The Public Square Belongs To 4Chan
In a few short weeks, "He Will Not Divide Us" went from celebrity-hyped exhibition to troll playground to dead. What happened tells us everything about the future of civic space and free speech in the age of the alt-right.
On January 30, 10 days after the inauguration of Donald Trump, the actor and artist Shia LaBeouf sent an aggrieved email to the American Civil Liberties Union. LaBeouf and two other artists, Luke Turner and Nastja Säde Rönkkö, had recently debuted a piece at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. Titled "He Will Not Divide Us," the work consisted of a single security camera fixed to an exterior wall of the museum, above which was printed in four lines of bold black letters the name of the piece — a mantra that passersby were encouraged to chant into the camera. That camera fed a round-the-clock livestream video.
In the email, mostly uncapitalized and formatted like stanzas of free verse, LaBeouf alleged a campaign of subversion against his work. Since opening, the piece had been set upon by internet trolls and neo-Nazis. But that wasn't what had gotten him so hot. Instead, LaBeouf wrote, a city council member named Jimmy Van Bramer was prevailing on Carl Goodman, the museum’s director, to shut the piece down behind the artists’ backs. He cc’d both men on the email.
we have been denied a seat
at the decision making table
of an artwork we created
we are being used as a political hockey puck
I am seeking help in maintaining our integrity as artists
& securing my rights as an American
LaBeouf was right to be concerned about the future of the piece. Ten days later, citing a “serious and ongoing public safety hazard,” MoMI announced that it had closed "He Will Not Divide Us." The artists replaced the livestream with static text that stated, gravely, “The Museum has abandoned us.”
“It was diabolical,” Turner told BuzzFeed News in March. “It’s disgraceful for a museum to behave in that manner, to have such contempt for an artist and an artist’s work.”
Though a piece of public art had been shut down, ostensibly because of a coordinated effort by trolls and extremists that included dozens of bomb and shooting threats, the media greeted the closure with amusement, and even a few sneers. Surely, LaBeouf had done himself and the piece no favors: He had been arrested after shoving a man in front of the camera, for one thing. Beyond that, with his fashionably disheveled appearance — beard, beanie, denim work shirt, and joggers — and occasional outbursts on camera, he had hardly dispelled the notion, earned through years of erratic public behavior, provocative roles, short-lived retirements from public life, and high-minded but undercooked art projects, that he is a hipster dilettante, forever atoning for his mainstream success in the Transformers series and as a child star. And perhaps worst of all, he was a celebrity performance artist working in the tradition of Marina Abramović and Yoko Ono, a cred-grabbing trope so tired no less a satirist than Kendall Jenner mocked it earlier this year for W magazine.
So the jeering was understandable. But it also placed LaBeouf’s critics strangely close to, if not on the side of, the trolls and extremists themselves. Sure, the Hollywood carpetbagger was gone — but what was left was hardly a victory. A cultural institution had been revealed as helpless in the face of a brief, if intense, harassment campaign. The incident might have scratched the tabloid schadenfreude itch because it happened to Shia LaBeouf. But what if it were to happen to someone else?
“It was diabolical. It’s disgraceful for a museum to behave in that manner, to have such contempt for an artist and an artist’s work.”
“It’s a very bad precedent with long-lasting implications,” said Ben Davis, the national art critic for Artnet News. “It’s a model for trolls to harass any kind of internet-connected art.”
It’s true that "He Will Not Divide Us" belongs to a specific category of livestreamed art that has a history of being trolled in sometimes upsetting ways. But in 2017, nearly everyone entering a gallery has a smartphone loaded with live-video apps, and museums have started to pander to social media. That means any, or every, piece of art is internet-connected. And in the context of a resurgent culture war centered around speech, which has seen institutions from the University of California, Berkeley, to the Minneapolis Institute of Art become flashpoints for violence stoked by rhetoric on the internet, "He Will Not Divide Us" looks more than anything like a sign of things to come.
