The internet and the cultural innovations it has introduced are changing the ways in which we speak, act and relate to one another—but advances in technology are outpacing our ability to understand them. These, broadly, are the underlying themes of Ryan Trecartin’s films, which are made in collaboration with fellow US artist Lizzie Fitch. The fast-paced editing, hallucinatory animations, loud soundtracks and characters’ disjointed speech and actions merge to create portraits of the YouTube generation that are exciting, disturbing and alienating assaults on our senses. Four of the duo’s films made waves at the Venice Biennale in 2013. Now they are on show at the Zabludowicz Collection in north London, in the artists’ first show in Britain. We spoke to Trecartin just after it opened on 2 October (until 21 December).
The Art Newspaper: Your installations seem designed to induce total surrender in the viewer. Is that their purpose?
Ryan Trecartin: I definitely think of them as providing an experience that, at first, functions similarly to a ride and almost uses the language of a theme park or a natural history museum. The movies are intended to be entertaining, but this is always merged with the ideas that drive the material and the conceptual basis for the work. I hope that, after surrendering to the experience, there’s a process of reading the work that can happen over multiple viewings. I think of them as something that gets read rather than just watched.
There is a hallucinatory, nightmarish quality to your films. You examine the way technology is changing our behaviour, language and relationships. Is there an element of warning built into that?
One of the reasons I work with the movie form is that you can suspend multiple intentions or strains of thought within the same work. Sometimes it’s just about exploring and revealing things, and trying to show a reflection of something that enables you to see it in a more raw way than how you experience it in real life, where you’re possibly desensitised to it. I don’t necessarily think of warnings. I think that everything is potentially positive and exciting, and it’s just about how technology gets used. The works perhaps seem nightmarish because the darker side of things is a symptom of really exciting, creative changes in the world. Destruction, perversity and dysfunction can ultimately allow for movement and for states of being to evolve.
But some of the people and situations are really menacing.
The characters sometimes perform cruel actions that would mean something very different if you were in a virtual state where getting rid of someone doesn’t mean you’re actually getting rid of them.
Like in a video game?
Yes. So an action can mean many different things, depending on what reality is being maintained at the time. I think that certain topics are really scary in one context and then potentially playful, creative and inventive in another context, so I like to show that. Then I complicate the context it’s actually happening in, so that it remains unclear.
A lot of your work seems to focus on today’s self-publicising, narcissistic, reality-TV youth culture. How do you think your work will evolve as you get older?
It’s evolved a lot since the first movies. People associate the way in which language is evolving with youth culture, and for a long time that was the place where it was acceptable to butcher and invent language. But if you really listen to people of all ages, you can hear that this extends to all of us. We’re staying younger and younger as a species—not just physically, but also in our mindset. Culture is not something that is just handed down to people any more; we’re all making it together, and this has a profound effect on language. Technology also accelerates the way in which language is changing. I like to take things that people see as “tween” and put them in more adult and more destructive, friction-filled settings, and draw attention to the fact that youth is no longer related to the number of years lived.
You don’t speak like the characters in your films, though.
The characters exaggerate, extend and manipulate these changes in language. The movies are not documentaries—in other words, unmediated versions of real life. I have lots of different ways of behaving or speaking in different situations. This is a formal situation—an interview—and it differs from the way I talk when the context shifts. People have multiple ways of behaving rather than static states of being that they maintain consistently; it’s like accents and ways of exchanging language that are no longer tied to specific cultures or places. The internet has given everyone a bird’s-eye view of the world.
It must be easier for younger viewers to understand your work, compared with older ones who are less familiar with new technology.
I feel as though it’s more a state of mind. There are older people I know who are really quick to understand how things are changing and evolving, just as much as younger people. People who are raised with access to the internet, movies, reality TV and the news are obviously able to understand certain things in my work that those who weren’t around [those media] will never understand in the same way. At the root of the movies, though, are basic issues about humanity and relationships that anyone can understand.
There are narrative snippets in your work, but never enough to construct a coherent story. Is that intentional?
I do think of the movies as stories. Although they have a non-linear feeling, there’s actually a mesh of many different linearities that don’t necessarily function in complementary directions. I don’t try to hide information from the story, but I like showing the secondary information around it. So in Center Jenny , which is about an educational system where people are learning about their ancestors through misguided forms of sorority culture, there’s a character named Sara Source who brags about how super-privileged she is, and how her family funded a war. So there’s this big, upsetting idea that never gets developed, and it’s clearly a part of the plot, although it’s mostly used to shine light on less important things. It doesn’t get resolved in any way that’s going to feel satisfying. She also tells us that her vacations involve dropping canned food on poor people. If I were to make a mainstream movie—and I definitely want to make some in the future—that idea, or a movie’s main thread, would be developed a lot more directly. But I don’t feel that that’s what this work is about right now. Articulating the nuances around the reflections of larger plot ideas sometimes has more impact than just following the larger plot idea exclusively.
Your characters often speak in banalities—a lot of them very funny—and then they’ll suddenly say something profound.
It’s really important to have the more profound moments surrounded by entertainment. That’s a reflection of the world we live in, and it’s also how I like to receive information. Humour can be a great delivery system for complicated ideas.
There’s so much in your work that the viewer almost needs to watch a film and then process it before coming back to it.
The plots have spaces in them that are meant to merge with memory or lived experience. I think ideas congeal or start to coalesce during time away. There’s a process of mingling them with your own associations that needs to happen, and that process is important for picking up a work and then leaving it and then picking it up again. It’s a bit like reading, in that way. I hope that the movies can be experienced through different framing devices, and that brings out different aspects of the content. When people watch them on Vimeo, where they can stop and start them whenever they want, that brings out different content than if they see them in a cinema, where you’re thinking of things as scenes in a cinematic narrative that moves from A to B—or in an exhibition space, where it’s much more game-like, where you’re navigating the space and going in and out as you want.
Born: Webster, Texas, 1981
Education: BFA, Rhode Island School of Design, 2004
Lives and works: Los Angeles
Selected solo exhibitions: 2011 “Ryan Trecartin/Lizzie Fitch”, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, France; "Ryan Trecartin: Any Ever", Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami; MoMA PS1, New York; Istanbul Modern, Istanbul 2009 "A Family Finds Entertainment", Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna 2008 "Ryan Trecartin: I-Be Area”, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
Selected group exhibitions: 2013 55th Venice Biennale; Biennale de Lyon (both with Lizzie Fitch)
Where to see it
Zabludowicz Collection, London
“Lizzie Fitch/Ryan Trecartin” (until 21 December) comprises films made for the 2013 Venice Biennale and one new work.
Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin
“Site-Visit” (until 11 January 2015) consists of a sequence of rooms with reclining armchairs and club music leading to a huge cinema-style space, where the artists’ newest multi-screen movie, shot in a former Masonic temple in Los Angeles, is being shown. Deck chairs, sun loungers and rows of cinema seats are strewn around the vast hall. The work will also be shown at Regen Projects in Los Angeles (22 October-26 November).
Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing
Four films from Trecartin’s “Any Ever” series, 2009-11, are included in “The Los Angeles Project” (until 9 November).