LaBeouf, Ronkko & Turner - ART & PHOTOGRAPHYLONGREAD
Shia LaBeouf, Nastja Säde Rönkkö, and Luke Turner get radically open
As they premiere their new film #TAKEMEANYWHERE, the trio discuss their projects since 2016 – including HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US – Shia’s arrests, and working with Kanye West
In the summer of 2016, Shia LaBeouf, Nastja Säde Rönkkö, and Luke Turner embarked on a road trip. It was the collaborative art trio’s 15th project together, and perhaps one that best embodies their ethos: of sincerity infused with irony, the real infused with the digital, and most of all, the pursuit of real connections. Titled #TAKEMEANYWHERE, the month-long trip involved the three artists posting their coordinates online every day – from that information, members of the public could come and pick them up, and as the hashtag suggests, take them just about anywhere.
Throughout the trip, they carried with them a handheld video camera, which was often passed around between them and their new friends. The result is a surreal road trip montage that chronicles what feels like 30 miniature love stories against a wide-open, sighing horizon. We meet gun-toting libertarians, Mormons, horse riders, Even Stevens fans, and aspiring novelists. We meet entire families, and hear their most poignant stories, about their dead fathers and estranged ex-husbands. (Watch the film exclusively below.)
The sunkissed laughter and open-hearted nature of the film is a reminder that this 2016 project existed in a more techno-optimistic world than the one now inhabited by the trio, their work, and the US at large. It took place before Trump was elected as president in a toxic cloud of Russian troll farms and racist memes, and before LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner launched HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US, a project that has become dogged by malicious interference, and brought a new set of considerations to their practice.
HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US began life on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, January 20, 2017. It was a camera mounted on a wall outside the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, which the trio announced would remain there, livestreaming, throughout the remainder of Trump’s presidency. The stream began with Jaden Smith simply reciting the phrase “he will not divide us” for several hours. But when 4Chan trolls and racists began targeting the installation, the atmosphere changed. On January 24, the stream showed LaBeouf screaming in the ear of a man who had been reciting white supremacist slogans into the camera. The next day, LaBeouf was arrested at the site of the installation for allegedly assaulting a man claiming to be an ISIS terrorist. In early February, the museum shut the project down; it has since been relocated four times, after being repeatedly targeted by trolls and Nazis who have attempted to destroy it, or corrupt its purpose. It currently takes the form of a flag, which is being livestreamed from Nantes, France. There has been at least one attempt to burn it down it there, via drone.
LaBeouf, Rönkkö, and Turner have taken part in another project, #ALONETOGETHER, in the time since this transpired, but in the press they’ve largely remained quiet. In the absence of interviews, LaBeouf made headlines for a different reason in the summer of 2017, when he was arrested for public drunkenness in Georgia. Video footage was released of the arrest, showing LaBeouf telling the officer arresting him that he was “going to hell”, among other profanities. He told a black officer, “you got a president who don’t give a shit about you...so you wanna arrest white people who give a fuck?” LaBeouf made a public apology, acknowledging the “severity” of his behaviour, and indicating his commitment to getting sober.
In February 2018, I met with the trio in Turner’s London home (Rönkkö and LaBeouf joined us on Skype) for their first printed interview since 2016. They opened up about the difficulties and joys of placing their trust in members of the public; about how they felt let down by The Museum of the Moving Image; about LaBeouf’s arrests in the past year; about their almost-collaboration with Kanye West, and where their journey may take them next.
(In between talking to LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner, I also posed questions to the Facebook group of people across America who took part in #TAKEMEANYWHERE. Screenshots of their answers are embedded below.)
In the film, it seems like people who picked you up for #TAKEMEANYWHERE opened up about some of the most important moments in their lives. Do you find people often bring their most personal stories to you?
Shia LaBeouf: I feel like, there’s some people who use the heavy, heavy duty shit in their life as like a jab. They get nervous, and they get defensive, and sometimes they’ll use the heaviest thing in their life to sort of, to jab you back. I have a tendency to do that, also.
Luke Turner: The first half hour (in the car) was always kind of what they (had) prepared – after that, it was like, 'Where are we going?' Then, we're actually relaxed with each other. You break the ice very quickly when you're in a car. Their music was also a big part of the trip – it is a way of bonding, fighting for the aux cable...
This new community has formed of the people you met on the trip, who are all still in contact with each other on Facebook. Was that an intended outcome?
Luke Turner: It’s inherent. Often, (the hashtag title) is the thing that will unite people – the hashtag’s always functioning that way. You see other people who are posting regularly with that hashtag, and they start creating some kind of bond. I wouldn't say it's by design, because it's kind of a lucky, beautiful thing that happens, but yeah, it’s the ideal outcome.
