Two things that happened on Jan. 20 were that Donald Trump was inaugurated as president of the United States and actor/provocateur Shia LaBeouf started a livestream at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens.
LaBeouf and his collaborators’ project was simple. He set up a camera on the exterior wall of the museum along 37th Street in Astoria. Above it, he placed the words “He will not divide us,” written in black. The “participatory performance” was supposed to encourage people to go in front of the camera, at any time of the day or night, and repeat the mantra of unification. The camera streamed the view online, sending it to any screen.
Sometimes, the small patch of ground in front of the camera was full. Crowds chanted “He will not divide us,” waved flags and made fists or moony faces at the camera’s eye. Sometimes there was one person, or none. Sometimes LaBeouf was there. And sometimes, there were people spouting white-supremacist slogans and showing Nazi symbols.
It began not long after the project started. Trolls latched on quickly via Twitter, where Make America Great Again accounts took over #hewillnotdivideus. On websites like 4chan, some people reveling in alt-right language and traditions bounced screenshots and commentary of the livestream back and forth. They also showed up in person.
Often at night, the camera captured lovely things like young men in dark jackets, sunglasses and MAGA hats describing people who should be “shoahed,” turning the Hebrew word for the Holocaust into a verb. Or men holding up Nazi-style medals in front of the camera, or giving shoutouts to Planned Parenthood for keeping a “certain race” a minority in this country.
Were they kidding? It’s hard to say, as when a thrilled-looking white man who had earlier made fun of gender studies returned in front of the camera. “I wanna ride again,” he says, like it was an amusement park.
Mugging for the camera, interacting in real time with their online followers and participants, what they did out of either amusement or ideology had real-world effects.
In January, for example, LaBeouf got into an altercation with a young man wearing a Nazi hat. A few days later, on Jan. 26, LaBeouf got arrested after a separate altercation at the livestream. Hours later, police say someone called 311 threatening to shoot people at the site.
What else? The museum and regular people were reportedly the subject of online harassment. An artist/personality who showed up on the livestream known as Paperboy Prince of the Suburbs has been deluged with racist messages, Buzzfeed reported.
An alt-right wiki calls him, repeatedly, the worse racial epithets, and urges followers to “make Paper miserable.”
The museum closed the exhibit prematurely on Friday. The camera was taken down, the slogan gone.
An institution that often features somewhat lighter fare about “Mad Men” or Muppet creator Jim Henson got an accidental taste of the front lines of politics in 2017. “The installation created a serious and ongoing public safety hazard for the Museum, its visitors, staff, local residents, and businesses,” the museum said in a statement.
“He Will Not Divide Us” might not have made for happy neighbors or fêted art, but it was a pretty good incarnation of the current state of things in politics and technology.
Stunting online, no matter what your politics — whether you’re starting an anti-Trump livestream or crashing it maliciously — gets far more attention than a man on a soapbox. Who needs news anchors when you can speak direct to the camera? Maybe that immediacy elevates silenced voices, or maybe it just gives a platform to people spreading their dark, inane visions, pleasuring themselves.
The other thing: quickly, the online becomes real.
Catherine, an Astoria resident who asked to be identified only by her middle name due to fear of online and real-life harassers, said the alt-right camera-show was particularly disturbing in such a diverse neighborhood, given that ethnic purity is essentially the camera muggers’ only message.
“These people are out of their minds,” she said, noting her approval of the museum’s decision to shut the whole thing down.
It was disturbing, she said, hearing Nazi music and chants at night in her own neighborhood. She felt fearful, watching the participants’ habits on Twitter and in front of the camera. And yet: “I became engrossed in it.”