#SONGOFOURSELVES: Shia LaBeouf & His Art

#SONGOFOURSELVES

Theatre has always been a dynamic medium, but this fluidity has become particularly pronounced during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Antonin Artaud, one of the leaders of twentieth century avant-guard performance art, believes that theatre should ‘unleash unconscious responses in audiences and performers that were normally inaccessible’. 1 Artaud is interested in liberating the audience from preconceived notions of what theatre should be. Modern performer Shia LaBeouf has recently begun experimenting with public performance pieces and how barriers between performer and audience can be broken. An examination of Artaud’s theories is useful when putting LaBeouf’s performance art pieces into context.

Artaud laments that ‘our lives lack fire and fervour, that is to say continual magic’ because ‘we choose to observe our actions, losing ourselves in meditation on their imagined form, instead of being motivated by them’. 2 This passive observation is echoed in traditional theatre where the audience sits and watches as a chosen few dictate what they will see and hear, and to an extent feel, for the duration of the performance. This departure from theatrical normalcy, and the need to be motivated by individual actions, is seen in LaBeouf’s performance ‘projects’, where he works in collaboration with artists Nastja Sade Rönkkö and Luke Turner. 3 ‘I don’t separate art activities from every day life,’ LaBeouf explains, ‘it’s performance material – walking, eating, touching, breathing, etc’. He continues: ‘So we create situations that are like game assignment[s] and they all become a part of an individual/collective exploratory process. It’s a non-verbal theatre of spectator participation that aim[s] to create a self-portrait of the observer’. 4

Non-verbal theatre is one of the essential motivations behind Artaud’s theories. Artaud is concerned with restoring ‘the art of performance to its essence’, something which is often ‘corrupted by speech and words, logic and narrative’. 5 LaBeouf uses this technique of stripping a performance of all speech in his piece entitled #INTERVIEW where he and Dazed reporter Aimee Cliff meet for a silent interview. The performance piece is divided into two parts; one consists of textual interaction through exchanged emails and the other, in person portion of the interview is completely silent. 6 Cliff explains, ‘Rather than a regular interview, LaBeouf suggests that we keep all of our words online, and meet in person without speaking. It’s mid-October when we come face to face in his hotel room, both of us with GoPros strapped to our heads, for an hour. The pull of a digital connection follows us into the room, yet morphs into something entirely different’. 7

The silent interview begins with Cliff taking the lift up to LaBeouf’s room where they then silently greet each other and sit in chairs facing one another. Awkward giggles and smiles fill the beginning of the interview, but as the video goes on, the mood shifts several times as they silently gaze at each other. 8 The interview essentially becomes ‘this whole compact mass of gestures, signs, postures, and sounds that makes up the language of production and of the stage, this language that develops all its physical and poetic consequences on all levels of consciousness and in all directions, inevitably leads the mind to adopt profound attitudes which might be called metaphysics in action’. 9 The communication is completely non-verbal and, for the most part, non-physical sans a brief handshake at the end. Cliff describes the event beforehand as being ‘this physical encounter with an idea of one another built from things shared on a digital plane’ as they ‘leave it all unspoken, keep the two wholly separate’ with ‘the truth [being] somewhere between’. 10

#INTERVIEW is not LaBeouf’s first foray into the world of silent performance. #IAMSORRY is an earlier LaBeouf performance project where he brakes down the barrier between performer and spectator. LaBeouf explains that his interest lies in:

‘the coexistence of the static and mobile

redemption and restitution

its redemption through suffering

and suffering through strengthening

its sincere and ironic

public and private

intimate and open’. 11

LaBeouf combines all of these elements in #IAMSORRY. Born out of the plagiarism controversy faced by LaBeouf, the purpose of this project, according to a press release, is to say that, ‘Shia LaBeouf is sorry. Sincerely sorry. […] Free admission’. 12 13 LaBeouf says he wanted to express that he ‘was genuinely remorseful – and full of shame and guilt’, he continues, ‘I was broken – it wasn’t manipulation – I was heartbroken and people I’ve never met before came in and loved on me and with me, some for multiple days […] I’ve never experienced love like that, empathy, humanity, understanding’. 14

