The co-founder of the #HeWillNotDivideUs roaming art project got into an intense Twitter battle with artist Daniel Keller, who defended artist Deanna Havas liking a controversial meme.
Luke Turner, an artist who regularly works with Shia LaBeouf as part of LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner, is withdrawing from the 2018 Athens Biennale. In an open letter Turner said he would not be participating in the event due to the abuse of Daniel Keller, another participating artist, the nature of Keller’s work, and the “organizers’ collective failure to take any decisive stand against the abusive behavior of another of the invited artists.”
Turner and Keller had exchanged a heated debate on Twitter, after Deanna Havas—another artist—had liked an image tweeted at Turner featuring the controversial and sometimes alt-right internet meme Pepe the Frog stealing LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner’s work HeWillNotDivideUS. The phrase was initially part of a durational participatory performance by the group where participants could protest against Trump by saying “He Will Not Divide Us” into a camera that would have recorded footage for 24 hours for the duration of the Trump presidency. After several failed attempts to continue the piece, the phrase “He Will Not Divide US” was printed in black on a white flag and flown in an unknown location. In a statement, the artists described the phrase, which was initially intended to be a mantra, “to be a show of resistance or insistence, opposition or optimism, guided by the spirit of each individual participant and the community.” When asked why she liked the offensive picture, Havas replied: “because it’s was funny.” After an argument between the two ensued, Keller stepped in saying Havas’s tweets were “harmless,” adding that Turner was a “dickhead” and a “bitch” for “punching down” and trying to debate with a “younger, less successful artist.”
It’s not the first time Havas has expressed views sympathetic to far-right ideologies, usually under the guise of art. She’s previously Tweeted “Bannon is cool,” and “Antifa is a terrorist organization.” In 2016, she wrote what she referred to as a “a take on pop criminology” and “a satirical literary passage illustrating the horrors of CIA interrogations” for Frieze: “I get the feeling that the European attitude toward terrorism is just too laissez faire to deal. Allegedly, they interviewed Abdeslam for an hour about the Paris attacks. I imagine that in the States he would be held in a dark cell in a dark hell, with a plunger in his asshole, five CIA interrogators ejaculating onto his quivering body with the accompaniment of a death metal soundscape and read-aloud passages from Deleuze & Guattari, the rights to this scenario eventually sold to a third-party porn distributor who markets to liberal American college students.”
“I find this entire situation extremely bizarre,” wrote Havas via email. “I’m a marginal person in my industry and I’ve always considered myself a private citizen rather than a public figure. Its [sic] surprising so much can be read into simply ‘liking’ a tweet. I’ve liked tweets in different regards, in earnest, passive aggressively, and more often then [sic] not, as a reflex to any replies on a thread. I’m shocked that anyone cares about my ‘likes.'”
In a statement, Keller said the incident was not over ideologies, but tactics. “I am Jewish, I am a socialist and I detest racism and authoritarianism. Any disagreement Luke and I have is over tactics—not about our shared goals of justice and equality. Any attempt at depicting my views or practice differently is a willful mischaracterization.”
After learning that Keller was also participating in the Athens Biennale, Turner approached the curators on August 20 and asked them to investigate Keller. In a statement, the Athens Biennale said they looked into the issue, but didn’t find any evidence that Keller is involved with reactionary ideas. “Luke Turner, a member of the artist trio, LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner, demanded from our institution to expel another participating artist Daniel Keller, as a prerequisite for his participation at the 6th Athens Biennale ANTI. Turner suggested that Keller is complicit with neo-reactionary ideas and networks. We thoroughly investigated the issue; spoke to Turner, his collaborators Shia LaBeouf, and Nastja Rönkkö, as well as to Daniel Keller. No substantial evidence was offered that Daniel Keller has used anti-Semitic or fascist tropes.”
Turner, a Jewish artist, has faced multiple threats and anti-Semitism after the launch of HeWillNotDivideUS—a political project addressing the rising polarization of the United States in the wake of Trump’s victory in the 2016 US presidential campaign. Since the artwork was first shown, it’s faced a wave of trolling and threats from the alt-right. In early February last year, the Museum of Moving Image decided to stop showing the project three weeks after launch, saying it had become a “flashpoint for violence,” from the beginning and as the threats increased “police felt compelled to be stationed outside the installation 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” When the artwork went on to appear at FACT, a gallery in Liverpool, England, it was shut down the day after launch due to “dangerous, illegal trespassing” thought to be by alt-right protestors.
Keller has apologized for insults thrown at Turner but said his actions were not in line with those of Havas. “In reality, she merely liked a cartoon depiction of Pepe the Frog stealing Luke’s artwork.* It is an alt-right meme and I can see why he finds it offensive, but someone liking it on Twitter clearly does not constitute any threat to his person or livelihood.”
This article was updated on September 13 to include a response from Deanna Havas.