Can Shia LaBeouf Save The Internet?
At first, you hear the embers crackling beneath the black screen. Then, two men appear; and a fire, of course, sputtering loudly, orange glaze gleaming against the night.
The man sitting in frame left calmly hits a cigarette. You know him already. From Even Stevens to Transformers, rousing green screen speeches to drunken tirades against Las Vegas police — why, that’s Shia LaBeouf, and he’s a celebrity. Sure doesn’t look like one at this moment, though, as he absentmindedly scratches his armpit and asks his screen-mate a question.
“You ever been, uh, camping with strangers?”
“Nuh-uh,” responds the bespectacled man standing next to him. He, too, is taking drags from a cigarette, gripped tightly in his right hand as his left fiddles around with his pocket and belt.
“Me neither,” Shia replies.
The scene isn’t over, but it seems the conversation is. The two return to their smokes; the fire never stopped hissing. It’s a night of firsts for both of them. What else is there to say?
Earlier this year, LaBeouf and his longstanding partners, Nastja Rönkkö and Luke Turner, released #TAKEMEANYWHERE, a short documentary recapping their performance art piece of the same name.
In mid-2016, LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner embarked on a month-long project to hitchhike the internet, in an artwork commissioned by Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art and the Finnish Institute in London.
Each day, the trio posted their coordinates online and waited for a ride. Whoever then appeared could take them anywhere they chose. For the duration of the project, their progress could be tracked in real time at take-me-anywhere.net, with their path entirely in the hands of the public.
By itself, the documentary is strikingly earnest. Participants greet the artists with enthusiasm, eager (and anxious) to help them navigate their journey. The hugs exchanged are genuine, the stories shared heartfelt and haunting. Friendships are being formed, and it comes as no surprise that they have endured to this day.
Contextualize #TAKEMEANYWHERE within the trio’s larger catalog of work, however, and it becomes apparent that LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner are not merely shooting documentaries and making connections for their own enjoyment. They’re exploring methods of humanizing the Internet as we know it; and, in many ways, their blueprint is one to follow.
Let’s consider three components of their approach.
Cultivating Meaningful Connections
A few weeks ago, creative polyglot Elon Rutberg — one of the more perceptive voices on social media, on the seldom occasions he uses it — posted a tweet rebuking the mendacity of the current online landscape. He’s since deleted it (as is his custom), but at its core was the claim that no public entity (brand or celebrity) is actually establishing authentic connections with its/her/his audience.
Generalizations are almost always oversimplifications, and the thought is admittedly a tad cynical. Still, there is truth in it. Everyone wants and claims to ‘build meaningful connections,’ but that’s usually just a dressed-up phrase thrown around by marketers — and in many cases, that marketing is about understanding and appealing to what a particular audience likes. It’s meaningful in the sense that it has meaning, sure. But in many cases it lacks sincerity. It’s ‘meaningful’ until the next album doesn’t sound like what your fans expected. It’s ‘meaningful’ until another brand with cheaper prices and a bigger advertising budget swoops in and divides your consumers.
There is value to be found in such an approach, to be sure. But where it falls short is in placing an emphasis on taste as opposed to humanity.
At its best taste is inconsistent; at its worst, it is fickle. I was a Bob Dylan fan for years and never understood the appeal of the music from his late-70s/early-80s gospel period. Then I watched Trouble On My Mind and listened to the bootleg of the same name and suddenly I’m catching the spirit in my bedroom to a live Oslo performance of “When You Gonna Wake Up.” Point being: people evolve, and what they want and choose to engage with is malleable. Or, as Steve Jobs famously said, a lot of times people don’t know what they want until you show them.
If you are solely appealing to people’s taste, your success is always tied into timing. Sometimes you’re ahead of the curve, and the audience embraces your content with vigor. Other times, you’re just appealing to what they used to like, or worse, what they thought they used to like. (I just realized Mike Shinoda talked about this on an episode of Teens React.) Either way, such an approach is not primed to be enduring. It isn’t authentic; it’s market-driven. (Though, if you’re a talented-enough artist, you can usually just do what you want and hope enough people stick around through your evolution.)
