Watching the livestream of Shia LaBeouf’s recent Oxford Union address, in which he spent 24 hours occupying a lift and talking to whoever queued up to enter, was an odd experience. At first, the fact that what is occurring is just conversation is slightly jarring. LaBeouf, along with his two collaborators, Nastja Säde Rönkkö and Luke Turner, just stand in the lift and talk organically; about how much he (LaBeouf) and one of the visitors both like Bill Murray; about the town in America one of the visitors is from, a place LaBeouf doesn’t hide his dislike for; about his dislike for the “cold and white and established” Oxford and its Union. At times he talks in vague platitudes and self-contradictions, describing how he is “a firm believer in… (and this is as a person who has no friends – other than two people), I do believe in quantity over quality with regards to family and friends”. When confronted about the contradiction he simply states, “I am not a believer in my own beliefs.” The whole affair is absurd.
At the same time, however, seeing LaBeouf just stand and talk has an odd habit of endearing him, particularly when set against the often obnoxious Oxford types who occupied most of the stream. LaBeouf ultimately just comes across as human and vulnerable.
It is easy, and popular, to decry LaBeouf’s various attempts at performance art as the desperate calls for attention from a man whose celebrity is in its death throes. After his Oxford Union appearance, for instance, papers latched onto the headline: “Shia LaBeouf punches fan in the face”. The reality was, however, far less exciting. Watching the live feed reveals a slightly awkward interaction as Shia is forced to respond to a man asking Shia to punch him, as part of his own ‘performance art’: “I don’t want to punch you very hard. I don’t like doing it to you dude. I just met you.” Eventually when he does concede, Shia gives what could at most be described as a gentle slap. It is an exercise in downplaying; this is not why he came to the Union, or why he decided to sit in a lift for a day straight.
LaBeouf sits between his celebrity status and his desire to create genuine intimacy
The 23 other hours in the lift, generally given very little attention, in which the 3 activists are engaged in pretty inane conversation with whoever decides to queue are what they care about. The conceit of standing in an uncomfortably intimate location for a day with anyone is a purposeful democratis of what would normally have been an exclusive event.
This is not to say, however, that the ability of Shia’s name to grab headlines isn’t fundamental to what ‘Shia LaBeouf’ (the figure if not the man) has become over the past few years. His apology for plagiarism, which took the form of an apology plagiarised from footballer Eric Cantona quite overtly courted the press’s attention, as did his following appearance with a paper bag over his head saying: “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE”. Even more recently, the meme ready, green screen backed and ready for manipulation, motivational video he uploaded showed both a desire for an internet audience and a knowledge of how to grab it.
What makes both the man and the figure so interesting is the gap between the celebrity power of his name and his desire (which has underlined most of his performance art) to create genuine intimacy. ‘Shia LaBeouf’, then, has become a strange mockery of celebrity culture; a parody of who the media have said he is. Whether this is purposeful, or just the result of someone attempting to reconcile the damaging effects of fame (or even just an increasingly vapid acting career) is a different question.