LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner were in the middle of their 2016 art project titled “#TAKEMEANYWHERE.” Jacky Petters had just learned that, as part of the artists’ project, they were travelling together through Michigan. Jacky, who earned her undergraduate degree in 2015 and works as an artist in Michigan, wanted to be involved in their project. In particular, she was a fan of one of the artists, Shia LaBeouf, and she wanted to meet him. She jumped in car and drove after them.
Arriving at the shore of Lake Michigan, she discovered that the three artists had boarded the S.S. Badger, a ship that ferries cars and passengers across the lake to Wisconsin. When Jacky arrived, the Badger was still docked, but she didn’t want to spend money on a ticket. Who even knows what would happen if she did? Having parked her car, she sat at a picnic table for half an hour, looking out at the Badger, feeling bummed that she wasn’t going to have the opportunity to meet the artists. Suddenly, she decided to take her chance: “The boat was departing at 8:30pm and at 8:14pm I got up off the picnic table, ran to my car, and drove to the ticket booth. There was nothing in my way, there was nobody there telling me no. I realized if I wanted this chance, that I was the one that had to make it happen.”
On the boat, Jacky introduced herself to one of the three artists, Luke Turner, who was carrying a camera and shooting film out on the deck. He asked her if she wanted to be in the movie he was shooting, and he wondered if she wanted to join the artists for the night. Jacky said “yes,” and entered the boat. Inside, Shia LaBeouf was pulling together chairs for the group of nine people currently participating in #TAKEMEANYWHERE. When Jacky told Shia that she had followed them to the Badger, he said, “No shit! Do you want to join us?!” He pulled up another chair for her. The group, including Nastja Säde Rönkkö, the third artist, welcomed Jacky, and she ate pizza and talked with them.
Later, the group went into the boat’s arcade and played video games and bingo. Then they went back out to the upper deck, where they lounged around talking, sitting on metal benches or on the floor, looking out over the water. It was pretty dark outside except for faint yellow lights scattered along the deck, and Jacky could hear water lapping against the side of the boat. Jacky was sitting on the deck, trying to take in the moment, and thinking about her experience overall. There was a moment of silence in the conversation, and Jacky suddenly spoke up. “This is the craziest thing I’ve ever done. Following you, not knowing where I’m going to end up, and being all alone.”
Shia responded, “But you’re not alone. You have us.”
Jacky thought for a moment, and what Shia said seemed so totally true. In fact, she had never felt such an immense sense of acceptance and love from a group of people she had so recently met. She felt comfortable and content, but she also wanted to pinch to remind herself that the night was actually real.
“You’re right,” she said.
Eventually, the boat arrived in Wisconsin, having ferried across Lake Michigan. Jacky was the only member of the group who would not be continuing on with LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner or #TAKEMEANYWHERE, anymore. She needed to return home. But, in the meantime, she legitimately felt like she had made eight new friends. Bummed to see Jacky leave, Shia yelled, “Group hug!” Jacky was bombarded by everyone in the group who hugged her and each other.
Jacky writes that, “Honestly, I think one of the coolest parts of the night was the group hug I received when everybody was getting off the boat and I was starting on a return back to Michigan. Because it wasn’t just about meeting Shia anymore. It was about our little group that formed on the SS Badger and the memories we created.”
In this creative essay, I will argue that we can think of the artists and participants in #TAKEMEANYWHERE as a tribe. This is metaphorical language. I contend that, in a metaphorical sense, they are like their own, unique society, with a number of distinct characteristics. So when Jacky joined the artists and participants on the Badger, she joined their tribe, which welcomed her with open arms. The tribe accepted her as one of its own.
Jacky’s adventure was part of #TAKEMEANYWHERE, a project organized by the artistic trio of Shia LaBeouf, Nastja Säde Rönkkö, and Luke Turner. Together, they go by the band name “LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner.”
From May 23rd to June 23rd, 2016, LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner hitchhiked across the country. During their project, the artists periodically posted their GPS coordinates and the hashtag #TAKEMEANYWHERE on their Twitter page, @thecampaignbook. After they posted their coordinates, they waited at that location for a ride, and whoever first picked them up was allowed to take the three artists wherever he or she wanted. The artists’ trip and experiences were determined by the projects’ participants – particularly those who could arrive at posted coordinates the fastest. Some people on Twitter have suggested that #TAKEMEANYWHERE might best be thought of as “social media hitchhiking.”
The project was supported in part by VICE, and the artists’ route was often (though not always) tracked in real time on the website http://takemeanywhere.vice.com. Going on the website, you could see a map of the world on which a small dot, representing the artists, would slowly inch along. The artists’ trail remained marked out on the map as well, and anyone could see where they had been. That was how Jacky tracked them. She was encouraged to track them by looking at the artists’ map-in-progress.
The artists began their journey near Boulder, Colorado, where they had recently given a presentation and participated in a question-and-answer session at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, as part of the museum’s series of events called MediaLive: Corruption. As they hitchhiked, the artists made their way from Colorado out into Kansas and the Midwest, before returning back through Colorado, west over the mountains, and south into Arizona. The artists then traveled from Arizona straight across the country to New Orleans and Florida, before heading north as far as Pennsylvania and New Jersey. They headed due west, where Jacky met them as they crossed Lake Michigan. The artists hitchhiked across the country to Montana, Wyoming, and Washington State. They then headed north into Canada, stopping Vancouver and Alberta, before finally catching a flight to Alaska, where their project ended.
During their month long project, the three artists carried around a video camera, which they frequently used to capture their adventures. Together, they are creating a film which will be displayed at the Finnish Institute in London and the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, which together commissioned the project.
Many of the people who travelled with LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner have described the groups with whom they traveled as “tribes.” People who never travelled with the artists, and instead only followed them and wrote about them on Twitter, have also talked about themselves as if they are members of a common “tribe.”
If I asked the participants, perhaps some would say that each separate group that traveled with the artists was a separate tribe. Perhaps they would say that there were many different “tribes” involved in the project, each with different membership. But I’m going to write about the project as if all of the participants belong to a common tribe. That way of writing feels genuine to me. I’m going to call the common tribe “#TribeLRT.”
In this creative essay, I will explore why, at least metaphorically, those who participated in #TAKEMEANYWHERE, both in person and on Twitter, are members of a common tribe. As I do, I will also continue to tell the stories of participants, like Jacky, involved in the project. My intention is to provide an account of the project that is personal to the participants. Likewise, I will focus on details of the project that make it seem profound to me. That is the best way I know to reflect on the project’s artistic and philosophical significance.
When I reflect on the notion of tribes, I won’t be looking for an accurate definition of the term “tribe.” Likewise, I will not be concerned with providing an accurate description of any given, real tribe. Instead, I will be more interested in how tribes have been imagined and viewed over time, truthfully or not. I will contend that we can think of the artists and participants in #TAKEMEANYWHERE in some of the same ways that many people have thought about tribes.
Theorists note that many people have imagined tribes to have positive characteristics that some harsh, big cities lack. Right or wrong, many think of tribespeople as being especially loyal to one another and as displaying ties of close kinship. Actually, anthropologists suggest that tribespeople often have, in fact, regarded one another as relatives. Similarly, many respected works of literature portray tribespeople as loyal and devoted friends. Authors have also imagined tribespeople behaving with beautiful spontaneity. The word “tribe” has been associated with warm, folk-oriented society, which stands in contrast to the cold regimentation associated with big cities. Tribes are seen as a foil to modern culture. Some anthropologists argue that many tribespeople have, in fact, developed their identity as members of a common tribe because they commonly rejected the values of the society surrounding them.