The American landscape is a character in the film – it’s so scenic and beautiful. It feels like a really optimistic vision of America, a reclaiming of it, which is interesting given everything that’s happened between you embarking on this project, and releasing the film now.
Nastja Säde Rönkkö: There hasn't been very much positive coming out of the US; it’s just a constant shitstorm of different things. A year into Trump’s presidency, it feels like a good moment to have some hope and joy. It’s quite a happy film, even though it has its dark moments.
There’s moments in the film where it seemed you were anxious or frightened. A lot of your projects are dependent on totally trusting strangers. How did you cope with that?
Luke Turner: I mean, you’re always putting yourself out there, and we're well aware of that vulnerability. We go into it with a sort of informed naivety.
Nastja Säde Rönkkö: It was almost like heartbreak every 24 hours. Most of them became really close friends. You get this experience, and get close to them, then you just have to destroy it and get a new one, then get destroyed again.
“For me, emotions are political. Softness is political; I'm showing this vulnerability, and it's political” – Nastja Säde Rönkkö
There's been a couple of instances now, with your 2014 project #IAMSORRY and 2017’s HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US, where people have abused or misused that trust. Is it difficult to recover from that?
Nastja Säde Rönkkö: I think we could not have done (#TAKEMEANYWHERE) after HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US. It would have been almost impossible –
Luke Turner: Absolutely, we couldn't do it.
Nastja Säde Rönkkö: But then again… We set up a certain thing, and then people take part or don't take part. I don't want to be like, "This doesn't fit into my ideology”, or like, “don't say this or do this.” So I think misusing trust is a big part of it. We can't expect everyone to love the things we do.
Do you feel like you will remain committed to making more overtly political art?
Nastja Säde Rönkkö: For me, emotions are political. Softness is political; I'm showing this vulnerability, and it's political. It doesn't need to be necessarily so direct – I think our work has always been political in that sense. Personally, I'm more interested in these kind of subtle ways of discussing things or opening up questions. (In January 2017), it felt necessary to be very direct.
You have been criticised before, on the basis of the art world having this derisive outlook towards emotion in art generally.
Luke Turner: I feel that's really shifted; our contemporaries seem to get it.
Nastja Säde Rönkkö: I think everything shifted since January (2017), everything feels like, there is no bullshit, in a way. People are more direct and go to the point faster. There’s almost this feel of urgency, and I think people talk about emotions more. It’s been a year (and a half) since we actually (did #TAKEMEANYWHERE), so it's quite interesting...everything is based around HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US and it's just very different, so I'm quite curious to see, you know, the conversation around this.
Luke Turner: It's very different, but very linked. I think all our projects are related, there are strands that tie them together, in terms of that radical openness.
Shia LaBeouf: Nastja and Luke say that (#TAKEMEANYWHERE) is not a show we could ever do again, but I feel quite the opposite. I feel like it would be a different show, no doubt, but I feel like this is a solution.
Luke Turner: Yes – the end result wouldn't be the same.
Shia LaBeouf: No, the result would not be the same – but the act of doing it is the solution.
Participants in TAKEMEANYWHERE reflect on why they got involved in the project
How did you originally come up with the idea for HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US?
Luke Turner: The idea for HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US actually came after a meeting we'd had with Kanye West about working on something together, right around the time of the 2016 election. We'd put the idea to him immediately after the election, but following his on-stage political diatribe a couple of days later, we put any plans on the back-burner, for obvious reasons. But the subsequent sight of Kanye appearing at Trump Tower made us realise how important it was to us to go ahead with the project in some form. We ended up reaching out to Jaden to help us kick off the work in New York, which he did beautifully, striking the perfect tone. A little later down the line, Kanye also told us that he'd like to get involved again, acknowledging I think that he'd made some misjudgements along the way. There's definitely a genuine earnestness and hopefulness on his part to make a positive difference, which I think mirrors what has always been the impetus for our work.
It’s been targeted by a combination of 4Chan trolls and white supremacists – how do you feel about the way it has been depicted in the media over the past year?
Shia LaBeouf: The media likes to paint real life Nazis as just like, lonely kids in their mom's basement, and it's not always that way. I mean, the people who came to Tennessee (to destroy the project) were straight-up traditionalists. Guns in the trunk, looking for targets, lighting farms on fire, full-blown Nazis. Before Charlottesville, it was a “bunch of kids in their basement” – after Charlottesville, the media could no longer responsibly spin that narrative, because they would be doing what Trump did (by saying): “There's good guys on both sides.” Then the narrative started switching. But this is after our show had already been destroyed. There’s an awareness that’s lacking of what this was, on the side of the right. I mean even my father – I just started talking to my dad again – and when we talk about the project, he still thinks, 'Oh, it's just trolls! You got trolled.'
