Dressed in Philipp Plein leather track pants and a red patent puffer scarf by Hood by Air, Jenner lay sprawled in the back of a dinghy, while Hadid, also dressed in HBA’s post-gender streetwear, sat in front, scouting ahead through binoculars. Gusts from a wind machine threatened to blow them overboard, but they persevered, trusting their creature-guide, who wore a baggy T-shirt, a faux-denim shift, and disco platforms sheathed in nylon stockings. Occasionally, he dispensed with the oar he was holding to film his passengers.
Hadid and Jenner, no strangers to on-camera transformations, were going further than usual. With pointy ears protruding from her wind-lashed hair, Hadid was a lion-fox; Jenner, wearing a prosthetic nose that altered her famous attributes, was a bunny-cat. They were Snapchat animal filters come to life.
Had you stumbled upon the scene, you might have assumed that a fashion shoot was in progress, what with all the cameras pointed at the models. But, in fact, they were being pulled into a virtual-reality world engineered by the artists Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch, whose “sci-fi theater of the absurd,” as Art in America once dubbed their work, has made them among the most lauded, exciting, and prescient artists of their generation. “They are probably the only ones directly wired to the future,” says Massimiliano Gioni, artistic director at New York’s New Museum, who, as director of the 2013 Venice Biennale, first presented their acclaimed suite of films, Priority Innfield. “Their vision of tomorrow is equally terrifying and liberating, Edenic and apocalyptic.”
Both Trecartin and Fitch came of age in the Internet era, just before the digital revolution embedded smartphones into our palms, and their work has been consumed with explorations into how cameras, social media, and reality TV have changed the way we engage with the world and one another. Sensorial overload doesn’t even begin to describe the effect of watching their maniacally mutable movies, any more than it does our own saturated age. Comprised of installations, props, soundscapes, and sculptural theaters that they build themselves, their films are rife with multilinear narratives, simultaneous perspectives, and merry young pranksters of morphing gender, race, and identity. “Caught in the ecstasy of communication, their creatures inhabit a world in which personalities and bodies are perennially interchangeable, like psycho time-shares,” Gioni observes. Scenes jump around, and chatter is fragmentary—a collage of accents, idioms, and cyberspace vernacular. Done up in a lurid palette, characters speak endlessly about themselves, saying things like ‘Don’t ignore ignore ignore me me me.’ ”
In Trecartin and Fitch’s W commission, which they titled “placebo pets,” Jenner and Hadid are super-friendly, highly adaptive domesticated animals in a humanoid zoo. The idea grew out of the artists wondering, as only they could, “Who would survive if a superior alien humanoid species came to Earth?” Their answer: “the friendliest.” Trecartin has long been interested in pet culture and the dynamic between people and companion animals—seeing in it a parallel with our relationship to technology, in the way that we’ve been trained to adapt our behavior, language, and how we present our myriad selves at any given moment. “There’s a certain power that animals have over us when they respond to us in unexpected, friendly ways,” he said. “And it’s really them domesticating us almost more than us domesticating them, because they’re training us to want them. Training and taming something is not one-sided. It’s a dynamic. We created social media, but then it changed us because we interacted with it. Because it has its own rules and limitations. And it’s not us, even though it is us. And then it transforms us and transforms the next thing that happens just by existing. You can’t really avoid being trained.”
Eternally upbeat, Trecartin is 35 but looks boyish, a result perhaps of his steady diet of vitamins (he travels with a suitcase dedicated to them) or his regimen of cryotherapy, a treatment increasingly popular with elite athletes that involves entering a tank of nitrogen-iced air chilled to a numbing 220 degrees below zero. “It triggers your genes to express themselves in their survival mode,” he said. “The coolest part is the endorphins that get released in your brain to help you stay calm. When you get out, you’re giggling.” Fitch, 34, is the more introverted of the pair, but her laid-back manner belies her whip-smart instincts. The two bonded quickly as freshmen at the Rhode Island School of Design in 2000; ever since, they’ve shared their creative and domestic lives, though not as a couple. The value of friendship and Platonic love is a theme that runs through their work.
