The trio’s collaboration has extended from a Skype meditation (involving a long-distance skipping session with Hollywood actor LaBeouf) at London’s Auto Italia and a presentation on Guy Debord’s The Society of Spectacle at LCF, as well as the #IAMSORRY Abramović-esque performance at Cohen Gallery in Los Angeles and Metamarathon relay competition at Amsterdam’s Stedeijk Museum.
The artists’ so-called ‘Metamodernist‘ approach to their practice, which also involves reading a celebrity love letter at an awards ceremony and an intimate hour-long press interview with a GoPro, now present celebrity LaBeouf and his collaborators in the “debating chamber” of an Oxford University lift to talk about things with the Oxford public.
In #ELEVATE, a long queue of participants have the opportunity to cram in to the elevator to talk to “the artists, the debating chamber, and the internet, so that their collective voices may form an extended, expansive and egalitarian Oxford Union address” over the space of 24 hours.
A short glimpse of some of the chat so far includes mental health, the queue as part of the art and the notion of ‘acting’, along with child-star LaBeouf’s sense of loneliness in reference to films like Ri¢hie Ri¢h and Blank Check, plus a request by a participant to put words into the actor’s mouth: “I love Leeds United”.
The themes of the show tackle identity in the digital age, examining a world in which Instagram and Twitter follows and likes create the feeling (and sometimes reality) of fame. Like Warhol predicted, everyone will have their 15 minutes of fame—except it might be more like 15 seconds.
NTGNE is a retelling of, Antigone, the hellenic fable whose eponymous heroine has been an enduring symbol of anti-imperial struggle for centuries. Like Sophocles’ original work which was written at a time of great national fervor, Jesse Darling’s performance is presented in London on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a day of mass mourning and a sobre reminder of the greatest ideological attack on the Western Imperial project in modern times.
After jostling for space in the crowded Serpentine Pavilion, I find myself lying flat on a yoga mat in complete darkness, contorted amongst the multitude of bodies that have piled inside. As the performance begins, a discordant throb of electrical interference pulses through the air, vibrating the opalescent skin of the stage set. The atmosphere is ominous and psychedelic, like a bad trip, and my discomfort is intensified by a foreboding meta-commentary between bursts of white noise; “…the floor feels really hard on your head”, I am told by a young voice as I fidget, “you feel vulnerable…you’re forced to”. I am now hyper aware of my body and its encroachment into shared space. As audience members settle around each other, a chorus erupts, holding a dissonant harmony until their voices waver, breath running out, reminding us of our corporeality and the frailty of a collective voice.
A News jingle chimes over the PA; a reporter from ISMN (“International, State and Municipal Newswire” – whose initials are extrapolated from the name of Ismene, Antigone’s sister) who we are told is our “only legitimate truth source”, warns us of an epidemic with an unknown source that is sending the city’s residents into “mass hysteria”. The virus, NTGNE (an acronym for National Terror Grief Negation Epidemic), threatens to engulf the entirety of the “pale kingdom” of King Carry-On (whose name is a pun the original King Creon in Sophocles’ version, among other things). The allusions to 9/11 and the fall of Empire are recurrent, and the staging of the performance on a day of commemoration gives a sinister tone to the unfolding news reports that pace the production. The cast –with writer Penny Goring, actor Shia Labeouf and Darling’s own dad among them –burst into life, writhing and crawling, zombie-like, through the unsuspecting crowd having previously hidden in plain sight. An orgiastic struggle ensues and members of the audience are dragged to their fate as the performance reaches its climax. A silence descends, the crowd is left in a state of panic. Abruptly, we are told to “Leave the auditorium immediately”, to which we duly oblige, fleeing the scene of the imaginary contagion with considerable urgency.
