The first important performance art project of the Trump era began at 9 AM on January 20, a few hours before Donald Trump's inauguration. It was filmed by a single camera mounted to the wall outside of the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens and run by Shia LaBeouf, Nastja Säde Rönkkö, and Luke Turner, a three-man artist collective specializing in crowd-sourced projects (including one done with VICE). The basic idea was to get members of the public to deliver the line "he will not divide us" into the camera for a feed that would run continuously for the duration of Trump's presidency. But if people showed up to share dissenting opinions, that would be OK too. As long as it was peaceful.
It was not peaceful.
On Friday, after 20 days of chaos, topless neo-Nazis chugging milk, literal fights, and Labeouf's high-profile arrest, HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US (the project's official title and URL) was cancelled. It had "created an unexpectedly volatile situation and serious public safety hazards," the museum said in a statement. "The installation had become a flashpoint for violence and was disrupted from its original intent."
(On the project's site, the livestream has been replaced by a single sentence: "The museum has abandoned us.")
Most of the coverage surrounding the event focused on this violence. What was intended to be a piece of protest art had become a shitshow thanks in part to a crew of far-right trolls who showed up after being spurred on by 4chan. The whole situation seemed to say something sour on the state of America.
Here's the milk chugging I was talking about:
But another way to put it is that HWNDU was an astonishingly successful work. It had captured the essence of human nature, and sure, OK, the essence of human nature turned out to be the sort of thing that a museum couldn't actually tolerate—but if you went down there when it was going on, as I did, you would have found something special.
Jackie (not his real name) is a local teenager who made it his mission to stay at the exhibit as long as possible. When I met him on the 14th day of HWNDU, he told me he hadn't slept for days. "I'm freezing cold, exhausted," he said, his voice shaking. "But I'll be down here every day if it means I get to spread my message."
Jackie muttered something about "praising kek." (A reference to 4chan that would take too much time to explain.)
Paperboy Prince of the Suburbs (not to be confused with Paperboi, the fictional rapper on Donald Glover's series Atlanta) is a Brooklyn-based performance artist and musician. He arrived on the first day of the exhibit carrying a sign proclaiming himself "the Minister of Fun."
I asked Paper why he decided to show up and he told me he stumbled upon the exhibit by chance. "I was coming from an event wearing platform heels, carrying a tambourine," said Paper. "I got a lot of looks. People stared at me. I was dancing; it turned into a party."
Paper became one of the stream's biggest characters thanks to his whimsical appearance, which often involves rainbow-colored fur and LED lights. But something about HWNDU turned every quirk into a controversy and every controversy into a hatefest. Paper received death threats, online and in person. "I got messages telling me I needed to leave [the museum] because so many people are sending death threats," said Paper. He did leave a few times when he was scared for his life. One night, we left the museum at the same time. He told me he had to circle the block.
"I'm always looking over my shoulder," he said.
But he kept coming back.
"When you're spreading love and doing the right thing," said Paper, "There's only good that can come of that. I've talked to more Trump supporters, more people who have called me the N-word than I ever have in my whole life. That's the best thing [about _HWNDU_]. People coming out of their houses and talking to their neighbors, regardless of their political views."
Paper says he's even received apologies via Twitter and Instagram from some of the trolls who sent him death threats.
HWNDU was a lot like America itself—there were good, positive things happening in it, but you didn't hear about them. I saw an NYPD cop go to Starbucks and get Paper some tea. I ran into a man named Roland Szpond, who came all the way from Orlando to check the project out. He was hoping to meet the artists, "but in the end I didn't feel let down that I didn't, because I met really awesome people and felt like I had a purpose."
And I talked to Ben Ellougani, an Army vet who served three years in Afghanistan, who was also there from day one and was known around the museum as "Army Ben," though right-wingers taunted him by calling him "Stolen Valor" to imply he was lying about his service. When Ellougani showed the camera a photo of him in uniform as proof, a troll with poor Photoshop skills pasted a swastika onto his uniform. Other hatemongers posted photos of his family online.
"Unfortunately we live in a world where evil exists," said Ellougani. "Unity is powerful. The love is strong; I have to defend it."
Paper concurs: "It's about dealing with adversity, and not taking no for an answer."
HWNDU didn't last the full four years, and maybe that's for the best given how hot tempers were running. But in just 20 days, it brought together a group of misfits, performance artists, racists, Instagram models, activists, and tourists, and showed the world a particularly strange slice of America.
And despite everything, there was a lot of love on display.
"At the end of the day, [trolls] are looking for a sense of community as well," said Paper. "They're standing in 30-degree weather with the rest of us, because they want acceptance."
One memorable night I was chanting "he will not divide us" with the crowd, when the crew of Trump supporters tried to drown out our mantra by screaming, "HE WILL UNITE US!" After a few exchanges the two groups unintentionally adapt the same rhythm:
HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US
HE WILL UNITE US
HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US
HE WILL UNITE US
We may not have agreed with each other. We may have hated each other. But we were saying basically the same thing, together.
Follow Lisa Divenuta on Twitter.