#Elevate: A Retrospective

Four Oxford students reflect on their experiences with Shia LaBeouf, Nastja Rönkkö and Luke Turner as part of their #Elevate performance art piece. The group occupied a lift for 24 hours streaming their resulting interactions on Youtube. 

Henry Robertson: First in the elevator

As the first to enter the elevator, I had no idea what to expect at all. The doors opened and I joined the three complete strangers. After introductions were made and as the elevator ascended to the 2nd floor, I asked the three of them that burning question ‘why are you spending 24 hours in an elevator?’ Their reply, which I’m sure they must have given hundreds, if not thousands, of times over the course of their performance, was simple: they wanted to interact with the audience face-to-face, and by live streaming it, they hoped to make it ‘egalitarian like the internet’. The conversation became more jovial before we were joined by two more and proceeded to discuss the artists’ previous collaborations and some of Shia’s more noteworthy films. There was also a discussion about the need for greater regulation of online supplements after learning of the tragic death of one of Shia’s close friends. We managed to lighten the mood with a bit of Even Stevens before saying our goodbyes and wishing the trio well for the remainder of #ELEVATE

Image: Roger Askew
Image: Roger Askew

Esme Ash: Great procrastination, ‘simultaneously liberating and terrifying’

I spent time in a lift with Shia LaBeouf. 22 minutes and 41 seconds to be exact (not that I’m counting).

I had settled in for a Friday morning like any other—library, thesis, eat, repeat—but LaBeouf, Rönkkö and Turner were not to oblige me in my expectations. As an Even Stevens fan from a young age (c’mon, who wasn’t?), I have followed Shia’s career with interest, from his questionable decision to reinvigorate the Indiana Jones franchise, to his strong, silent Jerôme in the beautifully artistic Nymphomaniac series.

When he dove into the world of performance art, I hesitated before branding him as ‘off the rails’ as many mainstream media outlets had done all too gleefully. His #metamarathon and paper bag ‘stunts’ were, admittedly, somewhat beyond me, but there was something wonderfully levelling about #touchmysoul, in which a simple phone call got you a conversation with an actor whose personal wealth weighs in at a cool $25 million.

Back to my Friday. I had just begun my procrastination for the morning, mindlessly checking into Facebook, when I discovered that Shia was stood in a lift a mere 500 metres from where I was sitting. My first action was to join the live feed on YouTube, part-participator, part-voyeur in his newest project, #Elevate. After a few minutes, however, I was desperate to see for myself— seeing, after all, is believing.

I eventually persuaded someone to join me in my investigative endeavour. Today I wasn’t going to write my thesis. I was going to #Elevate myself (whatever the hell that meant). We upped sticks and shot off to join the surprisingly small queue. I walked down George Street in the knowledge that a Hollywood actor was standing in a somewhat dilapidated lift, next to a 24 hour kebab van. And most people didn’t even know! Bizarre.

An hour later, I was in.

Yes, I skipped the part where I froze my feet off in the February chill—but it’s nothing that a Caffé Nero and the promise of an A-List star can’t fix.

The queue was unpredictable—part of the art, apparently. Some people were in and out in a flash, others stayed for five minutes, then ten, then fifteen. Soon, we were stood outside the lift doors, feeling much the same as you do five minutes before a job interview; a little terrified, a little excited. Then the doors opened. A young man stepped out, and Shia beckoned us into the lift. We shook hands with them all, as the doors closed behind us. We were in!

I’m not quite sure how we sustained such a long conversation. I don’t remember how long I was able to hold his gaze; I think for most of it, I was staring blankly at my reflection in the elevator mirror, just taking it all in. Here I was, not a ruler’s length from the star of Transformers, of Disturbia, of Fury—and we were just hanging out.

We talked about fame, shame and metaphysics. He doesn’t buy new clothes anymore. He is ashamed of his wealth. He has a lot of tattoos, and was wearing a badge of one of his friends, Mike, who had recently passed away. He said that Mike would have done the same for him.

It was simultaneously liberating and terrifying, spending time with a bona fide ‘celebrity’ who had laid himself bare in order to better get to know his audience. He was totally vulnerable in that lift, and that was the point. He saw something in the forced conversation, the ‘elevator pitch’ that took place as we went up and down, and up again. He seemed engaged in what you had to say, but left you to lead the conversation entirely. Amongst other things, we chatted to Shia about the lack of diversity at Oxford, about the possibility of ‘disconnect’ within oneself, and about whether he could go to the toilet during his 24 lift stint.

I think we did forge a connection, albeit temporary, during our time #elevating. By the time we left, the queue had exploded, with some devoted students waiting up to six hours. You might ask me if six hours is worth it. I can’t honestly say. For those people who stuck it out for so long, they might have had a life-changing conversation in that lift. They might, as some did, have settled for a game of ‘International cock or ball’ and gifted Shia a bottle of champagne. Each individual experience over the course of those 24 hours were just that. Individual, unique, shared between four people just chatting in a lift. And the whole of YouTube, of course.

’Connection’ was the overarching theme of his different projects — and it was clear during our conversation that this was living proof of that aim.

