First of all, let’s say it would be hard to find a sleeker art-world hot rod than Ryan Trecartin.
Nov 1 2010, 12:00am
Interview by SteveLafreniere
Portrait by Tim Barber
First of all, let’s say it would be hard to find a sleeker art-world hot rod than Ryan Trecartin. In the four years since his feature-length candy-flip earthquake of a video A Family Finds Entertainment was shown at the 2006 Whitney Biennial, he’s created a mini-mountain of work, won a fistful of big-money art prizes, gotten signed to Elizabeth Dee Gallery in New York, and launched a flabbergastingly great four-hour, seven-video epic called Any Ever into the global art maw.
The only problem is describing the depth, intensity, and insane hilarity of said art to those who haven’t seen it. Even exhibition blurbsters seem able to only signal in its general direction: “Destabilizing and amazing his audiences, Trecartin embraces an aesthetic of collaborative improvisation and lo-fi technology to realize his heady explorations of consumer culture and fractured identity in the digital age,” said someone at Toronto’s Power Plant.
As it happens, a few years ago I connected with pre-fame Trecartin when I stumbled upon his YouTube channel one night. Alongside damaged howlers like Pickle Surprise and Shaye Saint John clips, he had posted his own early videos. Watching Tommy Chat Just E-mailed Me, Girl God, and Wayne’s World for the first time sent real shivers through me. They were like TV transmissions from another dimension. (Yeesh—see what I mean about describing them?) Each one took loads of extra viewings to decipher the hallucinatory dialogue, sound design, and editing and also to finally notice that Trecartin himself was playing many of the roles, in a kind of DMT booger-drag. I messaged him that first night with questions and we struck up a casual friendship. Over time, he’s sent me DVDs of all his work as part of an ongoing experiment with the teenagers of my rural western New York town, whose opinions fascinate him. I project the videos at our local coffeehouse and later relay the kids’ reactions back to him.
We talked on the phone a couple of weeks after his marathon job of editing Any Ever.
Vice: Any Ever, your show that’s currently traveling the world, is billed as a seven-part video. But it seems more like a trilogy and a quartet.
Ryan Trecartin: That’s correct. I mean, every movie functions on its own but also functions as a sideways entry point to all the other movies. And then it breaks down into two hemispheres of a trilogy and a quartet. Both halves are nonsequential and have overlapping oscillations in the narrative through the character Able, played by Lizzie Fitch. There’s kind of a broadcast mode of viewing the work, and then there’s a more interactive way.
By “broadcast” you mean...
You can watch the movies more A to B, which is a fairly traditional movie experience. It’s broadcast and you just watch. But then they also work in the way where we’re developing software so you can watch in a much more interactive way. More participatory. We can talk about that later, but…
No, it’s interesting. Was that from your collaboration with David Karp, the founder of Tumblr?
Oh, I loved working with him. I know we’re both busy, but I would love to keep working with him. A lot of the ideas that I have, I need to meet a wide range of hypercollaborators. For the most part I’ve worked with performers and artists so far.
Did you study video in school?
I didn’t think about art in the contemporary sense of the word until senior year of high school. I was always much more music- and movie-minded. Those two fields have always been open to the idea of using any resource that benefits the art, and they’ve always been very collaborative structures. No one ever listens to music or watches a movie and thinks of one person. The way I’ve always thought has been in terms of editing and collaborating. I went to RISD intending to major in video, but I ended up being friends with all the painting and sculpture kids. I lived with a bunch of painters, although I went for a more tech-type major.
Why not go to film school instead?
I began to realize that the content that I’m most interested in was being talked about more in the art world than in the film world. The way I naturally put together ideas, the way I would articulate them, just made more sense, I found, to artists.
You always collaborate with a large group of people. Is that why the original three videos that you told me about a year ago became seven works?
Actually, it went from one to seven. I went down to Miami thinking that I was going to make a short. [laughs] But yeah, that completely happened. There’s this one movie called The Re’Search, which is actually a piece of research that a character from another movie does. Originally I decided I wanted to use some Orlando actors, because there’s a bunch of Disney kids down there. I got this lady, Marisa Carmichael, who’s really awesome, to come down and help organize an official audition, which I’d never done before. Every single kid who came through the door, we were like, “You’re in.” All of a sudden we realized, “Fuck, we just accepted 30 people. Now we have to make a whole ’nother movie.” So I just started writing more. That’s kind of how the process goes as you meet people. If you’re truly collaborating, you can’t control when inspiration happens, and then you have to go with it.
