How Artists Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch Built a 32-Acre Queer Playground in Middle America

In a commission for the Fondazione Prada, the artists, known for their maniacally zeitgeisty movies, put stakes down in rural Ohio to tackle their most ambitious project yet.

Photograph by Alec Soth/Magnum Photos.

Long stretches of barren field divide one farm from the next along a quiet rural road near Athens, Ohio, with nothing much to interrupt your view save for the odd cow milling about. But those driving past one particular homestead could be forgiven for slowing to a crawl—or even stopping in—to catch a closer glimpse of the “lazy river” water-park ride being carved into the bucolic landscape.

“So many people knock on the door to ask us when we’re going to open to the public,” says the artist Lizzie Fitch, who, with her longtime collaborator Ryan Trecartin, dreamed up the lazy river as a set for their latest cycle of films, which forms the centerpiece of “Whether Line,” a new Fitch-Trecartin exhibition running through early August at the Fondazione Prada in Milan. The river is just one of three ambitious set pieces that the pair have built since purchasing the 32-acre site in November 2016, the week after a large swath of urban Americans began focusing on the middle of the country for the first time.

The prefab barn, which comprises a motley assortment of styles, colors, and design elements, including a stone fireplace next to a garage door.

Photograph by Alec Soth/Magnum Photos.

For Trecartin and Fitch, relocating from Los Angeles, where they had lived since 2010, marked a return home: Both grew up in small-town Ohio—Trecartin, in Massillon and, later, Whitehouse; Fitch, in Oberlin. The artists also share teenage memories of Cedar Point, a mecca for roller coaster fans in Sandusky. They had been “thinking about amusement parks for, like, ever,” says Trecartin, who was intrigued by the parallels between the sensation of a furious ride and the pacing of their own deliriously frenetic films. In both cases, things happen too quickly to process, and only in recalling them is one able to piece together a version of the experience. When Astrid Welter, the head of programs at the Fondazione Prada, approached them about creating a project for the private foundation, the notion of making a lazy river struck Trecartin and Fitch as too ambitious to propose. But Miuccia Prada says she was “guided by our faith in their desire to reimagine the classical features of a movie and to imagine new forms of entertainment.” When the Prada team pressed the duo to present the idea they were most obsessed with, “we were like, ‘Uh, okay!’ ” Trecartin says.

A rack of costumes.

Photograph by Alec Soth/Magnum Photos.

Rare are the artists who look to upend their lives by moving their studio operations with each new project. Trecartin and Fitch, ­however, have lived in Philadelphia, New Orleans, Miami, and Los ­Angeles, relishing the creative kick that comes with unfamiliar terrain. “A new ­environment inserts itself into wherever your brain is at the time and challenges the architecture of your thinking,” says Trecartin, still buoyantly boyish at 38. “It’s always inspiring to us, and we were missing that jolt.” The two artists met as freshmen at the Rhode Island School of Design in 2000. Bound platonically, they have lived and worked together ever since, often with many of the original RISD collaborators who participated in A Family Finds Entertainment, ­Trecartin’s breakout senior thesis film, which earned him a berth in the 2006 Whitney Biennial and marked the beginning of his rapid critical ascent. In past years, he and Fitch, 37, have become known for movies and sculptural installations that continue to redefine genres.

An exclusive clip from Whether Line. Courtesy Fondazione Prada and Fitch Trecartin studio.

They had been considering a move to Houston when Trecartin’s younger brother, Adam, called to say that a property bordering his own was for sale. Trecartin had visited Adam in Ohio many times, and he and Fitch and their friends loved hiking in the area. They bought the property sight unseen, jumping at the chance to own land and turn it into a sort of permanent set that they could use not only for their films but for their lives. Plus, they’d always worked in cities. “We thought, We’ve got to move back to the country,” says Trecartin, whose parents now own a home nearby.

Props and furniture inside a room in the barn.

Photograph by Alec Soth/Magnum Photos.

Trecartin, in a still from *Whether Line*, 2019.

Still: Fitch/Trecartin Studio.

This experience is the subject of their latest multi-installation project. For earlier works, they had created freestanding sculptures or relied on existing structures such as a former Masonic temple in Los Angeles, which they used to shoot the 2014 film Site Visit. (It was awaiting a gut renovation as part of its transformation into the Marciano Art Foundation, so Trecartin and Fitch were given carte blanche to do whatever they wanted with the interior.) In that movie, they worked within the confines of the existing architecture, while constructing surreal spaces inside it. “But this is a big step beyond that,” Fitch says. “Now we’re working with the environment. We’re doing everything.” As the fashion designer Telfar Clemens, a cast member and longtime Fitch-Trecartin collaborator, puts it, “Ryan and Lizzie got to make their own reality, not just on a movie screen but in real life.”

