Cyberworld art star Ryan Trecartin makes over his band of merry collaborators—and takes Arthur Lubow inside his digital dreamscape.
If one day I meet an alien emissary, I can only hope he is as friendly and amusing as video artist Ryan Trecartin. At first glance a typical American hipster, with a little multicolored hoop in his right ear and a boyishly open face, Trecartin, 29, starts to talk, and you gradually realize that, no, he actually comes from another planet. Because that extraterrestrial sphere might be called Twentysomething, curators and critics have responded with rapt fascination to the dizzying signals that Trecartin is emitting. Last year he was the first recipient of two new art prizes: the New Artist of the Year Award, presented at the Guggenheim Museum, and the Jack Wolgin International Prize in the Fine Arts, awarded by Temple University in Philadelphia, with a stipend of $150,000. Ali Subotnick, a curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, gave Trecartin his first one-man museum show in 2008. She says that when she initially saw his work, “it was a new language, basically. It was the first time I was looking at something in pop culture or art that was clearly from a generation after me.”
Part of the fascination with Trecartin’s art (which will be the subject of a solo show at MoMA PS1 next spring) is that it captures the feeling of information saturation in the Internet age. “Things are moving so quickly: You’re getting e-mails and you’re being chatted, and there’s so many things going on at once,” observes Lauren Cornell, an adjunct curator at the New Museum in New York, who included Trecartin in the “Younger Than Jesus” triennial last year and featured him in a group exhibition, “Free,” that opened in October. “He’s representing this hyper-simultaneous way that people are interacting these days.”
For Cornell, who is 32, Trecartin’s aesthetic—“People staring into the computer camera and performing, being hyperactive and narcissistic”—evokes YouTube. Yet while his style meshes with that of the other videos on the site (and most of his own work can be found there), the movie that established Trecartin’s name, 2004’s A Family Finds Entertainment, appeared before there was a YouTube. You could say that technology had to catch up to him. Chronologically, geographically, cognitively, and sexually, Trecartin might have been engineered to fill the artistic niche that the Internet revolution obligingly opened.
A Family Finds Entertainment was Trecartin’s senior project at the Rhode Island School of Design. In it he plays a black toothed, garishly made-up youth named Skippy who has locked himself in a bathroom and is cutting himself with a large knife while his friends alternately chat about taking their band on tour and plead with him to come out. He does emerge at last, only to run out of the house and be fatally struck by a car. But in this world nothing is irrevocable, and Skippy rouses himself from death to rejoin the party.
As in Trecartin’s later films, the pacing is frenetic, the content is a palimpsest, and the hysterical storyline is mostly beside the point. What lingers is the mood of events happening too quickly and too simultaneously to be taken in fully. The 42-minute video is somewhat incomprehensible, strangely mesmerizing, and overstimulating to the point of exhaustion.
Trecartin made A Family Finds Entertainment with a band of RISD collaborators, most of whom have remained with him even as new people have joined up. They are the Mercury Theatre players to his cyberworld Orson Welles. His closest ally, Lizzie Fitch, is a sculptor he was introduced to during their freshman year. “When I first met her I thought she was insane,” he says. “Then the first time we hung out, we bonded immediately.” Soldered platonically, they have lived together—always with three or more other people—since 2001.
In June Trecartin took a two-year lease on a sprawling, grandly tacky Spanish Revival house in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles; he and Fitch have bedrooms that face each other at the top of a wrought-iron staircase, and there are accommodations for four other housemates, along with rooms for studio space and editing facilities. As Trecartin gives me a tour, I am momentarily nonplussed to see a couple of syringes lying on the kitchen counter. Surely this isn’t a revival of Warhol’s Factory? No; Trecartin’s drug of choice is Red Bull. “We’ve been doing B12 shots,” he explains.
After graduating from RISD in 2004, Trecartin moved to New Orleans with a group of friends, including Fitch. Most of them earned a living by working in a Ninth Ward barbecue joint while he and Fitch tried to drum up an audience for A Family Finds Entertainment. On Friendster they looked for people who might like the movie; if an e-mailed overture elicited a positive reply, they snail-mailed a DVD.
Even in that rusty dawn of the digital age, before sizable videos could be uploaded easily onto a website, Trecartin’s work was of, by, and for the Internet—disseminated, as well as inspired, by it. One of the DVDs went to a group of art-school students in Cleveland, who showed it to visiting artist Sue de Beer, who was so impressed that she recommended it to curator and writer Rachel Greene, who in turn tracked Trecartin down and talked him up to several New York gallerists, including Elizabeth Dee. Dee became Trecartin’s dealer.
This was social networking as it was meant to be—until a virulent slice of reality in the form of Hurricane Katrina intruded. The house where Trecartin and his friends were living was destroyed, and Trecartin and Fitch moved in with a group of lesbians in Fitch’s hometown of Oberlin, Ohio. There they got the good news that A Family Finds Entertainment would be included in the 2006 Whitney Biennial. “I was more of a tech major, so I didn’t really know what that meant, but Lizzie was a painting major, and she knew,” Trecartin tells me. “She said, ‘This means we’re going to be able to make art.’”
These days it takes Trecartin about three years to produce a movie. A project begins with him struggling “to articulate certain sensations.” He then collects phrases that he turns into sentences until he has a script. “But they look like poems because I don’t know who’s going to say what.” He proceeds by imagining “an architectural space and voices and the way people move, and then characters, and how their hair would look when they said these lines, and how would it be different if it was a redhead who said it or a baby who said it, or if their hair changed from red to blond while they were saying it.”
