announcing the new format states, “in tumultuous times like these, it’s encouraging to see that art finds a way to exist and artists finds way to create, even when their work and message are under attack” (Gore, 2017). Unfortunately, many people continued to seek ways to keep the art from existing, and the flag was located and stolen by members of the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker Party (Cafolia, 2017)
The events surrounding the theft of the flag have largely been either ignored or misrepresented by the media, painting the perpetrators as harmless trolls and even calling the events heroic or impressive. This type of amplification of these individuals is addressed in “The Oxygen of Amplification”, an informative report that addresses the problems and risks of reporting on these individuals in a such a way as to end up propagating extremist ideology (Phillips, 2018). While many choose to dismiss the theft of the flag as a joke, the truth is that individuals were once again threatened and harassed for the support of a non-partisan art project; subjected to trespass, theft and arson. People’s lives were put in danger by those who would hide behind claims of irony and trolling, but as Turner states, “people don’t realize that a troll is one thing and a neo-Nazi is another thing. You can be a troll and a neo-Nazi. It doesn’t make you any less of a neo-Nazi” (Cliff, 2017).
The fact that neo-Nazis, white nationalist and antisemites have been attacking the project since its inception has been largely and perhaps intentionally ignored by the media, despite the fact that the artists have spoken out about this on several occasions. While Charlottesville was a wake up call to many who were unaware of how these groups were organizing and how the hate propaganda was being spread, those familiar with events around HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US saw what had been feared; actual violence involving the same parties who participated in earlier attacks on the project (Shaw, 2017). Many of the names and faces that have appeared on the stream, posted in the forums, spoken about it on social media and called for the harassment of both the artists and the participants are familiar to those who study the alt-right and extremist groups.
The false narrative of the intention of the project and the details surrounding many of the events continued, and still continue to thrive on YouTube, in online-forums and in the media. When the flag was moved overseas the attacks did not cease. When the artists took part in a new and unrelated project, #ALONETOGETHER, they were threatened with violence, and the online participants were also harassed. Fortunately, Kiasma, the sponsoring institution, unlike MOMI, took these threats seriously and provided the necessary measures to maintain safety while providing support for the performance.
The failure of MOMI to take a stand and provide the necessary measures to maintain safety started a series of events that put more people in danger and empowered the voices of those who weaponize free speech to spread their messages of hate. The artists were compelled to move HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US out of the United States as it became clear that the myth of institutional neutrality within the U.S. prevented institutions from embracing the political (not partisan) nature of this piece, which calls to oppose the very status-quo that the myth of neutrality seeks to protect. Fortunately, several international museums have bravely sponsored the project, responsibly dealing with serious threats that have ranged from harassing emails to flaming drones. The project currently resides as a flag atop Le lieu unique in Nantes, France and at Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, Poland as a live-streaming camera as part of the exhibition “Peer-to-Peer. Collective Practices in New Art”. It is clear by the resilience shown by Le lieu unique and through watching the current live-stream that safety and security measures have been put in place and that the museums, in inviting the work, recognize the responsibility in providing the resources and support for this important artwork.
Discussions on institutional neutrality often devolve into an argument that we must allow for a “differing of opinions”. This egregiously neglects to acknowledge the fact that the ideologies that threaten and dehumanize a group of people are most certainly not divergent opinions, but rather threatening and violent ideas. It is irresponsible and certainly not neutral to accept the abhorrent ideology of those wishing to harm or eliminate groups of people based on ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and gender as a harmless differing of opinion. Institutions, like museums and libraries, along with organizers of conferences, festivals, and exhibitions must recognize their complicity in providing a platform for those who conduct, condone or support the behaviors of these groups in the name of neutrality.
Allowing the presence of white supremacists and the continued harassment of minorities and marginalized populations on the physical grounds of the museum obviously prevented many interested parties from participating in the project, and thus was not a neutral choice. Neutrality is often erroneously used as an excuse to maintain the status quo, choosing the oppressor over the oppressed by giving a voice to those who would seek to not only suppress, but also destroy the voices of marginalized populations. The museum, in claiming neutrality, was allowing those who deny the humanity and dignity of others to spread their hate. In providing a platform for the voices of individuals representing hate groups who align themselves with genocidal ideologies to drown out and threaten the voices of others, the museum was complicit in the silencing of the very same diverse groups of people and communities they purport to serve.