Indeed, as public spaces devoted to free expression increasingly adopt the dynamics of the internet, they will be increasingly vexed by the very same issues that have plagued public spaces on the internet: trolling, violent threats, and hate speech. And the spectacular failure of "He Will Not Divide Us" at MoMI will be remembered either as a cautionary tale of what happens when cultural institutions fail to reckon with the dark side of the internet, or the very moment when these institutions started to let the dark side of the internet break them apart.
Because for three weeks in January and February, those dark forces, celebrity culture, the art world, New York City politics, and a fervent spirit of national protest converged on a camera the size of a grapefruit on a sidewalk in Queens, where they combusted, easily forcing a cultural institution to cave and creating a terrifying new paradigm by which Trump-loving culture warriors can manipulate and control public space. Yes, this could happen again, wherever people gather, whenever the alt-right — or any sufficiently motivated group — sees fit: at a protest or a play; at a school or a church. And if it becomes a pattern, the American public square, maybe the most enduring symbol of the nation’s freedoms, would turn into something much more like the broken social spaces of the internet, something darker, something much less free.
It was a raw and cloudy morning on January 20 in New York, and as Donald Trump prepared to be sworn in as president in Washington, Jaden Smith hopped up and down in a gravel parking lot in Queens. If the 18-year-old star seemed to be warming up for a feat of athletic endurance, well, he sort of was. For the next five hours, at first alone and then with a growing crowd beside him, Smith began to say the words, over and over, “He will not divide us.” At times he spoke slow and somber, staring directly into the camera. Later, joined by his friend LaBeouf and throngs of local high schoolers, he began to chant and dance. Together, they had begun what was supposed to be an epic undertaking of participatory art. "He Will Not Divide Us" was meant to last four full years.
It had all come together so fast: the idea, the planning, the installation — and the attention. LaBeouf, Turner, and Rönkkö had started their art practice only three years before. Turner and Rönkkö had met in art school, at London's Central Saint Martins. In 2011, Turner wrote a piece of fairly esoteric cultural theory he called “The Metamodernist Manifesto,” and in January 2014 LaBeouf, according to Turner, “turned up at [Turner’s London] doorstep,” enthusiastic about the theory and eager to chat.
These conversations turned into a series of performance pieces, none so famous — until now — as the first, called "#IAMSORRY." In it, LaBeouf, wearing a tuxedo and a paper bag over his head that read “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE,” sat and received the public one by one in a Los Angeles art gallery. In the days after the American presidential election, the three artists began a series of Skype calls (Turner lives in London, LaBeouf in Los Angeles, and Rönkkö in Helsinki) trying to devise an installation that would, in Turner’s words, “create a resistance to the normalization of division ... xenophobia, racism, misogyny, all the worst things about the world.” These discussions quickly gave rise to the idea of "He Will Not Divide Us," and the trio registered the domain name on November 11.
As the artists sought a space to host the piece, they decided that it required the physical and artistic security that only a public cultural institution could bring to bear. They were thrilled when the Museum of the Moving Image, a small but well-respected museum dedicated to “the understanding, enjoyment, and appreciation of the art, history, technique, and technology of film, television, and digital media,” agreed to host the installation.
The artists checked the location by zooming around the museum on Google Street View. When they showed up to install the piece the week before "He Will Not Divide Us" opened, it was the first time they had seen the site in person.
“It was a perfect spot,” Turner said. Anyone walking by on the street could participate with no entrance fee required. And it was located in Astoria, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country.
Further, the museum holds the annual Theorizing the Web conference, which, according to the conference’s website, is devoted to thinking “conceptually and critically about the interrelationships between the Internet and society.” If there was a public space that understood the interactions between the digital and the physical, Turner felt, it was this one.
With less than two weeks to prepare, MoMI had agreed to host a politically explosive installation in a public place on a residential street for four years.
As they came to terms, the artists and the museum staff discussed the circumstances under which MoMI could close the exhibition prematurely. In a first draft of the contract written up by MoMI, the museum reserved the right to “in its sole discretion, cancel the Installation of the work.” After an objection from the artists, the museum suggested new language: “MoMI may, due to forces beyond MoMI’s control, be required to close the installation” [emphasis added].
Museums plan new exhibitions months or even years in advance. But now, with the contract signed, and with less than two weeks to prepare, MoMI had agreed to host a politically explosive installation in a public place on a residential street for four years.
