Part II: #TribeLRT

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.

Part III: Ties of Close Kinship

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.

Shia, Luke, Project Participants & Strangers 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.

Part VI: Speaking the Same Language

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 patternsDo 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.