Livestream had moved from US to Liverpool for safety
'HE will not divide us,” they said.
“The artwork will be live-streamed for four years,” they said.
In the event, it took just one day for a controversial installation by artists Shia LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner at Liverpool's FACT to be knocked out of action by a loose collective of shady keyboard warriors.
To the untrained eye, the work, called HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US, seemed unspectacular enough. It was just a flag flying from a pole on FACT’s roof, with a camera streaming its image to the web. But the flag’s appearance was merely the latest chapter in a tale that began two months ago in New York.
When Liverpool Confidential turned up at FACT shortly after the video stream had gone blank, staff were tight-lipped about what had happened
In one of the most bizarre city art stories of recent years, FACT had initially come to the work’s rescue after it had been repeatedly attacked at three different sites in the US. But as soon as it went on display in Liverpool yesterday – and across the world via its live internet video stream – residents of the darker corners of the web set about working out ways to take it down.
And just before 3pm this afternoon, they succeeded. A lad in a tracksuit top and baseball cap, face hidden behind a scarf, suddenly appeared on the live stream and peered into the camera. It was clear the game was up, and the stream was immediately taken offline.
A challenger appears #hewillnotdivideus pic.twitter.com/Hjm1y4sxr2
— cartoon frog (@megamilking) March 23, 2017
Twitter users under the hashtag #HeWillNotDivideUs were ecstatic that the artwork had been erased. For them, it was the biggest game of capture the flag you could imagine, and an ideological victory in the ongoing battle for America’s soul. Visitors to FACT, meanwhile, went about their Thursday afternoon business, unaware that an unsettling game of global cat and mouse was unfolding five storeys above their heads.
So why did this flag cause such consternation? After all, it was just a rectangle of white fabric hanging from a stick. But if you happened to catch sight of it when the wind took hold, its message was revealed in stark black letters.
“He will not divide US,” it said, with the ‘he’ referring to President Donald Trump.
The flag wasn’t meant to be in Liverpool. The project was supposed to be running at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York where it opened on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration.
It wasn’t even meant to be a flag. It was originally a public participation piece, with museum visitors invited to speak the words “He will not divide us” into a live-stream camera mounted on the building’s wall. It was up to participants to interpret the statement as positively or negatively as they wished.
Except that things soon got "difficult".
According to FACT, “the installation was subjected to constant disruption and hate speech by far-right extremists”, and following an altercation, one of the piece’s creator’s – the artist, actor and filmmaker Shia LaBeouf – was arrested.
After only a week, Tomoko Kawamoto of the Museum of the Moving Image said they were working with the police “out of concern for the safety of all participants, museum visitors and staff”, adding, “I don’t recall anything like this in the museum’s history”.
The installation was intended to remain in situ for the full term of Trump’s presidency, but just three weeks after launch, the museum closed it down. In a statement, they said it had become “a flashpoint for violence and was disrupted from its original intent”.
LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner were not happy. In place of the live stream, their website simply said “The museum has abandoned us”.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that closure didn’t signal the project’s end.
Following a similarly ill-fated stint at a theatre in Albuquerque, the project was refashioned as a flag and moved to an “unknown location” – which didn’t stay unknown for long before members of the 4chan and 8chan internet forums worked out where it was. The flag was soon stolen, defaced and its location was set on fire.
For LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner, it was proof that “America is simply not safe enough for this artwork to exist”, and thus its next appearance was 3,500 miles away in Liverpool.
When FACT “adopted” it, the organisation said it was “pleased to be able to offer the support that the project needs”.
But with alt-right activists in the US posting FACT floorplans and rooftop drone images on Twitter, it seemed only a matter of time before someone managed to reach it and remove it.
In the event, it probably happened quicker than anyone expected, and when Liverpool Confidential turned up at FACT shortly after the video stream had gone blank, staff were tight-lipped about what had happened. They told us that no one was available for comment.
On police advice, FACT and LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner have removed the installation HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US due to dangerous, illegal trespassing.
— FACT (@FACT_Liverpool) March 23, 2017
An hour later, the organisation tweeted, “On police advice, FACT and LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner have removed the installation HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US due to dangerous, illegal trespassing.”
For now, it appears that the HEWILLNOTDIVIDE.US story is over – but this is 2017, and an artwork being chased across the globe via social media isn’t the weirdest thing that’s happened in recent times.
If the project’s original intention was to give people an opportunity to add their own spin to the phrase “He will not divide us”, the reimagined version left less room for nuanced interpretation. Flags, after all, are statements not suggestions, and as a symbol of a certain kind of defiance, the white banner was a red rag to those who feel that Trump has got it right.
If nothing else, the episode would seem to demonstrate that contrary to LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner’s optimistic message, the world may already be in bits.