It’s also hard to control where it ends.
The new videos are faster and sleeker. They go into your head in a clearer way. They’re more hypnotic. They’re funnier. Everything’s been amped up, but it took me a while of watching them to realize this. How do you see that advancement from, say, I-Be AREA a couple of years back?
I’ve started to notice that I have certain types of cycles that relate to personal and collaborative breakthroughs. In I-Be AREA, a lot of the content that I cared about, I described it. And that action of describing relates more to, like, essay writing. But with the new work, all those ideas were digested and now they’ve become part of the platform. So instead of describing those things, I was actually demonstrating them. And as they were being demonstrated, I was using other things—I’m not sure how I feel about them yet—as the descriptions. When you have an idea, instead of talking about it, why not try to demonstrate it, and then talk about something that you don’t have, that you don’t know about, to experiment?
It’s strange to me that more video- and filmmakers haven’t explored those kinds of formal constraints. It’s always something like the Dogme 95 rules instead.
I’m fascinated by the odd logic that comes up in your work. Each line or shot relates to the previous one, but not necessarily to the one previous to that. Is this built into the dialogue, or are you growing it bit by bit as you shoot? Or is it in the editing room?
It’s really all three of those things. I don’t think they’re necessarily independent methods. I think the future of movies is where the initial movie will just be an area of data, and people will participate in articulating all of the potential lineages and narratives and plots by creating structures with rules and apps for editorializing and curating the contents. That process now happens behind the scenes with all the performers, in executing the scripts. But in the future that process won’t stop with the movie. There’s potential for movies that expand in all directions with how they’re experienced. So, yeah, growth is a huge part of it.
Where do you start?
I start off with a script that’s way, way, way longer than what actually gets edited down. And often half the dialogue that gets edited into the movie wasn’t actually in the script. People tend to do a lot of translating. I give them a line and they hear the essence or the vibe of what I meant, but they forget what I actually said. They say it so much better, because they’re interpreting the visual experience of that moment in time rather than just acting the words. Some shoots are very strictly based on the language. And, you know, there are all different ways of casting people to pair up different ways of channeling and translating and acting and performing.
Clockwise from top left: P.opular S.ky (section ish), 2009. The Re’Search (Re’Search Wait’S), 2009-2010. I-Be AREA, 2007. The Re’Search (Re’Search Wait’S), 2009–2010.
All images courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Dee Gallery, New York.
There certainly are weird-chemistry duets by actors in your videos. So, what happens to all of this in editing?
In editing I try to remember that my original intentions need to kind of be ignored, because I just went through this huge process of collaborating to respect the reality of a good performance rather than what I actually might have initially wanted. I need to get the goals from the beginning to meet up with the goals in the middle, and then have the editing create its own goals, and have all three merge and create something where they’re all equally important.
Your characters speak in what on the surface seem like non sequiturs. But if you listen closely, they’re constantly being pulled back into meaning. You’re either bending new context around them—even for a moment—or having a line delivered in a way that files it in my brain in some unexpected place from where it might pop out at me later. So how much of that is planned?
It’s everywhere. I think about a vibe that I felt somewhere in culture that stimulated some aspect of creativity in my head. With media, I’m often much more interested in how it’s translated by people sharing that media, rather than the media itself. I feel like that’s where it exists, between the piece and the sharing of it. So I’ll be inspired by drunk people in a bar talking about a show that they just saw or something. It’s about collecting all these moments of sharing things and having them be in the culture mud, rather than a one-to-one ratio or pointing to different influences. It’s more letting things digest and then feeling the rawness of the vibe rather than a particular articulation of it, then sculpting that out in list form, and starting to write dialogue in a way where the whole room is condensed. So while I’m writing in the beginning, everything’s in the first, second, and third person, it’s the camera, it’s the actors, it’s the room, and there are no visuals. Actually, I’m not a very visual person. It’s all sort of emotion and language. And as I’m writing these lists I start to see different kinds of personalities, moments, shapes, and momentums popping, and I start to separate them into accents. Then I think about friends and the things that they can do and that I’ve seen them do. Sometimes I’ll think, “Well, this line, I just realized that it’s actually something that Veronica said last week that was really funny, and I didn’t realize it when I wrote it.” So all of a sudden I’m thinking of her as that character, even though it’s nothing like her, it’s totally something else.
