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Megan Vaughan: Why does it take Shia LaBeouf eating pizza to get people to engage with the arts?

A still from the livestream created by Luke Turner, Shia LaBeouf and Nastja Sade Ronkko A still from the livestream created by Luke Turner, Shia LaBeouf and Nastja Sade Ronkko
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You’re probably too busy making elf costumes and drinking turbo snowballs* to read about arts outreach right now, so I’ll get straight to it. I ended October by having a massive passive-aggressive barney with my parents about Poppy Jackson. I had been up to Crewe to see Chris Goode’s Weaklings, and was freeloading my way through a further 48 hours of glorious, glorious fibre-optic broadband around mum and dad’s. Then, the night before my return to civilisation, this happened:

Mum So what do you have to get back for tomorrow?
Dad Some art festival?
Me Yeah, Spill fest. There are a few things on, including this durational piece where a naked woman straddles the roof of Toynbee Studios for four hours.

I show them a picture on my phone. There has already been a sensationalist write-up in The Independent. The picture shows Poppy Jackson, naked and pixellated, one leg either side of the roof slates, looking totally fucking badass. She sits up really straight, really tall, and stares out. I bet she does pilates.

Dad Well yes, pah, hmmm (and other dad-noises).
Mum Oh, that’s just silly. She must be miserable.
Dad Bloody freezing.
Me *affects special art voice* I think it’s an interesting piece. Even if you ignore the physical endurance required, it says something really clever about architecture and the built environment of a modern city. There’s something in there about the natural and the man-made, and the visibility of the female form too.

They look at me over their glasses.

Now, I won’t transcribe what followed, because none of us really came out of it well, but my dad used the phrase “wannabe actress” at one point, and mum began to get very concerned that I was getting involved in some kind of Fathers 4 Justice style art protest. (For those interested, my insult-of-choice was ‘patriarch’.)

After we’d all had a well-needed time out (and I’d put a couple of hundred miles between us), I began my subtle campaign with a few carefully-chosen links over email: a little bit of context here, a little bit of analysis there, only a low level of implied threat. It was the kind of slow but relentless crusade one might enact on Twitter. “Here, look at all these other people who agree with me.” A few cautious responses eventually pinged back from the olds, who generally just want to shut me up but are mostly too polite to succeed.

But then, days later, a text!

POPPY JACKSON INSTALLATION ON HAVE GOT NEWS FOR U LAST NIGHT. AS YOU CAN IMAGINE COMMENTS WERE LESS THAN CONSTRUCTIVE. GOOD SPILL PUBLICITY THO. DAD.

Reader, this was big. Implicit here was not only my dad’s gradual acceptance of Poppy Jackson’s Site as a piece of art, but he had so comprehensively absorbed my lesson plan that he was throwing unspoken shade on anyone who mocked her. And did you notice him correctly naming both the artist and the festival she was part of? I have literally never been more proud.

And then, if that wasn’t enough audience development for one month, my housemate Alice (who actually goes to Glyndebourne and not even ironically) collared me in the kitchen to tell me all about her transformational experience of the Shia LaBeouf movie live stream.

LaBeouf is a film actor who mixes his Hollywood CV with a variety of bizarre art stuff. This time, in a collaboration with Luke Turner and Nastja Sade Ronkkohe, he was watching every film he’d ever been in, back-to-back, for 72 hours, while his reactions were streamed live from New York’s Angelika Film Center.

I wasn’t sure where I stood on the whole thing initially. For a start, it annoys me that it takes the star of Transformers to get this kind of work into the papers. It annoys me when the media repackage interesting artistic ideas as hilarious celebrity antics. And it also annoys me that it’s always leading men who give this stuff a go (see also: James Franco, Joaquin Phoenix) because they are still afforded greater freedoms than their female counterparts. But still, nice idea, Shia.

Through coincidence alone, Alice had booked a week off work at exactly the same time as LaBeouf’s movie marathon and, by the look of her crazed expression on the Sunday, she’d pretty much watched the whole thing along with him. She’d even ranked her favourite moments.

  1. The handshake
  2. The falling camera
  3. The pizza

Number three was pretty self-explanatory I guess (Shia LaBeouf eats a slice of pizza; Alice likes it). Number two was no doubt worthy of its own Michael Bay film, as proved by our kitchen re-enactment. But it was number one – the handshake – that emerged as a raw, emotional climax to her whole experience.

A huge grin spread across LaBeouf’s face

Some dude had reached over to shake LaBeouf’s hand as he was passing through the aisle in the cinema, and had obviously caught him off guard a bit. Y’know, one of those occasions where someone says hello to you when you’re not expecting it, and you don’t register who it was or what just happened until a couple of seconds later. Apparently the handshake was a bit weird and fumbly, but then, a few seconds after they had parted, LaBeouf settled back down into his seat and a huge grin began to stretch across his face. It was as if he’d just remembered where he was and what he was doing, and been reminded of all the people in the world who would have just shared that handshake with him. Poor Alice nearly wept just telling me about it.

When I started writing this column I had the vague idea that I was going to make a point about access. I think there’s something of note in the way my dad responded to Poppy Jackson’s mention on Have I Got News For You, and the way Alice found her way into conceptual art thanks to rolling celebrity news. This is The Stage after all. This is where we can discuss matters central to the resilience of our industry.

Don’t you ever get tired though? Don’t you ever want a break from all the relentless issues? I wonder if, perhaps, I wanted to tell you about my friends and my family because sometimes it’s just nice to hear about nice things. It’s December: it’s dark and cold; Christmas is expensive; but, among all that, strange esoteric performance artists are making people think, and smile.

With that in mind, I only have one recommendation for you this month: your local panto. And I mean local. Pure amdram. None of that ACE-funded shit. I want you go to a panto where the dame is also a quantity surveyor and interval drinks are served from the Girl Guides’ tea urn. Then I want you to applaud. Applaud until your hands bleed. I want you to put a fiver in the charity tin, go home, get pissed, kiss your loved ones goodnight and sleep soundly.

*Recipe for a Turbo Snowball: Pour equal parts advocaat, cherry brandy and lemonade into a pint pot. Drink (responsibly).

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