Though highly fictionalized, as are all of their films, the script developed as the pair acclimated to rural living in a swing state. The college town of Athens is five miles away, and in the ’70s the area was a magnet for proponents of the back-to-the-land movement. A number of people they met assumed Trecartin and Fitch were new acolytes. “Oh, you’re those hippies” was a familiar greeting. “Some of the assumptions we had about what it would be like were insane,” Fitch tells me the day I visit. It is a blustery morning in late February and we are sitting at the kitchen table in the cozy blue farmhouse she shares with her partner, Sergio Pastor, a computer whiz who works on their projects. ­Trecartin, who is staying nearby in an apartment atop his brother’s woodshop, has joined us. While Fitch brews coffee, Trecartin pops open an energy drink called Phocus. They are in the midst of editing and behind schedule, and although frazzled, they are both surprisingly cheerful, ­effortlessly completing each other’s thoughts.

The lazy river, under construction, and the barn.

Photograph by Alec Soth/Magnum Photos.

“I had not mowed a lawn in my adult life,” Fitch says. “I didn’t think it would take that much time.” “And plants just grow like crazy,” adds Trecartin. “At first I was like, What the hell? I’m always covered in mud. Like, I can’t mow this. I forgot how much I hated it as a kid. And there’s so much death. The chickens die; things get eaten and attacked all the time. And there’s, like, bobcats here. We’ve seen two! Well, it could have been the same one.”

On the back porch, a dozen or so chickens are staring down Coupon, one of Fitch’s cats, through the screen door, all the while providing a clamorous country soundscape. Across the way stands a giant prefab barn that Trecartin and Fitch call the Mess Hall, which is divided into areas for filming, production, and living. A badminton net, a glass-bottom bed, a toilet seat, and bales of hay occupy one room; a series of oversize bunk beds form a kind of jungle gym in the second-floor loft. Framed fictional aphorisms like “No harm, no charm, no farm” and “Please knock before going outside” hang from ribbons. The artists designed the barn from a local builder’s catalog, but rather than going with one model and modifying it, as is customary, they ordered every single facade, window, and color of metal the company made, resulting in a motley assortment of styles and design elements. “The company was so confused about how we were going to make this building,” Fitch recalls, even though they provided a digital 3-D version designed by Rhett LaRue, a member of the team since their RISD days. “And for a long time they wondered what we were up to. We kept saying, ‘We make movies,’ and they thought that was code for ‘making porn,’ especially when they saw the bathroom I designed that has three open showers and two toilets.”

The 55-foot-high watchtower in the woods.

Photograph by Alec Soth/Magnum Photos.

As we talk, a work crew is blasting doom-metal tunes while smoothing cement on the lazy river. Painted a patchwork of colors, it stretches across 41 yards and plunges into an unusually deep, 16½-foot bowl. There is as yet no water pumping through it because record flooding has turned the surrounding grounds into a mountain of mud, forcing shooting and construction delays. Still, the bowl has become the talk of the skateboarding world after Thrasher magazine filmed a number of skate legends performing stunts in it. (“We’re here for some crazy once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shred this monolith bowl,” one of them enthused.) “Once we saw it in real life,” Fitch says, “we were like, ‘Okay, we accidentally also built a piece of land art.’ ”

The lazy river—along with a 55-foot-high watchtower in the woods, built by Trecartin’s brother—figured into the original rough sketch of a plot about a group of queer friends from the city who move to the middle of the country to build an amusement park. “Then they lose their funding and have to repurpose their friends as rich kids so they can kidnap them for ransom to finish the park,” Trecartin explains. Of course, the coherence of the narrative is less important than the delirium that the script prompts, both during the shoots, when the players riff on their lines, and later, in the imagination of the viewer. The movie is structured like a map whose sites are contorted through dislocations of time and memory, and populated by a cast of characters whose gender, identities, and verbiage slip and slide, eluding categorization. Are they on a culture preserve? An amusement park ride? An anthropology tour? The answer, says Trecartin, has everything to do with language and context. “So the lazy river could be seen either as a war zone”—filming it while under construction gives it an “in the trenches” quality—“or as something super-recreational, when it’s filled with water,” he says. “There are a lot of characters who say, ‘I’m just out here protecting Grandma’s brand, y’all.’ And depending on who says it, you, as a viewer, are going to think very different things based on your own assumptions.”

Framed fictional aphorisms, like this one, hang in the barn.

Photograph by Alec Soth/Magnum Photos.

Props and furniture, including a toilet seat, inside the barn.

Photograph by Alec Soth/Magnum Photos.

The project also reflects the artists’ thinking about property lines, borders, and neighbors; the ways we build our identities based on our proximity to a person, an idea, or a particular lineage. In the film, Trecartin plays Neighbor Girl, a character born out of the duo’s fascination with the growing interest in genetic ancestry. “We just thought it was funny, this idea of people finding out they are two percent Amish,” Trecartin says. That led him to search “Amish” on Amazon, “and all these hilarious costumes came up that looked like Disney outfits for The Sound of Music or something.” He ordered a bunch of them, and when it came time to shoot a scene at a bar in town, he threw one on and ad-libbed his way into the character. Labels, of course, are also constructs: In one scene, several property managers register people as historic sites, “and then they aren’t allowed to change,” he says.