Who better, then, to embody their highly adaptive, hyperfriendly humanoid pets than social media queens Hadid and Jenner? The millennial offspring of reality-TV momagers literally grew up on screens—Jenner beginning at 11 in the Kardashian family saga; Hadid as a toddler in Baby Guess ads. Their celebrity BFF-dom has generated its own moniker—KenGi—which has spawned a line of gold-plated KENGI necklaces and serious cultural currency. “KenGi is basically the best-best friendship of our generations. Plural,” a cheeky post on Buzzfeed quipped. “That means out of all current generations alive right now.” It’s a friendship venerated on Instagram (Jenner’s followers number almost 66 million; Hadid’s 23 million), though, really, on every digital platform you’ll find images of them “twinning,” sauntering in matching gear, their private lives increasingly mediated to fit the public construct they’ve created. “It’s both a friendship and a public commodity to be consumed,” Fitch noted. The artists wanted the feeling between the model duo to come across as “obnoxiously friendly and caring,” Trecartin had advised before the shoot. “Not campy, Old Navy–friendly, or stilted fashion-world friendly—but accessible, in a way that feels unusual.”
On the morning of the shoot, Hadid and Jenner sat in makeup chairs, scrolling through their iPhones and talking while their hair, nails, and faces were tended to.
“I’d be so down for Roscoe’s for lunch,” Hadid said suddenly.
“Yeah, definitely down for Roscoe’s,” Jenner replied without looking up.
It was an hour before filming was to begin and Trecartin moseyed in to give them the lines of dialogue he planned to shoot. He was wearing black cutoff shorts, an old T-shirt, orange ankle socks, and New Balance sneakers. His plan called for the two models to jump out of a tent and discover that they were wearing identical dresses and sandals by Louis Vuitton. As with the actors in his films, Trecartin would feed each of the models a few words and have them repeat them over and over, so he could later pick the options he liked best. Jenner laughed as she scanned their characters’ alternating dialogue: “This is hilarious and sounds like us. Geej, you’ll love it. Listen.” She read aloud: “It’s bonkers how often we finish each other’s emotional head space…Yeah, I was just about to cry. I bet you too. I know, me too, like when was the last time we didn’t feel together too ha-ha…”
All was not quite as cozy on the wardrobe front. To help translate their raffish sensibility, the artists had invited along the pop singer, stylist, and extreme-sports enthusiast Lauren Devine—their “fashion whisperer,” as Trecartin called her. Devine has appeared in one of their films, along with a crew of regulars that includes the fashion designer Telfar Clemens and the performance artist Jesse Hoffman. She was dressed in a white tank, basketball shorts, and high-tops. The artists had made many of their wardrobe selections in advance, after reviewing images culled by W. Trecartin had digitally scribbled red lines and typed “NAW” in neon over several; others he simply blacked out. As Devine perused the racks of clothes and accessories, she rejected many an item with “No, they won’t like this,” referring to Trecartin and Fitch, much to the dismay of W’s stylist. Alighting on a blue beaded bag and shoes by Christopher Kane, she said, “This could be cool with the Walmart outfit we brought,” at once buoying and deflating the stylist’s optimism. The tension eased only after Trecartin suddenly announced, “We need a cute puppy!” a thought prompted by seeing puppy pictures on Jenner’s phone. He wanted the cover image to convey “more pet-ness,” he told me, though the set itself was upholstered in pet-furniture carpeting meant to evoke what Trecartin called “a cat fish tank.” Before long, a beagle puppy was added to the scene, and, so too, was Devine, who was whisked into makeup-and-wardrobe and transformed into a human-dog hybrid.
Trecartin and Fitch employ multiple cameras to create overlapping points of view. While shooting the raft image, the W photographer was focused on keeping Jenner and Hadid centered in the fixed frame and kept pushing Hoffman to the fringes. “Jesse was supposed to be the humanoid from another planet who was the owner in the relationship,” Trecartin said the next day. “But because the photo guy kept telling him, ‘You’re blocking Kendall,’ he looks like he’s a paparazzo or a tour guide. At first we thought, Wait, this is all wrong.” But then they understood it as an opportunity to adapt, seeing the competing agendas as “an obstacle” that would generate new ideas in the editing process. As is their practice, they would shape the material only when they saw all of the images and footage. Then they would use the full range of editing software to combine bits from various takes and enhance or introduce elements (a stunt chicken, say, or a body part), to create a fully charged visual assault.
