Ryan Trecartin: The Real Internet is Inside You

 ‘What’s that buzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzing?’

Marshall McLuhan


1: Your Original Is Having A Complete Human Change Meltdown Makeover


It’s difficult to describe Ryan Trecartin’s work without sounding hopelessly overwhelmed. I want to say a load of finger-snappy stuff like ‘Imagine if Hieronymus Bosch and Keith Haring got together and made a movie,’ or ‘If Facebook had a nightmare, it would look like this.’

I’m even tempted to deploy a heinous journalistic cliché, namely the description of an object, event or experience as ‘like [something familiar] on [some kind of drug]’. If there are drugs involved in the process, they aren’t the chemical variety – not LSD, let’s say, which might seem the obvious choice for such kaleidoscopic filmmaking – but something all-enveloping, a kind of image-rich amphetamine we hardly notice because we live in it, like fish in water.


Trecartin is best known as a video artist, although he has worked in sculpture, installation and photography. His films, which blend sitcomesque performance art with hypnotically garish digital collages, are confusing in the extreme. The first time I saw P.opular, for example, it induced the kind of nerve-tingling reaction I’d often read about but rarely experienced. The interpretive tools that TV and cinema equip us with are useless here. Try to decode a plot from the tempest of signs and signifiers, or attempt to ‘read’ character in any remotely Freudian sense, and you’ll end up with a headache. My advice: just roll with it, let the images jitter by, and pay attention to the way your brain responds.


Composed using widely available editing software (his first films were edited on iMovie), Trecartin’s films flicker like straight-to-tape renditions of an oversaturated world. They star tribes of kids and tricksters whose speech is articulate yet schizophasic, a patois of home-brewed slang, corporate buzzwords and chat-room inanities that blend and stutter like the unmediated mutterings of the digital unconscious. These films appear to be about as narrative-led as a computer meltdown, but they are undeniably compelling.


The choice of film over painting or installation, say, is apt for someone who grew up watching cable TV, and who takes for granted the screen-centric arrangements of contemporary life. Trecartin’s characters, like the modern-day technophiles they satirise, are umbilically linked to their Blackberries. They also play to camera constantly, anxiously aware that their performances are being filmed, recorded, broadcast: self-awareness always leads to self-promotion. The ‘real’ world of people in space in time is secondary to the virtual afterlife of these acts. Trecartin’s characters aspire to be images.




Born in 1981 in Texas, now living and working in L.A., Trecartin has been hyped as ‘the most consequential artist to have emerged since the nineteen-eighties’. He has become the unofficial figurehead of a generation of American artists – Cory Archangel, Ryder Ripps or Shana Moulton spring to mind – who have embraced the proliferation of digital media in the past two decades, and marry their eclectic practice with a post-pop adoration of the drosscape of consumer culture.


Trecartin’s work is typically placed by critics within a genealogy of American subversives. And yes, it is easy to detect within his work a strain of avant-garde aesthetics that feels uniquely US: the sinister kitsch of John Waters’ films, for example, the dysphoric identity-mashing of Cindy Sherman, even the violent ruptures of Paul McCarthy’s performance films. But none of these comparisons quite nail Trecartin down.


Trecartin’s first feature-length film, A Family Finds Entertainment (2004), was submitted as his final thesis at the Rhode Island School of Design. He was 23. It introduces a number of themes which recur throughout his work: identity as roleplay, the struggle between individual expression and communal belonging, family politics, queer culture, globalisation – and less abstract things like house parties, make-up, TV static, poster paint.


It’s a little absurd to boil this filmic fugue state down to a bare-bones narrative, but here we go: AFFE follows a young, potentially psychopathic man called Skippy (played by Trecartin) who locks himself in bathroom while his friends have a party, tells his parents he is gay, goes outside, becomes the subject of a documentary, gets run over by a car and is magically resurrected by a group sing-along before a round of fireworks. These plot coordinates create a loose framework for forty-two minutes of playful, schizoid imagery and wildly gestural performance, a film that masquerades as surrealist autobiography while dramatising a complex debate about the possibility of belonging.


Trecartin’s films don’t pretend to distil or filter, but spew and sputter like information overflow pipes. The colours are day-glo, achingly bright. Images spin, morph, impact and explode with hyperactive intensity. Often it’s impossible to take in everything at once: you’d have to watch, re-watch and re-re-watch each film to pick out half its details. Trecartin’s fondness for placing images within images, screens within screens, might seem extreme until you realise that, as you read this, you might have ten web pages open at once.