There are a few chief differences between #INTERVIEW and #IAMSORRY. In the former, there was no clear identification between performer and spectator and there was a textual dialogue established between the two participants before the event. Whereas, in #IAMSORRY, the divide between performer and spectator was more pronounced even though the physical barrier was broken by the invitation for close contact between the two. Another difference is that the performer remained silent but there was no instruction for the spectator to be wordless. At the event, the spectator was led ‘into the gallery’ where ‘a woman seated behind a table invites visitors to choose one object from a selection of “implements”’, with ‘several of the objects correspond[ing] to major films associated with LaBeouf’s career, including a whip and several Transformers toys. A bowl of Hershey’s Kisses, a pair of pliers, a bottle of Brut cologne, a bottle of Jack Daniels and a bowl of folded up notes – each bearing Twitter comments about LaBeouf’ were also available for spectators to choose.’ 15

After choosing one of the ‘implements’, the visitor ‘is then led past a curtain into a tiny room. Inside, LaBeouf sits at a small wooden table, the now-famous paper bag declaring “I am not famous anymore” placed over his head. During THR’s visit, LaBeouf never broke eye contact during the one-on-one but responded with total silence to a series of questions. His only reaction came at the very end, in the form of a nodded acknowledgement after being thanked for the experience’. 16 An experience which, to put into Artaud’s terms, puts ‘an end to the subjugation of the theatre to the text, and to recover the notion of a kind of unique language half-way between gesture and thought’, a ‘language [which] cannot be defined except by its possibilities for dynamic expression in space as opposed to the expressive possibilities of spoken dialogue’. 17

Continuing with this thought, #IAMSORRY works as an ‘extension beyond words, for development in space, for dissociative and vibratory action upon the sensibility’. It works as ‘the hour of intonations’ because in this project, LaBeouf taps into ‘the visual language of objects, movements, attitudes, and gestures’, and he accomplishes this in a way that ‘their combinations [are] carried to the point of becoming signs, making a kind of alphabet out of these signs’. 18 LaBeouf recounts:

most every one who came in
had preconceived notions of what they were going to experience
and as soon as Nastja brought them through the curtain- everything changed
plans dissipated 

i went from being a celebrity or object
to a fellow a human
it happened in less than a second for some
for others they needed to take the bag off
but it usually happened
and by “it” i mean connection
it was a very human encounter once it was 2 people in a room

unless they were filming the experience
that changed there [sic] ability to engage
there [sic] documentation became a leash
that held them and kept them away from being open/receptive
to there [sic] environment and me’. 19

When spectators came into the event open to one-on-one engagement that barrier separating performer from audience dissipated, and yet, when spectators brought in cameras, they immediately erected that barrier once more, clearly redefining performer and spectator roles. Although LaBeouf says most participants were open to honest engagement, he says,

‘still there were others who came in with an agenda they couldn’t let go of

i was a broken man in a very real way

and some folks would come in take my bag off

never look me in the eye

pop off a selfie

and bounce

that felt terrible’. 20

Andrew Romano, a reporter from The Daily Beast, appears to be one of those camera-obsessed spectators. Romano writes about entering the gallery, where he then saw ‘a young, arty woman’ standing behind the table holding the “implements”, he specifies that the bowl of tweets contain ‘hateful tweets inspired by LaBeouf’s plagiarism scandal’. Romano recalls that he ‘asked the woman if I could take a picture of the table. She said no and pointed to a “no photography” sign on the wall’, and after being ushered into the room, Romano eventually asks LaBeouf for confirmation that it is indeed him:

‘And that’s when it happened: LaBeouf reached up and took the bag off his head. He looked miserable. I’m pretty sure he had been crying. We sat there silently for a few seconds, staring at each other. And then I asked my second question.