Trecartin shot the footage for his 2013 film Junior War in 1999, when he was a high school senior in rural Ohio. Whenever he’d pull out his handheld camera, he recalled, “everyone’s instinct was ‘Why are you filming? No one should see what we’re doing. Don’t narc.’ ” By the time he had finished his senior thesis at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), in 2004, performing for the camera had become second nature—for him and everyone else. Titled A Family Finds Entertainment, the work was a video he made with art-school friends who embodied the poseurs, avatars, and wannabes of contemporary Internet culture. The film presaged YouTube, and won him art world cult status—not to mention a berth in the 2006 Whitney Biennial, at the age of 25.
In more recent work, such as Priority Innfield, characters operate more like players in a networked system. For Site Visit (2014), a group-expedition-type horror movie that was filmed in a former Masonic temple in Los Angeles, the artists created a 360-degree shooting environment by mounting cameras on mobile props, outfitting the actors with GoPros and other extreme-sports cameras, and by casting drones, night-vision cameras, and 3-D Handycams as actors in the scene. At one point, they synced 22 cameras, all in an effort to explore how different realities coexist in the same location. “People still want to know which is the main camera,” Trecartin said. “And when there is no main camera, all of a sudden all those languages they had developed for it collapse, and people are in a confusing new space.” Their use of drones was a result of Fitch’s obsession with survivalist and ecotourism gear. Fitch taught herself to fly one during shooting and even took a phone video of herself with a drone on a leash. “You basically tell them how you want them to behave,” she said.
This past summer, the artists spent a 14-hour day at Cedar Point amusement park, a mecca for roller coaster enthusiasts in Sandusky, Ohio, and, coincidentally, a favorite teenage haunt of theirs. Trecartin longs to one day make his own roller coaster, and he described in breathless detail the harrowing thrill of riding one with the highest g-force legally permissible—or so he thought. They were there to research a movie-ride game they plan to make as a commission. “As movies and games merge, the tension between them will have to do more with the type of agency you have,” Trecartin said. “Like, are you taken along for a ride, or do you have to participate, or is it somewhere in between? And so, we were thinking about how rides relate to movies. Because you participate, you’re physically involved, but it’s not like you choose your own adventure.”
The two are famously peripatetic, but for now they live in a ranch house in Burbank that they share with their four cats and Fitch’s partner, Sergio Pastor, a computer whiz who works with the pair. Nearby is their 9,000-square-foot studio, located in a neighborhood packed with fabrication studios for the entertainment industry. The day I visited, Fitch led me on a tour of the rambling space, which was littered with props and furniture from past films: a piano, and a broken-down Barcalounger and bench from the Masonic temple. Outside, there was a cage, a pickup truck filled with parts of a bed, and an old van they had driven for years and used as a prop in several works. The artists sit opposite each other in their “office,” Trecartin at a bank of monitors. Their division of labor is not defined: Trecartin generally writes the scripts and directs and edits the movies in which they both appear, and collaborates with Fitch on the sculptural environments, props, sets, makeup, and costumes. Still, Fitch weighs in on all parts of the process, and their back-and-forth is so essential to their work, both agree, that they liken their collaboration to a jazz ensemble, alternating solos when one of them wants to take the lead. As it happens, both play music—Fitch, keyboard and drums, and Trecartin, piano. At RISD they composed music on a computer for their band Experimental People, and their electronic scores have played an important role in their films. This month, for the first time, they will present a program of new sonic compositions and live sound as part of the Jason Moran–curated series Artists Studio, at New York’s Park Avenue Armory. They will be joined by instrumentalists and collaborators, including Ashland Mines, the Los Angeles composer and cult DJ.
For the W cover image, the artists had brought along friendship bracelets they’d picked up in Mexico woven with the words FUCK TRUMP. They envisioned Jenner and Hadid popping out of the tent drinking Tecate beer, with the bracelets on their arms. But during the shoot, “the bracelets kept getting pushed aside,” Trecartin said. “I thought there must be a reason.” “Well, there’s Kendall’s dad,” offered Fitch, referring to Caitlyn Jenner, the world’s most famous trans woman. “She was at the Republican Convention.” “Oh, yeah,” Trecartin replied. “Caitlyn’s staunchly Republican.” For a moment, we all mused on the irony of her affiliation, given the politics surrounding Caitlyn’s transformation—and that of many others—into her authentic self. “Like, so weird!” Trecartin broke in, laughing. “Well, it makes for good TV, I guess.”