Ryan Trecartin’s immersive video environments are amplified reflections of the joy, madness and ambiguity of our culture
Since the 2005 debut of Ryan Trecartin’s A Family Finds Entertainment (2004) – a screeching, lurching, carnivalesque acid-trip of a film that was completed as his final undergraduate project at the Rhode Island School of Design – the Los Angeles-based artist’s videos and installations have been featured in an array of international museum shows and biennials, and have been the subject of word-of-mouth hype. With the arrival of his sprawling, exuberant solo show ‘Any Ever’ at New York’s MoMA PS1 this summer – after being shown at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, Toronto’s Power Plant and the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami – praise for Trecartin reached a hagiographic level. Roberta Smith, in her New York Times review, called the show ‘game-changing’ and asserted that Trecartin ‘seems bound for greatness’, while over at The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl declared him to be ‘the most consequential artist to have emerged since the 1980s’. When the rhetorical gears are grinding this hard, it’s difficult to resist the urge to dissent, to inject a tempering quantum of criticality into a discourse that seems almost Panglossian. But while claiming that Trecartin’s achievements at this early point in his career (he’s 30) trump those of every artist who has struggled their way into the spotlight in the past two decades is undoubtedly overstating the case, the PS1 show’s self-assurance marks it as the highpoint of Trecartin’s work to date.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It would be useful to try and describe what Trecartin has achieved in his latest exhibition, which comprises seven interrelated video works projected in a series of theatre-environments-cum-installations that he made alongside his longtime collaborator Lizzie Fitch, who also designed the sets for the videos. First and foremost, ‘Any Ever’ establishes Trecartin and Fitch as consummate world-makers in the vein of predecessors such as Matthew Barney, whose 2003 exhibition of his ‘Cremaster Cycle’ at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, is the last show I can recall that so completely conjured an aesthetic universe, and which integrated video and its environment with such seamlessness and sense of esoteric purpose. (This, not incidentally, marks ‘Any Ever’ as a leap forward for Trecartin’s practice, as his previous attempts to hybridize video and installation – most notably in the New Museum’s inaugural triennial, ‘The Generational: Younger Than Jesus’, in 2009, were substantially muddier in their resolve.) However, unlike Barney – whose staggering production values serve to simultaneously beguile his audience and keep them at arm’s reach – Trecartin and Fitch cobble their universe together on a budget. They hybridize and agglomerate cheap, mass-produced furniture and flimsy bric-a-brac to create environments that possess the awkward familiarity of a home store display, albeit one that seems to have been gleefully rearranged by a giant child who has little understanding of each individual element’s proper place. The result is a collection of mutant furniture arrays – a visitor might find themselves, for instance, perched on a leatherette loveseat atop an elevated king-size bed that is accessible only by climbing a plastic swimming-pool ladder – that evoke the uncomfortable paradox inherent in the type of ‘creative’ home design catalogue that produces stage sets for living, in which no living is permitted to occur.
An apt designation for this type of effect, which is an anchoring element of Trecartin’s aesthetic that bleeds between the show’s installations and the accompanying videos, might be the ‘consumer uncanny’ – the strange disconnect that occurs when products are created to either address a perceived need or manufacture a new one, but fall tragicomically short of satisfying it. The result is a queasy mixture of recognition and embarrassment, the simultaneous sense that we are being patronized, but that, perhaps, we are also getting what we deserve. Normally, this feeling is one that crouches just at the edge of our consciousness – a glitch in the white noise generator of post-industrial consumer culture. But in Trecartin’s world this discomfiting aberration is floated to the surface, manifesting itself not only by way of mises-en-scène, but also though the lives of his motley cast of characters, who might be found guzzling five-hour ENERGY® shots as if they were a life-giving elixir or struggling to tote unwieldy numbers of knock-off designer purses as they cavort around antiseptic hotel rooms, empty holiday homes and the constantly mutating interior of a house in Miami whose artful clutter often finds it resembling a kind of consumer culture terminal moraine. (‘I love being in places that mean nothing to me,’ a character played by Trecartin tellingly asserts in one of the videos in ‘Any Ever’.)
Focusing merely on the exhibition’s engagement with the textureless topography of contemporary consumerism runs the risk of missing one of the main attractions: Trecartin’s ecstatic, mind-bending plunge into the frantically churning waters of the digital. If you were somehow able to jack your mind directly into the furiously pulsating heart of the Internet, it would be a similar experience to watching the rollicking, anarchic ebb and flow of these videos, where everything seems turned up to 11 at all times. It’s almost as if when Trecartin was faced with the endless panoply of options provided by digital editing software, effects processors and 3D rendering programmes, he simply directed his mouse over the check box marked ‘All of the Above’ and clicked. Hard. And, startlingly, this is only part of the larger picture: if his videos can be seen as a kind of visual funhouse, the characters that inhabit them could have come straight out of the hall of mirrors. Like avatars of the Internet’s mutable identity-scape, the bewigged and garishly made-up denizens of Trecartin’s world – played primarily by his friends – eschew coherence and fixity, inhabit liminal spaces between races and genders, and appear to morph fluidly between guises, double themselves and function as interconnected nodes in quasi-corporate social bodies. Similarly, their dialogue largely sidesteps narrative linearity, leaning instead towards gnomic declarations and sms-style non-sequiturs (‘I hate conceptual drugs’; ‘Melt down my memesicle’; ‘Do you want me to flash my cc embarrassment?’).