Darling’s NTGNE is a somber reflection on powerlessness and subjugation, a complex deconstruction of neo-liberal subjectivity and Empire. Indeed, the etymology of the name ‘Antigone’, meaning “worthy of one’s parents”, elucidates a complex narrative of hierarchy and inheritance, and it is the legacy of these inherited ideologies that Darling is most interested, not least through the involvement of their own family as cast members. NTGNE tells us that to mourn the conditions of late capitalism is to mourn our collective agency, but that to deviate is to die. Upon taking our leave, we are given passenger jet-shaped cookies, fuselage aflame and wrapped carefully in cellophane; a saccharine end to a bitter morality tale. **
It was at Auto Italia on a rainy Saturday afternoon, as I was skipping rope both under the gaze of, and while gazing at Shia LaBeouf, that I started to understand. Here I was, cursing my choice of shoes and awkwardly checking Twitter, and there he was, a Hollywood actor skipping next to his pool in LA while being live-streamed via Skype. The epiphany came as the skepticism and awkwardness began to fade, and I, along with the others in the room, tentatively had a go at skipping. Later, I might tweet about this, or dissect it in conversations with friends or in articles online; but for the time being, it was a moment of endorphin-flowing engagement in the middle of a thoroughly strange environment. It was a metamodern moment, in the sense that ‘The Metamodernist Manifesto‘ (written by ‘Shia Labeouf’) calls for optimism and magical realism in spite of –or in connection with –self-awareness, reaching for “the mercurial condition between and beyond irony and sincerity, naivety and knowingness, relativism and truth, optimism and doubt”.
‘Meditation For Narcissists’, to give the skipping performance its actual name, was the latest instalment in an ongoing project between LaBeouf, performance artist Nastja Säde Rönkkö and artist and Notes on Metamodernism co-editor Luke Turner. So far, the project has played out fluidly across spaces including social media, art galleries, red carpet events and auto-reply email exhibitions. The most high-profile, in terms of mass media coverage and audience participation, was the trio’s five-day residency in LA’s Cohen Gallery for #IAMSORRY, in which participants sat, one by one, in a room alone with LaBeouf and a prop of their choice. The echoes of this intensely intimate experiment that remain online oscillate between the extremely moving and the extremely disturbing. Creating a private space in the eye of a publicity storm, it was perhaps the epitome of all the work so far, plunging straight to the playful heart of both Turner’s metamodern outlook and Rönkkö’s physical boundary-exploring work with performance.
In a conversation with Turner and Rönkkö in a central London pub, it transpires that what’s been most surprising for the pair is the hesitance of most commenters to even call the ongoing collaboration ‘art’. “On a qualitative level,” says Turner, “that’s open to anyone’s judgement –but we had that discussion a century ago with Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’. Why are they having this conversation? Just say it’s art –don’t even say it’s art, just accept where this is operating –and then get into the interesting conversations.” Even discounting the fact that LaBeouf is new to the art world himself, it came as a surprise that the fact that the collaboration is an equal effort from the actor with two long-practising artists was almost entirely overlooked by the media. Turner continues, “legitimisation isn’t even necessary, it doesn’t matter. Shia is an artist because he’s making art. You don’t need any legitimacy to make art. But you’d think the media would at least look at the fact that we’ve been practising artists for a good while. It’s effectively saying that what we’re doing is not art, and I’ve never had anyone say that to me before.”
Could you talk me through the aim of ‘Meditation for Narcissists’?
Luke Turner: Justin [Jaeckle], the guy who was curating the whole evening, he approached us because his whole event was playing with those notions of identity capital and online personas and artists who are engaging with that. It seems to be something that’s really in the air at the moment. I was just reading Brad Troemel’s essay in You Are Here: Art After The Internet, and it’s all about how post-internet artists are using social media to promote themselves, but the promotion becomes the work. So it was really interesting to us to engage with this project because we’re approaching it from a similar but almost opposite perspective –because with someone who already has a public persona, we’re kind of questioning what that means, where identity and ideas of the self actually lie. With Shia it’s particularly interesting because he’s a method actor, and so he really inhabits those roles, and you do question, where is the true self?
Nastja Säde Rönkkö: That was the starting point, but then from the start it was quite clear that it wasn’t going to be a normal meditation session somehow, it had to kind of fit into Shia’s ritual or routine.
LT: There is a thing about when you go to the gym, you do these things looking in a mirror. Is it a narcissistic thing or do you go into yourself? It’s a kind of split between narcissism and, it sounds cheesy, but the cliched notion of finding yourself, some kind of enlightenment.
