I’ve been thinking about Shia LaBeouf a lot this past weekend. Probably because while many were frantically redialling his hotline to touch his soul, I was stood right beside him. Installed in Liverpool’s FACT gallery, Shia LaBeouf, Nastja Säde Rönkkö and Luke Turner asked the public to touch their soul. For four days between the hours of 11am - 6pm GMT the lines were open as the collective fielded calls from screeching fans and the curious public.
I witnessed LaBeouf laying down a beat for one caller who expressed his desire to write a “Hip Hopera”; I saw a mother and her two children watch the trio until the youngest child, about 5, finally said, “I don’t like this. I want to leave”; I saw all three artists raise their eyebrows at one person’s attempt to touch their soul with his best story, titled “Pissy Bleedy Anal Girl” (for the record, it didn’t touch anyone’s soul). One woman said LaBeouf inspired her “as much as Miley Cyrus.” I also saw a lot of laughter, which propogated more laughter by those present who couldn’t hear just what was so funny.
The three artists transcribed what was said to them throughout the performance on a public Google doc. Those conversations were available on a giant screen in the gallery for their audience to read. A feed of them, answering the calls, was also livestreamed on touchmysoul.net.
Many people came to the gallery to see LaBeouf – the famous actor from Even Stevens and Transformers – in the flesh. What they soon realised, perhaps after the initial high of selfies and Snapchats wore off, was that they were, like it or not, part of the performance. “We developed the idea of having real moments mediated by technology because you’ve got these three people sat in a room and the rest of the audience are literally right next to them, but you can’t have a conversation with them, you have to call them up on the phone,” explains one of the show’s curators, Lesley Taker.
It’s actually that transparent barrier that transforms the performance into a seven-layer dip. “It’s about the framework of the show: what do you think is a real experience? Is it the person who is on the phone talking to them? Is it the person who is engaged in the Twitter campaign? Is it the person who’s stood behind them listening to one side of the conversation and getting the very basic transcription? And actually everything together is the experience that is essential. Knowing that you can fracture something up doesn’t make it less real; it doesn’t make it any less of an experience.”
22-year-old student Jack came to see Shia LaBeouf for all the “obvious reasons”, but is convinced this isn’t just another actor vanity project. “A lot of people will take the piss out of how he is and I like him more for what he’s doing now – really interesting stuff that he’s doing,” says Jack. What’s so interesting? “Well what he did with #AllMyMovies – he’s got self-awareness, which is a strange thing to see in celebrities. I’m sure all celebrities do have that but they don’t bring it out in the public domain.”
While LaBeouf, Rönkkö and Turner blitzed through a titanic number of calls, perhaps only a small fraction managed to touch their collective ‘soul’, but this wasn’t a one-sided project. Arguably, that brief connection proved much more valuable and authentic for those callers who kept hitting redial, a small gesture that paid them back tenfold. Here, the three collaborators discuss the project and reveal whose soul could use a good touch.
What was the best conversation you had during the duration of the performance?
Nastja Säde Rönkkö: I wouldn’t say there was one best call. There were so many that were very moving in different ways; some people moved us with their sweet energy, laughter, singing, silence, life stories, emotions. It was either the content of the call or the personal connection somehow created through the phone line.
There was one call that just blew us all away: a man called from Houston, Texas who said: “Hello, I have a few friends who would like to send some love to you guys. So if you could just listen,” followed by 20 minutes of Native American chanting by four or five men, in a language that we didn’t understand.
It was magic – some deeply powerful stuff that sent us all into a trance, out of place and time. After they finished, Shia asked what it was, and he simply replied, “Just some light and love from some very good friends.” It was a blessing, almost like an affirmation from some deeper, spiritual space. We spoke to more than a thousand people over the four days, non-stop. It was so intense.
Did you have a discussion about what might touch your soul beforehand?
Luke Turner: No. It was important that we left this completely open beforehand, so that we could be receptive to whatever feelings might travel down the phone lines to us over those four days.
I talked to curators Amy Jones and Lesley Taker a lot about the authenticity of experience and what is ‘real’. I’m curious if you think a connection is more authentic if it happens in real life as opposed to over the phone or, say, on Twitter.
Shia LaBeouf: I don't think it’s any less/more authentic
It’s not about seeing connection
Or even feeling connection
Connection is to be lived
And the internet is not any less alive.
Nastja Säde Rönkkö: I don’t think the connection is any less authentic when it happens on the phone. There is something about the anonymity of the calls that allows us to open up to each other. But I need some kind of human thing for a meaningful connection: a voice or a touch or a presence. I can’t connect that way online, in Twitter for example, but we can use the networks to facilitate these connections, to be a platform for the connections to happen.
“As one girl put it on the last day, having called shortly after spending some time in the gallery, ‘I went in there because he’s a Hollywood actor, and I left there thinking, just wow, it wasn’t anything to do with that […] It made me feel something that I’d never felt before’” – Luke Turner
How do you feel about the ‘digitisation’ of connection, meaning we can now choose a suitable partner based on a set of criteria we think we desire, or simply just a face we can swipe right on?