“Can I take your picture?”

Nothing.
“I know I’m not allowed to, so I’d like to get your permission.”

Nothing.
“OK, I’m gonna take it. You can stop me if you don’t want me to.”

Nothing.

So I raised my iPhone and snapped a photo of LaBeouf’s famous, unmasked face’. 21

This is a clear demonstration of how the separation, or the removal, of performer and spectator must be accepted by both parties. Scholar Charles Gattnig, Jr. observes that today’s youth ‘has gotten the message; he wants to be seen where the action is. By touching a painting, he is getting closer to its nature; in a sense, he is touching the painter as well as the action of a painting’. 22 In #IAMSORRY, the ‘painter’ is LaBeouf himself, and the touching of the art becomes a more literal translation. In the case of the camera-toting spectators, they seem to be more concerned with documenting their presence at the event than with actually experiencing the theatrical project, hearkening back to Artaud’s criticism that many choose to observe art rather than be motivated through it.

In November of 2015, LaBeouf once again explored the idea of blurring the line between performer and spectator in his project #ALLMYMOVIES. The press release reads: ‘From noon on 10th November 2015, #ALLMYMOVIES by LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner will commence at the Angelika Film Center, 18 West Houston Street, NYC. Visitors are invited to join Shia LaBeouf in person as he watches all his movies consecutively in reverse chronological order over the next three days, 24 hours a day (admission free). At the same time, a live stream will continuously broadcast the performance above’. 23 This exercise of the performer watching his own performance in front of, and with, an audience fits into Artaud’s description of ‘an ordinary actor in a costume which will distinguish him from normal life without projecting him into the past will appear to be watching the spectacle without taking part in it’. 24 LaBeouf, sitting in plain street clothes, hidden with the rest of the audience, turns the idea of just who is the ‘watched’ and who are the ‘watchers’ upside-down. In order to revolutionize theatre, Artaud says, ‘we would also have to do away with the strictly spectacle side of the spectacle. People would come not so much to see as to participate’. 25 Certainly, many of the members of the audience came to participate in this event rather than to merely watch a marathon of the actor’s films.

LaBeouf’s most recent performance event, #ELEVATE, invited spectators to join him along with frequent artistic collaborators Nastja Sade Rönkkö and Luke Turner in a stationary elevator, as it was streamed live, for twenty-four hours straight with only a few brief washroom breaks, and one short press break. 26 The official description of the project coaxed spectators to actively participate: ‘Visitors are invited to address the artists and the Internet, so that their collective voices may form an extended, expansive and egalitarian Oxford Union address’. 27 When speaking with one of the participants about how often LaBeouf’s collaborators are overlooked by both the media and audiences/spectators, Rönkkö can be heard saying, ‘I think that also highlights how removed a public person is, like a famous actor, because, like, there are so many artists who go from different backgrounds, like doctors, builders, then why is it so strange that a person who is an actor, a famous actor, comes into art? Why is not strange when […] doctors become artists? But no one ever criticizes that kind of transformation.’ 28

LaBeouf responds, ‘It’s because the polemic enemy of the highbrow art world is mass entertainment, right, so you have the accessible and the refined and they fucking go to war with each other and the art world does not want to allow the accessible in, and the accessible doesn’t want to allow the refined in’. 29 Both Rönkkö and LaBeouf are suggesting that world of theatre has more barriers erected between the audience and the performers than other aspects of art and other vocations, an assertion Artaud would probably agree with. Artaud repeats his battle cry for participatory action, ‘We need above all a theatre that wakes us up: nerves and heart’, and this call is being answered by LaBeouf, Rönkkö, and Turner. Indeed, #ELEVATE is a fine example of The Theatre of Cruelty. ‘The Theatre of Cruelty proposes to resort to a mass spectacle; to seek in the agitation of tremendous masses’, and although #ELEVATE only allows a small number of participants to be together at one time, the encounters are all recorded in a live stream, footage which is still public after the event has ended, tying the participants to the ‘tremendous masses’. 30