“Sometimes you have to be opportunistic,” said a museum administrator.
On that first day, as Jaden Smith spoke and museum staff looked on, MoMI’s risk-taking seemed to be rewarded. The afternoon turned to rain, and dozens of ecstatic students from Frank Sinatra School of the Arts walked the block and a half to 37th Street, where they were greeted individually by LaBeouf. Slow chanting turned to singing, clapping, and dancing. As night fell, an old man brought out an acoustic guitar.
“I found the first day very moving,” said Jimmy Van Bramer, the city council member — and its majority leader — whose district includes MoMI.
Even the artists were surprised at how well their piece was working, and how quickly. “The beginnings were really more than we could have hoped for,” Turner said. “It was a party at one point.”
Word of "He Will Not Divide Us" spread fast. Even among the crush of inauguration and protest news, dozens of outlets ran stories. Photographs and videos of LaBeouf and Smith smiling and celebrating were shared widely across social media.
And people who took the work’s title not as a mantra but as a challenge had already noticed.
If you set out to design a cultural event specifically to provoke the alt-right, it would be hard to improve on "He Will Not Divide Us." While the group contains multitudes — Trump fanatics, anti–social justice warriors, trolls, ethnic nationalists, neo-Nazis, anime experts, and every conceivable permutation thereof — the piece was expansive enough to incite them all.
Start with semantics. If nothing else, the alt-right is all about division: between nations, between races, between genders, between religions, between ideologies, and between trolls and non-trolls. “[The title] is almost daring people to divide the work,” said Davis, the art critic. “From an art point of view, it was the point of the project, I assume.”
The artists strenuously claim the piece is nonpartisan, and that the words can be, per the introductory text, “a show of resistance or insistence, opposition or optimism, guided by the spirit of each individual participant and the community.” But the media immediately reported the work as an anti-Trump protest, and it’s sort of hard to blame them: "He Will Not Divide Us" appeared the day of the inauguration, in New York City, where Hillary Clinton won nearly 80% of the vote, at the same time as protests against Trump massed in cities throughout the world. Realistically, who was going to be chanting those words?
“The general reaction was this is going to be so fun to fuck with.”
“I’m not sure the artists are in control of the political meaning of the piece,” Davis said.
If the event was alt-right catnip in theory, in practice it was irresistible. The footage from the first day is an unintentional masterpiece of Bannonian propaganda: A rich, white, half-Jewish, hip, liberal movie star (and his black, second-generation movie star friend) leading an ethnically mixed crowd in a piece of performance art that doubled at times as an anti-Trump demonstration, at a New York City museum whose board includes Jeff Zucker, Jeffrey Katzenberg, a labor union leader, and a hedge fund founder.
“It feeds into the right-wing narrative about coastal elites and Hollywood liberals, Meryl Streep versus Trump,” Davis said.
Perhaps most provocatively, as far as the alt-right is concerned, "He Will Not Divide Us" was participatory and livestreamed. Threads announcing the project appeared on 4chan’s /pol/ forum and other alt-right online communities within hours of the stream going live.
“The general reaction was this is going to be so fun to fuck with,” said Kevin Adams, a 4chan poster who agreed to speak with BuzzFeed News on the condition that he be identified by his username on Discord, a chat app popular with the alt-right. And so, in a Discord group called Outer Heaven, co-moderated by Adams, 100-odd users began their round-the-clock campaign to fuck with "He Will Not Divide Us," both in the comments section of the livestream and at the Museum of the Moving Image itself.
It started as a daily trickle. On the first night, as LaBeouf stood in front of the wall, gazing beatifically into the camera along with a dozen others, a young man walked up behind him and stretched his mobile phone over LaBeouf’s left shoulder, into view. On the screen was a picture of Pepe, the infamous cartoon frog who serves as a mascot for the meme-savvy Trump internet.
On the third day, a young man wearing a shirt, tie, and a gray cadet cap darted in front of the chanting crowd and, with his mouth nearly touching the camera, yelled “1488,” a white nationalist mantra. LaBoeuf screamed at him, and to the shitlords pulling hours-long shifts on Discord and the livestream, this was a precious reaction. Outer Heaven swelled with hundreds of new members.