Shia LaBeouf: I think what you lose
Is the commitment to an investment of time
Because the courting process is narrowed to yes or no questions and 5 point scales
It rushes the fact finding mission
Which is a huge loss
People end up hastily chasing the pleasures
of a possible love
with such Mach 10 speed
they sometimes rush right past it
Luke Turner: One thing I’ve learnt from this project is that the most meaningful connections are not always quantifiable, in any conventional sense. There is often no rhyme or reason. The most potent, yet mysterious, of all human experiences remains that of shared feeling.
What might you consider an inauthentic connection?
Nastja Säde Rönkkö: I don’t think there is such a thing as inauthentic connection; some connections are just more meaningful than others. And then sometimes you just don’t connect with someone and it doesn’t touch you on any level.
Shia LaBeouf: Telling someone what they want to hear
Over what we want to say
Showing up for something out of duty
rather than desire
Guilt over truth.
Do you think people talk enough?
Nastja Säde Rönkkö: Yes, there is enough talking, but human beings could do much more with listening to each other. And I mean really listening, hearing someone out, respecting each other, giving time and space to each other.
Shia LaBeouf: Some would talk for a sentence
Some would talk for an hour
There was no set length
It took as long
or as little as it took.
Do you prefer phoning or texting?
Shia LaBeouf: I prefer phoning.
Nastja Säde Rönkkö: Phoning.
Luke Turner: I definitely prefer phoning.
What is the difference between acting and performance art? Surely there is still an element of performance when the audience is attentively watching, expecting you to ‘perform’?
Shia LaBeouf: Acting is manipulated
Performance is not
In terms of connecting with the public, is there a difference between what you do and when, for example, Bill Murray crashes a stranger’s party and does the dishes before leaving?
Shia LaBeouf: As long as Bill Murray
is fully immersed in the dishes
there is no difference.
Some might critique the performance as placing the onus on the callers to touch your soul, or beg for approval, or simply try and entertain you, making the connection rather one-sided. How would you respond to that?
Luke Turner: The show was very much about a collective soul. On each call, there were four (or more) people connected, and the most meaningful connections made were not one-sided in any sense.
Nastja Säde Rönkkö: For me the question was a starting point for a dialogue, for a connection, for a conversation. It was more like a shout out: hey fellow humans, lets connect with each other! The calls where everyone opened up and became vulnerable, including us, became very meaningful and beautiful for all of us. I think you get what you give. We had long conversations and connections, so there was nothing one sided in the experience. I don’t think you can truly touch somebody and not be touched yourself.
Luke Turner: We were inviting callers to make whatever gesture they so wished, within this strange and unexpected context. We hoped, and found for the most part, that people appreciated the opportunity to express, emote, engage and connect through this collaborative process, and that this was hopefully a rewarding experience for most involved. There was no artist-genius here, performing for the audience. The inspiration, the art, was the extended group.
It may perhaps seem a little unusual for an artist to be asking this of an audience, but we try to revolve our projects around the joy of contributing, collaborating, connecting, creating.
This piece was bigger than any of us. It was about community, about the wider world, bringing everyone in. Or, as one caller from Egypt put it: “This is feeling… You. Now. Wow.”
What was the importance of being physically located in the gallery? Why couldn't the entire performance have taken place online?
Nastja Säde Rönkkö: All our works play with the idea of online/offline worlds and how they connect and overlap, as well as how people connect through these spaces.
Shia LaBeouf: There was an element of the show that needed to be physically present in order to emphasize the reality and immediacy of the Internet
Some people would call up and ask us to hug their friend who was visiting in the room
We were able to add other sensory connections through the room that could not have been achieved solely online.
Many people came to the gallery just to see Shia LaBeouf, the actor. Does it matter if they saw the art?
Luke Turner: They did see the art. As one girl put it on the last day, having called shortly after spending some time in the gallery, “I went in there because he’s a Hollywood actor, and I left there thinking, just wow, it wasn’t anything to do with that. Everything was irrelevant while we were in there. It made me feel something that I’d never felt before.”
Were you challenged at any point – emotionally, physically – during the performance?
Shia LaBeouf: Yes – the last two hours of the second and third days.
Luke Turner: When we’d get calls from journalists, this would be the most frustrating. It was always very obvious, though they didn’t announce themselves. They would just ask questions, with their own agenda. They didn’t seem open to engaging or connecting.
Nastja Säde Rönkkö: Constantly! I think it was probably emotionally hardest work I have ever done. After we finished the tattoo, I went back to the hotel and just wept for an hour. I just couldn’t stop crying.
It was also hard because we couldn’t really communicate with each other; we were live-streamed, looked at in the gallery, and listened to on the phone. We also didn’t have breaks. We were just rolling eyes at each others sometimes, or writing tiny notes on our notebooks that we passed to each other, like in a school!
Whose soul could use a touching?
Shia LaBeouf: Two years ago
I would have had a very entertaining answer
I'm only interested in making friends now.
Nastja Säde Rönkkö: Those people deciding the future of our climate and our planet.
Luke Turner: All of us.