In one typical sequence during Temp Stop (Re’Search Wait’S) (2009-10), seven different scenes play out at once; there also moments of almost transcendent calm, pure grey screens, pools of silence. The maximalist exuberance of Trecartin’s films render them impossible to watch, as we understand it. We focus our attention on a particular screen-area, and, in doing so, edit our engagement with the artwork.


Trecartin’s most recent work is the seven-part film series Any Ever, comprised of Re’Search Wait’S, a quartet, and a trilogy called Trill-ogy Comp. Completed between 2009 and 2010 and shown in 2011 at MoMA PS1 in New York, Any Evertotals almost four hours of material. Like a less po-faced, less mythopoeic Matthew Barney show, Any Ever dissolves the boundaries between the screen and gallery. Props, costumes, sets, characters and footage migrate freely from film to film and permeate the viewing space. Trecartin aims for experiential consummation, an unmediated link between the artwork and the viewer’s nervous system.



2: I Need To Feel Endless In Both Directions


Trecartin’s work is not only interesting because it enacts a literal illustration of the electric mania of modern life: I get enough of that from sixty seconds online. Rather, I like how his artworks animate the ongoing dialogue between identity and technology. The love/hate nature of this relationship arises from the mix of liberty and alienation that it affords (our world is getting faster, brighter, better; our world can feel disorientating, overloaded with information) and which, with the invention of the internet, entered an era of unparalleled anxiety and opportunity.

This tension has been with us for centuries. In the Phaedrus, Socrates reveals a deep suspicion of the written word that prefigures ongoing concerns about the dubious allure of technology. People who credulously embrace the written word will, he says, ‘appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality’. He claims the written word is ‘no more than an image’: a false facsimile of truth. When we outsource self-expression to the written word we are estranged from ourselves and the world: we dip our heads in Lethe, forget our voice.


It’s astonishing how much of a fuss Socrates kicks up about writing, which most of us stopped thinking of as a technology a long, long time ago. If you hollow out his argument and reassign it as a broad analogy, it helps contextualise what can seem like an exclusively contemporary concern: the lag between the onset of technological change and our ability to absorb it. In an interview with curator Jennifer Lange, Trecartin put it like this: ‘I love the idea of technology and culture moving faster than the understanding of those mediums by people. It’s like the jumper being jumped before the onset of “jump”.’ (By ‘jump,’ I can only assume he is referring to the teleportation film Jumper, mauled by critics back in 2008.)

 Socrates’ graphophobia seems petty when set against the insidious imperialism of screen-based life: tablet computers of ever-increasing power and ever-decreasing size, a sense of global contraction, the rise of social networking as a new manifestation of advertising. Like writing, these forms of technological self-extension diminish our agency by challenging our conception of ourselves as consistent, centralised selves. We think of gadgets as our slaves, but the minute they acquire a will or agency of their own they threaten to overpower their users. From Mary Shelley to Isaac Asimov, speculative fiction is littered with technological experiments gone wrong.


Trecartin’s films, by contrast, invert this technological anxiety. In fact, for all they might unsettle us, they present the process as thrilling, impulsive, and fun. Many of his characters read like avatars from Second Life, and the manipulation of the film is so relentless that this fusion of physical digital selves is realised within the plane of the image. This might sound slightly sci-fi, but it’s commonplace today in practices like photographic re-touching and auto-tuning. For all that they need and love their smartphones and digital cameras, Trecartin’s characters hurl them across the room in fits of pique, take hammers to flatbed scanners. The union of self and technology is attended with frustrations; crucially, however, it is not burdened by worry, loss or fear.In Ryan’s Web 1.0 , a series of photo-collages, Trecartin recasts his collaborators/friends Lizzie Fitch, Veronica Gelbaum, Telfar Clemens and Ashland Mines as avatars of future fashion. These thumbnail visions of Trecartin’s world present the self as open network, pervaded by culture. Logos inscribe themselves on flesh, brands become bodies, and personality is realised in an act of synaesthetic over-identification with consumerist ephemera.



