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Meet Ryan Trecartin, Art’s First Genius Of The YouTube Age

In an exclusive interview, Ryan Trecartin reveals the techno obsessions behind his video art.

When the video artist Ryan Trecartin opened his current show at New York’s Moma/PS1 in Queens, the critical praise was immediate and deafening: Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker declared him the “most consequential artist to emerge since the 1980s” who ‘gives form to new intuitions’ that will shape the future. Roberta Smith, The New York Times‘s sharpest critic, wrote that he was “bound for greatness.” Those two weren’t even the most effusive, but they were the most prominent.

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Only one or two artists, every 15 years or so, experience that sort of critical breakthrough. Matthew Barney was probably the last. But for Trecartin it was merely confirmation for a tidal wave of buzz he’s been riding for years, ever since his art-world debut five years ago at the Whitney Biennial, with a film he made as a senior in art school. Today, he’s a man of 30 that looks 20 with a goofy permagrin, who dresses in rumpled sweatshorts and T-shirt and wears his hair gelled with a little colored hoop in his ear. Arriving at our interview, he offered an awkward but affable handshake, as if he’d just recently learned how.

Why all the critical rapture? Unlike many artists content to live only in the art world, Trecartin’s videos swim in our frenetically linked, oversharing moment. Their sensibility is familiar to anyone whose ever been forwarded a crazy video log from an overwrought teen.

Trecartin’s art reflects our hyper- linked, oversharing moment.

The plots of Trecartin’s films don’t usually last more than a couple minutes: They might include a party kid who kills himself in the bathroom — and them comes back to life and starts partying again. Or two sisters who are part of quadruplets; to please their father’s yen for triplets, they merge. But the dialogue unspools too fast to really process. Themes, ranging from techno nihilism to queer culture, bubble up and pop. The camera often swoops in for a confessional aside, a la The Real World, while Trecartin and his cast of dozens keen about interpersonal dramas, mugging in smeared makeup. And then it’s on to the next thing: Maybe a kid covered in paint and snarling or another yelling, “Health Care I don’t Care, It’s ALL WE Care, That’s Why WE don’t Care. THIS IS GLOBAL!”

The overriding vibe is pure information overload. “With so much connection, people are used to seeing different sides of a whole,” he explained to Co.Design, on the day of his opening. “Movies can also work like that, like a data set you can mine by searches.”

Trecartin actually began this line of work in 2004, in a student film at RISD, well before YouTube existed. Together with his constant collaborator Lizzie Fitch, he’s somehow been anticipating technology trends ever since. For example, he thinks all this non-linear loopy filmmaking is going mainstream at some point: “You’re already seeing people making the iPhone into a 360-degree camera. With that technology, the role of a cameraman on a movie isn’t going to be controlling the position. It’s going to be editing the time. And that’s when movies and games are going to meet up.”

Spoken like a true techno Buddha, at home in a world where the futuristic ideas you’d hear at TED are plain fact. (Obviously, Trecartin is developing an iPhone app. It would allow exhibition visitors to search on keywords, and navigate through his scripts with even less linearity.) It’s only fitting that the artist lives in a sort of freewheeling limbo. For him and Fitch, each film comes with a new living space, ranging from houses in New Orleans to L.A. All the shooting occurs at home. The script writing, set designing, editing, and casting all occur in parallel. Think of a painter noodling a canvas, reworking, painting over a section, and noodling some more. And after the piece is done, everything gets discarded or archived. Trecartin, Fitch, and their friends move somewhere else. “The way we work makes it easy to own nothing,” he says, happily. And he prefers to hear about books rather than read them. “I?m more interested in the response than the source. I?m interested in the interaction.” Which sounds something like the nightmare scenario of bookish pedants everywhere. But he doesn’t spend a lot of time bemoaning the effects of technology. He simply adapts.

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“I remember when people started taking pictures of themselves with an outstretched hand for Friendster,” he says, wide-eyed and smiling. ‘At first that typical angle seemed so weird, but now everyone does it and nobody notices. That’s really exciting to me.’ Technology’s exhausting march is simply fun for him: Though he’s always keen on the latest camera or video-editing software, he doesn’t care if they lend his work a dated feel. (As they have in the past — just look at his early work.) “It’s actually freeing,” he insists. “We know all the technology will be outdated so quickly that it allows us just to focus on the ideas.”

Trecartin insists that without the immediacy of digital filmmaking, he’d never make movies. But the physical settings remain a key part of the work. Characters cavort in suburban houses that appear to have been decorated by a meth addict after a shopping spree at the Big Lots craft aisle. (In a good way!) The fact that every individual piece, whether it’s a wig or an Ikea chair, is recognizable and generic somehow makes the sets stranger. The videos at the PS1 show are projected on the walls, in rooms filled with generic furniture that’s been hacked apart and remade into bizarre hybrids.

“There’s a continuum of art and tech and business that are always flirting.”

Even these, in Trecartin’s mind, are linked with technology. “People are always saying, ‘Oh this is just a bunch of Ikea furniture,?’ he says. ?But these big-box stores are sort of like the Internet. People everywhere can access the same information, the same chair. When you have 10 of them all together, there’s almost a kind of cyber quality to it, like you’re looking at a generic model in an animation program.” And then Trecartin quickly slips back into techno futurist mode: “This is eventually going to feel very bizarre,” he says, hinting at a world where rapid prototyping makes everything we own utterly unique.

Few artists could declare, without obvious irony, as he did during our interview, “We love business!” In fact, one of the most arresting rooms of the show resembles nothing more than the high-priced conference room of a half-baked startup. ‘There’s a continuum of art and technology and business that are always flirting,’ he says. He recognizes that in some ways he’s at their whim. “The people making software and hardware are the most profound artists today. What they create can have theoretical implications that artists can only dream of.”

Not that he doesn’t aspire to figuring it all out. “You can’t know the moment you’re in,” he says. “But interesting things occur when people trying to define something before it’s actually happened.”

“Ryan Trecartin: Any Ever” is up at MoMA/PS1 through September 3rd.

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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