How a webcam in NYC is bringing us closer together

Why LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner’s non-stop, four-year-long performance piece, HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US, could provide certainty in an increasingly uncertain world

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LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner’s HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US
A still from Queens, the first location of LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner’s performance HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.USCourtesy hewillnotdivide.us

HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US is art trio, LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner’s, latest performance piece – a durational project that will stream all day, every day for four years or until Donald Trump is no longer President. Launched at 9am EST on Friday January 20 (the day of Trump’s inauguration) it captures a corner outside of New York’s Museum of Moving Image. The first images beamed from it were of Jaden Smith stood in front of the camera, hands in his bomber jacket, as he recited the words; “He will not divide us”. The premise of the performance is simple, participants are encouraged to deliver those words – also written on the wall in front of them – into the camera, for as long as they like. In turn, the participant is streamed onto the web address, HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US.

Ever since its launch, HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US has shared images of hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Moments after it went live, a red-haired man stood behind Smith, his fist clenched in the air for a few seconds before walking away silently. Two women soon joined Smith and began to chant. Soon, surrounded by a group of people from all backgrounds, they collectively broke into freestyle song and dance using those five words as their only lyrics; “He will not divide us”. LaBeouf was also there, alongside a rotating cast of people who took their spot in front of the camera: “The revolution starts here. It starts with you”, said one man, while another pointed to his brain, “It starts here!”

“(We’re) trying to keep the conversation going, trying to keep the fire stoked... I hope everyone comes out: pro this, pro that, anti this, anti that... Just be nice... You can be about whatever you’re about” – Shia LaBeouf

To recount everything said in front of the camera over the next week, let alone the next four years, would be incredibly overwhelming. The collective hours that I’ve spent tuned into the feed feel primal – it’s intoxicating and I can’t look away. I’ve craved a reminder that there are other people who believe that unity is our way out of darkness. While watching yesterday, every so often, LaBeouf would look into the camera and remind us, “you’re all invited”. I wanted to step through my screen and join, both when people filled it, singing and dancing, but also when they were alone, concern registering in their voice as they repeated the words to an anonymous audience. Hours slipped by and when I had to eventually switch off for food, water or general life, those words haunted me, ringing loud in my ears.

Anyone following LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner’s previous performances will know that connection, particularly when it transfers from the online realm into the real world, is at the heart of their work. Just last month, the trio’s #ANDINTHEEND took place over two days, whereby they invited the public, one-by-one, into an auditorium at the Sydney Opera House to say/ask/state anything, as long as it began with the words, “And in the end”. The statements were then broadcast on an LED ticker on the side of the iconic landmark. Speaking exclusively with Dazed Digital, Turner mused, “It is art’s role, now more than ever, to offer resistance, to continually question, and to provide a stimulus for new beginnings”. Rönkkö urged, “Keep fighting”, and LaBeouf declared:

“life is in session

it’s fuck or walk time

& we need each other”

It’s clear that, since they formed in 2014, LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner have been thinking a lot about human connection. And if HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US is truly looking to do what it says on its tin – that is, to bring people together – then in just five days, it has. On Sunday night, the world was touched by a man called Leo, who stood in front of the camera for three hours repeating “He will not divide us” until a woman named Alexi got out of her bed in Brooklyn to hug and join him. I’ve seen people stand hours next to someone they’ve just met and then swapped Instagram handles in order to keep in touch. Others have brought food and coffee. Yesterday a man recounted how, after travelling from Canada, he’d been given a bed for the night by someone he’d just met in front of the webcam. Last night, I tuned in to see a group of young people singing Bob Marley and Kendrick Lamar songs. It’s day five now, and LaBeouf is currently chanting, clapping and dancing on my screen. Alongside him is a young man called Nelson, who possesses a beautiful voice and was also there yesterday. “Sing, Nelson”, encourages LaBeouf, and soon after, Nelson leans into the camera and says, “If you have an instrument and wanna come play with us, please do.” More people join. While being in a physical space with a stranger is absolutely nothing new, perhaps it’s the notion that one of the most familiar faces in the world, Donald Trump, the President of the United States of America, feels so alien to our own beliefs that we are now seeking comfort in the unfamiliarity of strangers.