Focusing on an audience’s humanity, on the other hand, means looking past fans/consumers and engaging with your audience on a much deeper level. It’s about understanding why people’s tastes change, and understanding what doesn’t change — what they consider important, not just interesting or cool.
Easier said than done, of course. Most humanity-driven content misses the mark in one of two ways. Often, it’s trite (I prefer ‘played out’). It completely overlooks the audience’s taste, relying too heavily on overused archetypes to conjure up notions of love and family. You know the type of content I’m talking about: the narrator-driven commercials you instantly forget, the cheesy promoted tweets with barely any likes. The message is firm but the communication falls flat.
The other way that humanity-driven content can founder — and where LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner have remarkably succeeded — is in a failure to reconsider the relationship between the entity and its audience. For a connection built around humanity to succeed, both parties need to be, or at least come across as, human. And part of that humanity is a two-way conversation. You can’t talk at your audience, or even to them. You need to talk with them. Which means you need to listen, really listen, and try to understand. If you truly want meaningful connections, that’s the only way. How much trust can they put in a man with a megaphone who won’t shut up?
LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner understand this and have threaded it into nearly all of their performance art to date. My favorite example is their piece from December 2015, #TOUCHMY SOUL.
For four days, the trio manned a phone line at Liverpool’s Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, inviting calls from strangers around the world and prompting them with a strikingly straightforward question: “Can you touch my soul?” Over the course of the performance, they answered over a thousand calls. Laughter was shared, tears were shed. When it ended, LaBeouf had his forearms tattooed with words from a conversation with a caller from Egypt: “You. Now. Wow.”
As with #TAKEMEANYWHERE, #TOUCHMYSOUL is obviously sincere. The tone is established early in the above video, in just the second exchange.
LRT: Hello, this is , LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner. Can you touch my soul?
Caller: I can try. Um… Oh my god, I actually don’t know.
Caller: I don’t think I can. Can you touch anyone’s soul? I don’t really know.
LRT: Me neither
Caller: I just thought it was worth a try.
LRT: I think you just did.
Caller: Did I?
LRT: Yeah. Thank you very much.
The response to ‘how?’ is cut out of the clip, but the answer is in the question. “Can you touch my soul?” immediately strips the conversation down to a human level. It also equalizes the exchange. The artists are positioning themselves as the audience, asking callers to interpret the notion of touching one’s soul, consider it in their own lives, and then voice it. As adjectives go, ‘earnest’ again comes to mind. Moreover, as the above exchange reflects, LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner recognize that the human element doesn’t lie solely (or even primarily) in the content of the conversation. It comes from the attempt; from wanting to reach others, as the caller did, and trying to understand them, like the artists. Talking with. Even in a fleeting back-and-forth filled with ums and awkward silence, an authentic connection is built.
This same approach of placing trust in others with good faith and candid intentions has surfaced elsewhere in the trio’s work. For #ANDINTHEND they broadcast participants’ messages, all of which began with the eponymous words, on the side of the Sydney Opera House for two days. #TAKEMEANYWHERE brought it off-screen, as they solicited strangers to navigate them through their hometowns and often give them shelter. The formats are different, but the underlying principles are the same. The artists remove all pretense, appeal to their audience’s highly-held values and beliefs, and re-position themselves as listeners and recipients.
At the core of LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner’s work, though, is an interesting paradox. Even when placing themselves as an open-eared audience, the trio’s first name is immutable. LaBeouf. I won’t haggle over what letter-list celebrity Shia qualifies as, but it’s impossible to deny how his spotlight impacts the artists’ artistic endeavors. The first caller in the #TOUCHMYSOUL clip begins, “I didn’t think this number was actually gonna work. I thought it was all a big hoax…You’ve been on my TV for as long as I can remember. This is weird.” The implication in the starstruck participant’s statement is clear: she called because of Shia’s celebrity. She falls into the spell of his fame, as do most of the individuals who respond to the trio’s work. She may not have called if, say, Orlando Brown was one of the artists. She definitely wouldn’t have if I was.
