Ever wanted to know what it's like to be in the eye of a viral storm? Aimee Cliff writes exclusively about the media madness that followed her #interview with Shia LaBeouf
A few days ago, the world laid eyes on my silent hour-long meeting with Shia LaBeouf. At the same time, our two-week email correspondence was published in full on the website he shares with his collaborators, British artist Luke Turner and Finnish artist Nastja Säde Rönkkö. A lot of people, since they saw it, have been asking me how weird it was to do. Here’s the honest answer: what’s been happening since the piece was published has been much, much weirder.
After the #interview went live, I watched as my world split into two parallel lines. Now, there was what I knew of it, and what was being interpreted and rewritten online. The media distilled our film into keywords in order to quickly translate it to their audience, and place it in the context of their general coverage of LaBeouf’s activities. BuzzFeed and several other outlets called it “bizarre”; the Daily Mail called it “pretentious” (of course). All of these descriptors took an experience that, for me, was lived and complex, and made it into something that fits neatly into a timeline of “weird”.
“Conspiracy theories were rampant: I must know LaBeouf in some non-professional capacity. His emails must have been written by a publicist. The film must have been looped; we could even have faked it, and never met at all”
As well as watching the editorial coverage, after the #interview was published I became a little obsessed with reading the comments on various iterations of the story, despite the fact that all online writers should know to Never Read The Comments. What stuck out - apart from the “publicly articulated resentment” LaBeouf talked about - was an undercurrent of mistrust. There were a lot of kind remarks, and a lot of people who accepted the open nature of the interview on its own terms. But there were many who seemed determined to uncover the “truth” they were convinced must be lurking beneath what they could see. Conspiracy theories were rampant: I must know LaBeouf in some non-professional capacity (that’s putting it in milder terms than many Redditors did). His emails must have been written by a publicist. The film must have been looped: we could even have faked it, and never met at all. It reminded me of something Rönkkö told me when I interviewed her and Turner for art website aqnb back in May. “A lot of the time people ask me, ‘Have you actually met (LaBeouf)?’,” she said. “And they’re surprised when I have, because it’s somehow so removed from tactile reality. He’s somehow not real for people.”
Seeing this unfold was in itself a new and overwhelming experience for me, but was nothing in comparison to the way in which the coverage focused on one aspect of my exchange with LaBeouf. The endemic disbelief seeped, more venomously, into LaBeouf’s story of having been sexually assaulted by a woman who attended his #IAMSORRY exhibit in February. This was the aspect of our conversation that travelled furthest - naturally, because it’s a moment of painful honesty that reveals not only personal trauma, but a shocking insight into how celebrity objectification can rapidly spill over into actual acts of violence, as well as a rare moment of public acknowledgement for male rape victims. LaBeouf’s account has been met with derision and scepticism from media and commenters alike, with Turner and Rönkkö being practically forced to confirm they were aware that this incident had taken place.
People have, in their droves, spent this week asking whether LaBeouf was tied down; whether he fought this woman or told her to stop; whether he tried or managed to press charges against her. It’s been sickening to see rape culture at work, putting the victim on trial to determine the accuracy of their claims even when no one has been accused. What LaBeouf gave us was a personal confession. What it’s become is a sprawling dialogue about the politics of consent, and a warped string of fantasies about how exactly he was violated. It shouldn’t need to be said that those details are none of our business, and that his word on the matter should be enough.
This weekend, as the media spiral swirled, Turner and Rönkkö gave an interview The Guardian, with the aim of better contextualising and explaining their ongoing collaboration with LaBeouf. Many outlets had been wrongly conflating the #IAMSORRY exhibit with Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm 0, and inaccurately claiming that visitors to the gallery were invited to “do whatever they wanted” to LaBeouf (you can read the entire artists’ statement from the time here). Even this latest interview, though, left the artists feeling that their message had been warped further; they tell me over email that a three-hour conversation about their practice was whittled down to include solely quotes that could somehow be related to the specifics of LaBeouf’s assault. “Not only was our trust broken, we were misquoted, cross-quoted, and our words taken grossly out of context,” says Rönkkö.
All of this fall-out, in both comment sections and cynical media, is as important as what happened on October 19, when LaBeouf and I met. Since the beginning of this year, Turner and Rönkkö have been creating work with LaBeouf that not only hinges on creating very real, very immediate moments (like coming face-to-face with the actor in private at #IAMSORRY; working up a sweat while skipping in time with him and running beside him; or seeing his instructions spelled out across the sky) but also the way in which those moments spiral outwards across the networks. Take a look at Turner’s metamodernist manifesto, which, earlier this year, temporarily bore LaBeouf’s name (back when LaBeouf was playing with ideas of authorship and plagiarism). It’s captured on Turner’s website here, alongside incredulous 4Chan comments and even a YouTube parody of the manifesto that was created in response to the belief that LaBeouf had actually written it. When presented with something unexpected in the celebrity world, or something awkward or uncomfortably earnest on social media, why do we shut it down?
“This is why it’s so fascinating to see the online reactions work hard to turn our #interview into a spectacle: to remove it further and further from its original spirit, to make it conform”
On the whole, this experience has got me thinking about Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, an extract of which LaBeouf read to a classroom of London College of Fashion students during a surprise interruption of their seminar via Skype back in February. “(The spectacle) is the opposite of dialogue,” he told them. “Wherever representation becomes independent, the spectacle regenerates itself.” What Debord depicts in his vision of the “spectacle” is a kind of pseudo-reality that totally defines the way we live in 2014. Celebrity culture is the most extreme aspect of it: we piece together narratives and opinions of stars’ lives - totally detached from their concrete reality - from snatched quotes, magazine photo shoots and intrusive paparazzi glimpses into their daily routines. Closer to home, we all create the same kind of “spectacle” through social media, inviting strangers to connect the dots and form impressions of our lives between carefully curated frames. It’s the opposite of dialogue because it’s a one-way system of representation; but a “dialogue” is exactly what LaBeouf asked me for when he emailed me out of the blue back in September. The resulting #interview felt like the most transparent, most honest document of an interaction you could possibly achieve with someone in LaBeouf’s position; almost groundbreaking in its simplicity. We created something deliberately anti-spectacular.
This is why it’s so fascinating to see the online reactions work hard to turn our #interview into a spectacle: to remove it further and further from its original spirit, to make it conform. Having been invited to live briefly inside the fishbowl and watch how this all unfolds from within, it’s been a simultaneously alienating and intimate experience of what LaBeouf calls the “living-apart-together-media.” It’s a form of communication that’s built on upholding the constant illusion that there’s a “real” explanation just out of sight: romance, mental illness, narcissism. It thrives on asking, “provocative or pointless?” “Insanity or genius?” But maybe the answer is neither. We don’t consider that the truth may just be in plain sight.