Over the past week, I’ve spent several hours watching “He Will Not Divide Us,” the new performance art installation by Shia LaBeouf, Nastja Säde Rönkkö, and Luke Turner. Passersby are encouraged to say/yell/sing the phrase “He will not divide us” into the camera, which feeds into a live stream, for as long as they wish, or until they find themselves entangled in one of the surreal debates that seem to be most of what actually takes place at the site.
Predictably, the camera, which is mounted on the side of the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, has become a haven not only for those who want to stick to the project’s intended message but also a host of human Pepe the Frogs in Make America Great Again hats, people with far-left beliefs that make Bernie Sanders seem conservative, and general conspiracy theorists railing against everything from George Soros to 9/11.
On the surface, it’s tough to argue that “HWNDU” has been successful in its explicit goal, and LaBeouf has added another arrest to his record, which could realistically overtake his filmography in length if the exhibit does indeed run for the duration of Trump’s presidency. Frankly, if looked at literally, “HWNDU” has not been effective as a protest of the 45th president, but it is managing to accomplish something that may be even more frightening and resonant than Alison Jackson’s Trump impersonator piece or the “T.RUMP Bus,” in which artists David Gleeson and Mary Mihelic purchased an actual Trump campaign bus and spent a year driving it around the country staging various demonstrations, including sewing Trump’s Access Hollywood comments into an American flag. Those works blasted Donald J. Trump the man, but “HWNDU” is showing its audience something quite different, and in a long-term sense may wind up having the broader impact of bringing people together that it ultimately desires, even if that isn’t what’s taking place on screen.
This is because the actual impact of “He Will Not Divide Us” isn’t really anti-Trump, it’s anti-extremist Trump supporters and, more broadly, anti-fringe on both sides. In practice, it’s an opposition to the polarization that his rise and election have caused far more than his actual policies. The man himself will more likely than not never actually appear on the web stream—although given his apparent desire to be in front of every camera in America you really never know—but by allowing people to put a face to hateful rhetoric and absurd conspiracy theories, even within a predominantly liberal, progressive city, it has both a disquieting and galvanizing resonance. In the case of many of the conservative trolls, they’re people who see Trump as the proper conduit for their beliefs, which range from the understandable (the loss of American jobs) to the unfounded (a web of global elites conspiring against the average American) and the outright daffy (the fluoride in tap water is being employed by the liberal government for widespread mind control), and have come out to make themselves heard.
Those who set up shop in front of the camera certainly are not every Trump supporter, but they’re people who feel empowered by his election not only to come out from behind their computers but also to broadcast their beliefs for all to see. It’s been said many times that Trump brought alt-right and fascistic viewpoints into the mainstream like never before, and “HWNDU″ is a chillingly effective way to see what that looks like. But the real impact that watching the stream has is not just to hear people spout their beliefs into a camera, it’s to watch the bizarre interactions that take place between moderates, radicals, and extreme skeptics from both sides.
Simply by bringing to life discourse typically reserved for message boards, “HWNDU” has the ability to show just how radicalized our climate has gotten, and, in my observation, the brunt of the discussion in front of the camera hasn’t been centered on Trump’s executive orders or the day-to-day impact of his administration much at all. In that way, it transcends being anti-Trump and becomes about the people in front of the camera and the experience of seeing these conversations unfold in front of you.
While “He Will Not Divide Us” doesn’t exactly work as a piece of anti-Trump art, it does succeed as a lens into certain subsets of our fractured political landscape. Interestingly, usually, when the conversations conclude, there’s at least some sign of a connection between the participants, ranging from a dap or a hug to exchanging of names, that signals a level of mutual humanization between people with drastically different views. I’ve yet to see someone actually change their mind on an issue, but that’s to be expected given that these people are so compelled by whatever they believe that they’ve elected to stand outside debating it in the middle of New York winter.
It isn’t going to restore your faith in America watching fringe theorists bond with one another through a grainy feed on your laptop, but the project does highlight the power of getting these people off the internet and into the world, and serve as something like a cautionary tale for those of us who find ourselves heading down the path of ideological isolation. Hopefully, for the rest of us, “HWNDU” is a reminder to not allow ourselves to get so insulated on one side that we need to be part of a piece of art to engage with different views.