Long before there is a finished script, he starts shooting. “At a certain point I’m writing, shooting, and editing at the same time,” he says. “It’s creating a movie the way someone would create a more physical work of art, like a sculpture or a painting.” He thinks of it as “sculpting a vibe” that is “actually unfolding and growing as it’s being filmed in real time.” Without computerized video technology, it couldn’t happen. “I would never be a moviemaker if I had to use film. The magic in having it all be immediate is really, really special.”
The perception that things happen simultaneously on multiple layers guides every aspect of his work. The stagey, exaggerated style of self-presentation that distinguishes his movie characters reflects the self-conscious mode of interaction Trecartin experiences with his friends. “I told my mom when A Family Finds Entertainment came out, ‘Everyone my age is good at performing.’”
As a child, Trecartin thought he would become a performer. The older son of a steelworker (who today owns a scrap-metal business) and a homemaker-turned-teacher, he was born outside Houston but grew up in Ohio. He loved to make costumes and sets, and to dance and act with his friends. These homemade shows were inspired by the surrounding culture: music videos, TV programs, and movies. “Growing up in small towns, that’s what I saw,” he says. “I wasn’t being taken to museums.” The early Nineties witnessed the arrival of reality television as well as the Internet; the two strands spiraled together to form his artistic DNA. MTV, with its in-your-face cameras and quick-cut editing, also helped shape his aesthetic. Although critics have made analogies to the movies of Jack Smith, John Waters, and others, Trecartin typically learns of these people only after the connection has been brought to his attention.
Held back in first grade, he was placed in learning-disability classes. He still doesn’t read much. He prefers to listen to friends talk about books they have read, just as he once met his course requirements by overhearing classmates’ conversations about the assigned reading and writing papers that were his interpretations of their commentary. The static and linear format of a book turns him off. “I like hearing an interpretation of something more than the real thing,” he says.
Having to repeat a grade placed him in the high school class of 2000. This was a great benefit, Trecartin says, because the impending new millennium motivated his teachers to talk repeatedly about what was coming. That formative experience may help account for his sweetly cockeyed approach to the universe: one eye focused on the future and the other on the present. (Forget about the past.) Discussing sex and sexual identity, for instance, he says he is looking forward to a time when humans leave their genitals behind. “I see people as being what their personality is at the moment of expression. I feel genitals hold us back a lot. They keep us connected to our older ideals of humanity.” Without a fixed gender, one would be freer to adapt to changing situations. “I think it’s really interesting that there are a lot of trannies now who are in transition and want to be in transition—they don’t want to be a man or a woman,” he says approvingly. “The more nuanced we get, the more things people want to be.”
Underlying these gender-bending theoretical notions is the biographical fact that Trecartin was once a gay boy growing up in the Midwest. Ever since the locked bathroom of his first movie, closets have featured prominently in his videos. (“I was in the closet, but I wasn’t as far as my ideas went,” he tells me.) But he is more eager to think about the role that closets might play in the future—allowing people to don different masks, as they now do online. “The idea of being something that’s hidden and not letting other people know isn’t only about sexual identity, and it isn’t only negative. It can be fun to be hidden. It can be like wanting to work for an Internet company and pretending to be a 50-year-old freelancer when actually you’re a 16-year-old kid getting these big checks. I feel being in a closet will become a choice rather than something you have to do.”
Trecartin, who came of age during the onslaught of AIDS, watched television coverage of the epidemic. “For me it was really frightening,” he recalls. “It turned me off from the whole idea of sex—‘So sex means you die?’ All those talk shows, and people are saying, ‘My son has AIDS, and he deserves it because he’s gay.’ That was really scary.” Cyberspace seemed safer, although that was risky too. “Junior and senior year, I wasn’t connecting to the Internet, because I was afraid of viruses,” he says. When I asked Fitch if that was true, she laughed and said, “For more than two years.”
While assuring me that he has become less phobic and more open to physical contact, Trecartin is no less wary of foreclosing alternatives. The much noticed reluctance of twentysomethings to grow up and settle down may be linked to the freedom they indulge in online, where they can be all things to all people. In one of his movies, the word all-ways flashes with almost subliminal speed across the screen. For Trecartin and many of his peers, “all ways” is a much more appealing prospect than “always.” It’s about fluidity. Indeed, he reacts with mild exasperation when people relate the cross-dressing or role-playing in his movies to the ironic, campy impersonations of drag. “I want a feminine moment, but it has nothing to do with performing a role that is the opposite of my being a man,” he says.
Trecartin believes technology is unleashing latent human potential. And he looks forward to a time when people no longer distinguish between their technology and their humanity. Characteristically, he is already half living that future. “I think technology is us, not something we invented,” he says. “I think we are more psychic now because we have cell phones and you can look and see who’s calling you. When people start seeing technology as us, as humanity, our whole idea of what existence is, is going to shift. I feel with these movies that you can explore all these nuances and details in the culture, so you can see them and not just let them wash over you.”
In Trecartin’s thinking, apparent opposites dwell on a common plane. “Things like high-low, in-out, even irony and sincerity, they all inhabit the same space,” he says. “They don’t exist in different logics.” He views himself as a transitional figure. “It was so cool being young in the Nineties, with all these questions of ‘What is real?’ in the mainstream media,” he says. “My generation is always wanting to talk about that transition and where it’s taking us today. But people who totally grew up on the Internet, say after ’88, are going to be looking at what we do in the same way I’m looking at drag and thinking, What are they doing? Or, I know what they’re doing. But why are they doing it?”