Below, I will argue that #TAKEMEANYWHERE created groups of people who developed metaphorical kinship ties – strong emotional connections developed within a short timeframe. I will also contend that #TAKEMEANYWHERE was a beautiful project in part because of the trust, spontaneity, and loyalty — all metaphorically “tribal” — demonstrated by LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner. Because the artists were so open, warm and trusting, many of the project’s participants were also able, themselves, to be trusting and open and develop strong ties.
Some theorists have tried to distinguish one tribe from another on the basis of their language, with each tribe, by definition, possessing a distinct language or dialect that separates it from other tribes. Other historians and anthropologists have argued that we can distinguish between tribes on the basis of their art and culture. Some theorists have argued, for instance, that members of a particular tribe might recognize meaning in a work of art that members of a very different society, far away, would never see. If these theorists are right, we might gain at least a very rough sense of a person’s society or tribe by determining what art he or she finds compelling and why.
No doubt, art from distant cultures and tribes can still be largely accessible to us, even if we are, to a great extent, ignorant of the art’s sociohistorical context. Many people in Western society, for instance, find beautiful both Chinese paintings and carpets from the Middle East. Arguably, then, the West and the East share a transcultural sense of the aesthetic. Certain aesthetic qualities might appeal to people everywhere, regardless of culture. Still, even if all this is true, anthropologists might nonetheless be right that people from different societies sometimes view the same work of art differently. Grant that many people from distant societies find a particular work of tribal art beautiful and largely accessible. Nonetheless, members of that tribe might recognize symbols in that work of art, or grasp some portion of its meaning or significance, that the vast majority of outsiders do not. If so, we might, at least roughly, distinguish between different tribes and societies by attending to the meaning and significance they see in art that so few else recognize.
Below, I will argue that we might think that participants in #TAKEMEANYWHERE metaphorically “speak the same language.” I will also argue that we might treat them as members of a common tribe because of their common ability to recognize meaning and value in the same artistic project.
Jacky Petters only spent about four hours involved with #TAKEMEANYWHERE – the time it took for a boat to ferry cars across Lake Michigan. Days later, she regretted that, during that time, she did not make a greater connection with LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner. She felt that too much of what she talked about with them she could also have heard in interviews. She regretted that she hadn’t asked about the kinds of things you learn when you form a true relationship with someone. What video games do they play? What are their favorite movies from 2015? What are their favorite memories?
Whenever they isolated themselves with just a few participants, LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner created a space in which those participants could develop meaningful connections and real relationships with them. Those who most quickly arrived at the coordinates the artists posted, and were able to take them anywhere, had the opportunity to form genuine friendships with the artists.
Rachel Bewley, who has managed a family farm in Tennessee for nearly a decade since finishing college, graciously let me interview her about her experiences with #TAKEMEANYWHERE. I first met Rachel at a gallery reception I helped to organize at Colorado State University-Pueblo, where Luke and Nastja exhibited some of their collaborative work. Since then, Rachel and I have been friends. I was truly thrilled for her, when I learned that she was the first to arrive at a set of coordinates the artists had posted, and would have the opportunity to take them anywhere. Rachel found LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner in Florida, and eventually drove them north to her home in Tennessee, after stopping, along the way, to take a guided tour of the caves at Florida Caverns State Park.
But before they eventually reached her home in Tennessee, they had to overcome challenges. Rachel was driving them on I-10, about thirty miles west of Tallahassee, Florida. They were just about to turn off the highway, when Rachel suddenly felt the steering wheel pull hard to the right and saw a bunch of lights light up on her dashboard. Rachel writes that, “It was quite scary. I immediately had to get off the road, safely, right now, and also not freak-out and scare everyone.” As she pulled off the road, she said, “Guys, there is something wrong with the car.” She pulled off onto a grassy stretch along the side of the road. It was a semi-wooded area, and there wasn’t much around.
The artists assured Rachel that they had purchased coverage with Triple-A for exactly this sort of problem. Rachel was impressed by how quickly the artists responded. They called for a tow truck before she even confirmed what was wrong with her car.
Rachel recalls that, before she even turned off her car, two more vehicles – which held six passengers in their twenties and thirties – joined them on the side of the road. Both of the vehicles were part of the caravan of cars and trucks that followed LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner across the country. During #TAKEMEANYWHERE, those who drove LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner were often followed by a small caravan of other vehicles and people who hoped to participate in the project, themselves.
Four of the caravan members, who had originally followed LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner in two separate vehicles, had at some point decided to travel together in the same truck. They had been complete strangers before #TAKEMEANYWHERE, but had developed friendships as they traveled across the country in pursuit of the artists. Rachel writes that she thought their travelling together was, “really cool, because they didn’t know each other, before.”
Rachel had already met everyone in the caravan. A day earlier, Rachel had arrived at coordinates the artists posted in Louisiana, but she was too late, and the artists were gone. But Rachel did, at those coordinates, meet a number of other people who were looking for the artists, including four of the people who had joined her on the side of the road. They had talked together a bit, and had exchanged Twitter handles. They were all friendly with each other, if a little competitive, because they were all searching for LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner. Rachel had also met the other two people who joined her on the side of the road. They had shown up at Florida Caverns State Park, and the whole group had gone down into the caves together.
Everyone got out of Rachel’s car, and Luke took up his video camera and started filming everything. Rachel popped the hood of her car and looked at her engine, and was soon joined by several of the guys from the caravan, who had their own tools. One of them even climbed beneath her car to see what was wrong. They figured out that her right front wheel bearing had gone out, and all they could do was wait for a tow truck.
Rachel says that she felt stressed and tried to stay busy. She kept leaving the group, walking a short distance away to call her mechanic or her husband, trying to figure out what was going on, and what was going to happen next.
In my interview with her, she told me, “I figured that my disabled car was the end of the ride.” She said, “Everyone was so nice and supportive,” and she felt like it was a very comfortable space that everyone had created. But deep down, initially, she also felt a sense of a ticking clock. The project would soon be done. “Oh wow. That’s too bad. My trip is over.” But the three artists quickly reassured her. She got a sense that they would be willing to keep traveling with her the following day, when her car got fixed, and she was grateful that they wouldn’t let her trip end in crisis.
Meanwhile, on the side of the road, the group had developed into something a lot like a tailgate party. “Food and beverages appeared out of nowhere,” Rachel notes. They all had different snacks and drinks in their cars, and they all shared them with each other. “Everyone got out and we just hung out until the tow truck came. Luke was working the camera. Some people were sitting in the back of the truck. Other people were hanging out in the grass. We were just kind of hanging out, waiting for the tow truck. It was a really nice moment.”
For the hour it took, for the tow truck to arrive, the group shared a number of casual conversations. They introduced themselves to each other, and talked about themselves, where they were from, their projects, and their occupations. Rachel said that it “was like meeting people at a small party.”
That night, after the tow truck came, everyone from the caravan and tailgating party stayed overnight at the same motel in Tallahassee, and they all ate dinner together at a Denny’s nearby. Rachel says that she appreciated how close everyone in the group became in such a short time. The project brought them altogether, and quickly created strong ties. Because of how open and trusting the artists were with everyone they met, everyone was open and trusting in return. “There was so much real openness and love that everyone wanted to be in.” Rachel felt that #TAKEMEANYWHERE “really created this amazing sense of community and support.”