3: I Can’t Believe He Tried To Reverse-Physcho Me Into That Person


Footage is sped up, slowed down and reversed; colours strobe and bleed; flesh is post-production plastic; bodies exist in several places at once – in Trecartin’s intensely processed films, expression is altered by what it passes through. The medium might not be the message, but always inflects it. The titles of the films themselves – which read like corrupt data files, studded with punctuation errors and incomprehensible acronyms – are a neat symbol of the instability of Trecartin’s vision of human identity.

Our engagement with culture is rendered as a form of enmeshing or interbreeding. Empathy is metamorphosis: when a character identifies with an idea or person, they adopt their vocabulary or physical characteristics. Trecartin’s films reject the binarism of real and virtual, male and female, self and other, gay or straight, rationality and madness, surface and subtext, style and content, time and space. What matters here is not the search for structure in a disordered, disorientating world, but the free-form energy of self-invention. Online selves are multiple, unstable, an aggregate of images and words that can be remixed and revised; by the same token, they bring us freedom. We can upload, edit, erase, rework, and rebrand ourselves. But you know all this already. Chances are you already do it.


None of this would be possible were it not for photography. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes describes his acute unease at being photographed: ‘once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of “posing”, I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image.’ It’s this world of poses, transformations, and self-as-image that Trecartin’s films explore. Rather than be unsettled by it, as Barthes is, as I am, Trecartin revels in its possibilities.



4: I Hear A Self-Declared Narrator


In P.opular (section ish), a character played by Trecartin informs us that she wants ‘to live in a world where narration is the devil’. The ability to script oneself is an inalienable right, and anything that opposes that right must be rejected. David Shields expresses this antagonism to linearity in his book Reality Hunger: ‘Narrative is for dead people.’ Technology, which enables us to connect with others in unprecedented ways, has rendered obsolete the progressive plots and developmental character arcs we used to consider the norm.

Trecartin’s films eschew the limitations of train-track temporality in favour of a disjointed, free-associative style that purposefully fails to iron out multiplicity or contradiction. This is as close to hyperlinking as you can get within a video art context. If we were to look for an analogy in physics, we might say that the Newtonian narrative of cause and effect has given way to the energetic randomness of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Characters – if they can be so called – exist wherever and whenever they want, and only solidify when subjected to the camera’s gaze.

These artworks illustrate the possibilities of self-narration, particularly those revealed to us when language begins to break down. Starting life as scripts in the form of plays, monologues, poetry or word-fragments, his films’ foundation, is textual. He repurposes language to his own ends, warping syntax, dissecting compound words and forming a small dictionary’s worth of neologisms in every film. Take the following example, quoted at random from the script of The Re’Search:


Neighbourhood Yes, Ocean Over, Yeah! !Connect!

I sent You, A =Mother Figure Function=!

I sent You, A    =Mother Figure Function=!

Compassicolic-Ish-Us       ‘Capital Structure’


OK   Re-Write=                      CORRECT*

*Compassionate Capitalism



The linguistic frenzy masks a coherence of theme and tone, a Joycean playfulness with puns and word-associations and a consistent, if subversive, reassignment of textual symbols. No other writer I know could remind me at once of Gertrude Stein and Steve Jobs, modernist poetics and prefix-happy marketing. While the films seem to improvise themselves before your eyes, random and self-propagating, they are the result of an intensive process of scripting and editing. These activities just as easily apply to the construction of identity.



5: U’r Not The Only Sky 2Touch That Star


It is appropriate that I first encountered Trecartin’s films on the internet. He is an artist, but for me it is the online world, and not the white-walled gallery, that is his native environment. If his work can be said to be ‘about’ any single topic, it might be this: the changes wrought to personal identity by the arrival of this thing we call The Internet.


It would be reductive to yoke Trecartin to a specific technology, yet the high-speed nature of his films, not to mention their frequent visual references to the World Wide Web, steers us towards such a reading. There is an undercurrent of utopianism in his work, the implicit belief that technological progress has released us from the need to define ourselves in any fixed, inflexible way. Identity is presented as a form of fancy dress: try on a new self, and as soon as it gets boring try another. Watching his films, it is easy to feel liberated, excited, and free – to go along with them, in other words. It is also possible to feel trapped, unsettled, and alienated; to want to critique everything they stand for. For me, however, it is precisely those contradictions that make Trecartin’s work compelling.



's debut novel Arkady was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in March 2018. He writes on contemporary art for Frieze, Art Agenda, and other publications. He is a contributing editor at The White Review.



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