By the third and fourth days of the installation, as young men in MAGA hats started showing up to the museum in larger numbers, "He Will Not Divide Us" began to resemble nothing so much as a social network made flesh. There were civil discussions. There were shouting matches. There were visitors squawking about Trump, about “the Jewish word for division, Soros,” about the revolution not being televised, about their mixtapes, about how Bitcoin would save the world, about WeSearchr, about yo, follow my Instagram. There were doxxes. There were well-intentioned founders with institutional backing and idealistic words about free expression; there were early celebrity adopters; there was an initial period of great hope; there was a worsening signal-to-noise ratio; and there were trolls and racists determined to test the boundaries of the new space with provocations and hate speech.
And then, there was chaos.
On Thursday, January 26, the sixth day of "He Will Not Divide Us," Van Bramer received a text from Peter Fortune, deputy inspector of the NYPD’s 114th Precinct. Fortune had some disturbing news: The installation at the Museum of the Moving Image needed round-the-clock police supervision.
“He felt it was unsafe for the general public,” Van Bramer said, “and that something bad would happen unless they had police protection.”
Van Bramer wasn’t totally surprised. Since the second day of the installation, he had been receiving noise complaints from nearby residents. Carissa Serralta, an Astoria woman who lives on the ground floor of an apartment building a few hundred feet from the site of the installation, told BuzzFeed News that she could hear the chanting even with her window closed, and that it frightened her grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s. There was, Van Bramer said, a “mosh pit atmosphere around the camera.”
According to NYPD statistics shared with BuzzFeed News, from January 20 to February 10 (when MoMI shut down the exhibition), there were 127 calls placed to the city’s 311 complaint line about activity at MoMI. That included 16 noise complaints and 10 calls related to bomb threats, gun threats, thrown urine, drugs, and “nude pics.” In addition, there were 26 911 calls, 7 complaints of criminal activity (including complaints the NYPD categorized as grand larceny, assault, and terrorism), and 4 arrests. (For reference, according to Van Bramer’s office, the NYPD reported no such 311 calls, complaint reports, or arrests at the museum in the three weeks before the piece was installed.)
Meanwhile, the relationship between the museum and the artists had started to sour.
“We were all frightened. It was a life-changing experience for me.”
Turner was annoyed that museum staff asked the artists to come up with a contingency plan for the litter generated by the hundreds of daily visitors; it was a sign, he said, of how unprepared they were to handle the troll swarms.
“They were just massively amateurish,” he said. In particular, Turner was furious that the museum did not provide a larger security presence. “We are used to dealing with museums that provide massively excessive security whenever we have projects. Not overdone but contingency plans for every eventuality,” he said. Goodman, the museum director, countered that he had hired two extra security guards once the scale of the crowds became apparent, and that he and other museum staff pulled grueling all-nighters to make sure peace was kept in front of the camera.
“We were all frightened,” said Goodman. “It was a life-changing experience for me as a director. No one in good conscience can put their staff at that degree of risk. I’d say that my colleagues deserve medals for living through what they did with such commitment.”
After the events of the first weekend, Goodman said, the artists offered to pay the cost of any additional security. “Our feeling was no additional security would solve those problems,” Goodman said. “But once we priced in good faith what would be needed, the artists rescinded the offer.” In his email to the ACLU, LaBeouf alleged that the museum said it would require $90,000 for the extra staff, and gave the artists almost no time to respond.
Beyond the security issues, LaBeouf, Turner, and Rönkkö were upset by what they said was the museum’s lack of initiative in fighting hate speech. After the “1488” incident, Turner said, the artists asked the museum to post a sign explicitly forbidding hate speech by visitors. Instead, he alleged, museum staff dithered. That’s because, Goodman said, such a sign would have forced the museum to make hard choices about what officially constitutes hate speech — decisions that have bedeviled other public spaces, including social platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
“The museum is not in a position to say what is and isn’t hate speech and what one is allowed or obligated to do,” Goodman said, and pointed out that the museum did eventually put up a sign prohibiting disruptive behavior, and that security asked hundreds of disruptive visitors to leave. Still, there was no consistency, and for much of the exhibition, no official policy. “How do you tell a troll from a neo-Nazi?” asked Goodman. If "He Will Not Divide Us" had indeed turned into a bizarro physical social network, the stakeholders couldn’t even agree on the terms of service, let alone what kind of moderation was needed.
