Art Shia LeBeouf, sometime Hollywood actor, now more meme than man is currently sat behind a desk in FACT Liverpool as one third of a human art installation, with the artists Luke Turner and Nastja Säde Rönkkö, called #touchmysoul. He'll be there all weekend taking calls from the public via a heavily publicised telephone number whilst the visitors shuffle through having a glare at him. Even though his work in the Transformers films was enough for me to turn away from his charms, his recently developed irony gland and general sense of being a walking event was enough to make me want to go and see him in the flesh, which I did at lunch time.
There was a queue but not as long as you'd expect. Pausing briefly just at the entrance to Gallery One provides a view not unlike the Talosians had of Captain Pike in the original Star Trek pilot or Roddy McDowell in that episode of The Twilight Zone about the human zoo. It was from this point I still felt able to criticise the man and his disappointing robot films to the giant security guard standing at the doorway who rightly noted that Shia was quite good in Lawless. Which he is, even if the rest of this neo-noir is boringly generic. For my money, his best film is still techno War Games knock-off Eagle Eye.
Moments later I was let through the door and in the gallery space and although the walls are adorned with the rest of the exhibition, everyone's eyes are focused on one thing and there he is hunched over that desk chatting away to callers, him essentially inaudible, them totally. Every now and then Shia says the hashtag title of the exhibition "Touch My Soul", which seems to be the opening greeting in this existential call centre before either thanking the person on the other end of the line for calling, or asking them to repeat whatever it is they're trying to say. Assuming they're saying anything. Sometimes they don't.
I know this after chatting vaguely to a couple of women nearby. They tell me they've been here for two hours, queuing up for an hour even before the exhibition opened. They love Shia and you can see that love in every shaking gesture of their fingers on their iPhone as they attempt to fruitlessly call him from a couple of feet away. Two hundred attempts apparently. How strange to be within shouting distance of an idol but unable to speak to him via a tool designed for communicating through long distances. I ask them later what they learned from the experience. "That Shia is beautiful", they tell me.
Bored with looking that back of his head, I wander around to the various sides of the gallery and take some photographs. All three artists seem entirely unphased by this or the many other smart phone photographs being taken. Back in the queue I'd been asked if I had a camera. I admitted to the iPod. Was told this was ok, they were ruling out professional models with telephoto lenses. Presumably they're more distracting. I visited each wall of the gallery and shot the table from different angles. They're not the most visually arresting images although I do like how Shia's hunched forward in the side on view. He looks deep in conversation. He wasn't.
After a while I wonder, as I so often do in this situation, what it's all for. To an extent it doesn't feel that much different from the performance work of Marina Abramovic which is noted in this The Guardian interview although they refute it. Unlike The Artist Is Present, they're all looking at each other and are addressing people outside the gallery rather than those who've come to gawp. Also unlike Abramovic it lacks emotional scale. As a performance piece people within the space aren't really receiving much themselves within the feedback loop, other than that they're in the presence of someone who otherwise exists for us on screens.
In a sense, despite having breathed the same air at Shia, I actually felt more emotionally connected to him during #allmymovies, perhaps because his face was front and centre and he was on a screen and when his usually bored, dissonant features broke into a smile or even a laugh, it was like we were witnessing some kind of psychological breakthrough. That it tended to happened during his childhood films offered extra poignancy. He giggled a couple of times during the visit, but without knowing why it didn't have the same results.
There is some kind of an outlet. Shia is typing up fragments of his conversation in a massive document which appears on one of the screens in the gallery and the #touchmysoul website. That is perhaps the soul of the piece, piecing together an idea of the kinds of people who would attempt to phone the actor and why. Sometimes they just want to say hello. Sometimes they want to complement him. On a couple of occasions he's insulted. Sometimes the text strays into something not unlike poetry, Sometimes: " i just wanna say transformers is a big bag a shit ... but its not your fault ...so i just wanna say you should forgive yourself ..."
The live stream of the event is also being displayed in the gallery and in the first picture above I think you can see me taking a picture of the live stream recording me taking a picture of the live stream. The stream is here and if you scroll back far enough you'll see it was even recording while the gallery was closed and also be able to see the trio sitting down at the beginning of the day and the first set of visitors entering. Everyone keeps a respectful distance. A few people attempt selfies. But no one actually approaches the table, an extra invisible, imaginary wall between them and the artists themselves.
Somewhere in here I decided to see if I could take a picture of the back of my own head with the back of Shia's head. I held the iPod behind my bonce and jerked backwards but unable to see the screen I had little idea if either of us would be in shot. This is the best I could do in situ:
It's sort of there. Inevitably all of these got me noticed on the live stream:
@feelinglistless I'm watching you - taking photos— Neil Morrin (@neilmorrin) December 11, 2015
Which gave me a date stamp for when I was in the gallery space. Work backwards through the live stream and ...
Ultimately I don't know what to make of the experience. Generally I don't go out of my way to see people in the public eye preferring to bump into them and especially try to avoid heroes. I was two inches away from Hadley Freeman of The Guardian at a Tate press view a couple of years ago and I'd say that was the more thrilling experience. If anything it's more about being able to say that I managed to see #touchmysoul because it's the kind of event which doesn't come to Liverpool that often even if I'm not entirely sure what it was for and what it was about.
[Updated 16/12/2015: Revisiting the gallery today I discovered that the table where Shia et al were sat now houses a recording of the conversations they had with callers. Only able to listen briefly, I don't know how many of them are there or which days but its an interesting sensation to be inside the conversations and actually adds much to the piece. From what I heard, they mostly simply listened to people, not really interjecting or offering question, I expect to some extent to emulate what it's like for normals to speak to celebs on Twitter which is almost always a one-to-one versus one-to-many situation. I'm reminded of the description Sarah Silverman gives sometimes of a call she heard on The Howard Stern Show in which a fan nervously insulted Stern but just as he was being cut off blurted out, "I exist!"]