art, politics, and memes: he will not divide us
Written by Reuben Diaz, Staff Writer
The following is the second in a series titled Art, Politics, and Memes, which seeks to bring both the author and the reader to a deeper level of understanding in all of the aforementioned fields. You can read the mission statement here.
Since the Trump election, we’ve seen lots of protests (and counter-protests) ranging from wildly successful to heartbreakingly misguided. Today, I’d like to look at Shia LaBeouf's He Will Not Divide Us and analyze its failure, both as a work of art and as a rebuke of reactionary politics.
For those not yet familiar with Shia Labeouf, he’s an actor best known for his roles in the Transformers films and his status as a longstanding internet meme. Recently, he teamed up with New York’s Museum of the Moving Image, with the ambitious goal of livestreaming a continuous, four-year-long protest of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Initially, the project received excellent public reception (including a surprise visit by Jaden Smith), but by the first night of the livestream, a handful of trolls showed up in front of the camera and started spouting off memes from 4chan’s /pol/.
Gradually, this became a pattern. During the day, LaBeouf and his supporters would protest, interrupted by the occasional channer making holocaust jokes. At night, the protesters would disperse, and the /pol/iticians would come out to put on a roman-salute-based theatre-of-the-absurd act, inviting onlookers to guess, “Are they actually fascists?”
The shouts of “white power” drew (justifiable) backlash from those attending to protest racism. A handful of altercations broke out, including one initiated by LaBeouf himself. It was at this point that one anon declared: “Consequences will never be the same.” The trolling intensified.
After several more visits from the pseudo-nazis, LaBeouf broke down and assaulted a man who was attending to “show his solidarity.” LaBeouf was later arrested.
Post-arrest, the day/night division more or less disintegrated, and the in-real-life-shitposters took over the event. Many conservative commentators, including Steven Crowder also made appearances. At this point, the project faced three distinct antagonist-groups: actual nazis (who are few, if any) fake nazis (who only put on the armband to offend), and political commentators (who have no ties to the alt-right).
As a response to the increased presence of detractors, the Museum of the Moving Image withdrew its support of the project. On Feb. 10, the livestream transitioned to the following image:
HWNDU 2: Electric Boogaloo
In spite (or perhaps because) of all the negative attention, He Will Not Divide Us drew a steady and committed viewership. So, rather than shut the stream down completely, LaBeouf elected to continue the project himself. A new location was chosen in New Mexico, where another camera was made available to the public.
Much like the one in New York, the New Mexico stream was rapidly hijacked by kek-praising pranksters. However, where the first event ended in a bout of punching, the second ended with firearm-brandishing and off-camera gunshots.
The stream was subsequently closed, due to public safety concerns.
Capture The Flag
Following the closure of his second stream, LaBeouf elected to change tactics – he made a white flag (we’ll ignore how on-the-nose this is) with “He Will Not Divide Us” written on it in black type, and hung it in an undisclosed location. A camera was aimed up at it, so that no landmarks were visible. At this point, a handful of the weaker-willed trolls declared the raid dead.
This, however, was not the end – a handful of threads went up on /pol/ keeping track of weather patterns, star alignments, and flight paths of planes in the background of the stream. In less than twenty-four hours, the flag was taken down, and replaced with a “Make America Great Again” hat and a blue polo.
In response to the seizure of the first flag, a second was been hung in Liverpool, England. Like the first, it was rapidly tracked down. Unlike the first, it couldn’t be retrieved without some Mirror’s-Edge-tier parkour on the part of the /pol/sters. This, of course, did not put the game to an end. LaBeouf’s second flag was captured within two days.
Since He Will Not Divide Us was, and continues to be, a work of art, it makes sense to analyze it as such. As an entry point, we should recall that LaBeouf is well-known as a metamodernist, meaning his work falls under the tent of New Sincerity, a school of thought which posits that communicating one’s feelings and beliefs as directly and frankly as possible is the ideal way to make art, as well as the ideal way to live.
This manifests itself very clearly in the earlier phases of the project, where the artist’s aim was to implicate as many people as possible in chanting a simple mantra without a trace of irony. Note the lack of actors and actresses – nothing is played up, falsified or recreated. Instead, the work is entirely earnest, both in the sense that all participants act entirely out of conviction, and in the sense that it is an exact representation of reality.
This was both a blessing and a curse.
The moments that went as planned had the potential to be genuinely moving, both because they represented striking scenes in and of themselves, and because they showed that when we embrace sincerity, reality can indeed be beautiful.
When irony infiltrated the scene, however, things got ugly. People lost their composure. Fights broke out. Somebody called the police. When the dust had settled, the artist himself, the embodiment of ideological, emotional and interpersonal honesty, was being hauled away in handcuffs, while his followers gawked and his antagonists laughed.
If one embraces New Sincerity, the piece seemed to say, one becomes the laughing stock of the cynics. Impulses can represent doom, efforts can amount to little, and the show can be stolen by those who would prefer to giggle about genocide.
This thesis was reinforced by the accelerated speed with which the second stream devolved into chaos, and cemented by LaBeouf’s two consecutive capture-the-flag losses. The takeaway is simple: don’t feed the trolls.
In an impressive (though not necessarily wise) feat of perseverance, LaBeouf is continuing his protest. Although I wish him the best, I find it hard to believe that he’ll be able to concoct a way to simultaneously involve the public and keep out /pol/acks. I also wonder whether this exhibition is the best way to go about promoting New Sincerity or advocating social change.
As raids on both LaBeouf and many others have shown, taking the bait is never productive.