Then, on the night of January 26, hours after Van Bramer found out that "He Will Not Divide Us" needed police minding, LaBeouf was arrested after physically confronting a visitor. Accounts of the incident vary, partially because the alleged assault happened off the main installation camera. Footage from the adjacent museum security camera reviewed by BuzzFeed News shows LaBeouf pushing another man twice, in what LaBeouf said was an attempt to remove a cloth covering his face.
The arrest generated a rash of predictable stories about LaBeouf’s volatility: more troll chum. And museum staff point to it as the moment that the alt-right hordes went from an annoyance to an unmanageable hazard. On January 28 — the same day NYPD set up metal barricades at the edge of the lot to control ballooning crowds — a troll carnival broke out when Sam Hyde, the creator of the canceled Adult Swim show Million Dollar Extreme Presents: World Peace, an alt-right obsession, visited the installation. Cutting through a crowd of MAGA hats and pinching a cigar, Hyde led a triumphant chant of “Heebs Will Not Divide Us.” Then he addressed LaBeouf directly through the installation. “Shia, you’re not a real artist. If you were, you’d be here. You’re a Los Angeles hobbyist.”
As Hyde basked among admirers outside the museum, Jason Eppink, the show’s curator, sent an email to the artists.
“The city is requiring us to go back to the drawing board on how we're supporting HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US,” he wrote. “I have to be realistic and admit — and I need you to do this too — that the current situation is untenable, particularly for the tremendous strain it is putting on our staff and our community.”
The artists were infuriated that the museum, under apparent pressure from the city, had made a decision about the presentation of their work without consulting them. And they were aghast when, the following day, Van Bramer, who they thought had led the effort to curtail the piece, held a 1,000-person rally in conjunction with Leticia James, New York City public advocate, in front of the "He Will Not Divide Us" camera.
“They had done this all behind our backs,” Turner said of the rally, in which Van Bramer explicitly criticized President Trump. “It was completely shocking. And it obviously, completely frames the work as a particular thing, a political rally. A lot of people from the right were then using this to say, not only was this rally a partisan political rally but this is proof our artwork is partisan political artwork.”
Communications between the artists and the museum eventually ceased almost completely, which the artists blame on the museum shutting them out of decisions about the piece and the museum blames on a threat of litigation by the artists’ attorney. The following week, the museum, through its lawyer, informed the artists that if they couldn’t reach a compromise that addressed its and the city’s safety concerns, it would have to close "He Will Not Divide Us." The lawyer suggested what Turner called “a single farcically unreasonable proposal to hide the artwork away in a corner behind a doorway,” removing the work from the street but also, the artists felt, changing its meaning. In response, the artists asked for a meeting with the museum, a request Turner said was ignored.
“We reached a decision at one point that there was nothing to be gained from negotiating with them,” said Goodman.
Meanwhile, in front of the camera, things were getting weirder, and, at times, frightening. Hours after LaBeouf sent his email, two people in Venetian masks arrived at "He Will Not Divide Us" and began, in the dark and with musical accompaniment, to re-enact the Illuminati ceremony from Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. On the night of Friday, February 3, a group of shirtless young white men appeared on camera and began to guzzle milk, one of the Trump internet’s many new quasi-ironic symbols of white supremacy.
“Down with the vegan agenda,” said one man.
“An ice-cold glass of pure racism,” said another.
Another young man, wiry and blonde, with a fashy haircut, stepped up to the camera, standing where Jaden Smith had started his chant two weeks before.
This man had a tattoo on his chest of the Sonnenrad, a pattern made infamous as an inlaid mosaic on the floor of the Obergruppenführersaal, the SS Generals' Hall. With a closed fist, he pounded it, again and again and again.