Beyond the aforementioned approach of directness and openness, LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner have tackled this apparent contradiction head-on in a few of their pieces. The first attempts were back in 2014 with I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE and #IAMSORRY. You may remember Shia hitting the red carpet with a brown paper bag on his head?
The works are confrontational — and slightly under-cooked. (To be fair, they were the trio’s first two public pieces.) While they succeed in challenging the audience’s perception of fame and status, they lack a certain sense of nuance. One can easily look at the above picture and think, ‘Man, another child star acting bizarrely. Must be tough with all those people watching.’ Many did. True, perhaps, but hardly insightful. At the least, we can agree that these particular works offer little to our quest for meaningful connections.
A better example, then, is 2015’s #ALLMYMOVIES, which saw LaBeouf inviting visitors to a movie theater as he watched every movie within which he had appeared, in reverse chronological order, for three days, 24 hours a day. The work, which also included a viral live-stream, subverts the actor’s fame in a different, more humanizing manner. It makes him both a celebrity and an audience member. He’s on-screen, but he’s watching himself on the screen. The barrier of status has been removed. This approach not only humanizes Shia — who hasn’t felt embarrassment over videos from their youth? — it makes the audience more invested in him. Their memories merge with his until there’s almost a sense of pride. “Wow,” they think. “That’s our guy Shia! Look how far he’s come.” Certainly more effective than a brown paper bag.
Of course, LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner are artists, and their end goal is different than most brand$, celebritie$, and other public entitie$. Still, their incessant attempts to subvert their platform, both directly and indirectly, offer an effective blueprint even for those whose meaningful connections are more monetary than mindful. So, let’s do a quick recap with those parties in mind.
- Directly subverting one’s status. That is, addressing one’s role as a content creator or famous figure, and re-positioning oneself as an active audience member as well. This can take a few forms, from finding creative ways to share in the consumption (like LaBeouf and his films) to opening more explicit two-way conversations about one’s work. Either way, you even the playing field with your audience in a manner that demonstrates your humanity, thus making them more invested in your future success. (“That’s our faceless corporation!”)
- Indirectly subverting one’s status. That is, finding more subtle ways to re-position the relationship with your audience so that although the exchange is a direct result of your status it is still two-way in nature. Simply: prompting them to lead the conversation, and trying hard to understand. This doesn’t have to be phone-calls about soul-touching. Have them talk about their tastes, if you want. But not just what they like. Why they like it. Really ask them. Show them you care, so they care about you.
- Consciously leveraging one’s platform. Whether one prefers a more direct or indirect approach, your endeavors to subvert status should never be built on undermining your platform. Your platform is everything; it just has to be wielded thoughtfully. Use your platform to get others to listen. Use your platform to give others a platform. Make your platform a conversation topic in and of itself. Just always be aware that getting people’s attention and conveying a message which resonates are two wholly different beasts. Public stature is a microphone. You don’t have to speak as loudly when you have it, but you should still be careful when and how you use it.
There are two other components of LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner’s art that I want to briefly touch on, and they’re both seen in the trio’s most recent work HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US.
You may have heard of this piece in one of its various previous iterations. Beginning on January 20, 2017 — the date of Donald Trump’s inauguration — with a cameo by Jaden Smith, the work invited the public to repeat the phrase “HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US” as many times as they wanted in front of a 24/7 live-streaming camera outside of the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. Complications arose. (Short version: Neo-Nazis showed up.) MOMI abandoned the project. It then moved to the El Rey Theater in Albuquerque in 2017. More complications. (Gunshots this time.) It moved again a few times, switched formats to a flag, and even brought out a few more Neo-Nazis. As of October 16, 2017, the flag is flying high at le lieu unique in Nantes, France.
I’ll start with my favorite trait of this piece, and much of their art in general, which is how the trio creatively leverages language. The entire work is built around just five words: “He will not divide us.” As LaBeouf himself later pointed out, there is beauty to be found in the lack of specificity. “It could have been any ‘He’ you wanted.” This same openness of language can be found throughout their portfolio, from the finish-the-sentence component of #ANDINTHEND to the cutting question at the center of #TOUCHMYSOUL. The artists love to keep things open-ended, to allow the audience their own interpretation of what they’re hearing and reading. It’s calculated confusion, and it helps shift some of the weight of the connection over to the participant, so that she or he has even more freedom to take the lead and fill in the gaps.