Imagine that you are driving in a state you rarely visit, on a road you don’t know well, and suddenly your car breaks down. Usually, no matter who you’re with, the experience sucks! It’s awful! After listening to Rachel talk about her experiences, I personally find it remarkable how different Rachel’s experience was from my own, rather ordinary breakdowns. She was quickly joined by a group of people she already knew, who shared food and drinks together and had a mini tailgating party. There is something really wild about this – a tailgating party by a broken down car on the side of a road in Florida with Shia Labeouf, Nastja Säde Rönkkö, and Luke Turner. It seems surreal. Yet #TAKEMEANYWHERE helped created the kinds of real connections between people that made such an event possible. People who had been complete strangers before #TAKEMEANYWHERE were now traveling together, breaking bread together, and building lasting connections. Now, several months after #TAKEMEANYWHERE, Rachel remarks, “The feeling that is so unexpected is that I still feel a connection with all of the people I met, and I would like to meet everyone involved with the project.”
I would like to argue that we can, at least metaphorically, think of the connections everyone made as ties of close kinship. That is, I think we can assert that, at least metaphorically, the participants and artists involved in #TAKEMEANYWHERE became something like kin. Anthropologists note that, in many tribes, once a person is adopted into a tribe, he becomes like a family member to everyone else, even if she does not actually share blood with them. Membership in the tribe guarantees membership in a common family. If one is adopted into the Wolf tribe, all male tribesmen from the same generation become one’s brothers. It feels right to talk about #TAKEMEANYWHERE with the same sort of language, at least in a broad, metaphorical sense. When participants engage with the project and are genuinely open, receptive and connected to it, they establish metaphorical kinship ties with one another, and become members of a common tribe.
Much of our world, however, is dark. Many lives are bleak. Many others, though happy, end in tragedy. In 2008, the artist Pippa Bacca was raped and murdered as she hitchhiked across Turkey. She was strangled to death, and her naked body was found near the village of Gebze, around forty miles from Istanbul.
At the time of her death, Pippa Bacca, whose given name is Giuseppina Pasqualino di Marineo, was in the middle of a performance art piece called “Brides on Tour.” Together with her friend, the artist Silvia Moro, they planned to hitchhike across portions of Europe and the Middle East while wearing white wedding dresses. The dresses were meant to represent the metaphorical marriage between peoples and nations. At the end of the trip, the dresses were meant to be displayed at an art gallery in Italy, together with photos and mementos from the trip. Their plan was to hitchhike, sometimes alone and sometimes together, through portions of Italy, Bosnia, Turkey, Serbia, Syria, and Lebanon before arriving in Israel. They carried no guns or weapons to protect themselves, they had no safety net, and they traveled only with complete strangers.
They began their hitchhiking project, departing from Milano on March 8th, which is International Working Woman’s Day. Arguably, their project was meant, at least in part, to draw attention to Woman’s Day, and lead its audience to think about its significance. We might understand their own acts of risk-taking, in hitchhiking alone with strangers, as reflective of the risks taken by the historical women whose achievements and struggles advanced women’s rights. As they hitchhiked, Moro periodically stopped and asked women to embroider patterns on her wedding dress. Bacca intended to meet with midwives along the way and wash their feet. She said that washing their feet was meant “to honor their profession, which is to bring life into being.” Once they reached Tel-Aviv, they intended to ceremonially wash the wedding dresses, and, in doing so, “wash away traces of war.” So the project highlighted women, their accomplishments and rights, and their relations to global conflict and strife.
It is extraordinarily sad that Pippa Bacca was abused and killed during this project. As a human – with emotions – it is impossible for me to feel anything other than sad about this. The way she was treated is horrifying. Since I also know that her project was intended to honor women and focus on their rights, the project seems to gain an extra tinge of tragedy, if it is possible for the project to be any more tragic at all.
In light of global politics, many have perceived the artists and their project, “Brides on Tour,” as naïve. Perhaps they were. But if they were, then it was a chosen naivety. Bacca and Moro were clearly aware of the dangers of traveling on the road, and if their project seems over-idealistic and naïve, they must have chosen this mindset, arguably in opposition to the reality of the world. We might conceive their action – choosing to be naïve – as an act of defiance against the traditionally passive role imposed on women through much of the world.
Is it true that women have to live in a world in which they can’t be trusting? Is it true that women have to live in a world in which they perceive they cannot do anything to end wars, and the struggles between people? It was as if Bacca and Morro cried out, “No! No!” They chose, instead – naively? – to act as if art can change the world, and as if the acts of individual women, not directly involved in traditional political machinery, can make a difference.
The mission statement for “Brides on Tour”, which the artists reportedly posted on a website that is no longer accessible, reads: “Hitchhiking is choosing to have faith in other human beings, and man, like a small god, rewards those who have faith in him.” Arguably, too, Bacca and Moro needed for the project to be truly spontaneous, and to be determined largely by the strangers who picked them up. How can you really get to know people or genuinely trust others, if you only ever meet them in controlled, regimented situations? The artists deliberately chose naivety and chose to be trusting. Bacca’s sister says of her that: “She thought that in the world there were more positive than negative people, and that it was right to be trusting.” She added that, “Trust is a very human factor, and she believed that to understand people, you had to get to know them.”
I have not seen LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner compare #TAKEMEANYWHERE to “Brides on Tour.” Nonetheless, LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner use the same sort of language to describe #TAKEMEANYWHERE that Bacca, Moro, and others have used to describe “Brides on Tour.” In an interview with the staff of VICE, Nastja said of #TAKEMEANYWHERE that “it’s about trust.” She added that her ambition with the project was “to connect.” Luke affirmed similar ideas: “We’re putting all our trust in the collective – they’re deciding, they’re determining what unfolds.” Shia noted the artists’ lack of top-down control and the project’s spontaneity, saying: “We don’t really know where the show is going to take us.” Further, and perhaps most strikingly in comparison to “Brides on Tour,” Luke and Shia both emphasized the deliberate role of naivety in their project. Shia remarked: “With these projects, we try to retain a naivety – or that’s the goal. The goal is to sorta stay naïve, stay impressionable, stay malleable.” Luke added: “It’s an informed naivety.”
No doubt, #TAKEMEANYWHERE is in many ways radically different from “Brides on Tour.” First, many of their themes are different, with “Brides on Tour” focusing much more expressly on women’s rights and International Working Women’s Day. Also, Pippa Bacca was traveling alone at the time she was killed, while LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner always traveled together. Additionally, their GPS coordinates were very frequently tracked live and viewable on the Internet. Many people always knew at least roughly where the three artists were. In addition, as mentioned above, the three artists were often followed by mini-caravans of cars and trucks, who knew where they were with even greater detail.
Pippa Bacca took a ride with whichever strangers happened to come along. In contrast, LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner posted their coordinates on Twitter and waited for people to come to them. So, while complete strangers might show up to pick the artists up, those who showed up were already in some way connected to the project. They might be strangers, but they were strangers who had put in time and effort. As Nastja put it in an interview before the project began, with the staff of VICE: “People will have to make a conscious decision to come to us. So it’s not the usual scenario of randomly stopping to pick someone up.” Many of strangers who picked up the three artists had to first choose to put themselves in a vulnerable position. They had to drive – often out into the middle of nowhere – knowing that the chances of being the first to the posted coordinates were slim, and not knowing what their experience with the artists would be like if they happened to arrive first.
Nonetheless, LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner did put themselves in strangers’ hands, and let themselves be taken wherever those strangers wished. This required the artists to be trusting, and demanded that they make themselves vulnerable and allow themselves to be (to a degree) out of control. This level of vulnerability would cause many other people concern.
Rachel remembers that when she first learned what the artists planned, she was “worried for their safety. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. This is really dangerous.’” But ultimately, when she saw how beautifully the project was going, she was amazed to “see the kind of support and care that everyone had for the artists and for each other.”
