Artistic Differences

Artistic Differences

(via hewillnotdivide.us)

As a piece of political art, “He Will Not Divide Us” started out anodyne enough. On January 20, the day of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the artistic team LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner—which includes the child star turned action hero turned performance artist Shia LaBeouf and his collaborators Nastja Säde Rönkkö and Luke Turner—unveiled a livestreaming webcam embedded in a wall outside the Museum of the Moving Image, in Queens, New York. “He Will Not Divide Us” was written above the camera in big block letters, and visitors were invited to repeat the phrase, mantra-like, into the lens. The footage would be streamed online, at hewillnotdivide.us, continuously for four years, until the end of Trump’s first term.

If you’ve heard anything about “He Will Not Divide Us,” you’ve probably heard that LaBeouf got arrested, about a week after it opened, for getting into a scuffle with one of the pro-Trump agitators who flocked to the piece. Maybe you’ve seen the video of the altercation (he had a few) that apparently led to the arrest: a man asks for a selfie, but then says “Hitler did nothing wrong,” and LaBeouf shoves him and walks away. Or perhaps you’ve seen the video of LaBeouf being handcuffed as people continue to chant “He will not divide us” cultishly, looking doped out but intent, as he’s led to the cop car.

On February 10, three weeks after it was turned on, the camera went dark. The museum released a statement saying that the installation had “created a serious and ongoing public safety hazard.” A number of arrests and threats, which had led to around-the-clock police presence, the statement continued, contributed to the decision. The artists released their own statement, blaming the museum, without much explanation, for its “misleading framing of our piece as a political rally, rather than as a participatory performance artwork resisting the normalisation of division.” The project, they announced, would be moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico. This turned out to be the first of three moves that preceded the artwork’s sputtering and apparently final shutdown, on March 22.

“He Will Not Divide Us” posited that Americans just needed to come together and recognize the ultimate superficiality of their political differences in order to discover unity. Instead, it took mere days for the piece to become a petri dish of division, growing into both a target for Trump’s most trollish supporters and an object of devotion for his most unmoored opponents. In the course of its slow and spectacular implosion, “He Will Not Divide Us” inadvertently became a much more interesting piece of art—precisely by demonstrating the limits of empty calls for unity.

 

I visited the installation while it was in the gray-gravel lot behind the Museum of the Moving Image on a freezing winter morning this past January. Chants of “He will not divide us” were audible from a block away, swinging along with the sing-song cadence of a military Jody call.

The lot was cordoned off by metal crowd-control barriers, with a museum employee stationed at each entrance. About a dozen people were milling around inside—a relatively slow day after a rowdy week. There was a mood of dervish-like surrender among the chanters as the call and response went on and on—ten minutes, fifteen minutes, twenty, and longer. It would continue until someone, usually a man, approached the camera because he had something to say. “Alternative facts,” one of them said, grasping a Starbuck’s iced coffee by the lid. “There’s no such thing.” Another, addressing Trump, said, “Just apologize to the world. That’s all you gotta do.” Sometimes the speakers would form a slow-moving eddy around the camera, tag-teaming their insights until, depleted, one of them would start chanting “He will not divide us” for another spell.

One young woman had come alone from Massachusetts because she wanted to “be with people who feel the same” about the political situation. (She hadn’t heard about the large protests against Trump’s travel ban happening in Manhattan that day.) A man had travelled from upstate New York with a graph of unemployment rates since 1982, which he held up to the camera in hopes of educating viewers. A couple who lived nearby, in Astoria, were regulars—he’d visited five times since the piece opened and she’d been there four times. (Nobody I talked to was particularly a fan of LaBeouf.) The man from Astoria had earlier pointed out to the camera that “It doesn’t say ‘Trump will not divide us.’ ‘He’ could be anybody.” He said he came because he disagreed with Trump and he was tired of political leaders “injecting hate and fear into the people.” The installation showed that “We can work on things together,” he said. “White, hispanic, black, Asian. We have to work on everything together.”

As we spoke, the guy with the Starbuck’s cup lectured to the camera about why Trump’s wall wouldn’t work. The Astoria man would sometimes lose his train of thought, watching him hold forth. “That guy is so . . . ” he shook his head, searching for the word. “Opinionated.”

Meanwhile, a small group formed outside the barrier—Trump supporters whom the museum employees wouldn’t allow inside. The barriers were erected after the site had become chaotic the week before. You could see it on the stream: mayhem as people, speaking in the densely allusive lingo of right-wing internet trolls, leaned into the camera to invoke the meme god Kek or to chant “make America great again,” while the true believers, surrounding them, either tried to engage them with lamb-eyed earnestness or shouted “Fuck off, Nazi” repeatedly in their faces. The original artists’ statement called the piece an experiment in “resistance or insistence, opposition or optimism, guided by the spirit of each individual participant and the community.” Perhaps they didn’t anticipate that some of those participants might not approach the project in a spirit of good faith, or that some of them might be neo-Nazis. Regardless, museum security guards and the police began to intervene, and then the barriers went up.

Most vocal among the exiles was a man in a camo-print hat who goes by the name Baked Alaska. A Trump supporter and a right-wing internet celebrity, he’d come from California to be on the camera (it had become the big event of the moment in certain corners of the internet). But, having been banned, he seemed to relish the opportunity to point out the irony that “He Will Not Divide Us” had put up a fence. Over the barrier, Baked Alaska and the people inside debated a litany of incendiary topics: Richard Spencer, Nazism, Pizzagate, refugees, terrorism, pedophilia, and the relative perfidy of various media outlets. Facts were sparse, as Baked Alaska touted arguments and theories that you might find on conspiracy-minded “alt-right” websites, and those inside reeled with incredulity at his outrageous statements, but struggled to counter them. They had a brief argument about who, between the two sides, had taken the red pill and who was still stuck in the Matrix.