Much of what has been written about this project defines it as protest art, and in the discussions surrounding institutional neutrality we are rightly seeing calls for museums to embrace protest art and speak out on social and political issues. However, in the case of HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US, I would argue that reading the ideas of resistance and insistence as protest incorrectly simplifies a much more complex call to address the normalization of division. Defining the artwork as protest art actually seems to misrepresent the artists’ motives, presenting it as more partisan than the actual intent. The museum’s insistence on claiming neutrality while hypocritically working against supporting the artwork and its resistance to division resulted in further misleading the public as to the nature of the project. If one insists on seeing this artwork as a protest against anything then it should be held up as an example of the importance of continuing to protest the myth that museums are, can, or should be neutral.
In talking about MOMI’s decision to abandon the project rather than attempt to find solutions to make it work, Jusino (2017) states, “Now is not the time for art institutions to become cowardly. We need them to be brave”. Using neutrality as an excuse for inaction is not a brave choice. Embracing art that seeks to resist division, connect people in positive ways and address the fracturing of community and cultures is not only courageous, but necessary. Fortunately there are museums willing to take a stand, eschew the myth of neutrality and take on this significant work. In doing so, these institutions acknowledge and support the project’s message of unwavering resistance, confirming Turner’s statement of optimism, “that the work will endure, no matter what, speaks of the power of art to embody and facilitate hope”.
Updated 1/20/2019 to include Dell’Aria (2019) article which is a highly recommended systematic look at the participation on the site and the museum’s response.
Bernstein, J. (2017). The public square belongs to 4chan. BuzzFeed News. Retrieved from https://www.buzzfeed.com/josephbernstein/the-public-square-belongs-to-4chan?utm_term=.gp3p5zNxK#.bi9AJZlOx
Cafolia, A. (2017). LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner name neo-Nazis who stole their art. Dazed. Retrieved from http://www.dazeddigital.com/art-photography/article/38303/1/shia-labeouf-ronkko-turner-name-neo-nazis-who-stole-their-art
Cliff, A. (2018) Shia LaBeouf, Nastja Säde Rönkkö and Luke Turner get radically open. Dazed. Retrieved from http://www.dazeddigital.com/art-photography/article/39239/1/shia-labeouf-nastja-sade-ronkko-luke-turner-interview-take-me-anywhere
Dell’Aria, A. (2019) From rallying cry to dysfunctional site: surveying participation in HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US. International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media, https://doi.org/10.1080/14794713.2019.1565509
Goff, L. (2017). Charges dropped against LaBeouf in anti-Trump scuffle. Queens Gazette. Retrieved from http://www.qgazette.com/news/2017-04-05/Features/Charges_Dropped_Against_LaBeouf_In_AntiTrump_Scuff.html
Gore, S. (2017). LaBeouf, Rönkkö, and Turner’s “He Will Not Divide Us” returns at secret location. Retrieved from https://nylon.com/articles/he-will-not-divide-us-secret-location
Green, E. (2016). Make trolling great again. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/09/make-trolling-great-again/499523/
Jusino, T. (2017). Museum of the Moving Image removes Shia LaBeouf’s He Will Not Divide Us installation…for safety. The Mary Sue. Retrieved June 4, 2018, from https://www.themarysue.com/momi-removes-he-will-not-divide-us/
Phillips, W. (2018). The oxygen of amplification: Better practices for reporting on extremists, antagonists, and manipulators. Data & Society Research Institute. Retrieved from https://datasociety.net/output/oxygen-of-amplification/
Shaw, A. (2017). LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner’s anti-Trump work adopted in Nantes. The Art Newspaper. Retrieved from https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/labeouf-ronkko-and-turners-anti-trump-work-adopted-in-nantes
Tempey, N. (2017). Okay, maybe he will divide us: Shia LaBeouf’s anti-Trump livestream shut down for “public safety”. Gothamist. Retrieved from http://gothamist.com/2017/02/10/divided_shia.php
Statements from the artists via email and Skype correspondence.