It sounds unwieldy.
Well, then there’s this whole act of pairing and substituting things. And then when I start casting, I collaborate with Lizzie on set and wardrobe, and talking about the different ideas of the script and placing that. Lizzie is a very particular artist—she’s much more interested in using other people’s artwork as her exhibition space. She’s not so much into the whole gallery/museum thing. She wants the context to be another creative platform and then the record of her art to be fictionalized through that art. People don’t know it yet, but in the future they will have a better understanding of where her art exists—it exists in other people’s art. [laughs] A lot of my collaborators are like that, but Lizzie has the strongest voice and she owns it the most. We collaborate all the time. Anyways, I’m jumping around, but… [laughs] Can you repeat the question?
I’m actually more interested in where you took it than what I initially asked you. I just wanted you to identify your way of writing.
There are several writing processes. Writing the script, which I just talked about; then set making, wardrobe, makeup, directing, acting, casting, all that stuff is another writing process. That chunk of writing, which is in the middle, is really, really collaborative. It’s so hard to write the credits, because I can never credit people enough in ways that are nuanced.
Can you give me an example?
Someone has a particular idea, and it gets digested by the group. I feel like people are a lot better at sharing intellectual property than they were in the past. They don’t get all hung up and uptight about territory, so all these ideas get thrown around, but there are moments that are so special in the work that I wish I could point more clearly to how they happened. Anyway, as movies move into the future toward data, you’ll be able to find that out through other ways of watching the movie.
The idea of crediting is certainly going to transform.
Exactly. Besides, there are all these different forms of tagging and essay linking and shooting different forms of voice-over. Also, expanding the kinds of apps that people can use to make scenes that they want to add.
Is there a wish list of people that you’d like to work with?
Oh yeah. I’m actually fairly bad at retaining names, but I have a bunch of moments of people that I’ve seen in all different forms of media, and in real life, like in bars and stuff. I need to get better at collecting that information and then trying to get hold of them later. I’m also interested in people who I’ve seen on regular TV shows and in reality-TV shows. I would love to blur those lines a lot more, because I think that there’s no such thing as high/low. That’s kind of an insult. And I would like to show more aspects of how different levels of whatever “professional” means can coexist in a piece of art and intelligently share performance space. Whether it be someone who doesn’t see themselves as a performer at all or someone who sees themselves as wanting to win Oscars or Grammys.
What do you look for when you’re casting?
It’s usually someone with a certain kind of understanding of their face and their body language that seems intuitive but aware. Not aware in that jaded, sassy way, but more in a way where they understand the complexities of expressing. And I look for optimistic people. I really like people who truly like being alive. I don’t know, I’m just always drawn to people who think that anything can happen and who want to be a part of it.
That comes through.
I’ve noticed that certain years produce collaborative spirits. People born in ’82, ’83, ’86, and ’87—those four years are extraordinarily collaborative and I don’t understand why. Everyone in my movies was born in one of those four years. People born in ’81 and early ’82 have more of a directors’ mindset, and I think it’s because they were the class of 2000, and growing up they were always asked to talk about the future. Things like that affect people’s brains. There are these weird forms of subjective mass going on in everyone’s jumping-off points. When I really like someone, I ask them when their birthday is, and then if they are born in one of those years I’m like, damn it, that’s so crazy.
You might stretch that point to include the audience. For the last few years, you’ve allowed me to show your work in the small rural town that I live in, at a local coffeehouse. It’s mostly teenagers and 20-somethings, and they really get it. A lot of them ask me how they can be in one of your videos.
So, are you inundated with people trying to be cast?
I have had a lot of people ask, and you know, I’m much more interested in the person who wants to be in the movies than… I don’t know what the opposite of that would be. [laughs] But yeah, I look for people who want to be in them. I think with the next project—or eventually—I’m going to get a website going and actually do different forms of casting, because I would like for people who do want to meet some of the people in the movies and maybe perform in different ways to have a chance to get hold of me. I tend to ignore my Vimeo and YouTube inboxes at this point. Even though I’m in no way high in the numbers, I often get nice messages where I want to give something back so it’s not just me saying, “Oh, thanks.”
