Casual Rambling
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Casual Rambling

What did Shia LaBeouf’s “He Will Not Divide Us” Accomplish?

Donald Trump is not the only one that divides us

from NY Daily News — James Keivom

I checked into hewillnotdivide.us once during its brief 3-week tenure on the Museum of the Moving Image to see a nonsensical scene. It was like watching a YouTube or Facebook comment section come alive. The elements immediately present were noise and dysfunction. I turned down my laptop to a safe and more manageable volume.

What struck out a minute in was what appeared to be a teenager walking around playing some inaudibly loud music that other attendees referred to as racist and hateful. The kid was extremely pale, donned with shades, a black beanie, and black sweatshirt to protect his anonymity. Those around him attempted to block him from approaching the camera. Small groups of young adults spoke amongst themselves and sparingly at the camera.

A few groups of people would approach the camera stocked with a ready-made anti-Trump chant. A few individuals delivered unorganized frantic soliloquies that could pose as desperate pleas for help and guidance.

I lasted about five minutes before I had my fill and got the gist of what I was witnessing.

He Will Not Divide Us is now defunct, shut down, by request of the museum due to becoming a, “flashpoint of violence”, according to the museum’s spokesperson.

The decision was evident after LaBeouf was arrested after getting into a fight with a protester at the site.

The installation was a piece by LaBeouf in collaboration with two other artists: Nastja Ronkko and Luke Turner.

from TMZ.com

The easy lukewarm media take on LaBeouf’s art installation is that it was a representation of what human beings will do when provided with the opportunity to be live on the internet. Doing dumb things for internet videos is a current staple of American culture.

There’s plenty of footage here for psychologists and social experimenters curious about the human condition. The prominent question being, “What is the cause of people’s obsession with being watched?”

There’s more compelling questions and arguments to broach when considering the lasting effect and impact of the installation. What may be deemed by some now as a failure aren’t seeing the bigger picture.

Was the lack of civility derived from the political nature of the piece? Common logic says of course, the political nature of the installation invites conflict because of the disagreement among constituents about the nature of President Trump. The live-streaming camera provides the attendees a sense that there’s an ever-present audience.

There’s no need to remain civil when there’s a fictionalized audience watching you on their internet stream. Fights are made for arenas, and it’s not hard to be shocked that only after three weeks He Will Not Divide Us was shut down due to fighting and security concerns. LaBeouf’s piece was the arena, and he booked himself the most notable fight due to his stature in entertainment.

While fisticuffs and violence was the concern of the museum, media outlets like Salon were more interested in the appearances of neo-Nazi sightings.

In this particular unsettling scene, a fraternity of white guys scream and parade around the exhibit drinking milk claiming the milk to be, “pure white racism.” Whether they’re to be considered neo-Nazi’s or a white supremacist frat party, I wouldn’t plan on being friends with any of those guys.

The social commentary is that through our political culture, discord and disdain exists.

He Will Not Divide Us isn’t revealing any new information to us, but rather showing us (in video) what we already know. The social media tirades we’ve seen or experienced now have a representative face.

from The Verge

As for the artistry, the livestreaming aspect of Shia’s piece is certainly not unprecedented ground.

Marina Abramovic’s, The Artist is Present, was livestreamed throughout its duration in much less controversial fashion. Abramovic’s performance piece was much more introspective and personal, and also in a controlled enviroment. The most important factor was that the camera wasn’t the subject the audience member was concerned with, the focus was on Marina and the emotional response evoked from the experience.

There’s a great ‘what if’ from another one of Abramovic’s most famous works, Rhythm 0. What if Rhythm 0 was livestreamed today?

The basis of the performance was that a table was laid out with items that could cause pain or pleasure. The table had 74 items including everything from a rose, to a chain, a knife, a mirror, all the way to a bullet and a gun. The audience was granted full control of Marina with her written approval that she would not retaliate within the 6 hours the performance lasted. The audience began passive, but eventually devolved into chaos as she was brutalized and threatened.

When the performance was over and Marina took a step toward the audience, the audience ran away.

Rhythm 0 was performed in 1974, and while there is video documentation of the event, obviously there was no way to livestream the performance. What would the effect of a livestreamed audience have on a present-day audience? Would the audience still be as destructive as the one from ’74 knowing they’re being watched by live viewers? There isn’t the same intimacy today in the internet age that there was in the 70’s. Anything you do on camera is almost always going to be public record and your identity compromised.

Being in the midst of the public eye didn’t stop any insensibilities from the He Will Not Divide Us exhibition.

When it comes to exploring human fragility in the face of a livestream, He Will Not Divide Us championed the concept through artistic symbolism via human cynicism. Therefore lies the enduring accomplishment in the artistry of the piece.

The legacy of an artistic work is almost always more important than the work itself, and the buzz created by Shia’s protest piece could generate and inspire many more livestreamed art installations in the future. The accessibility through social media and going live allows for further development and new ways to branch off of LaBeouf’s work.

The success of He Will Not Divide Us will be found in its lasting impact, not in its original intention.

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J. King

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