Luke Turner: People don't realise that a troll is one thing and neo-Nazi is another thing. You can be a troll and a neo-Nazi. It doesn't make you any less of a neo-Nazi.
Using the word “troll” in this context is euphemistic. I think it partly comes from this whole idea of things online being not quite as real as things that are offline.
Luke Turner: Yes, and this is how Trump has got elected – as a kind of master troll. This how it starts, it’s always just a “joke”, people committing atrocities – it's dehumanising a group of people, and so it becomes like a sport. As Jennifer Doyle wrote, to those doing the lynching, it was never a sombre affair. It doesn't make it any less of a crime or any less serious. Look at Charlottesville, they were having a good time with their tiki torches, and then they killed someone.
“For me, a kid from Disney Channel, to Transformers, who's been looking for meaning, I looked at HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US as the most important thing I had ever been a part of in my whole fucking life” – Shia LaBeouf
Could you tell me more about how the arrest happened at the project’s first site, The Museum of the Moving Image, and how things went wrong?
Shia LaBeouf: If you're on an aeroplane, if you're at a concert, and somebody tells you they're from ISIS and they put their finger in the air and tell you they've got a bomb on their chest –
Luke Turner: If you did that in Europe, the anti-terrorism police would jump on you. This is what happened in New York, this guy was claiming to be a ISIS terrorist, had a scarf over his face and was doing an ISIS salute and saying he would blow people up. Shia confronted him because the police were standing there not confronting him, the museum security was standing there not confronting him. Presumably, they weren't confronting him because he's white. Because they don't realise that not all Islamic terrorists are not white. So, Shia took him to one side, and pulled his scarf from his face so that he could look him in the eye, and he went, "He just assaulted me!"
Shia LaBeouf: He flopped on the floor and said that I scratched him. The cop took him to the side, they took pictures of his face.
Luke Turner: Everyone there said “No he didn't!” The Trump guys, the MAGA guys, were like "No he didn't! What are you talking about?" It was obvious that nothing had happened.
Shia LaBeouf: The goal of the police was to shut our show down. The museum called them. The museum told them to stay there.
Why did you feel the museum were trying to shut down the show?
Luke Turner: (A New York City) councillor, within the first week had told the museum, “I want this show shut.” It’s a corruption of the system. The museum director, who is also Islamophobic...On the first day, even before we'd started our show, I was anticipating neo-Nazis coming, and I was saying “America is in a very difficult place, there's a lot of racism. Obviously there's a lot in the UK too, it feels a little bit better maybe, living in London, because it's a cosmopolitan place”. And he said, “Oh yeah, I hear you've just elected a terrorist as the Mayor.”
Shia LaBeouf: (In the media), it's much easier to spin the narrative of “this crazy fucking celebrity millionaire asshole” than it is to talk about what's actually happening with the community that was showing up.
Luke Turner: (The museum) refused to put on any security. The whole point of having it in an institution – it was on their private grounds – was that they would be able to police it. Their refusal to take a stand is really grotesque and horrifying. They extricated themselves, tried to absolve themselves of any responsibility. Then we as artists became targeted; the work became targeted.
Shia LaBeouf: They loved the show when it was Jaden on camera.
If you could launch the project again, is there anything you would do differently?
Shia LaBeouf: I stayed there a day too long. This is what happened: for me, a kid from Disney Channel, to Transformers, who's been looking for meaning, I looked at HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US as the most important thing I had ever been a part of in my whole fucking life. It was just beyond anything I had ever felt, and it was the first time I had touched what I'm after. Real deal, no-fuck-around purpose. Then I got lost, and intoxicated in that. I didn't want to leave it. I remember telling Luke, “I'm going to be here for four fucking years.” What ended up happening is, it feels like – and not in an insincere way – it's kind of like LARPing. I became this SJW, even my clothing became a character. It is me, there's no falsehoods in it – it's a side to me that I fucking love. I got lost in it, and that destroyed some of the beauty of the work, which was that the “He” was not specific. It could have been any “He” you wanted.
Luke Turner: But I think that's the point, Shia. Within our work we always plant that seed and set those frameworks in place, and within that we're still our own people, in whatever we do. So we're not disrupting the show. You were drawn to one point of view, I was drawn to another. I think that's what really enriches our collaboration, the fact that we're three very different people, getting very different things from the works. #TAKEMEANYWHERE was something that Shia and Nastja had to spend a long time convincing me that it would be safe – also as I’m more of an introvert than those two. But the thing that really seduced me about that was using the internet to facilitate it, and using it as a way to bring out beauty in the networks.