One of the participants raises the question of what can be considered a stage and whether or not the lift in #ELEVATE could be considered to be a stage for LaBeouf, Rönkkö, and Turner. LaBeouf says, ‘It’s your stage,’ to which the participant asks, ‘So, we’re making the art?’ LaBeouf, Rönkkö, and Turner answer, in sequence, ‘yeah’, ‘together’, ‘if you wanna call that art’. LaBeouf adds, ‘We’re just a bunch of people in an elevator’. The participant asks, ‘Do you think the broadcast changes that?’ LaBeouf responds, ‘Do you?’ Participant: ‘Yeah’, LaBeouf: ‘So do I’, he eventually adds, ‘The whole word is in the elevator with us right now’. 31 In December of 2015 LaBeouf, Rönkkö, and Turner undertook another performance project called #TOUCHMYSOUL where they invited participants from around the world to ‘pick up your telephone and touch and their souls’. 32 The event was live-streamed and accompanied by an edited transcript of the calls they received, calls in which LaBeouf remains mostly silent as he listens to the callers say what they think may ‘touch his soul’. The website remains, although the video footage no longer contains audio. 33

The performance work of LaBeouf continues to question what it means to be a performer, what it means to be a spectator, and how these two roles work together and against each other. In examining some of LaBeouf’s projects, we can see how easily Artaud’s theories can be applied to them. In fact, this Artaud quote digests the point behind many of LaBeouf’s events: ‘Theatre, through its physical aspect, since it requires expression in space (the only real expression, in fact), allows the magical means of art and speech to be exercised organically and altogether, like renewed exorcisms’. 34

Bibliography:

Abramovitch, Seth and Philiana Ng, “Shia LaBeouf Launches Bizarre Public Performance Art Piece”, The Hollywood Reporter, February 11, 2014, .[accessed March 27, 2016]

Artaud, Antonin, Selected Writings, ed. and trans. by Susan Sontag, (Los Angeles: University of California, 1988)

Artaud, Antonin, Theatre and Its Double, trans. by Mary Caroline Richards, (New York: Grove Press, 1958)

Bryant, Jacob, “Shia LaBeouf’s #ELEVATE Performance Art Puts Him In Elevator For 24 Hours”, Variety, February 19,2016, .[accessed March 29, 2016]

Carlson, Marvin, Performance: A Critical Introduction, 2nd Edition (New York: Routledge, 2004)

Cliff, Aimee, “How one Dazed journalist became Shia LaBeouf’s pen-pal – and stared deep into the eyes of the metamodernist movie star”, Dazed Digital, October 2014. [accessed March 27, 2016]

Gattnig Jr, Charles, “Artaud and the Participatory Drama of the Now Generation”, Educational Theatre Journal. Vol. 20, No. 4 (Dec. 1968), pp.486.

LaBeouf, Shia,with collaborators Nastja Sade Rönkkö and Luke Turner, “#ALLYMYMOVIES”, . [accessed March 30 2016]

LaBeouf, Shia,with collaborators Nastja Sade Rönkkö and Luke Turner, “#ELEVATE”, Oxford Union, .[accessed March 30, 2016]

LaBeouf, Shia,with collaborators Nastja Sade Rönkkö and Luke Turner. “#INTERVIEW”, with collaborators Nastja Sade Rönkkö and Luke Turner. [accessed March 30, 2016]

LaBeouf, Shia,with collaborators Nastja Sade Rönkkö and Luke Turner., “#TOUCHMYSOUL”, .[accessed March 29, 2016]

Romano, Andrew, “I Watched Shia LaBeouf Cry at His Weird LA Art Project #IAMSORRY”, The Daily Beast, February 11, 2014. [accessed March 29, 2016]

Selby, Jenn, “Shia LaBeouf retires from public life after plagiarism scandal sparks bizarre (also plagiarised) apology spree”, Independent, January 10, 2014..[accessed Mary 29, 2016]

Simon Ryan and Delyse Ryan,“Theatre of Cruelty”, Artaud, Antonin, The Academy Literature and Drama Website. <http://dlibrary.acu.edu.au/staffhome/siryan/academy/theatres/theatre%20of%20cruelty.html>%5Baccessed March 30, 2016]

1Simon Ryan and Delyse Ryan,“Theatre of Cruelty”, Artaud, Antonin, The Academy Literature and Drama Website.[accessed March 30, 2016].