Arguably, if the artists had not been so trusting and had not let the project participants determine the outcome of the project, they could have not have formed such true and genuine connections with the people they met. How can you really connect with others if you don’t trust them? Before the artists really began to interact with their participants, the participants first needed to trust them enough to pick them up and drive them. And the artists, in turn, needed to trust these total strangers enough to get in the car. It’s a powerful act – getting into a car with strangers. As Rachel says, “I think there is a huge amount of trust that was established in that act.”
Rachel adds that this is part of what made their project so powerful. “I think there is a feeling – certainly that I have and that I think a lot of people have – that people just don’t trust each other. I think we live in a society where you’re not supposed to pick up strangers. Don’t get in a car with strangers.” Just look at Pippa Bacca, whose story is tragic and horrifying. Pippa Bacca’s project, which involved hitchhiking across the country, seems so naïve to so many people because of the scary world in which we live. Rachel remarked that, during #TAKEMEANYWHERE, the 2016 Orlando Nightclub Shooting happened, killing forty-nine people and wounding fifty-three more. And during that month, the news reported many other horrible, scary things. But Rachel adds: “What can we do? We’re never going to get anywhere unless we can trust each other to some degree.”
That is what the artists and the participants in the project did. They chose to embrace a kind of informed naivety, and – together with the participants of the project – to put themselves into a vulnerable and trusting space. As a result, they could begin their conversations with a level of intimacy that strangers or mere-acquaintances rarely experience. They could quickly proceed to an even greater level of connection. Rachel remarked, “There are so many things that are stripped away, from the beginning, because of the vulnerable situation that everyone was in, and you could really just feel a sense of real connection with other human beings, which for me was an incredible experience, and not one that I have felt much in my whole life, and certainly not in such a short period of time.”
From what I’ve read about “Brides on Tour,” Bacca and Moro had similar intentions. By putting themselves in a vulnerable place and letting many of their experiences be determined by the personal lives of strangers, they hoped to form genuine connections that went beyond what strangers or acquaintances could achieve. No doubt, #TAKEMEANYWHERE and “Brides on Tour” were very different, in large part because of the role of the Internet and social networks in #TAKEMEANYWHERE. As a result, #TAKEMEANYWHERE ultimately did not run the same risk of tragedy. Nonetheless, the two projects do share several similar themes: trust, friendship, human connection, informed naivety, and spontaneity.
As suggested earlier, similar themes also appear in many scholars’ discussions of tribes. Tribes are conceived, rightly or wrongly, as being warm and folk-oriented and full of real human connection, in contrast to the cold regimentation and exploitation of contemporary urban life. The community associated with #TAKEMEANYWHERE, with its warm human connection and beautiful spontaneity, can easily be thought of as a tribe. The “tribe” metaphor works!
Tribespeople are defined, in part, by sharing the same culture. I argue that #TribeLRT shares the culture of metamodernism. What is metamodernism? Dutch cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker describe metamodernism as a specific structure of feeling, or sensibility, that many people in Western culture currently express. The metamodern sensibility has a specific sort of character, which Vermeulen and van den Akker describe like this:
Metamodernism oscillates between the modern and the postmodern. It oscillates between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, between naivety and knowingness, empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity.
The best way to understand this quote is to consider films and works of art that theorists have called “metamodern.” Vermeulen and van den Akker suggest that the metamodern sensibility might best be understood by engaging with the films and works of art that most clearly express it.
Consider, for instance, the films of Wes Anderson, who has directed Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), among other films. Also consider the American crime drama Breaking Bad, which ran on television from 2008 to 2013. These films and shows, and others like them, seem to oscillate between – move back and forth between – different feelings and attitudes. They oscillate between irony on the one hand and sincerity on the other, empathy on the one hand and apathy on the other, hope on the one hand and melancholy on the other. These films and shows sometimes almost regain the innocence and naivety of childhood but this naivety is always contrasted with harsh experience and life knowledge.
Vermeulen and van den Akker suggest that we can – strictly metaphorically – visualize the metamodern sensibility expressed by these films and shows as a pendulum swinging back and forth between countless poles. Each time the pendulum swings toward sincerity, gravity eventually pulls it in the opposite direction, toward irony. Each time it reaches toward empathy, gravity pulls it back toward apathy. Sincerity and irony are both present in these films and shows and do not diminish each other. They are simply different poles between which the films and shows swing. This, then, gives a sense – though only a partial one – of the surprisingly complex notion of the metamodern sensibility. I contend that this is also the sensibility shared by all of the members of the common tribe engaged with #TAKEMEANYWHERE.
LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner describe #TAKEMEANYWHERE in the same romantic language that Vermeulen and van den Akker use when they discuss metamodernism. Recall, from above, that both Luke and Shia have spoken about the “naivety” involved in #TAKEMEANYWHERE. Luke explicitly used the phrase “informed naivety” to describe the project. Vermeulen and van den Akker use exactly the same phrase in their description of metamodernism. They claim that the metamodern mindset “can be conceived as a kind of informed naivety, a pragmatic idealism.” They suggest that people like me, who have a metamodern sensibility, tend to naively strive forward toward idealistic goals. We act as if achieving our grand goals is possible, despite the fact that – if we really paid attention to the world – we would be aware of the great likelihood of failure. In one work of art, titled Broken Fall (1971), artist Bas Jan Ader films himself climbing a tree until he falls. He aims to fulfill the task of climbing to the end of the branches despite – if he paid attention – the impossibility of success.
Below, I will discuss a number of other similarities in the language used by Vermeulen and van den Akker and the language used by LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner. The three artists intentionally appealed to these scholars’ language and theory when they described #TAKEMEANYWHERE. LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner meant for #TAKEMEANYWHERE to be viewed as metamodern art. So too, we can view the tribe associated with the project – #TribeLRT – as a tribe defined, in part, by metamodern culture.
Luke’s own philosophy of art was heavily influenced by Vermuelan and van den Akker. He writes about them and cites their work in an article he, himself, wrote titled, “Metamodernism: A Brief Introduction.” Luke is also co-editor the online journal Notes on Metamodernism with Robin van den Akker.
Nastja and Shia, too, are clearly aware of the work of Vermeulen and van den Akker, both indirectly through talking with Luke, and also more directly, through meeting and working with the two scholars. LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner performed their project titled “#METAMARATHON” outside of a museum in Amsterdam while a symposium on metamodernism, which Vermeulen and van den Akker helped to organize, was taking place inside the building. During #METAMARATHON, all three artists, dressed in silly outfits, ran laps around the museum. Random strangers, who watched #METAMARATHON, could choose to run laps with Shia, or to run laps “for” him, while he rested. During part of #METAMARATHON, Vermeulen and van den Akker, who helped to organize the symposium, were giving an academic presentation inside the museum. In essence, LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner literally ran laps around the two scholars.
Shia also participated in a university class taught by Timotheus Vermeulen. Shia Skyped in to the class, and gave a performative reading of a paper Vermeulen co-wrote with van den Akker, in which they define metamodernism and use phrases such as “informed naivety.”
So, when LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner use language that is similar to that employed by Vermeulen and van den Akker, it is no accident. They mean for their audience to be able to view #TAKEMEANYWHERE through a metamodern lens, if their audience so chooses. Consider, for example, the artists’ brief description of #TAKEMEANYWHERE, which they published at the beginning of their journey. The artists write:
The American road trip has long been symbolic of a collective yearning to seek out beauty and truth within a corrupt nation. As part of MediaLive 2016’s theme on corruption, #TAKEMEANYWHERE asks, can we find such truths within the corrupted networks of society, and preserve something of the utopian naivety of the Internet age?