NSR: What was interesting in the performance was that I thought the meditation would be people skipping ropes with him, but it became watching him. So that became quite meditative, this circle watching him.
I noticed that too. He mentioned at the beginning that he was going to be watching his own digital reflection, and I realised that everyone in the room was watching him, not watching themselves, so it was more like a meditation for one narcissist, and for everyone else a meditation on his persona. Also, it felt like some of the apprehensiveness in the room was a result of awareness that Shia LaBeouf might be watching the participants. So that interplay of looking was really interesting.
NSR: Especially at the beginning, people were really aware of themselves and what they were doing, and they said, ‘oh no, I’m not doing it.’ But then there were some moments were some people just went for it, they got into this meditative space, they didn’t care any more, it was just them and Shia in the zone. I think that was really beautiful somehow; the atmosphere went from awkward into meditative, into something else.
I found the cross-media aspect of it interesting–there were pictures of him on gossip sites in the afternoon, under ‘Shia wears ridiculous shade of green’ or whatever. I saw that before I came down, and then I noticed that his tweet about the event had almost more retweets and favourites than attendees in the gallery.
LT: Yeah, it doesn’t conform to the media’s narrative. That whole thing of how something spreads on the internet before it becomes a reality, that’s something that really took place in our performance in LA, at the #IAMSORRY exhibition, because we simply issued one press release half an hour before the exhibition opened to a TIME magazine journalist, they posted it within 15 minutes and then it went viral. But it was still another half an hour after the exhibition opened before the first person came in, who was a journalist. And that morning there were mostly journalists, there was no queue, but there was buzz online. By the end of it, people were camping for three days to get in.
NSR: I think it shows in the reactions as well. A lot of the time people ask me, ‘have you actually met him?’ And they’re surprised when I have, because it’s somehow so removed from tactile reality. He’s somehow not real for people. I was surprised that I had that reaction, because we were in a performance together. But still, people find it hard to believe that it’s not somehow just online.
LT: Hollywood still tries to preserve that rarified atmosphere of the Hollywood superstar, which is really interesting to see how that, even with what we’ve been doing –and we’ve been very transparent and open about what we’re doing, it’s a collaboration using social media and performance art –but you get the mainstream celebrity media who are commenting on his outfit that he was wearing, the superficial elements of his persona. We weren’t sure how much they would engage with the actual art he was making. We also did this Out Of Office project…
NSR: Basically, a lot of people wrote about it, but no one actually emailed us.
LT: They even posted about it on JustJared. They’d paid paparazzi to follow him, they had the day’s photos, and they had photos of the business cards in amongst six or seven photos of him, you know, going to buy some milk –saying he left a mysterious email address, and ‘what’s this all about?’ They didn’t engage with it.
NSR: It’s almost that they don’t want that, they don’t want to go beyond.
What have you made of the media response in general –was it a surprise to you that it became a bit of a mainstream spectacle?
LT: There’s been some really nice pieces written actually by –some really perceptive articles, people writing about their own profession and questioning that when they went to the show. There were also reviews written by the general public, on Tumblr, who were in general not an ‘art’ audience, if that term means anything. People were writing really about their connection, their engagement. I think people in the art world don’t give enough credit to how people are able to get things in the art world on so many levels. Because they just got it instantly, this simultaneous irony and sincerity, apathy and empathy, these metamodern ideas that were going on in the exhibition. It’s interesting how the art press, or at least the established art press, are more…
NSR: Careful, they’re very careful.
LT: Very, yeah, quite conservative in their perception of what we’re doing. The media don’t know whether this is a media thing, the art world don’t know if this is an art world thing, and we’re playing in those in-between spaces.
One thing I think is brave about this project, and stands apart from other celebrities who have turned their attention to art, is that Shia’s not just using his celebrity status as a platform to make art; his public image is very much part of the work itself. Is that an outlook that he had from the beginning, that made you want to work with him?