2Antonin Artaud,, Theatre and Its Double, trans., Mary Caroline Richards, p. 4.

3LaBeouf explains, ‘I don’t like the “art” term either to be honest, I like “project,” “projects” or “works” – don’t separate the artist from the audience. I like the Walt Whitman approach.‘ LaBeouf, Shia, “#INTERVIEW”.

4Shia LaBeouf, “#INTERVIEW”, with collaborators Nastja Sade Rönkkö and Luke Turner. [accessed March 30, 2016].

5Marvin Carlson, Performance: A Critical Introduction, 2nd Edition, p. 141.

6Aimee Cliff, “How one Dazed journalist became Shia LaBeouf’s pen-pal – and stared deep into the eyes of the metamodernist movie star”, Dazed Digital, October 2014.

7ibid.

8LaBeouf, Rönkkö, Turner, “#INTERVIEW”.

9Antonin Artaud, Selected Writings, ed. & trans.Susan Sontag, (University of California: Los Angeles, 1988). p. 237.

10LaBeouf, Rönkkö, Turner, “INTERVIEW”.

11Jenn Selby, “Shia LaBeouf retires from public life after plagiarism scandal sparks bizarre (also plagiarised) apology spree”, Independent, January 10, 2014.

12LaBeouf, Rönkkö, Turner, “#INTERVIEW”.

13Seth Abramovitch and Philiana Ng, “Shia LaBeouf Launches Bizarre Public Performance Art Piece”, The Hollywood Reporter, February 11, 2014.[accessed March 30, 2016]

14LaBeouf, Rönkkö, Turner,“#INTERVIEW”.

15Abramovitch, Ng, “Shia LaBouf Launches…”, The Hollywood Reporter.

16ibid, The Hollywood Reporter.

17Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double’, p. 89.

18ibid. pp. 89-90.

19LaBeouf, Rönkkö, Turner, “#INTERVIEW”.

20LaBeouf, Rönkkö, Turner, “#INTERVIEW”.

21Andrew Romano, “I Watched Shia LaBeouf Cry at His Weird LA Art Project #IAMSORRY”, The Daily Beast, February 11, 2014.

22Charles Gattnig Jr, “Artaud and the Participatory Drama of the Now Generation”, Educational Theatre Journal. pp.486.

23LaBeouf, Rönkkö, Turner, “#ALLYMYMOVIES”, .

24Artaud, Selected Writings, p.54.

25ibid. p.54.

26LaBeouf, Shia, “#ELEVATE” with collaborators Nastja Sade Rönkkö and Luke Turner., Oxford Union,

27Jacob Bryant, “Shia LaBeouf’s #ELEVATE Performance Art Puts Him In Elevator For 24 Hours”, Variety, February 19,2016, .

28LaBeouf, Rönkkö, Turner, “#ELEVATE (Part 1)”, transcribed from conversation at 5:18-5:19 mark.

29ibid, transcribed from conversation at 5:19-5:20 mark.

30Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double’, pp.84-85.

31LaBeouf, Rönkkö, Turner, “#ELEVATE”, transcribed from conversation at 5:23-5:26.

32LaBeouf, Shia, “#TOUCHMYSOUL”, with collaborators Nastja Sade Rönkkö and Luke Turner, [accessed March 29, 2016].

33ibid.

34Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double’, p. 89.

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Image source: #Interview, http://labeoufronkkoturner.com/projects/interview/

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