What I found was much less intimidating than I’d imagined: A group of eight people, all in their 20s, murmuring “He will not divide us.” Initially I felt stiff, like I’d stumbled on the ceremony of a polite cult, but after a minute or so I began to relax and enjoy my chant. It was quiet, meditative, and it felt good to be in tune with a diverse group of people I didn’t know. I only stayed for about 10 minutes, but the trance felt longer.
Of course, Shia LeBeouf’s star power draw crowds when he’s there, so my second visit had a very different vibe. A large crowd gathered in the early evening on January 22, with LaBeouf playing ringmaster. This time I came with my wife and friends, and he gave us all big hugs when we came and left. It was a block-party vibe, with people singing and dance circles created, whoops of joy hollered, lollipops distributed.
After two days of highs and lows in NYC — from Friday’s palpable grief of a blue city watching Donald Trump sworn into office, to the electricity of Saturday’s avenue-closing Women’s March — both experiences of the exhibit offered relief. But liberal therapy aside, how does a camera pointing to a sidewalk stack up as modern art?
The installation illustrates how NYC is the perfect canvas, and it’s telling that the city’s most diverse borough is bringing this vision to life. The project is a melting pot of ages, races, genders, sexualities, and beliefs, and it’s fascinating how the five words became a mantra and took on lives of their own. Whispered, sung, screamed, laughed, cried out, rhythmic, atonal — there’s real power in the people’s voices, and anyone becomes a creator.
Then there’s the impromptu community, in which people you’d never know or notice became fellow warriors, dance partners, chant buddies, and family. After I told my mother about the livestream, she watched for long periods, transfixed. An arm injury kept her from the Women’s March, but the “HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US” community reached across the country. “It’s incredibly powerful to see my fellow Americans, in all their beautiful diversity, approach the exhibit camera and passionately announce (or sing) to the world that they will not allow this new president to tear our country apart,” she wrote to me.
During one 24-hour period, I witnessed the following:
- A man in a Make America Great Again hat trying to stir up a Cat Stevens–esque hippie strumming a guitar. It didn’t work.
- A (drunk?) woman aggressively dabbing and then falling, to her friends’ amusement.
- A very adorable and woke baby dancing along to the chant.
- Three teens yelling out different variations of the n-word, “cucks” and “Trump.” They were calmly chanted down by a group until they got bored and left.
- Far-away friends Facetiming in via phones placed against the camera.
- Another Trump fan shit-talking LaBeouf — “I fuckin’ hate him,” “he’s a weird artist type,” “it was dumb when he wore a bag on his head…fuck that” — on his own livestream. LaBeouf appeared a few minutes later, gave the man a big hug, and then hijacked his project back with the chant.
- Groups of teens being pelted with such harsh wind and rain that their eyes filled with tears. But they still spoke the words.
Who knows what this livestream will look like in a week, a month, a year from now. Perhaps Trump will try to rip the camera off the wall — after all, he’s no fan of the arts. But at the moment, for the first time since the inauguration, I’m looking forward to seeing what tomorrow will bring.