L: Yeah, I think we were both quite wary, like everyone in the art world, because there is a whole thing going on at the moment –’celebrities in the art world, what are their motives?’ I met him first of all and straight away had that connection. We’re on the same wavelength. I trusted him right away, really, and that’s a very rare thing.
NSR: For me it was really interesting to get to know him, because I saw his films after I knew him as a person …I can’t really watch things the same way that I used to. Every time I watch actors now, I’m just thinking, where is the true self? What is the persona, what is the role?
Let’s talk about the theme of plagiarism. The ‘Metamodernist Manifesto’ is yours, Luke, and you recently changed the credit on it to Shia. What did you make of the response to it once the credit had been changed?
LT: It was an experiment really, just playing with ideas of authorship. The manifesto that I wrote was already intended to be kind of ironic, with preposterous language in the style of early modernist manifestos, and yet every one of those words has a meaning, and means something that I wanted to express. Some people, especially in the ‘States, took it as too sincere, maybe. Some people took it as purely ironic. But I felt it kind of completed it, having it as ‘The Metamodernist Manifesto by Shia LaBeouf’. It created its own uncertainty. Some people were incredibly patronising about Shia, saying ‘of course he doesn’t understand what these words mean, he was in Transformers’
NSR: It’s horrible, because he’s actually really smart.
Some people have also drawn comparisons between #IAMSORRY and Marina Abramovic’s ‘The Artist Is Present’ and ‘Rhythm O’. Was that in any way a deliberate continuation of the plagiarism theme
LT: It’s clearly a different thing. Just like the Rolling Stones have blues influences or whatever, it’s an influence.
NSR: The main difference that was largely ignored was that it was really one-to-one. When I think of Marina Abramovic’s work, everyone was looking at them; everyone was there together, people were hurting her and people were stopping them, so it was about playing with empathy. For #IAMSORRY it was one person at a time. I never saw [TAIP] in MoMa but I imagine it was a very different atmosphere.
LT: And #IAMSORRY was working in the context of what was going on, the social media, and in relation to celebrity and the ideas of fame. So the context was completely different. I don’t think anyone in the art world thinks it was in any way appropriated let alone plagiarised from Marina Abramovic, but it’s certainly there.
What was the aim behind the Out Of Office project?
LT: Well, people are very cynical about the term ‘post-internet’, and I particularly am not a fan of the term. As someone who’s been making work on the internet since the mid-90s, I think we’re not really ‘post’ now, and artists aren’t really doing anything that wasn’t being done back then –it’s just that the tools and the networks have changed. It’s trying to reinvent the wheel when there’s no need, or to create these neologisms to create a space for a group of artists. Every generation does that, and the internet has accelerated it, which I find interesting, but I have a big problem with the term post-internet.
We were playing with that –because the gif was a complete and utter cliche. You know, some of the comments people put on Twitter were like [laughing],‘now Shia LaBeouf’s a net artist, he’s discovered glitch art six years too late.’ Playing with the question of ‘does he know?’ But of course he does. We know that the glitch is not cutting edge. But what is cutting edge, in some way, is the whole project we’re doing.
The narrative of our whole project, one of the narratives, is of the Hollywood actor turning to art for deeper meaning, to find himself. That’s a romantic narrative, it’s also a beautiful narrative but it’s also self-aware. It’s sincere but it has that self-knowingness to it. So he was holding You Are Here: Art After The Internet.
I got the sense that it was pretty tongue-in-cheek from the fact it was hosted on postinternet.org [which has a homepage that simply reads “Not yet.”] and I was wondering what role the book played in that?
LT: Yeah, it’s tongue-in-cheek but it’s completely sincere. There are some great essays in that book…Sometimes you do things as an artist because you think something has a whole multitude of possible meanings and interpretations and you don’t pinpoint one.
NSR: Another layer is that he’s been papped coming out of bookshops many times, and they’re all quite evil and cynical, saying “oh no, he’s trying to educate himself.” Why can he not buy books?
LT: He’s completely autodidactic and it’s the most beautiful thing, to teach yourself and to have that desire to read and to learn.
You’ve said this is an ongoing collaboration, so are you working on more projects together now?
NSR: We have a few things, but we can’t really talk about it.