In this quote the artists use the phrase “utopian naivety.” It is clear that the three artists, during #TAKEMEANYWHERE, embraced metamodern informed naivety. In the quote, the artists contrast the phrase “utopian naivety” with the phrase “corrupt nation.” No doubt, the three artists know that the world is corrupt. We live in a world in which Pippa Bacca was raped and killed while hitchhiking. We cannot get in cars with strangers. While the three artists hitchhiked across the country, a shooter killed forty-nine people in a nightclub in Orlando. But, nonetheless, like Pippa Bacca and Silvia Moro in “Brides on Tour,” the three artists continue to strive for truth, beauty, trust, hope and human connection. They naively embrace the idea of utopia and making the world a better place. At the very least, they openly question if preserving utopia is possible. Is it possible to grasp hold of some part of a utopia of trust and beauty?
The three artists were appealing to the theories of metamodernism when they used the term “informed naivety” to describe #TAKEMEANYWHERE. Arguably, they also appealed to metamodernism when they wrote about “utopia.” Vermeulen and van den Akker contend that the notion of utopia appears in many metamodern artworks. Luke Turner himself claims that metamodernism “does describe a climate in which yearning for utopias, despite their futile nature, has come to the fore.” The metamodernist artist, he writes, can “attempt to attain some sort of transcendent position, as if such a thing were within our grasp.” The metamodern artist might, on some deep level, know that true utopia cannot be realized, and that we lack the conceptual tools to imagine it, but the artist chooses to naively pursue it nonetheless, as if it is possible. In the case of #TAKEMEANYWHERE, utopia would undoubtedly include beauty, truth, trust, and warming human conception.
On board the S.S. Badger, in the middle of Lake Michigan, Jacky was cold. She was enjoying herself, and loved the people she was with. Still, she had not expected to follow LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner onto a boat in the middle of the night. She had not brought a jacket. She was shivering. At that point, everyone was out on the deck, sitting on chairs or on the floor, or leaning against the railings. Waves lapped against the boat. Jacky kept her arms crossed in front of her, trying to stay warm.
One of the girls from the group noticed how cold she was, and offered Jacky her coat. But the coat was too small, so Jacky gave it back. Meanwhile, Shia had been talking to some other people, and had overheard part of Jacky’s conversation. He had figured out that someone was cold, but, having missed most of the conversation, he did not know who.
“Who’s cold?” Shia asked. Before anyone could give an answer, he approached a different girl, thinking that she was the one who was cold. The girl said, “No,” and gestured toward Jacky.
“Here, take my jacket,” Shia said. He immediately started to drape his coat over Jacky’s shoulders, and assisted her until her arms were through. He bundled her in to make sure she was warm. “All of my shit is in the pockets,” Shia said, “Just so you know.” Shia trusted Jacky enough to wear his jacket with his phone, wallet, cigarettes, and whatever other miscellaneous things were in there. “We weren’t always together,” Jacky writes. “Sometimes he’d go off with a couple of the guys or I would go to the bathroom. So his trust was incredible to receive.”
Jacky describes herself as someone who “dreams about things that seem impossible.” She writes, “I think about things that will most likely never be. And most importantly, I never stop.” Sitting on the boat in the middle of the night, talking with Shia and Luke and Nastja, Jacky thought about her greatest dreams for the future, some of which she had come, over time, to think were outside her grasp. “But if I rode a boat with Shia LaBeouf while wearing his jacket, then surely nothing is out of my reach. So now, I will still dream.”
Consider communities of people with similar interests who regularly communicate with each other on the Internet. Some theorists suggest that we should rightly call some of these communities “tribes,” because they appear to be their own unique societies with distinct customs and cultures. When we use the word “tribe” this way, it becomes just as open and inclusive – and just as free of hierarchical structure – as we typically think of the term “community.”
On Twitter, we might define a community as a group of people who are connected by mutual messages. Suppose that Elijah and Sarah each address tweets to each other, and suppose Sarah and Adela also address tweets to each other. The way many theorists describe communities, Elijah, Sarah, and Adela might possibly all be in the same community, even though Elijah and Adela don’t know each other at all. There are many Twitter communities like this – people who are all connected to each other by mutual messages, but who are not strongly connected to members of other communities.
Are authors right to refer to some of these communities as “tribes”? Earlier, I noted that some theorists distinguish one tribe from another on the basis of their language, with each tribe speaking a distinct language or dialect. Even if two tribes technically speak the same language, there are often noticeable differences in their grammar or vocabulary, and so the two tribes are said to speak different dialects. Theorists have demonstrated that while distinct Twitter communities may not speak different languages – or even have different dialects – they nonetheless do show marked differences in their use of language. This gives us some reason to think that it might be reasonable to think of them as “tribes.”
Members of some Twitter communities use certain words more often than members of other communities. Researchers found that a Twitter community that was largely made up of fans of Justin Bieber frequently used the words “Bieber, “pleasee,” and “<33”. In contrast, consider a group of people who love animals and advocate for their rights. This second group far more frequently used words such as “anipals,” “pawsome,” and “furever.”
Researchers then considered individual people, without knowing to which Twitter community they belonged. Just by considering the words a person used, and how often the person used them, the researchers were often able to accurately predict that individual’s Twitter community.
The researchers also discovered that members of the same Twitter community are, in general, more likely to use words that include certain letter-pairs and 3-letter word-endings than members from different communities. That is, communities don’t only more often use certain words; they also more often use certain letter-pairs and words that end certain ways.
Suppose you gather all the tweets written by all of the members of one Twitter community. Suppose you divide all of their words up into a set of letter pairs, such as “al,” “id,” and “ts.” Imagine that you write each letter pair on a card, so that “al” is on one card, “id” is on another, and so on. If the letter pair “id” appears five hundred times in the community’s tweets, there would be five hundred cards with “id” written on them. Now imagine that you shuffle those cards thoroughly and stack them in a deck. Follow the same process with other Twitter communities, so that each deck of cards corresponds to a distinct community. Researchers’ analysis suggests that there would be large and noticeable differences in how often various letter pairs appear in each of the decks. The differences would be so large that it almost impossible that they are the result of chance. What does this mean? Looking just at letter pairs, taken completely out of context, there are big differences between different communities. There are also, as suggested above, big differences in 3-letter word-endings. Different communities don’t just use different words; they also use different language patterns. Their tweets look and sound noticeably different. These differences in language make it seem more reasonable to refer to these different communities as distinct “tribes.”
What if researchers looked at the Twitter community composed of people who are actively engaged with the work of LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner? This is my community, so I would be curious what the researchers would discover. No doubt, there are certain words and hashtags that our community uses more often than other communities do. For example, just like Bieber fans use the word “Bieber” more often, I have little doubt that we more often use the words “LaBeouf,” “Rönkkö,” and “Turner.” We also more frequently use hashtags such as “#TAKEMEANYWHERE” and “#INTRODUCTIONS.” Do we, as a community, also more frequently use certain words that are not proper nouns? Do we, like many Twitter tribes, also have distinct language patterns? Do we sound different? I have no way to answer these questions, but the work of the researchers discussed above does suggest that the answer to all of these questions might well be “yes.”
Still, suppose our word choices and language patterns do not straightforwardly distinguish us as a tribe that is distinct from other tribes. Nevertheless, I would still suspect that there are a number of ways in which it is metaphorically true that those who are engaged with the artists’ work “speak the same language.” Likewise, I suspect it is metaphorically true that the language of people who either are sincerely engaged with the artists’ work – or who one could easily imagine becoming sincerely engaged – is different from the language used by other people.
