When I watched the live stream of “He Will Not Divide Us,” the installation art piece created by Shia LaBoeuf, Luke Turner and Nastja Säde Rönkkö that recently landed in downtown Albuquerque after being evicted from its first home in Astoria, Queens, I saw a man hoist his toddler in front of the camera, the child repeating the mantra in sing-song. At another point I watched a woman hold up a sign that read “Support Immigrant Rights,” while a car crept by down early-morning Seventh Street and a crow scolded the passerby in the background. Later, I watched the mottled figure of a man attempt to clean the lens after someone early on Tuesday buffed the installation with pink spray paint and the words “Reject False Idols. Do It!” After that, a guy in sunglasses smoked a bowl while “Wonderwall” played in the background. Inane, earnest or sometimes even sweet, these images, I think largely speak to the artists' vision, yet, unease unfolds around the project, too.
The installation was mysteriously brought to Albuquerque and set up on the west wall of the El Rey Theatre after The Museum of Moving Images in New York deemed the work “a serious and ongoing public safety hazard.” The concept is thus: A webcam (streaming live, 24-hours-a-day) is mounted to a wall under blocky, capital lettering that reads: “He Will Not Divide Us.” Participants are encouraged to approach the camera and repeat the words however many times they like, in whatever way they are moved to. The camera is intended to roll for the duration of Donald Trump's presidency in an effort to protest “the normalization of division,” as LaBoeuf put it. Yet, during its tenure in New York, the installation quickly devolved from its intent, and instead became a “flashpoint for violence,” as the museum stated, where participants and white supremacists, nazis and Trump supporters of all stripes clashed, effectively increasing the policing of the area, and even at one point causing the installation to be fenced off, literally dividing the camps.
Considering its history, and all that the piece has incited, the relocation of “He Will Not Divide Us” to Albuquerque is fraught. Here, some community members respond to the work in their own words.
“I think it's pretty ostentatious and [that] he [LaBoeuf] would be a better actor if [it] did not exist.”
“I struggle to see any functional impact of the project. To alter the trajectory of politics in the States, we have to shake up the social structures, because social structures provide the foundation for power structures. People, and their votes, get a candidate into office and legitimize that candidate's behavior through action or inaction, through approval or disapproval. The power structure (among other things) determines the parameters in which the economy operates through legislation pertaining to tariffs, tax incentives, interest rates, wage, federal spending, etc. The interaction of the power structure and social structure serve to drive the economic structure through consumption, investment, employment availability, labor stability, etc. Trump was elected because he engaged a broad enough cross section of American social structures, through, in part, his personal brand recognition, his promise of returning to a previous, and presumably more stable structure (as suggested by the campaign slogan "Make America Great Again") … and distrust of the Other … such as migrant laborers, Muslims, refugees, women, LGBTQ [people] or those that value science and change over tradition. Making statements into a camera perhaps offers catharsis, however, a statement like "he will not divide us" is in [and] of itself critical of Trump, and while that criticism may be quite reasonable, it is most attractive to those already critical of him and thus feeds right back into a partisan echo chamber. If the "resistance" of the moment doesn't confront extant structures or engage a conversation across already divided political affiliations, then what does it really accomplish?”
The installation was mysteriously brought to Albuquerque and set up on the west wall of the El Rey Theatre after The Museum of Moving Images in New York deemed the work “a serious and ongoing public safety hazard.”
“I think installing this art action, considering what it inspired in other locales, was worthy of a POC impact study here in Albuquerque. As someone who works nearby and because I'm a member of the one percent (one percent of Albuquerque's population are black women) I draw more than my share of unwanted, unwarranted and unnecessary attention. I'm not looking forward to meeting up with white supremacists gathered there, day and/or night. I think the installation reflects the whimsy of some white artists who don't consider (or for whom it never occurs) their impact on the communities they move into.”
“Sincerity is subjective. We can't tell … if Da Vinci was being sincere or not when he painted the ‘Mona Lisa.’ I would say that sincerity is why it's currently running in New Mexico. He [LaBoeuf] came here to film the [movie] Thundercat and had a great time and met great people. He spent the three days prior to install talking to New Mexicans [and] ABQ businesses. … But metamodernism is not modernism, so sincerity doesn't matter. Success or failure doesn't matter. [The art] is driven by the romanticism of doing. It [is] not the relational aesthetic of Hirst or his ilk. It's not the manufactured scarcity of Abramovic. He is making no money from this. The art is about his own penitence and all the muddy human and ineloquent things in between. It's performance and protest democratized. Your soap box is equal to the soap box of the man whom half of the people are just there to take a selfie with. His celebrity often overshadows [the] performance, but so what? What, if anything, do artists or celebrities owe us? There is no fee at the installation. Opinions are not solicited as part of the work. It's a mirror to see ourselves. And of course there is the classic "in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes," so he's really just building off of what pop art created decades ago. Now the artist and celebrity are truly indistinguishable and it overlaps with the lives of everyday people.”
-Eric J. Martinez
“It's odd that he would pick ABQ, [in that way it] kind of just adds useless noise to the already cacophonous echo chamber … It's all about the spectacle. Celebrity artists, nah … but I invite him to speak at the gallery if he'd like.”
-Bradford Erickson, interdisciplinary artist and lead facilitator at Small Engine Gallery
“I liked [the opening] because it got people who don't normally go to art-focused events to go and maybe think a little deeper about who is affected by [the issues it raises] and what support systems those folks have (or lack thereof). I think people are often really harsh when celebrities are involved with things because [they] are [very] privileged and often seem to not realize it, but "average" people forget celebrities [are] still human and are actually fragile babies like everyone else. (Another thought: Is Shia actually an artist or part of the piece? Art needs to be eye-catching to get attention, and his wacky factor really gets people going.)”
“I haven't seen the piece, but if the work causes one to respond beyond the binaries we are forced to engage with, I must support it.”
-Raven Chacon, composer and artist
“[On the installation being vandalized with the words “Reject False Idols. Do It!”] This is the appropriate response when some sucker comes from out of town and starts throwing up his sign on your streets when he's uninvited. Those are the rules of street art. Albuquerque has enough bad art and too many unseen artists doing great, political work that we don't need our shit imported from Los Angeles [or New York]. Reject false idols indeed!”
“The Museum of Moving Images removed this piece because ‘the installation created a serious and ongoing public safety hazard,’ after ‘several incidents.’ It has now been plopped down in Albuquerque without much context (as one artist said to a journalist, ‘The rest of the info is right there, chief, I got nothing else to say to you.’). Clearly this work is divisive in itself: With large block text looming from above, the artist encourages the public to repeat the phrase over and over like a child in a tantrum. How can a meaningful exchange occur when you are told what to say, much less when you are facing a (security) camera on a wall? If we are trying to avoid or conquer a divide, we must face one another and have a conversation. We must look into each other's eyes and develop radical empathy for one another. Instead of allowing the piece to devolve into another public safety hazard, let's use the camera as an opportunity to perform our own art and our own truth.”
-Lindsey Fromm, Project Director: Friends of the Orphan Signs and CNM art faculty
After gunshots were reported in the area of the installation, the live stream from the piece was stopped on Thursday, Feb. 23.