Their fractious relationship with one of their own neighbors generated a lot of ideas. Annoyed by the construction and by what he called the “trash from California who make evil gay movies,” the neighbor occasionally stood on the property line shooting rounds during filming. Though the artists have always avoided guns in their movies, “they are huge in this one,” Fitch says, pointing out that being in Ohio during hunting season, they’ve grown accustomed to hearing gunshots coming from the woods. “It can be quite alarming to some of our friends.” Trecartin used to hunt with his dad as a kid, but never took to it. At one point, Neighbor Girl “tells everyone she’s going into the woods to shoot herself,” he says, “but she means that she’s going to film herself. There’s a relationship between cameras and guns in this movie. People talk about them in the same sort of way. They both have the power to change the meaning of something, whether they reverse, undo, end, or take something out of context so that it can be weaponized.”

Photograph by Alec Soth/Magnum Photos.

Trecartin and Fitch came of age in the Internet era, and their work has been prescient in exploring how our familiarity with the camera, social networks, and reality TV has changed our behavior and the language we use to engage with the world. “Their vision of tomorrow is equally terrifying and liberating, Edenic and apocalyptic,” says ­Massimiliano Gioni, the artistic director of New York’s New Museum, who as the director of the 2013 Venice Biennale presented their acclaimed suite of films Priority Innfield, in which characters operate like players in a gamelike ­network. When Trecartin was a senior in high school, in 1999, he filmed his peers partying in the woods for what would become the opening montage of Junior War (2013). The social media takeover was a few years away. “Don’t narc,” they told him when they spied his handheld night-vision camera. “No one should see this.” By the time he finished his RISD senior thesis, a kind of paean to ­Internet culture, performing for the ­camera had become the norm. In fact, for their 2014 group expedition horror movie, Site Visit, the last film they shot in Los Angeles, the artists used all manner of cameras—from GoPros and drones to 3-D Handycams—to investigate how different realities coexist in the same location.

A still from *Whether Line*, 2019.

Still: Fitch/Trecartin Studio.

In Ohio, however, everyone’s done with tech. “There’s a lot of phone hate in this movie,” Trecartin says, “and a lot of people saying, ‘No phones, only walkie-talkies.’ They look at the camera disgruntledly, like, I have to deal with an audience? Really?” He attributes this change in attitude in part “to a fear of acting after the way that reality TV and identity politics have converged. I feel like now there’s a fear of acting and about what stories you are allowed to perform. Reality TV has changed our entire idea about what acting is, when acting starts and stops, and how what you choose to play as an actor reflects on you and who you are, rather than it being considered a practice or an art. And I think that conversation is really important.”

An exclusive clip from Whether Line. Fondazione Prada and Fitch Trecartin studio.

The division of labor in any Fitch-Trecartin project is pretty fluid, though typically Trecartin takes the lead in writing, directing, and editing, and collaborates with Fitch on the sculptural environments, props, sets, makeup, and costumes. Still, Fitch weighs in on all parts of the process (as well as performs as an actor), and their back-and-forth, both say, is essential to its development. For the Fondazione Prada commission, they let others take turns directing, among them the artist Leilah ­Weinraub, the former Hood by Air CEO whose debut documentary, about an underground black lesbian strip-club scene, was previewed during the 2017 Whitney Biennial before premiering at the Berlin ­International Film Festival last year. Creative innovators in their own right, their longtime collaborators are some of the most vivid personalities around, from Clemens to the artist Raúl de Nieves to Ian Isiah, the glam singer with a tremulous falsetto. “I loved shopping for wigs and costumes with Lizzie at Walmart and Kroger,” Clemens recalls. “It made me really appreciate ubiquitous American fashion.”

Fitch and Trecartin outside Fitch’s house on the 32-acre property.

Photograph by Alec Soth/Magnum Photos. Photography Assistant: Galen Fletcher.

Fitch and Trecartin plan to keep mining their land for fresh material and will create a longer narrative film in the coming months that’s likely to preview just what that lazy river can do. At the Fondazione Prada show, which opened this month and runs through August 5, their ­multimedia installations immerse viewers in the outdoors, transporting them to rural Ohio. A sonic landscape greets visitors entering the exhibition through a stanchion-lined enclosed space that triggers the feeling of waiting in line for an amusement park ride. It leads to a tunnel, created from chain-link fencing and chicken wire, designed to evoke a free-range zoo, where the animals roam and the tourists travel in cages. A movie and a surround video installation with four screens runs inside a replica of their barn, divided into rooms, with a tower in the middle. For the feature-length film itself, to be screened later this year in the ­Fondazione’s cinema (where a Fitch-Trecartin ­retrospective runs through September), they intend to dispense with much of the animation for which they are known. “There’s going to be a lot fewer effects,” ­Trecartin says, “because seeing the real environment—and the mud, dirt, and age on our faces—looks really good. Everyone’s older now. We’ve been in the movies forever.” He pauses, letting out a goofy laugh. “We don’t just naturally look like cartoons anymore.”