Linguists note that people sometimes change how they talk or write based on their audience. For example, scholars might send text messages to friends in which, for the sake of speed, they omit vowels from words or use number and letter homophones. But when those same scholars write to people they don’t know, they might commit themselves to traditional grammar. Similarly, people who are engaged with the work of LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner might, at least metaphorically, speak the same language when they are together, and speak very differently when apart. Likewise, those who engage with the artists’ work might never consciously think of themselves as part of a common group or tribe until they meet and start sharing the same language.
Rachel has remarked that she felt that #TAKEMEANYWHERE, while in progress, had a certain rhythm or vibe that all of its participants picked up as they engaged with it. She writes that participating in the project “sort of felt like jamming with very accomplished musicians.” Rachel writes, “I feel that those three are so good at what they do that it allows for nearly anyone who’s willing to play with them to make some beautiful music.” So in what sense do all the participants and artists in #TribeLRT speak the same language? They speak the same language in the same way that good jazz musicians speak the same language. Even if they haven’t read the same books or don’t share the same ideas or worldviews, they can all jam together, regardless.
There is another sense in which everyone in #TribeLRT speaks the same language. They all – strictly metaphorically – speak what I’ll call the “metamodern dialect.” Vermeulen and van den Akker are clear that metamodernism is neither a philosophy nor a movement. These two scholars mean to describe the current sensibility expressed by many contemporary artworks, but they do not intend to make any claims about how art should be done or about how life should be lived. They are not claiming that art ought to be metamodern. They also suggest that, in metamodernism, there are no hard and fast rules, like one might imagine in a philosophical system. Rather, Vermeulen has suggested that we might – at least metaphorically – better think of metamodernism as a kind of dialect. We might think of metamodernism as a way that many artists “talk.” We might imagine that metamodernism has a broad-ranging sort of grammar and vocabulary which artists employ in their work, and which can’t be set down in a hard-and-fast set of rules. If imagined this way, we might think that many people in our society – not just artists – share this common dialect. We might also say that a great many artists also speak this dialect, even if some artists’ work expresses it more clearly than others.
Further, some people who speak with this dialect might be particularly drawn to certain artists whose art expresses it particularly well. Just like people who speak with a specific dialect might prefer some poets with that dialect over others, so too some people who “speak” the “metamodern dialect” prefer the work of some artists over others. I’d like to think of #TribeLRT as metaphorically composed of tribespeople who speak the metamodern dialect, and who are particularly drawn to the work of LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner.
Robert, Rachel’s husband who works with her on their farm in Tennessee, first met LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner when they arrived at the farm after Rachel drove them up from Florida. Robert writes that, “Shia engaged with me a little more at first, though later on Luke did just as much of the talking. Nastja was quieter, but definitely very present. They all seemed to be in good spirits, in spite of the stressful couple of days.”
Robert writes that the artists spent the night “on our farm, in an old farmhouse. It’s a big, rambling, 2-floor house, pretty old, and it has a lot of character – the kind of character that for some people is charming and for others, downright haunted. LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner seemed to fall on the ‘charming’ side of that spectrum.”
Robert and Rachel have been restoring the old farmhouse, where the artists stayed, for the last eight years. Rachel writes, that “the farmhouse is an old two-story house which was built in the 1800s.” She adds that when she and Robert moved to the farm after college, “it was run down.” They had to “rip out layers of crap,” and strip the house down, in order to “find the soul of the house.” Rachel says that it was because of the soul of the house, that they “didn’t want to tear it down in the first place.”
Typically, when fans seek out an artist, writer, or band, the fans pay to go to some public place where the artist is exhibiting, the writer is speaking, or the band is playing. Even so-called “groupies” typically go only where the artists invite them. The relationship between artists and fans is one-sided. The artist determines where they are going and what they are doing, and the fans follow. #TAKEMEANYWHERE was anything but the typical “fan” relationship. It was so much – infinitely – more personal. It wasn’t a fan relationship at all. It was a relationship between people, as people. LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner visited people’s homes – homes that people cared about and had poured themselves into. And the artists participated in activities chosen by the participants in #TAKEMEANYWHERE. It wasn’t solely up to the artists. It was up to the community.
The following morning, Nastja, Rachel, Shia, Robert, and Luke casually talked and walked around, mostly on the porch outside the farmhouse. The farm stretched out around them. Because the farm is located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the mountains also have a real and constant presence there. As Rachel says, it is “really easy just to sit and stare at the mountains.”
They had conversations about a wide variety of topics. Robert writes that: “I remember at one point, Shia and Rachel were in the kitchen talking about her grandfather, and Luke and I were sitting out on the porch talking about thermodynamics. Then for a long time, we sat at the patio table in the hot sun having an intense discussion about feminism.” They talked about Rachel’s family, about the relationship between the three artists, about physics, metaphysics, and about different ways of seeing the world and finding common ground between different perspectives.
Rachel and Robert gave the artists breakfast. Much of what they ate was grown on the farm itself. Robert grows a ton of different fruits and vegetables on the farm, and he and Rachel are constantly involved in gardening projects.
The opposite of the traditional fan-artist relationship, the relationships the artists developed with the participants in #TAKEMEANYWHERE were truly organic. They were not top-down, organized by the artists, but instead arose spontaneously as a mix of the different participants and artists involved. How often does a typical artist hang out with project participants at their family farm, drinking coffee, talking about metaphysics, and eating fresh fruits and vegetables? We might think that the typical fan-artist relationship, or “groupie” relationship, is only a one-way relationship. The artist is too much in control. And so there is no way for them to truly get to know those who come to see them. In contrast, the relationships in #TAKEMEANYWHERE were genuinely two-way relationships. They were just as personal as the participants and artists could make them. Everyone made decisions and acted together without pre-established, purely top-down plans.
Reflecting on the work of LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner, Robert makes a similar sort of point. He notes that the artists’ work is open and allows genuine cooperation and collaboration, without too much being determined solely by the artists themselves. Robert writes that because of how open their work is, the artists occupy a space that is “something more like an ecosystem, a network of connections with hierarchy but no top-down determinism.” Robert notes that because there are so many connections formed in each of their projects, and because of the ways their projects interrelate, they have created an ecosystem that “grows and grows.” He understands why people want to be part of that ecosystem. It means so much to form genuine connections with one another, to be part of something bigger, something that is meaningfully art. The artists are involved in a growing ecosystem, and many people want to “engage and be involved in the growth.”
One of the many things I find remarkable about the work of LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner is how many other artists have been involved with their projects and workshops. For their project #INTRODUCTIONS, for instance, they invited a large number of art students to write scripts for Shia to perform in front of a green screen. They then encouraged those students to put whatever images or videos they wanted behind Shia as he spoke. In #TAKEMEANYWHERE, a lot of the people who picked up LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner were artists in their own right. Jacky, for instance, is an artist who focuses on photography and graphic design.
On a separate note, I recently had the opportunity to attend a gallery exhibition of the work of another artist, Kate Fox, whom I originally met when we both participated in a workshop led by Nastja.
I was impressed by the wonderful work Kate does in ceramics, and by the films she co-created with Gabe Wolff that feature her ceramic creations. The artists who participate in the projects of LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner are often excellent artists, themselves.
It seems appropriate to me that LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner often surround themselves with artists, in no small part because of the kind of energy the three artists have and how they present themselves. I remember once describing to someone the way that Luke sits, and saying, “Luke sits like an artist.” I instantly knew that my description wasn’t very clear or helpful! Yet it’s hard to avoid descriptions like this.