But this is not to suggest, as some have, that Trecartin’s videos are formed as a purposefully incomprehensible litany of impressions, intensities and disjunctions, as might befit our impressionistic, attention span-less and thoroughly mediatized present. Beneath the turbid surface of Trecartin’s information flows – often obscured by the wild digital pitch-shifting of his characters’ voices – there lurks some semblance of a story, as well as an underlying set of concerns. The narrative, however, is one that I could not possibly attempt to parse here, as it is marked by the kind of illogical, labyrinthine complexity often found in the extemporaneous tales spun by children who let their imaginations run at a faster clip than their verbal facilities could possibly rein in. (As the videos barrel forward, weaving in all directions at once, you can almost hear Trecartin enthusiastically explaining: ‘And then … and then … and then!’) But letting all of this batter the shores of your consciousness for the four-plus hours that it takes to watch all of the videos on offer, and you can’t help but start to notice the dark thematic undercurrents that are belied by the carnivalesque candy-coating.
First, there is the aforementioned sense of unease surrounding consumer culture and its experiential and spiritual cheapness, which spills over during certain sequences – like those featuring a shrilly bickering group of tweenage girl-band wannabes or a tantrum-throwing, blue-toothed boy who uses a hammer to rip up the pin-up posters on his wall that he refers to as his ‘boyfriends’. But there is also the way ‘Any Ever’ tangles with the homogenizing forces of globalization and the not-so-subtle sadism of its attendant corporate culture. (Take, for instance, these lines, spat with haughty disdain by a megalomaniacal boss-type named Y-Ready: ‘When I send you a winking little emoticon, it doesn’t mean something fun. What it means is that I’m hoping for a serious injury, followed by a mild Vicodin addiction, followed by Vicodin withdrawal. Followed by you getting me a latte.’) Unravelling the details of exactly how these superstructural thematics weave through the videos is a mind-bending task, but let it suffice to say that they seem to involve a globalized corporate network engaged in the aggressive promotion of ‘Transu-merism’ (‘consumerism driven by experience’). This appears to be merely an exaggerated form of the type of consumerism with which we are all already intimately familiar, one that attempts to act as a method for moulding subjectivities from on high. (‘I love learning about myself through other people’s products,’ one character rhapsodizes. ‘My mother accused me of being accumulation posing as independent free will,’ complains another.) Trecartin’s characters seem not only content to be worked over, to live emotionally truncated, interpersonally atomized lives that are the existential equivalent of a 140-character tweet, but are rather ecstatic about the prospect, overjoyed to have been transubstantiated from the dull stuff of the human into a screaming Comanche army of digital id. The world here begins to appear as a strange type of hell, one whose denizens revel in their damnation.
Yet, it’s precisely in this strangeness that Trecartin’s strategy can begin to be grasped. It is a strategy that, at its heart, has to do with over-identification. Trecartin’s characters are not alien or totally aberrant, they simply act in a manner that you might if you accepted every aspect of contemporary culture at face value. They are the nightmarish result of saying ‘yes’: yes to self-absorption; yes to sound-bite superficiality; yes to symbols over substance; yes, yes, yes, yes! And it’s not just Trecartin’s characters that engage in this game of over-identification – it’s there in the way he uses the digital tools available to him. Your software allows for the overlaying of six moving images at once? Yes! Auto-Tune can stretch this voice to the limits of comprehensibility? Yes! You can throw a 3D model in there too? Yes! The important thing to note, however, is that this strategy is not one of overt critique – Trecartin’s ship moves too fast to become barnacled with the ossifying growths of ‘criticality’. Rather, he simply and enthusiastically presents our culture back to us in an amplified form that is fairly bursting with all the joy, horror, love, madness and ambiguity that constantly roils within it. And, in so doing, Trecartin has created a work that does not aim pedantically to proffer explanations – or, worse, attempt to provide solutions – for our current predicament, but rather turns a mirror back on us and asks us: yes?
Ryan Trecartin lives in Los Angeles, USA. This year his work has been shown at Istanbul Modern, Turkey; MoMA PS1, New York, USA; Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, France; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, USA.
First published in Issue 142