Turner found out that the MoMI had closed "He Will Not Divide Us" from Page Six. He woke up in London on the morning of February 10, having returned to the UK after the first week of the performance. He flipped on the stream and saw it was dead. Then he saw the article, accompanied by a photograph of LaBeouf looking despondent. Later, he found out from a technician that in the process of dismantling the exhibition, an electrician had snapped the camera off of its wall mount. (The museum paid for a replacement.)
Both Goodman and Van Bramer unequivocally deny the artists’ accusations that Van Bramer forced the museum to pull its support for the installation.
“Councilman Van Bramer was doing his job and he did it very well,” Goodman said. “If there’s a line that one perceives as crossing, he did not cross it. It was left up to us.”
Van Bramer said that he had indeed asked museum administrators to make changes to the installation, but expressed indignation that the artists would single him out for representing the interests of his district. “To blame me for not wanting someone to get killed in my district,” Van Bramer said, “to blame me for caring about the Muslim family who wrote to me and told me that they don’t feel safe walking down their own street because they know there are neo-Nazis around — I don’t know about Shia LaBeouf in Hollywood, but I have to care about that.”
After the museum took down "He Will Not Divide Us," the piece began a peripatetic month, traveling first to Albuquerque; then to a field in Tennessee, where it was geolocated by trolls and stolen; then to a museum in Liverpool, where it was again seized by its internet antagonists. The outlandish nature of the heists and the continued spectacle of LaBeouf’s artistic failure did nothing to complicate the barely concealed narrative from the media, from the trolls, and even from some in the art world that the work, well, sort of got what was coming to it.
“Art is subjective and all, but I feel like shutting down a livestream just doesn't compare with destroying actual real art,” said Kevin Adams, the Outer Heaven moderator.
It’s tempting to regard "He Will Not Divide Us" as sui generis. After all, here was a pretentious art installation put on by a controversial celebrity, seemingly micro-targeted to excite internet trolls and extremists, at an unprepared museum in a residential neighborhood, during a moment of intense political and cultural unrest, seemingly on a whim. A work of this nature in such circumstances might never come along again.
Imagine the slow bending of the American creative spirit to accommodate the whims of online radicals.
But that’s placing a lot of trust in the trolls, who surface new objects of scorn every day. With "He Will Not Divide Us," they proved themselves capable of shredding the relationship between three artists and a museum in a matter of days. What could a similar campaign of hate speech, doxxing, and intimidation through violent threats — the kind we see every day on the internet — accomplish in a few months? In a few years?
And while these tactics are currently the playbook of right-wing internet trolls and extremists, they aren’t inherently partisan. For example, there's no reason why the left-wing protesters furious over the exhibition of a painting of Emmett Till’s open casket at the Whitney Museum of American Art couldn’t press their cause in exactly the same way — doxxing visitors, bombarding the Whitney with threats, and tormenting the artist.
It’s easy to imagine a near future in which public spaces are far more controlled in order to account for these tactics. Think cordons; think metal detectors; think omnipresent police. (Indeed, with the quasi-warlike scenes emerging from Berkeley and elsewhere, it’s possible that we are further into this future than we realize.) Enforcing order has consequences. As any free-speech warrior on Twitter will tell you, heavy-handed moderation — control — causes a chilling effect on free expression. Imagine museums and universities unwilling to stage political art and speech, or unable to pay for the requisite security. (It’s no small irony that the free-speech über alles — “what, can’t you take a joke?” — shitlords of 4chan took such immense pleasure in shutting down an act of free expression.) Imagine bookstores and community centers unable to advertise speakers online because of the fear of trolling. Imagine protests too saturated with trolls to get off the ground. Imagine the slow bending of the American creative spirit to accommodate the whims of online radicals.
"He Will Not Divide Us" revealed that our public cultural spaces are terrifyingly fragile when subjected to the norms of internet discourse. If the work’s legacy is forcing such places, which are central to the life of the nation, to develop methods of coping with these norms, is it such a leap to call the work important? To call it, well, a success?
“Hopefully there will be more cameras on sticks connected to the internet in other places,” said Carl Goodman. “And things like this won’t happen.” ●