Still, I was surprised when Rachel told me how similar Luke, Nastja, and Shia were, as people. I’m not sure why – perhaps because of Shia’s public presence – but I had mistakenly imagined that he was a lot different from Luke and Nastja.
Rachel says that while the artists visited with her and her husband at the farm, she felt “completely open.” I love the way she puts this: “I feel like it’s a rare experience in my life, to feel so at ease hanging out with a group of people, any people. And so there was a constant sense of comfort, but also . . . like . . . awe. I couldn’t believe that this was happening, and not only is this happening, but it’s just so great. It’s a little hard to bring these conflicting feelings together. It was incredible, and also completely mundane in a way.”
Rachel majored in art in college, and grew up thinking about art. But in my interview with her, she said, “At some point I found myself feeling really separated from the so-called ‘art world.’ Nothing really resonated with me.” Then she ran across the work of LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner, and also ran across Nastja’s solo work. “Coming across Nastja’s work for me . . . I haven’t really seen any other work like hers that I’ve connected with so much.”
I agree with Rachel. While I find a number of very different artworks emotionally compelling, little has resonated with me as much as the work of the three artists. A lot of what the “art world” says is great makes little impression on me at all. Rachel and I are not alone. A great many people – those I’ve described as #TribeLRT – feel drawn to the work of the three artists.
This, too, is appropriate, given anthropological research on tribes. Anthropologists note that different tribes sometimes find meaning in different works of art. Members of one tribe might find meaning in a work of tribal art that few from distant societies would see. This is not to say that distant people from different societies can’t find the tribal art beautiful or largely accessible. Rather, the idea is only that the majority of people from those distant societies miss something. So too, we might imagine that members of a tribe might themselves fail to connect – or at least connect as well – to a distant society’s finest art. It seems that we can identify members of different tribes and societies by the meaning and significance they do or do not see when they look at an array of different artworks. No doubt, these identifications would be very rough and imprecise, and might not always be crystal clear about the tribe to which a person belongs. But we could nonetheless draw a rough societal map on the basis of art appreciation and the identification of meaning and symbols.
Consider how differently the Yoruba people living in Nigeria from 1950-1970 viewed and judged art from how many in Europe and the States do. Even the way that they conceived of the notion of line was shaped by their cultural experiences. Historians note that the Yoruba people associated lines with the notion of civilization. In their language, “civilizing the country” literally means “drawing lines on the face of the earth.” Some of the Yoruba people arranged for lines to be sliced into their cheeks. They allowed for these lines to be noticeably scarred over, and the lines were meant to indicate their lineage and social status. Further, they used the same verb for the act of opening marks on a face as they did for the act of opening roads and boundaries in a forest – civilizing the land. Historians and anthropologists argue that these facts informed, if not consciously than at least indirectly, the way in which the Yoruba people viewed the lines involved in their artwork. When they see a sculpture and consider its lines, they have a sense of the sculpture’s meaning that few else would. Further, if we didn’t know what culture a person belongs to, but we did know how all of the ways in which she views the lines in tribal art, we might be able to accurately guess whether or not he belongs to the Yoruba culture. People from different cultures view art differently, at least in very subtle ways, and the way each person sees art is often indicative of his society.
In a metaphorically-similar way, I contend that when those who belong to #TribeLRT engage with the work of LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner, they find meaning and value in the project that others might not. Consider the radically different ways in which people have approached the work of LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner. Some people, when they attended another of the artists’ projects titled “#IAMSORRY,” treated it like a joke or like pure spectacle, and, because they had no intention of being vulnerable or making a connection, they saw very little meaning in the work. Other people, in contrast, found the project deeply moving and personal, probably because they went into the project with trust, vulnerability, and openness to connection. What causes some people to connect and others to see everything with a closed-off, ironic eye? I’ve come to think that some people have abilities and sensibilities which other lack – the ability to open up to certain kinds of projects, and a sensibility that encourages them to do so.
To better understand the kinds of sensibilities people can develop, which affect how they view art, consider the work of artists in fifteenth century Italy. Very often, Italian artists intended for their art to appeal to merchants and professional men. These were the kinds of men who would commission works of art from artists. They were the source of the artists’ livelihood. Art historians note that merchants and professional men from that time period tended to share certain common skills and experiences that impacted how they interpreted and perceived works of art. Art historians further suggest that many successful artists made work that appealed to those common skills. Merchants might not be consciously aware that viewing art was exercising skills they had acquired in the workplace. But even if they were unaware, they would still particularly enjoy works of art that exercised those skills, and would be more likely to commission work from those artists.
At that time, merchants needed to be able to look at different barrels of goods and quickly determine the quantity of goods in each barrel. In the fifteenth century, barrels were not all of uniform size. Different barrels were unique, and held different amounts. So merchants could not rely on any quick calculation to determine the quantity of goods when they looked at, say, a dozen barrels. Instead, they first needed to look at each unique barrel and determine how much it contained. Then they needed to add together the quantity of goods contained in each differently-sized barrel. Before becoming professional merchants, boys would often attend secondary schools where the focus was commercial mathematics, which was drilled into them and enabled them to do the complex math required in their jobs. Almost every mathematical handbook required students, for example, to calculate the surface area of a pavilion.
Art historians and anthropologists suggest that the merchants’ hardwired education and ability to gauge barrels must have affected the way they view art. For instance, when artists included images of pavilions in their paintings, it was as if they were inviting their audience – if unconsciously – to use the skills they had acquired in school which were now required in their day-to-day lives. This claim – about sizing-up pavilions – might sound like a bit of a stretch. Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine that merchants, who are so heavily trained to naturally calculate volumes and surface-areas, would view paintings the same exact way the majority of Americans do. When they see a barrel or a pavilion in a painting, their interpretation of it and way of approaching it will inevitably be shaped by their life experiences and skills.
Suppose we know of a man. But suppose we have no idea when he lived or where. He might have been alive in fifteenth century Italy, he might have lived in seventeenth century India, or maybe he was from an entirely different time and place. Still, if we came to know how he views and interprets an array of different artworks, we might also offer a good guess about the society to which he belongs. If he interprets art one way and sees meaning in certain artworks that others miss, we might guess he was a fifteenth century Italian merchant. If he interprets art another way, and sees different meanings, we might guess he lives in Nigeria in the 1970s. People from different tribes and societies have different skillsets, and different sensibilities, which lead them to view the same art differently.
Hypothetically, we could, at least very roughly, distinguish between tribes and societies by determining how their members view art. So too, if we were to determine that a certain group of people found special meaning in an art project that many others miss, we would have reason to wonder if that group is its own tribe. That group would have an ability – to recognize that special meaning – that others lack. Their sensibility would be different, and they would see the world differently as a result.
The participants in #TribeLRT are all people who are particularly drawn to #TAKEMEANYWHERE, and who were open to it – and found meaning in it – that many other people might have missed. So we might tentatively be inclined to assign them a group identity, and to say that – at least metaphorically – they belong to a common tribe. They have an ability and sensibility that others lack and, in the context of #TAKEMEANYWHERE, formed powerful connections between themselves which others might never have experienced.
Should the kind of art created by many traditional tribes be considered genuine art, at all? This is a question that a number of philosophers have pondered. It seems just bizarre to say “no.” We should say that tribal art IS art.
