The election of Donald Trump appears to have brought forth a spate of politically inspired art in the USA, which makes me (sometimes, for short periods) regret that I have abandoned my contemplated research project on democratic theory and art. Oh well: “should have, would have, could have” and all that.
The first time I heard about the performance artwork “He Will Not Divide Us” (HWNDU) was when its creator, the actor Shia LaBeouf, was arrested for manhandling a “Nazi” hackler. HWNDU is situated outside the Museum of Moving Image in Queens, New York. In their own words:
“Commencing at 9am on January 20, 2017, the day of the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States, the public is invited to deliver the words “HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US” into a camera mounted on a wall outside the Museum of the Moving Image, New York, repeating the phrase as many times, and for as long as they wish.
Open to all, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the participatory performance will be live-streamed continuously for four years, or the duration of the presidency. In this way, the mantra “HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US” acts as a show of resistance or insistence, opposition or optimism, guided by the spirit of each individual participant and the community.”
I find watching the live feed fascinating. I am old enough to think that just having a window on my computer screen into a New York street is exciting. Then there is the action, or lack of it. So far today I have witnessed: a young, flamboyantly dressed black guy promoting himself and checking his Twitter feed during what was night-time in New York and morning in London, a bored-looking school-group standing around, a couple of tourists chanting “he will not divide us” and then one of them improvising a song to the words, someone taking a photo on their phone of the HWNDU camera, and finally, and most touchingly, two young women looking into the camera shyly and whispering to each other knowing and not-knowing that I was watching them from my sitting room in Surrey. I wish I had taken screenshots of all these scenes.
Is it art, I hear you ask me. I will leave that question to those better qualified in aesthetics than I am. I will just assume that since the project’s creators call it art and it takes place in the setting of a museum, it is art. It also has an interesting “everyday life as art” angle to it.
How about its democratic credentials? Now, I don’t worry about the democratic credentials of all art or all political art. The Boston Review’s newly released collection, Poems for Political Disaster, could very well contribute to making us think about the political process and thereby might influence public, political debate. Yet, I do not think it in itself needs to be democratically designed, as long as it does not get in the way of democracy.
HWNDU, on the other hand, is a participatory form of art. In it’s basic form it is not a particularly reason-based, democratic thing – people are called to repeat “He Will Not Divide Us”. However, when the project was designed it would have been a reasonable assumption that as it provides a public political platform, via webcam, it would grow to encompass other political (and non-political) utterances. (A guy told me what to do if my flat gets infested with cockroaches. Something called the “bug bomb” is meant to be good.) Thus, we can evaluate the project based on how democratically it lets people participate and whether the speech and behaviour it promotes on that platform is deliberative or promotes reasoned deliberation in the plublic sphere.
There is another important point here: it is not necessarily important that such art should be deliberative or democratic as long as it does not work against the democratic / deliberative process. Yes, it would be nice if it would contribute towards it, but as long as it doesn’t hinder it we can let is pass. However, I find the question whether such art can be democratic in itself interesting. Some may think I am comparing pears with apples. I think it’s sometimes interesting to measure different types of fruit against each other and see where it takes us.
HWNDU is, as far as possible, open and inclusive. It is on the street, accessible to anyone who can travel to the location. (Yes, that is a small minority of the USA’s population.) Anyone with a suitably fast internet connection and a web browser can watch the unfolding performance. Furthermore, it’s message “He Will Not Divide Us” is inclusive enough so that people from all (ok, most) parts of the political spectrum can embrace it. So far, so good.
Is it equal? Since it is available to the public 24 hours, presumably there isn’t going to be round the clock security for the four-year duration of the Trump presidency. Thus, people can be out-shouted or pushed aside. At times, we might get a slice a Hobbesian state of nature as opposed to a democratically participatory thing. (I am proud of how ugly that last sentence is.)
At times, we may even get violence. In fact, it was violence that has brought the project to my attention: LaBeouf pushing someone and getting arrested. At other times, he was seen shouting in the face of a dissenter aggressively.
Is it deliberative or does it promote reasoned deliberation? I have just seen a man telling the camera that everyone should have equal right to their beliefs and religions and explaining in a rudimentary way why he thinks this should be so. This is praiseworthy and eminently deliberative. People mindlessly chanting “he will not divide us”, as in the video of LaBeouf’s arrest, is no more deliberative than saying 100 Hail Mary’s. (He is arrested 6 minutes into the video, for you impatient types.) People shouting hate speech as a response: of course it is not deliberative.
Why is deliberation important? Democratic theorists tend to think that it is important in a society where people have to make decisions together in the face of fundamental disagreements to discuss those decisions in a reasoned way first. We can then make sure that everyone knows relevant facts, that different people’s point of views and beliefs and their reasons behind holding those beliefs are shared in a way that encourages (I wouldn’t like to say forces) others to listen to them respectfully.
Does it matter that HWNDU is not democratic? I don’t know enough about the motivating ideas behind the installation to answer that question. In as much as lack of equality, violence (even minor such as shouting someone down) and the propagation of hate speech do divide people, it could matter. On the other hand, highlighting these behaviours and how they play out in this relatively mundane setting can also make us think about how they affect the political landscape around us.
I, in any case, will try to remember to keep an eye on this project, if only to enjoy my window into New York.
First written and published: 26 January 2017
Edited and updated: 29 January 2017