By launching their own platform, LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner subvert the mainstream media, who are quick to negatively skew anything that LaBeouf is involved with. When a white supremacist jumped in front of the webcam on Sunday and proclaimed, “We must secure the existence of white people”, before being shouted down by LaBeouf, and anyone else present at the time, news websites ran with headlines such as, “Shia LaBeouf Freaks Out When Trump Supporter Shows Up to Protest Live Stream” and “Pro-Trump and alt-right counter-protesters are playing with the actor's short fuse”.

But having their own media platform means that transparency isn’t at risk of being clouded and anyone who wants to truly see what’s happening can log on and see for themselves. Yesterday, when a journalist from Associated Press approached LaBeouf for an interview, LaBeouf spoke into the live stream: “She doesn’t want to do it in front of our camera”. He turned to her, “I respect your questions... The only requirement is that you’re a public person.” After a phone call to her editor for permission, the journalist stepped into the corner of the frame. She asked LaBeouf why he’d chosen the location, at the Museum of Moving Image: “More languages are spoken in Queens than in the whole wide world… (there’s) a lot of America here”, he replied. “We are all committed. We’re in the streets. (We’re) trying to keep the conversation going, trying to keep the fire stoked. We’re trying to stay connected. We’re anti-division out here; everyone is connected. I hope everyone comes out: pro this, pro that, anti this, anti that. I hope everyone comes out here. Just be nice – let’s just be nice to each other. You can be about whatever you’re about. Easy.” His statement confirmed the simplicity of the performance – by asking participants to deliver just five words, “He will not divide us”, LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner don’t ask us to detail the nuances of our politics. They don’t ask who we voted for – although, assumedly, most of the participants are anti-Trump – and they don’t ask us to rehash our pasts or our backgrounds. Instead, LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner ask for a basic promise; to unify, respective of our differences.

“LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner ask for a basic promise; to unify, respective of our differences”

As we lift the veil on a collective mourning period, evidenced in thousands of think pieces and news stories, some published here, we stop asking, how did we get here? How did we elect someone like Donald Trump to become the leader of the free world? and we mobilise. We saw it with the Women’s Marches that took place last Saturday across the world. Our generation, all-too-frequently labelled as politically disenfranchised, rose up together. Using the technology often levelled as a critique against young people – “they’re too dependent on it” – we can pull strength, not just from our communities but from worldwide ones. Unfortunately, it’s unrealistic for millions of people to march every day for the next four years. Instead, we can plug in a webcam, stand in front of it with friends, family, strangers, and repeat/whisper/chant/sing/scream the words, “He will not divide us”, just once, or over-and-over-and-over again until our voices fail or we have to go to work or to bed. Or just have to go somewhere else.

Perhaps I’m struck by blind idealism, but in this newly dubbed post-truth era, who are we to side-eye any form of hope, when, in his first days as President, Trump has cut funding to all non-governmental organisations that promote or perform abortions, as well as removed any mention of civil rights, climate change, and healthcare from the White House’s official website. I’m not naïve enough to not realise that – on a 24/7 live stream that will potentially last for four-years – there is room for both beautiful and ugly things to happen. Naturally, it provides an opportunity for right-wing extremists to slither in and use it against us. This knowledge makes the performance equal parts frightening as it is exciting. And thinking about how the next 1,400-and-something days will unfold, live in a corner of Queens, mirrors the uncertainty of what Trump’s presidency might bring too. Whether activity on the feed fades out in the coming weeks – will LaBeouf continue to appear every day? As I type this, there he is – there’s comfort in knowing that anyone in New York, at their lowest or highest, can walk in front of a camera stuck to a wall in Astoria and broadcast their message to the world. A simple and much-needed reminder, likely delivered by an absolute stranger, that resistance and unity are unwavering.

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