Such a re-assessment of language, particularly in the context of consumers and fans, has some interesting implications. As I’ve mentioned before and will undoubtedly mention again elsewhere, our society is in the midst of re-defining the very notion of what is normal. From the behavior of other people to the outcome of politics and sports to the godforsaken Yanny/Laurel debate, our perception of reality is constantly being challenged. We’re overloaded with information and new perspectives and experiences, and it’s getting to the point where anyone who doesn’t evaluate their own views and expectations is willfully living in a bubble.
Can the depths of this current cultural re-alignment be pervasive enough to influence how we use language? That’s a thought for another piece. But the ways in which LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner are stripping language down and pushing their audience to question each individual word is certainly a step in that direction. Even if the implications are not that deep, any content encouraging people to think more creatively about how they use and interpret words is beneficial to the cultural conversation as a whole. When it comes to crafting connections, carefully considered communication is key.
Unity For You & Me
I began this piece by saying LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner are “humanizing the Internet as we know it.” I haven’t used the word ‘Internet’ since. Hopefully, you aren’t feeling bamboozled; it was a conscious decision for two reasons.
The first is that much of the Internet’s role in the artists’ work is self-evident. The very reason they, and any public figure, are able to engage and share content with people in real-time is because of the Internet. Every endeavor is built on its capabilities of connectivity and efficiency. We all use the Internet. We have access to many of the same resources the trio has, or similar ones. The important aspect of their work isn’t that they use the Internet, it’s how they use it, and their presence on it, to interact with others.
The second reason is that to understand LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner’s work one has to view it in the context of public entities, because that’s what LaBeouf, and by extension the group as a whole, is. And their blueprint is obviously catered to others with large platforms, be it celebrities, artists, or brands. They offer a path for those with an audience to embrace humanity as an underlying principle in the future. And, as HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US indicates, their goal isn’t just new friends for themselves; they want to use and show how to use the Internet to bring people together as a whole. If others employ similar approaches, the effect will be immense. The entire digital landscape will evolve. The public will be bettered, meaning fans/consumers will be bettered, meaning the entities themselves will be bettered, too.
Now that we’ve understood LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner through this framework, though, we can more easily bridge their work with the habits of everyday Internet users. Each technique that the artists use can, and arguably should, be incorporated into how you and I navigate the online world. Countless voices are always speaking on the Internet, but they’re usually talking at or to. If we want to create more meaningful connections in our own lives and communities, what better way than to start two-way conversations? Why not leverage our own platforms, subvert our own status (however large or small it may be), and listen more closely to others? Why not talk with?
In some ways, it can be more challenging for all of us non-famous individuals. We certainly don’t have the instant access to attention that brands and public figures do. Our circles are smaller, our microphones muter. But in other ways it’s easier. Most of our ‘audience’ is comprised of people we know, or met, or at least have mutual connections with. Ego aside, it’s easy to subvert our ‘status.’ Others may have preconceived notions, but likely to a much smaller degree. There’s less ground to make up. We can just… be human.
And, to be clear (and conclusive), many people do already use the Internet in a similar manner. Often times, it takes place anonymously, be it on online forums like Reddit or via mysteriously-run Twitter accounts with thousands of followers. (I just found out @DragonflyJonez had a face like a week ago.) Although the lack of a concrete identity slightly undermines the personal nature of the communication, in my opinion, such connections are still quite often authentic. Elsewhere, high school kids and young adults are already tapping into Facebook and Twitter as a tool to organize and participate in conversations with others. There are many individuals who, like LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner, are doing the good work on behalf of humanity.
Still, the Internet today can be chaotic and often duplicitous, and it’s easy to come away feeling cynical or downtrodden over its apparent wasted potential. But don’t give up yet! We stand on the precipice of a potentially momentous shift in how we exchange ideas online, and LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner’s work offers a glimpse into how people, be they public figures, marketing strategists, or just regular citizens, can be active participants in (and/or beneficiaries of) the quest to humanize the Internet.
How’d I do, Shia?