Shia LaBeouf Pays the Troll Toll: How His Latest Performance Accidentally Captured America’s Noxious Social Climate Through A Stream Darkly

Nathan Le Master / Colter Harris
February 14, 2017

“The installation created a serious and ongoing public safety hazard for the museum, its visitors, its staff, local residents and businesses.”

And with that message, issued on February 10th, 2017 by the Museum of the Moving Image, the newest, most controversial political performance piece by child-star-turned-provocateur Shia LaBeouf was cut three years and 11 months short of its intended four-year lifespan.

In leiu of the stream, visitors to will now find “THE MUSEUM HAS ABANDONED US” plastered in big, bold LOUDCAPS lettering.

There’s no doubt in my mind that The Museum of the Modern Image had the power to chuck this installment from their facility, and that it was their decision to nix it. What I do doubt, however, is Shia’s claim that the Museum coldly “ABANDONED” him, as the new message on his website so boldly implies. I’m sure that’s what he believes has happened, but after multiple visits to the installment during its short lifespan, there was a lingering curiosity ponging about in my brain as to why a public facility would allow all the chaos and controversy the Camera drew to its property continue for four years with little to no apparent benefit.

As far as I could tell, the Museum became an afterthought. I never saw a single person hanging around Shia’s spectacle subsequently drift into the Museum after getting their fill on the Camera. I doubt many people even knew the actual name of it, the Museum. The facility was essentially reduced to a multi-million dollar architectural picture frame around which hung Shia’s big chef-d’oeuvre – like a Banksy no one bothers to chisel off. It’s like if people only went to the Louvre for the big glass pyramid sitting in front while the Mona Lisa sits in the center of a dim room—perpetually empty during hours of operation—collecting dust.

My point being, I think the Museum’s “ABANDONMENT” was probably a very wise and very reasonable move on their part. I wish them luck drawing a crowd next time. It’s a cool place. People should visit it.

The installment is over . . . And yet, we’re deprived a satisfying conclusion as to what really happened during its 22-day span. Most people who don’t care (not that I blame them) will take the cynical conclusion, citing Shia’s assault charge and the subsequent troll takeover as evidence of a misguided, somewhat sad attempt at art or protest which backfired horrendously, and that’s if the entire exhibition wasn’t just a big, desperate publicity stunt from the former star of Transformers who realized simply standing in an elevator and drawing a crowd to his fame won’t work for long and saw an exploitable hook in Trump’s big win.

I don’t think it’s quite that simple. I think despite all the contrary evidence (Shia’s assault of a young troll suggests he legitimately did not foresee the entrance of the Right into the conversation), might have actually succeeded as a work of art, even if it wasn’t necessarily the way Shia had intended. I have, for the most part, my sole personal experience and observations of the installment to support my claim.

Now that the dust has settled, I feel like it is as good a time as any to tack up my thoughts.


Pilgrimages and Prayers

The Museum’s location in Astoria made it inconvenient for most people in Manhattan and Brooklyn to casually visit the Camera. Instead, they had to take take a train with one or two transfers in between. Once there, they danced, they sang, they ordered pizza to share, they placed flowers and satirical Trump-with-Hitler-stache posters on the ground, and they spoke into the Camera – sometimes crying, sometimes whispering into its big glass Eye, treating it like a trustworthy hiding place for deep secrets. I came to recognize frequenters by face who returned daily during work breaks to sit alone with the Camera and quietly eat lunch by its side.

To me, it felt like the Camino del Santiago or the annual Hajj: a long and arduous journey of pilgrims to a holy site, founded by an especially holy member of their flock, to have their prayers heard by an invisible listener. They brought gifts, they celebrated, and they broke bread with their fellow followers. They repeated their liturgy, the mantra, “he will not divide us he will not divide he will not divide us he will not divide us,” achieving that nirvana state where the individual is subsumed in the group, where the therapeutic effects of group prayer swallows up the individual’s anxieties. Sweet release.

The Internet Frankenstein Among Us

the-frogAs viewed from left to right: Frog, Sam Hyde, Frog

By far the most dramatic moment in the Camera’s short lifespan was when Million Dollar Extreme’s Sam Hyde made his appearance. Hyde, who’s experienced his own share of controversy this year with the (horrendously unfair) cancellation of his Adult Swim series, as well as his (deluded) association with the Alt-Right Movement, seems not to have let the blacklisting shirk his love for trolling. The abnormally tall ogre of a man towered above the crowd, smack dab in the eye of the storm, facing the Eye of the Camera, puffing a big, fancy cigar Groucho Marx-style, seeming utterly satisfied and at peace providing ample satire with his mere presence. If there were ever a man born to disrupt a scene like this, it’s Sam Hyde.

A noticeably significant part of the crowd’s populus that day donned shirts depicting the Frog: the Sad, the Mad, the Scared, and above all, the Rare Pepe, whose status as a meme originated as early as 2007 and spiked to a level of oversaturation so ridiculous that a joke emerged of posting “Rare Pepes” in deliberately annoying quantities. The Frog, unique in its staying power and ability to be reappropriated, redesigned, and re-memefied time and time again, was finally commandeered by the alt-right, and curiously restricted to a hate symbol by news outlets, to the chagrin of the Frog’s original creator, thus becoming the meme equivalent of a swastika. A recent viral video depicted a known Neo-Nazi getting punched in the face by a random passerby. He was in the middle of showing off his fancy metal Pepe button, describing it as a symbol of his movement. This is where we’re at.