Participants in TAKEMEANYWHERE reflect on the project
I wonder if it was something you ever anticipated from HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US, that you would have to dive so deep into the world of 4Chan.
Shia LaBeouf: Before, I didn't know fuck all about (4Chan). It was only after the second day, that I really got keyed up on what “kek” was, what this world was. I couldn't make sense of it, I'm going, “Wait a minute, you're telling me these are racists?” Day three, I started looking at people on the periphery, looking at their phones and giggling. Everything (started) feeling really like we lost our trust. My vigilance took the show in a direction it didn't need to go. And that was the aim of 4Chan, so they kept coming. I think if I hadn't showed up on that day three – and it had just been left with the beauty that Jaden had started... Nastja had to chin-check me. She (was) like, “You've now altered the project and our practice.” In order to have an objective opinion of your work, there needs to be some distance. But our work calls for such closeness that it's very hard to figure out when the dismount is right.
(Now), I read the fucker (4Chan) every day. For a number of reasons. I've had people showing up at my door, spray-painting swastikas on my gate. It's now a matter of personal safety that I inform myself about a side of the internet that I had no interest in. You've got to stay informed, that shit gets scary.
So has HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US changed the way you’ll think about future projects?
Nastja Säde Rönkkö: It has been different every time… (but) I guess the atmosphere has been quite different after #HEWILLNOTDIVIDEUS. It feels less innocent, in a way. Like, personally. There are more things to think about that I don't want to think about – like safety. But I think that goes hand-in-hand with the political atmosphere in the US and here, too. It’s not isolated in that sense.
What are you working on now?
Luke Turner: We come up with plans when we all meet up physically in the same space, and that's next going to be when we're showing this (film) in Manchester. So we're looking forward to that. We'll see, we never really talk about what we're planning next.
Shia LaBeouf: I'm staring failure in the face. I've had to really deal with my white privilege. So I've been really dealing with that, and in the midst of it we've been talking about work.
Are you talking about what happened in Georgia? Could you elaborate on that?
Shia LaBeouf: I'm mortified by what happened in Georgia. It is such a wild display of arrogance and white privilege that I've really had to come to terms with myself for, for a while, and I'm still dealing with it. It's a wildly ugly thing that happened and I can't run from it. So I've been leaning into it, trying to figure it out.
Is that just spending time reflecting?
Shia LaBeouf: No, not even that, but like, talking to people. What happened in Georgia is so literally unspeakable. Just talking about it has been very hard, and not trying to find a defence or anything. Just trying to come to terms with it, to know it's a part of you. Not just the arrogance and the white privilege, but some of the words are misogynistic and completely fucking not in line with my value system. It's not reflective of me in any way, yet it is me. That takes coming to terms with. That's what I've been doing. Staring it in the face, watching the video often – two, three times a day. If I was blessed (with) anything, I was given that video. It's rare in your life you can really rewind your bottom and play it over and over as a reminder.
What I know (from) going to the program that I'm in, you're supposed to look at patterns in your behaviour every day. I just happen to have an inventory online that I can look at every fucking day. There's no running from it there. It does completely alter the shape of your existence. I was already in a weird relationship with how I feel about myself before Georgia, which has a lot to do with my running techniques, the way I work and how I like to drink. The only way to get through shame is to look in the mirror more, and that's really what I've been doing – in a figurative mirror. I took time to write my whole life down and look at patterns before Georgia. They have this thing called prolonged exposure work. I got to rehab and they said, “You've got PTSD young man.” I thought, ‘Fuck off! I ain’t been to war. I ain’t been through any heavy-duty shit.’ It took me a month just to be okay with PTSD as a term.
This is where a lot of my vigilance and rage comes from, and it comes from a fucked up relationship with justice and trying to be a fucking sheriff all the time. So I've been having to deal with that, and try to alter my personality and rebuild myself and live according to a value system. I think I was so hell-bent on... I was like a careerist. I've been raised by capitalism. The things that they talk about when they bury you have fuck all to do with what happened in your career – they have to do with, ‘Was this person a good dude?’, ‘What kind of energy did this person enter a room with? How did you feel when he left?’ They talk about who you were, what your relationships were like. That wasn't really on my priority list prior to Georgia. My value system has shifted, which also has affected my contributions to this collaboration, it's affected my contributions to film, it's affected everything. You know, Luke doesn't fuck around, that's how I know the motherfucker loves me, he'll straight-up tell me, straight shooter style.
Luke Turner: Sure do.
Shia LaBeouf: I don't have many of those in my life, and I need them. So, yes this is an artistic collaboration, it's also one of the most important relationships I have in my life, in terms of guidance. It feels good to be aware of where you're at; to have a mindful awareness of where you're at. I'm exactly where I need to be.