What’s going on with Shia LaBeouf? Between the paper bag outfit at the Berlin Film Festival, his enigmatic “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE” tweets, quoting Eric Cantona and his plagiarising Daniel Clowes, he’s gone from Transformers star to Joaquin Phoenix in full-on I'm Not There mode.
But he’s not just coming up with all of this for the public’s benefit – last Tuesday, he also privately treated a classroom of London College of Fashion students to his new artistic persona. During a seminar for a MA Fashion Photography class entitled Fashion Spectacle, LaBeouf Skype-called a group of 30 students and read from the first chapter of Guy Debord’s The Society of Spectacle for 20 minutes.
In case you're not up to speed with Marxist critical theory, the French philosopher's seminal work is a critique of how the mass media and contemporary consumer culture creates a spectacle that lulls humans into passivity and hinders critical thought. Who knows where Debord fits into LaBeouf's current artistic ouevre? He's got his own manifesto already.
People oscillate between describing his new endeavours as brilliant, weird, crazy, or just plain creepy – particularly in light of his most recent stunt, the #IAMSORRY show, where attendees are led into a room where LaBeouf, with a paper bag over his head, sits silently and lets you do or say anything you want. (If people run out of ideas, there's a table of objects, ranging from a Daniel Clowes book to a bowl of mean tweets about Shia, to inspire.) In any case, at least his Skype appearance at LCF shows he's not just doing this for the benefit of the press. He has gone 100% Joaquin and committed. Dazed spoke to LCF student Casey MacKenzie, who watched the entire performance piece.
Update: We now have video, thanks to student Polina Belehhova. Enjoy!
Dazed Digital: So, talk us through what happened.
Casey MacKenzie: We were having a couple of industry speakers come in and share with us, and we were supposed to be Skyping with Nastja Säde Rönkkö (the Finnish performance artist who is listed as a credit for #IAMSORRY). And then Shia LaBeouf popped up onscreen. I was like, “Is this really happening?”
DD: What did he say?
Casey MacKenzie: “Hi, my name’s Shia, I’m going to read something to you.” It must have been 6.30 in the morning in LA. He starts going and it sounds vaguely familiar, he’s clearly reading something off a screen while drinking a cup of coffee – then it becomes obvious he’s reading from The Society of Spectacle. The Skype call was like 20 minutes long and he was just ploughing through it. Then he said, “Thanks so much for letting me read to you!” and hung up.
DD: How did people react?
Casey MacKenzie: A lot of people were like, “Was that real? Did that just happen?!” The people who cut class that day were pretty bummed about it. But my course is mostly international students and some people had no idea who he was.
DD: So how was his reading of Guy Debord?
Casey MacKenzie: At first it was really interesting, because he’s talking from this well-respected book we’ve been studying. Then it became tedious; like, it’s a really dense piece of literature and he just kept going. There was no way you could follow what he was saying. It was interesting in one way, because he’s a celebrity so his presence, digital or otherwise, was a spectacle – but he’s reading this academic text on the idea of being outside the spectacle and examining it. Then it went on for so long, that in itself became the spectacle again.
DD: Reading Guy Debord when you’re in the middle of a big media storm seems a bit obvious.
Casey MacKenzie: It is a pretty obvious text. As an MA art student, it’s the first one you pick up. Everyone’s like, “Oh he’s so crazy, what’s he doing?” Maybe he is brilliant and knows exactly what he’s doing, but maybe he’s fraternising with artists who can direct him to these things that justify his behaviour.
DD: Why do you think he did this? Talking to a classroom of 30 students is kind of a step down from a press conference.
Casey MacKenzie: I don’t know! I’m pretty impressed he did it, he had to get up early (who likes doing that, right) and talk to us for 22 minutes. Maybe he did it as a favour for his friend? As another outlet or exploration of his idea of spectacle?
DD: Did your tutor give any indication he knew this was happening?
Casey MacKenzie: I don’t think he even knew who Shia was. Right before he set up the phone call, he said Nastja and ‘Shee-ah La-boof’ were doing a performance piece for us, but he pronounced it like he’d never seen the name before.
DD: So, the big question… Is this art or not?
Casey MacKenzie: Well, if I decry the spectacle and I decide I’m not going to participate in it, no one cares. Because I’m not famous. As far as art goes, he’s not doing anything that radical, but his platform makes it radical. But it’s art, so how can you ever really be sure? I met someone yesterday and she said, “Well there’s nothing new anymore. What’s the point of making something new?” We’re all on some level regurgitating something that’s already been done. Maybe that’s something he’s buying into.
Follow Zing Tsjeng on Twitter here @misszing