The artist trio known as LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner use three principal materials in their work: The pixelated fabric of an eternal live stream, a thorny black thicket of hashtags and Shia LaBeouf’s large eyes and boyish face, in turns emanating profound sadness, pure joy and wild desperation.
All of these elements are present in their latest project, "HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US." On Inauguration Day 2017, LaBeouf, Nastja Säde Rönkkö and Luke Turner installed a camera and microphone on an exterior wall of the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York. Above the shiny black eye was the title of the piece in capital letters. "HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US," it screamed, prompting passersby to repeat the declaration into the camera and tweet it to the world. A live stream on the website hewillnotdivide.us was supposed to continuously broadcast the "participatory performance artwork" on Donald Trump's home turf until the end of his term.
Exactly 21 days later, the museum took down the piece—1,439 days short of its intended run. The project had started as a peaceful protest, populated by young New Yorkers in winter jackets and rain ponchos who took up the titular chant at all hours. LaBeouf, the movie-star-turned-artist, often showed up to act as head cheerleader. Then neo-Nazis got wind of the virtual soap box, and showed up to chant racist slogans. The work's anti-climax was LaBeouf's on-camera arrest after a physical altercation with one of the trolls. Eight days after the video feed went down, the artists made a bewildering announcement: HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US would reopen at the Historic El Rey Theater in Albuquerque.
LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner have been at work tweaking their formula for some time, and their reputations preceded them. The trio's first project, in 2014, sent LaBeouf onto a red carpet with a paper bag over his head that read "I Am Not Famous Anymore." A follow-up piece trapped LaBeouf in a room wearing the same bag, and allowed strangers a few moments alone with him.
When the mask came off, the project literally hit its stride. LaBeouf jumped rope on a live stream and encouraged London hipsters to join him in a piece called "Meditation for Narcissists." They circled Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum 144 times to complete an art theory-inspired "#METAMARATHON." Then came "#INTERVIEW," which presented a transcript of emails between LaBeouf and a fawning journalist, and ended with a live stream of the two staring at each other in silence for an hour. In "#ALLMYMOVIES," LaBeouf watched every film in which he has appeared in reverse chronological order and shot the world's longest reaction video.
Suffice to say that the collective is little more than a marketing firm for LaBeouf. The Transformers star flew off the rails of the Hollywood industrial complex in 2014, after he was caught plagiarizing the writing of beloved graphic novelist Daniel Clowes for an independent film project. In "#INTERVIEW," LaBeouf writes that the scandal caused an "existential crisis" that sent him in a new direction.
Apparently, though, pillaging from other artists is a hard habit to break. LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner's works are slicker, dumber versions of works by Vito Acconci, Marina Abramović, Josh Harris, Yoko Ono and a number of other performance art pioneers. LaBeouf might come with a built-in audience, but that doesn't mean the art world should indulge this derivative nonsense.
After closing in New York on Feb. 10, the "HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US" live stream sprung back to life on Feb. 18 with a view of Seventh Street SW outside the El Rey Theater. At first the New Mexican manifestation of the work seemed a little more relaxed, if only because downtown Albuquerque isn't near as crowded as the streets of New York. In the project's first evening, LaBeouf's presence at the installation drew a crowd that blocked the street, but everyone minded their manners.
Three days in, someone tagged the wall with the message "Reject False Idols. Do It!" using hot pink spray paint. The artists quickly cleaned it up. Then, early on Feb. 23, three gunshots rang out on Eighth Street near the theater. "Somebody just got shot a block away," a man narrated to the camera.
An investigation by the Albuquerque Police Department turned up nothing, but the live stream was again suspended. "We have taken the stream down after shots were reported in the area," LaBeouf tweeted at 3 am that day. "The safety of everybody participating in our project is paramount." By the end of the day, the Albuquerque season of "HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US" was officially canceled. New Mexico's stint babysitting runaway NYC art rascals lasted just seven days.
What to make of all this? As a protest, this is the pinnacle of 21st-century slacktivism. Setting up a camera for anyone to scream into might not be the most effective method of resistance, but it's a great way to capitalize on a political moment and get people to stare at your famous visage for another 15 minutes. As an art project, "HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US" is a challenge to millennial artists to make something that transcends LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner's lame gimmickry and tired themes.
Shia LaBeouf is not smarter than you, he's just more famous. But he won't be forever.