Clockwise from top left: I-Be AREA, 2007. A Family Finds Entertainment, 2004. A Family Finds Entertainment, 2004. I-Be AREA, 2007. All images courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Dee Gallery, New York.
What other kinds of feedback have you gotten? Besides from art critics.
I’ve had a strangely inverted experience from most people when it comes to making movies that don’t fit into a mainstream idea of what a movie is. I got really lucky. There was a moment in time where I thought, “Whoa, I’ve gotten more mainstream attention than attention from the people I’m actually trying to reach.” Art-world mainstream. I’m thankful for it, because it’s the only way I’ve been able to make more movies. Recently I’ve been doing more of visiting schools and talking, and it’s been so rewarding to hear what the people who actually watch the movies five times have to say, rather than somebody who watches for two minutes, then says something because it’s their job to.
What do they tell you?
The thing I like the most is that people come up to me in a way where they feel like they’re a part of it and they’re talking about their own movies, and it feels like there isn’t a wall, you know? It’s really nice. They talk about a specific idea that they liked and how it relates to something that they did. I also get a lot of emotional responses that aren’t necessarily articulated that much in words. It usually ends up being a hug or something, which I like. What I really liked, that you did, was having the audience there fill out a questionnaire afterward. If I were there and those people would have come up to me, all I would have gotten would’ve been “Oh, I liked it” or “I hated it.” But with the questionnaire, it was nice to see everyone express that moment of sharing by sending it back to me. I wish I could see more of that stuff.
What sorts of misinterpretations of the work do you get?
It’s funny, but so many people interpret those characters as teenagers. [laughs] All the characters in these movies are almost 30! So I was thinking that there’s an interesting dilemma in our culture—if you’re altering and expressing language in new ways, then it’s automatically teen culture. I think that’s so ridiculous. A kid born in the 90s, there’s this interesting thing happening where they’re constantly being told that they understand technology better than anyone else, so they end up thinking technology means young. I don’t think they’ll always think that because they’re all just right now entering… This is the year that someone who was born in 1990 is 20. I think they’re going to make really awesome art.
Because a lot of things that I’m forced to talk about, they’re going to be completely over it. It’s like the way that every once in a while people will bring up gender and drag with regard to my work. That is not the subversive moment. We’re past that point. I think I’m talking about postgender politics and all these other forms of language and culture and accent. Sometimes when people bring me back there, I’m like, “Didn’t we make any progress? Aren’t we going to talk about these next things?” Or when people ask me to talk about technology, they keep responding in these really generic ways. Like, “You’re too crazy… frenetic… blah blah blah.” I have to talk around that and get people to see what’s actually happening.
But the new 20-year-olds…
Because things are accelerating so fast, when someone wants them to talk about “internet culture,” they’re going to wonder what the hell you’re talking about. They’re not going to understand the concept of it being separate. I think it’s going to cause a breakdown in dichotomies, and how people try to contain dialogue.
So the videos in Any Ever were largely made in a house in Miami. How long did you live there?
A year and a half. It only was supposed to be two months, and then it turned into this really large project. We kept renewing the lease and the house kept getting crazier and crazier.
It looks pretty wrecked by the last videos. What did the neighbors think?
Everybody was OK with it. In Miami it’s houses, not apartments. You can make a lot more noise. It was a really nice experience, actually. We made a shitload of noise, we lit tons of stuff on fire, and no one ever called the cops. When we were done with sets we would put them in our front yard. It started to look like a huge trash dump. Actually, I’m surprised I never shot a scene in it because it looked amazing.
How many people were living there?
It went up to about 15. But there was a lot of in and out, and the doors were always open. Nothing felt lived-in. Everything was from Target and Ikea, and none of it had any sort of life outside of the movie. We didn’t have a dinner table. We didn’t have anything. If we did, it was a prop, and it was broken.
That must have affected the project.
I like working that way. I’m really into accidents within a context. And I like what happens when you construct a whole space where everything psychologically connects with the idea. So no matter what… Let’s say everyone got food poisoning. We would have to use the beds and the props that were already there, and that would become part of a scene. Like all of this, it was as if there was no outside.