Some philosophers have argued that anything that is art must be the work of an artist who made it to be appreciated aesthetically. Even more, they say, the artist must have intended that an audience would look at the work (or listen to it, if it is music) outside of any utilitarian, practical context. So imagine an axe with beautiful carvings on its handle. But suppose that the axe was made to be used, and the artist never intended for it to be looked at while it wasn’t being swung at a tree. Then a number of philosophers would say the beautiful carvings are not truly a work of art, in the full sense of the word “art.” Works of art, they say, are the kinds of things we take out just to look at. So suppose we learn that a specific tribe’s members only ever used their music as part of religious rituals, or only ever used their beautiful objects as tools or ritual objects. Suppose that the tribe’s members never take out beautiful objects just to see them, or listen to the music solely for its own sake. Suppose their music and objects were never intended to be used that way. Then, according to these theorists, we would have to say that they do not have art, in our full sense of the word “art.”
But this simply cannot be the correct way to understand art! Sure, the kinds of things many people consider “art” are those things that we hang on walls just to look at, or play on musical instruments just to listen to. But even if every piece of art we have ever seen or heard were like this, why should we say that every piece of art in the world must be this way? Why say that this is an essential quality of art? If all we do is observe with our senses the way things actually are, we could not say anything about the way those things must necessarily be. If we could judge what is necessary based on what we currently observe, then absurd results would follow. Fifty years ago, people could have said that no one would ever be able to play videos on their phones (which they do), and that no machine could ever win a chess match against a professional chess player (which it has). Even worse, imagine a society that is isolated from the rest of the world. A philosopher there might say that since every human the society has ever seen has white skin, humans mustnecessarily have white skin. And, when the society first comes in contact with people of other skin colors, the philosopher might say that, because those people aren’t white, they aren’t human either! Clearly, just because everyone in the societies the philosopher knows is white, it does not follow that all humans everywhere are white. Likewise, even if all of the art in our society was created to be appreciated outside of practical contexts, it would not follow that art, everywhere, is like that! I see no good reason to think that the quality of “being-appreciated-outside-of-practical-contexts” must be an essential quality of art.
Suppose we, totally hypothetically, came to learn that the famous paintings of the Italian artist Giotto were, while he lived, only ever viewed during religious ceremonies. Suppose they were considered backdrops for those ceremonies. Suppose they were never just looked at, outside of that context. No doubt, Giotto’s paintings are excellent. But suppose their audience appreciated his paintings more than they appreciated the work of even better artists because of his paintings’ religious content. That is, suppose they were appreciated and viewed more as religious objects than they were as aesthetic ones. If we learned all this, would we want to say that his paintings were not art, in the full sense of the word? No! That’s preposterous. So too, suppose we learn that certain tribespeople only ever used beautiful objects in religious contexts, and appreciated them more for religion than for aesthetics. That should not rule those objects out as genuine art, either!
Some art might be woven into the fabric of our day-to-day lives. We might never take it out and just look at it, but we might continue to find it beautiful whenever we use it. As we live with our art objects, and use them as tools and as objects in rituals, their aesthetic, artistic features might please us, make us feel better, and inspire us to live better. We might aesthetically appreciate such objects, and know they are art in the full sense of the word. We might know such objects are art even if our aesthetic appreciation of them is never divorced from their everyday practical use. We might know they are art, in the full sense, even if we never hang them on a wall, look at them, and say “hmmmmmmm”!
I believe that something very distantly similar is going on with #TAKEMEANYWHERE. LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner lived their art. Consider the month, from May 23rd to June 23rd, 2016, during which #TAKEMEANYWHERE took place. During that month, there was absolutely no way to disentangle the artists’ lives from their art or their art from their lives. #TAKEMEANYWHERE was woven into the fabric of their lives. There was no way to disentangle it from the practical contingencies and purposes of day to day existence, and look at it like you would look at a painting in a museum. But it is nonetheless art in the fullest sense of the word. It is art that is lived or lived-with. Its participants, who also lived in and engaged in #TAKEMEANYWHERE, responded positively to its aesthetic features, whether they were conscious of them or not. Its beauty and art made their lives better and more interesting. And it inspired many, like Rachel, Jacky, and Robert, to live better.
Philosophers have found it incredibly difficult to define the term “art.” In particular, it is difficult, if not impossible, to specify the essential qualities of art. What must every work of art be like? Try to fill in the blank: Anything that is art must be ________. It seems like, with few exceptions, any answer will be hugely problematic. We might be able to say that anything that is art must be the product of an action taken by a being with a mind that thinks about the world. That might be okay. Even if we grant that driftwood, displayed in a museum, is art, we might say that it became art as a result of the act of being selected for display by a human. But saying that art must be the product of intentional action isn’t saying much. Think about how many other things are also the products of action like this: baseball, tables, tools, Snuggies, the presidential campaign of that idiot on TV . . .
Anything that is art must be ______. Try to fill in the blank with something substantial. Any way you try you will inevitably rule out huge numbers of projects that we know, in our heart, are artworks. Above, we discussed theorists who claim that anything that is art must be made to be appreciated aesthetically outside of practical or ritual contexts. But we saw that defining art this way would rule out any wonderful painting as soon as we learn that the painting was only intended to be seen as part of a religious ceremony. We also saw that defining art this way could rule a great deal of tribal art, like the beautiful designs on the handles of certain axes. More decisively, we saw that theorists simply have no good reason to fill in the blank this way. Simply because the art we know is often like this does not mean that it needs to be. There is a great plurality of art! There is conceptual art, found art, outsider/folk art, mass art, and religious art. It would be wrong to fill in the blank in any way that would exclude any of them. If we want a definition of art, we want it to respect the great plurality.
Perhaps every work of art has certain basic properties. For example, every artwork is the product of intentional action. But perhaps we should say that, besides these basic properties, there simply ARE NO ESSENTIAL QUALITIES OF ART. Some theorists think there is no good way to fill in the blank, above. Some think it is impossible to fill in the blank well while respecting the plurality of art. Perhaps there are many different concepts of art. Or instead, perhaps there is one single concept of art, but that concept is complicated, assigns no essential qualities to art, and is vastly plural itself. Perhaps there are many unique, though overlapping, sets of properties an object could have that makes it a work of art. So if something is beautiful, expressive, original, complex, and coherent then it is a work of art. But perhaps something could also be art even if it is not complex, provided it is intellectually challenging. Or perhaps something could be art even if it is not intellectually challenging, complex, or original, provided the person who made it intended for it to belong to a traditional artistic form (like painting) and a particular tradition within that form. Perhaps there are hundreds of different ways something can be art. Perhaps we should define art like this: Anything that is a work of art must either have the first set of qualities or the second set of qualities, or the third set of qualities or the fourth set of qualities . . .
Without doubt, one of the many ways to be a work of art is certainly to be a work of tribal art. Theorists note that many tribal people decorate certain tools and practical items in order to give them aesthetic qualities. Those tools and items were made to look striking, beautiful, or grotesque. Often, these tools and their decorations are meant to be experienced perceptually, and appreciated aesthetically even in their everyday use. Often they are also meant to enhance experience, and to improve life. Theorists note that, when these objects have special meaning to the tribespeople as a culture, their artists are often meticulous about their construction, and they develop standards of excellence by which their work is judged.
I consider the participants and artists involved in #TAKEMEANYWHERE to be a tribe. This is my metaphor. And, distantly, I consider #TAKEMEANYWHERE to be, metaphorically and roughly, a work of tribal art. No doubt, saying this might sound like a bit of a stretch. What I mean is that #TAKEMEANYWHERE might not be art like unthoughtful people think of art. It is not something that can be hung on a wall or listened to in a concert hall. Instead, it is art that was lived. It is art that was experienced and breathed, and was absolutely unremovable from the fabric of the artist’ and participants’ lives. It was – and is – the artwork of a tribe, of #TribeLRT. And that is all I mean, when I say, metaphorically and in the most distant sense, that #TAKEMEANYWHERE is tribal art.