Through all this, Baked Alaska would occasionally draw everyone’s attention to how great it was that they could talk to each other despite their differing views. This was something everyone could agree on with enthusiasm. Those inside seemed to see it as evidence for the unbreakable unity trumpeted by the slogan they’d been chanting. Those outside smirked at the acknowledgement that they were not the problem.

There was a young man standing near Baked Alaska who was dressed like he’d stepped out of a movie from the 1940s: a shearling bomber jacket, wire-framed glasses, and hair slicked down to one side. He was boyish and very polite. I asked about his politics, and he started by saying, “I don’t believe we should have an all-white country, but I am a Western cultural chauvinist.” Hours later, on the livestream, he was shouting “Remove the roaches!”

 

Many of the antagonists that plagued “He Will Not Divide Us” came from the cultural stew of the Politically Incorrect, or /pol/, message board on the website 4Chan, which serves as a home base for online trolls and shitposters—people who purposely provoke, confuse, and offend, and are equal parts villain and twerp. 4Chan users hacked Trayvon Martin’s email account after his death and were behind the misogynistic harassment campaign Gamergate. The site was also responsible for co-opting the cartoon Pepe the Frog as a semi-ironic icon of white nationalism, which led to the frog being condemned as a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League during the 2016 election. A principal tenor of /pol/ is disdain for uninitiated normies, do-gooder S.J.W.s (social-justice warriors), libtards, and anyone else they deem too naïve or optimistic; 4Chan trolls like to dance the thin line between being neo-Nazis and acting like neo-Nazis just to ridicule those they manage to dupe. Trump was /pol/’s chosen candidate as much for the nihilistic “lulz” his victory would inspire as for his politics.

Almost as soon as “He Will Not Divide Us” opened, /pol/ identified it as a target and started plotting ways to disrupt it. At its most anarchic moments, “HWNDU” (pronounced “Whindoo,” as it came to be known in 4Chan circles) was like a /pol/ thread come to life. It’s little wonder that the piece—a feel-good, political art installation, open to the public, by a Hollywood star known for getting too big for his artistic britches—attracted the aggressive cynicism of the trolls. It’s more surprising that the piece attracted as many devotees as it did—people who would show up whether LaBeouf was there or not, stay for hours, and deliver heartfelt speeches or chant endlessly into the camera no matter what chaos was unfolding around them. Maybe they were just there to be on camera. Or maybe they got caught up in the high-stakes politics of the Trump era and weren’t aware of any better outlet for their anxieties.

 

When the camera went live in Albuquerque, on an exterior wall of the El Rey Theater, on February 18, LaBeouf was standing to the side and a crowd had gathered around, many of them with their hands folded and heads bowed. A woman standing front and center started repeating “he will not divide us,” taking long pauses and sometimes closing her eyes. Eventually it turned into a group chant, which went on for more than an hour. The mood fluctuated between meditative, exuberant, and belligerent; a sort of communal joy arose even as the words, through repetition, lost their meaning and crumbled into a fine dust of arbitrary syllables.

Around the time of the Albuquerque opening, someone tweeted at Luke Turner (one of LaBeouf’s collaborators), “Who is the us? Most Us creates a Them.”

He replied, “US is everybody. Speaking of US does *not* mean there’s an external THEM. The work is a resistance to division, by all, for all.”

“Not too be too much of a pain,” the same user replied, “but if US is all of us with no them, then there appears to be no need for the art or message.”

“I beg to differ,” Turner responded.

Someone else asked, “Would you say he is one of us, then? Respectfully.” Turner did not reply.

The atmosphere in Albuquerque was more subdued than it had been in Queens. Some 4Channers showed up, but nobody seemed to mind much. One day, a man flashed a gun and the people around him just laughed uncomfortably. The Albuquerque Journal ran an article with the headline “United by art: Participants at LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner installation find common ground.” Nevertheless, the installation was vandalized with spray paint a couple of days after opening, and the camera was taken down a few days later, after gunshots were reported in the area.

On March 8, the artists, abandoning the idea of a public webcam, raised a white flag, emblazoned with the words “He Will Not Divide Us,” in an “unknown location.” The livestream showed only the flag and the expanse of sky behind it. 4Chan and 8Chan (the forum where discussions that are banned from 4Chan go) snapped into action. The users discovered that LaBeouf had appeared on the Instagram account of a coffee shop in the small town of Greeneville, Tennessee. They used the star patterns visible behind the flag at night and the paths of planes flying overhead to confirm the location. A troll who lived nearby drove around honking until the noise was audible on the livestream. On the night of March 10, a group raided the site, took down the flag, and replaced it with a Pepe the Frog T-shirt and a “Make America Great Again” hat. The stream soon went dark again.

On March 22, the artists announced that the flag and camera were being moved to the roof of an art museum in Liverpool, England. Their statement said, “Events have shown that America is simply not safe enough for this artwork to exist.”

The trolls rallied and took the flag down within twenty-four hours. The stream went down again, and as of press time, it’s still dead. At hewillnotdivide.us, text on a blank video player reads “Waiting for the event to go live . . . ”


Andrea DenHoed is a web copy editor at the New Yorker and the managing editor of Guernica magazine.