Is Shia LaBeouf Our Patronus? A Museum Struggles with Digital Free Speech

I’ve come to learn during my tenure studying museums that those which push hardest for innovation and change tend quite often to be the institutions employing the most groundbreaking digital technology initiatives. The open-minded and experimental mindset that pushes museums toward technological innovation can also open the door to other areas of evolution and change. In recent months, a parallel trend has emerged among cultural organizations to express a clear opinion on the political actions at hand – to stand up rather than standing down, and see what happens. In several instances, museums with technological savvy have accepted the challenge and risk of joining the political conversation, just as they accepted the challenge and risk of new tech.

Last week I mentioned the MoMA’s dramatic, if analog, game of political art tetris [1]. In fact, many other technology-literate museums [2], several of which exhibit contemporary art, joined the cultural discussion of politics by offering free admission.

LaBeouf next to his collaboration with the MMI, “He Will Not Divide Us.” Courtesy of AFP/Getty Images/Timothy A. Clary via amNewYork

But no institution walked quite as far out on a limb as the Museum of the Moving Image (MMI) in Queens, New York [3]. On Inauguration Day, the museum installed actor Shia LaBeouf’s performance art/art film collaboration with Ronkko and Turner entitled “He Will Not Divide Us” on its exterior wall. The installation consists of the same text as the title of the piece in all capital sans serif black letters, and a camera recording 24 hours a day into which visitor/participants were meant to repeat the title in whatever fashion they deemed appropriate.

The footage would then be live streamed to the Museum of the Moving Image’s website for digital visitors to access freely and in-person visitors to contribute to as they wished. Clearly, LaBeouf and the MMI hoped that those visitors would visit with good intentions.

Initially, the community forming around the live stream camera was positive, supportive and generally united in protest against the potentially detrimental policies of the new president. But unfortunately, extensions of the free and open internet are prone to the same trolls as the internet itself–and so, the trolls came in full force [4].

Regulars on trolling message board sites and Make America Great Again (MAGA) champions began overtaking the protesters to such an extent that the installation was effectively taken over by the very people it hoped to free its visitors from. The ultimate free speech experiment backfired in ways both painful and endlessly frustrating for LeBeouf, who was ultimately unable to stop himself from physically reacting to the taunts and was arrested [5].

The installation fostered a strong protest community united in their dedication to sharing their message of hope for equality and rights for marginalized populations. It mirrored the web in its advocacy for completely unfiltered free speech, an uneasy position for a museum to take, given museums’ history as institutions of careful cultural cultivation [6]. This new openness to visitor thoughts and feelings was encouraging to marginalized communities of all shapes and sizes–including White Supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and MAGA trolls.

As the installation evolved into an opportunity for the expression of threatening narratives, the involvement of both the museum’s own security and the neighborhood police proved too challenging for the project to continue [7]. In a heartbreaking turn of events, a simple digital work meant to unite viewers and participants in maintaining hope and motivating positive political action ultimately opened the deep wounds of racial unease, cultural difference, and the terrifying possibility that, deep down, some Americans still find ways to hate those who are different from them.

The Museum of the Moving Image is a largely government-funded non-profit organization tasked with remaining apolitical, in order that it might serve the largest possible contingent with its conservation and curation of film history [8]. With the installation of “He Will Not Divide Us,” the MMI and LaBeouf took an enormous risk. So did the experiment succeed? Basing my answer off of the goals of the project versus its outcomes, certainly not. The stream was meant to remain in place for the entire length of President Trump’s term. In reality, it lasted less than a month.

Basing my answer off of the effect the installation had on its surrounding community, the answer is once again, no. Neighbors of the museum felt that the installation’s constant visitation put them at risk for violence and crime, especially given that almost every contributing participant chose to be involved because of passionate feelings, one way or the other. Late night participants also occasionally exhibited raucous behavior  such as weed smoking and noise disturbances, both of which fundamentally changed the culture of the neighborhood as the existing community knew it.

Basing my answer off of the need for museums to attempt difficult tasks, even at the risk of failure, the answer is less clear. It can be assumed that the members of the executives who green lighted the project anticipated a similar relationship between participants and the camera that web users have with the internet – everyone has the choice to use the tool for good or evil, and generally, good intentions prevailed.

What they likely did not anticipate was the reality that the internet and live video are fundamentally different. The internet allows for the development of dark, murky corners that breed hatred, but remain separate from the larger mainstream community. Its web-like structure allows for users to create their own pathways to the information they desire to find, avoiding paths that might lead them to places which would make them uncomfortable or upset. A live feed is considerably less flexible. The word ‘feed’ aptly describes its linear nature – it is a one-way street with no alternative routes. Such a platform can never remain immune from alternative, if unpopular dialogue. The conversation and the subversive counter-conversation are both forced onto the same stage, and the results are upsetting.

In unintentionally equalizing both informational paths, however despicable one may be in comparison to the other, the MMI and LaBeouf succeeded in granting equal opportunity and free speech to literally every human who walked by, and we have all subsequently been educated by the results.

Image of a participant protesting on the “He Will Not Divide Us” stream. Courtesy of Labeouf, Ronkko and Turner

On LaBeouf, Ronkko and Turner’s site, the installation is described thus:

Commencing at 9am on January 20, 2017, the day of the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States, the public is invited to deliver the words “HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US” into a camera mounted on a wall outside the Museum of the Moving Image, New York, repeating the phrase as many times, and for as long as they wish.

Open to all, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the participatory performance will be live-streamed at continuously for four years, or the duration of the presidency. In this way, the mantra “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.

On February 10, 2017, the Museum of the Moving Image abandoned the project.

The artists, however, have not. [9]











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