Standing in front of a screen daubed with the words “I will not be stopped”, Shia LaBeouf paces angrily. “JUST DO IT, MAKE YOUR DREAMS COME TRUE, NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE,” he roars into the camera.
Unusually, this outburst is neither a publicity stunt nor a scene from a film. Instead, the 30-second motivational rant from the Hollywood actor is part of a unique collaboration with students from Central Saint Martins, one of the UK’s leading arts universities.
The film is one of 36 brief video segments which include LaBeouf reciting his favourite poem, The Laughing Heart, by Charles Bukowski; standing in silence in front of a moving projection of clouds; repeating “ooohmn” sounds in front of a picture of a block of butter; and reading out the lyrics from the 1982 song, She Can’t Love You, by Chemise.
The project is both part of the Central Saint Martins fine art BA degree show and the latest event in LaBeouf’s ongoing artistic collaboration with British artist Luke Turner and Finnish artist Nastja Säde Rönkkö, who began working together 18 months ago.
After the trio were approached by students from the London art school last year to present the online live stream of their graduate show, they were struck by what they described as “the sense of generosity and sincerity” running through the students’ work. Through a conversation with five of the course participants, they came up with the idea of an exchange where LaBeouf would film a brief intro to the students’ work in front of a green screen.
All 150 were invited to “submit a piece of text lasting up to 30 secondsor no more than 100 words. This can be as poetic, abstract or literal as you like – with the emphasis on expressing the feeling and tone of the work being introduced.” The students could then change the background behind LaBeouf to anything of their choice. The films can be seen online.
“A lot of us became interested in the way that Shia was being used as an artist and engaging with his art practice, but also using his status as a celebrity as a platform for his work,” said Andrew Smith, one of the fine art students who spearheaded the project. “Shia LaBeouf is in this place that oscillates between the two worlds of his mass audience and his art audience. And this was also about branching those two audiences, making the live stream an access point for people who might not know or have visited a degree show.”
Not all the students decided to get involved, but Smith said those who did had produced a range of texts that varied from “the serious and transcendental but also the comedic”, with most writing the brief pieces themselves. For Smith’s own piece, he asked LaBeouf to read a short text recalling standing on the beach and looking out at a sea filled with limp and moving jellyfish, in keeping with his final graduate piece of video art exploring a struggle to come to terms with the death of a friend.
“I was really amazed by what Shia produced – a lot of people had asked for very specific things and he was totally accommodating to all of those requests,” Smith added.
The project acted as a platform for LaBeouf’s versatility, requiring him at one point to speak in an English accent, do another while wearing a motorcycle helmet and perform while doing a handstand, so only his feet were visible. All 36 were recorded in an LA studio in a single day.
While LaBeouf has spent most of his life in Hollywood, having begun as a child actor and then establishing himself in blockbusters such as Transformers, it is the actor’s dalliance with the art world that has recently dominated headlines.
He began working working with Turner and Rönkkö after he read a piece by Turner which discussed the struggle for sincerity in an age of irony. The pair met up and immediately bonded, and after Turner approached Rönkkö to come on board, the collaboration was born.
Speaking about their decision to work with the Central Saint Martins art students, the trio – who spoke as a collective – said they had been struck by how in-tune the students were with their ideas.
“Right from the beginning, our collaboration has been about human interaction and expression across networks,” they said. “The fact that in this connected world that we are all seeking the sense of humanity in the shared experience and a way of expressing and articulating ourselves sincerely.
“The audience for our projects and experiences are as much part of the work as we are – they complete the work. It comes from this idea that we are all artists really, and we are all expressing ourselves more than ever across Twitter and social media. The Central Saint Martins students seemed to get that intuitively.”
In the past 18 months, the trio’s collaborations have included several publicity stunts, including LaBeouf turning up to the premiere of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac with a paper bag over his head scrawled with the words: “I am not famous anymore.”
Another performance piece, titled #IamSorry, was staged last year after the actor suffered a “genuine existential crisis” when he was accused of plagiarising a short story by Daniel Clowes for a film he was making. It consisted of LaBeouf sitting behind a desk in LA’s Cohen gallery with the “I am not famous anymore” paper bag on his head, with members of the public invited to sit silently with him. The project caused further controversy after LaBeouf alleged he had been raped by a member of the public visiting the installation.
“When we started there was a sense from the art world that it was just two artists using Shia for the publicity, and from the mainstream media there was a sense that Shia had employed two artists, which absolutely wasn’t the case,” the trio added.
“Now we feel we are in a really good place now, that people understand what our collaboration is and that it is bridging all sorts of divides, reaching out beyond the art world. We are the antithesis of the po-faced conceptual artist – our work is about engagement not detachment.”
This article was written by Hannah Ellis-Petersen, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 27th May 2015 20.17 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010