Harriet with Esme with Shia, Nastja and Luke #Elevate
Harriet with Esme with Shia, Nastja and Luke #Elevate

Harriet Astbury: Connections and Disconnections

When we were standing there it became increasingly obvious that the queue itself was part of the experience. After the hour that we had waited we realised it was up to you when to end the conversation of the person in front of you, by pressing the button that would bring them back to ground level. After the fifth time that the doors were opened we got into the lift, shook hands with LaBeouf, Rönkkö and Turner and quickly fell into a conversation about disconnections and connections between people. Shia brought up the fact that people can easily become disconnected and spoke about his favourite calls from his installation in Liverpool called ‘Touch my Soul’ including a 20 minute anonymous chant from a group of ‘brothers’. But this wasn’t just a conversation about relationships and forging connections between people. It lead to a discussion about apathy in relation to the environment as well as voluntary disconnection from your past, your upbringing and life experiences. LaBeouf himself said that he felt ashamed of his wealth, and in an attempt to disconnect from it only buys and wears second hand clothes. The three artists were entirely engaged in the experience and the conversation, despite having 23 hours ahead of them. Considering this was a completely contrived meeting in a claustrophobic environment; in a place where you usually avoid conversation, eye contact or recognition, the honesty and unaffectedness of the conversation was genuinely moving.

Image: Roger Askew
Image: Roger Askew

Robbie Belok: Lover of the Actual Cannibal Shia LaBeouf

It started, as most things do in my life, with a desire for food. Specifically in this case, fish and chips (well, it was a Friday). Dragging my hungover body to Gloucester Green, I noticed a large queue next to the chippy, and, after momentarily contemplating why fish and chips were that popular, realised it was actually Shia LaBeouf in a lift next door. A long-time fan of the Actual Cannibal Shia LaBeouf music video, I decided to join the queue in hopes of meeting the man. We were quite close to the front, and yet we still waited for two and a half hours before going in – this, however, was mainly due to the people in front of us who decided, to the exasperation of both the queue and Union staff, to spend 50 minutes in the lift (pricks.) As I (rather insightfully, I thought) said to Shia himself, the queue was an exploration of human emotion in microcosm: excitement, fear, joy, anger and disgust were all represented on faces of those around, yet we were all bonded by the fact that we had all, for whatever reason, decided to queue for hours upon end to get in a lift with a notably weird film actor turned performance artist. My actual conversation with Shia was short and defined by the sort of pseudo-intellectual shitchat that naturally occurs both in Oxford and in interviews with Shia, yet I felt a definite sense of satisfaction upon leaving. So did I feel #ELEVATE-d? I mean, not really, but it was fun.

Andrew Rikard: Fame, humour and irony

#Elevate. Don’t let your dreams stay dreams.

Two hours in a queue for 10 minutes in a lift with LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner — or rather — Shia, Nastja, and Luke. I showed up around 9:30am with 30 people ahead, outside the least Oxford square in Oxford. Gloucester Green is just an open, brick-paved space with a couple of food trucks. We — the queue’d — stood outside of the nondescript English language learning school and talked. I hadn’t showered, or eaten. I was halfway through a foggy morning, watching Inglorious Basterds when I ran down to catch a spot. The performance had begun. 

In line, folks were watching compilations of “Do It” and the “Actual Cannibal Shia LaBeouf.” We were all a little anxious and a little proud — a little cocky. No one wanted to admit their craving to be near fame in an elevator. “Why not?” was the phrase of the hour. “When will you get a chance to meet someone like him again?”

When we got closer to the entrance to the building, two people walked out after playing “Cock or Ball” in the lift, a game where you guess whether the skin you show from you pants-zipper is skin from the cock or the ball. Shia guessed wrong — it was cock, not ball. The guy two spots in front of me sang happy birthday with Shia, Luke, and Nostja for his cousin in Germany. He’s a masters student studying Archaeology. He had recited that bit for an hour and a half. The girl in front of me bought her spot off another Archaeology master’s student for 50 quid.

When I finally stepped in, I was shaking, and my plot for conversation faded away. I had nothing. It was like being in an elevator with anyone else. I was pissed I was shaking. “Hello, I’m Shia.” — “I’m Luke” — “I’m Nastja.” We shook hands, “I’m Andrew.” Then we started to talk.

Shia talked about wishing he, too, was in the queue: “I want to know what’s happening out there — everyone comes in with a story of who they just met, what they just felt like.” Nastja told me about a dream she had, full of the Illuminati and the Freemasons: she woke up in the middle thirty minutes before the performance. She’d missed her alarm.

I asked Shia what it meant to him to be famous. He said, “Some’s good, some’s bad. It’s hard to eat brownies and not feel guilty.” When I asked, “Then why this?”, Shia said, “Aren’t we all just fucking around?” Luke and Nastja chuckled. Standing in an elevator, calling it performance art, is funny. They know. Fame is a strange, dehumanizing beast. But it’s humorous too.

When you think about performance art, you imagine Marina Abramovic staring silently at folks in the MOMA for months. But this was a friendly experience — a comic absurdity. We were friends — in a sense. We were equal, level, on the same playing field. It fits their Metamodern descriptions.

When you step in and shake hands, you forget about the listeners on the other side of the microphone in the elevator. There were about 2.5 thousand listening on Youtube when I stepped on. I forgot about them when I shook these three human’s hands. When I remembered halfway through I mentioned it — “Damn— you forget there are thousands of people listening in.” Shia said, “Isn’t that fame?”

For them, this gives an opportunity to empathize with humans in a small space with the irony of thousands listening in. This is about breaking down walls in the most normal of boxes, but doing it in a radically public way. You’re an equal when you’re on an elevator. Whatever agenda, position, or passion you espouse, when you’re riding up and down a lift with three people, that’s all they are: people.

As I walked away, I brushed off people in queue asking to know how it went. I wished I’d asked different questions. But I don’t suppose that’s the point. I left with a fire to find those spaces where the digital breaks down and the human begins. How can we develop an art, an empathy, an affect in this bizarre (meta)modern age. How can #elevate become human? It does in an elevator.

I’m disappointed I didn’t take a selfie.

The group’s talk during #Elevate at The Oxford Union can be found here

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