Pepe shirts were donned as a mechanism of provocation, and people wearing the Frog shouted, “Praise kek!”, “Mai Waifu!” and other recognizable phrases “As Seen on 4Chan.” A guy my age beside me with large wooden gauges commented – in a way which may or may not have been directed to me – how it was like watching the Internet come to life before his eyes. He was absolutely right. In a multitude of ways I doubt he had even considered, beyond the Pepe shirts, the constant blurting out of 4chan phraseology, and the real-life trolling in all shapes and sizes, that this performance piece was the brainchild of Actual Cannibal Shia LaBeouf, an Internet meme himself. A man who has utilized his meme status – above even his own status as an actor – to generate interest in these ongoing experimental performance projects, the majority of which become instant memes themselves. His preceding piece – a live-stream of himself in a movie theater watching every movie he ever acted in in reverse chronological order – became an endless source of reaction .gifs and .jpgs. Who doesn’t remember “DO IT. JUST DO IT”?

Moreover, the Camera generated its own cast of meme-y internet celebrities: Brittany Venti. Aids Bjorn. Baked Alaska. Jackie 4Chan. A fan base was developed via Youtube and Twitter, and thrust them into D-list stardom. Some built a successful career and base of followers that opposed Trump. Some were famous for trolling. Those already with Internet fame brought their ogling fans, transplanted from their YouTube or Twitch live streams.

Therefore, this new art piece, its concept, its creator, its crowd, can all be accurately summarized as an extension of the Internet. While futurists love to play with the idea of singularity – the marriage of humanity to the Internet – I couldn’t help but entertain the thought that perhaps the first stage of this is the inverse: the Internet Frankenstein walking among us. Memes come to life. After all, I’ve heard dogs in public referred to as doggos, and I’ve seen 12-year-old white kids in rural Arkansas dancing to “Gangnam Style.” Moreover, I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s observed the way that the time it takes for an event to transition from tragedy to comedy is growing shorter and shorter seemingly each day. It took at least a decade and a half after the fall of the Reich before satirists like Mel Brooks opened the gate for Hitler humor. It took half a century for Anne Frank to become a deliberately tasteless meme. It took at least a few courtesy years before comedians on either coast could finally pull their copious amounts of 9/11 material out from whatever closet corner or security deposit box they carefully hid them. Now jump cut to current day: it only took, what, two days (if we’re being generous) for the death of a Cincinnati gorilla to disintegrate into #dicksoutforHarambe? Not long ago, the phrase “too soon” was observed commonly. Now – for better or worse – national news, entertainment, and tragedy, once processed through the Internet, emerges on the other side as farce. Input, output. The friction between reality and the Internet is being softened. The two collide and constantly inform one another. Shia can pout with heartfelt seriousness one day. Fast forward a few days and he’s been photoshopped as the Autistic Screeching Polandball meme.


Now, it can’t be denied that white supremacists make up some of the members of the Trump camps that have appeared in front of Shia’s Camera chanting Trump slogans, Slavic squatting, flexing their muscles, and chugging milk (apparently a new symbol for white supremacy(?), both for its white pigment and because Slavic people have the strongest lactose tolerance of any race(??)). So, the question then becomes, who’s doing it for the lulz, and who’s genuinely a white supremacist? How do we separate the two? Is there a point where the two cease to be separable?


Through the Looking Stream Darkly

I have to admit, I became addicted to the He Will Not Divide Us stream. On a more base level, I could indulge an inner voyeuristic curiosity. There was a pleasure in gawking at people from the comfort of my own home that only an agoraphobic social cripple and stalker-in-chrysalis like me could understand. Against even my own expectations, periods of little attendance also became fascinating, because what few people were there usually engaged – often as opposers, yet strangers – in unedited, unfiltered, awkward conversation. Watching someone revealing their life philosophies and personal principles as though totally unaware of the Camera is a position otherwise only afforded to gatekeepers of private information, like Catholic priests and NSA agents.

But this Camera was so much more than reality television. George Carlin said “when you’re born, you’re given a ticket to the freak show. But when you’re born in America, you get a front row seat.” And with He Will Not Divide Us, your house, your car, your classroom, your office, your toilet – anyplace with a wi-fi connection – became a front row seat. It was the marathon of American politics, culture, mudslinging, trolling, hatred both playful and real, racism and groupthink, streamed live to computer, laptop, iPad, iPhone, or other smartphone device, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at your convenience. Through the Eye of the Camera, you get a front row seat to a complete and absolute shitshow, embodying both sides of the coin. It’s depressing, gaudy and noisy. Anyone and everyone is the perfect target for ridicule – even you, O Dear Reader – or wasting your time watching a stream started by a Disney starlet-turned-meme-turned-mockery. Like a collision of a propane tanker with a car full of clowns, the carnage was better than television. But beneath it all lay potential prophecy: a very, very, very ominous, sinister message. As it turned out, the Camera stared back into everyone who stared into it, and thus Shia’s freak show became a remarkably effective conduit for unleashing everyone’s misanthropy. This manifests itself in different ways – screaming, shouting, trolling, hitting – but it’s all fueled, to some degree, by our fear of those who we just can’t bear to understand. Our mutual refusal of humanity for the other which subsumes us, becomes all we are, and, most unfortunately, all we want to be. Yin eaten whole by yang. And it would be there, whether the Camera ever appeared at all.

As to how reprehensible, absurd, and outright dangerous we might become in the next four to eight years – whatever may come – I believe we’re all going to need to develop some serious inner machinery to get out of this outrage spell we all seem to be under; start realizing that when you’re angry you can’t think straight, and people take advantage of that.

This machine wills fascists – whatever side you’re on.


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