Ryan Trecartin

Ahead of his exhibition at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, the LA based artist talks to Gesine Borcherdt about his speedy, narcissistic, smartphone-slick hysteria films and the system behind the apparent chaos

By Gesine Borcherdt

Item Falls, 2013. Courtesy the artist; Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York; and Sprueth Magers, Berlin & London Center Jenny, 2013. Courtesy the artist; Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York; and Sprueth Magers, Berlin & London Junior War, 2013. Courtesy the artist; Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York; and Sprueth Magers, Berlin & London Junior War, 2013. Courtesy the artist; Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York; and Sprueth Magers, Berlin & London Center Jenny, 2013. Courtesy the artist; Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York; and Sprueth Magers, Berlin & London Center Jenny, 2013. Courtesy the artist; Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York; and Sprueth Magers, Berlin & London Item Falls, 2013. Courtesy the artist; Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York; and Sprueth Magers, Berlin & London

In art there seems to be a rule that states: the crazier the work, the nicer the artist. John Bock, for example, speaks about his psychedelic B-movie massacres with the calmness of someone spreading Nutella on his bread at breakfast. Cindy Sherman poses in her city apartment for home decoration magazines, yet can appear, in her work, to resemble an abused doll. And then there’s Mike Kelley, the pope of camp, whose films might include any number of crude expressions, but who maintained a polite distance in person and actually wanted to write books. Ryan Trecartin displays a similarly unassuming kindness as he guides the visitor through his giant Los Angeles studio. And just like Bock, Sherman and Kelley, his work tends towards transsexual Pop costume theatre – the difference being that Trecartin, born in 1981, appears today as the most radical representative of a generation of artists for whom the Internet is always in the corner of their eye.

You can see the Webster, Texas-born artist’s films either online or in gallery installations into which one sinks as if into cheap furniture. Curators adore him: in 2006 Chrissie Iles showed Trecartin at the Whitney Biennial, in 2013 Massimiliano Gioni gave him an entire room at the Venice Biennale. His collectors include Julia Stoschek and François Pinault, and in September the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, will present his latest large installation, at the same time as other works appear in solo exhibitions in London and Beijing. No question about it: at the age of thirty-three, Trecartin has arrived at the summit of the artworld.

Trecartin’s art is so fast and smartphone-slick, cyborgian and apocalyptic, hypersexualised and exhibitionistic, greedy and broken, that afterwards you feel compelled to move to the countryside

For the last four years, he has been living in LA. Formerly located in New York, New Orleans (where his house and studio were devastated by Hurricane Katrina), Miami and Philadelphia, his studio is now in Burbank, between auto workshops and the spare wooden facades of the neighbouring houses, at the foot of Mulholland Drive – naturally, one thinks, because of its proximity to both Hollywood and the gaping chasms within the American Dream. When it’s put like that, Trecartin giggles and shrugs his shoulders; for him these are fossils of the postmodern era. “Hollywood is not that interesting. It’s everywhere, anyway. But you can do some great shopping here, and the parking spaces are bigger than anywhere else!” In saying as much, he sums up the undertone of his films. A Family Finds Entertainment (2004), I-Be Area (2007), Center Jenny (2013) et al centre upon the unnerving, blabbering nonsense of a hypernarcissistic personnel somewhere between family craziness and a Facebook nightmare: they feel like the early underground movies of John Waters on speed, shot through the digital brain convulsions of an avatar and spat out as a hysterical Boschian scene into the middle of rudimentary sets from sitcoms, Big Brother houses and star-making amateur talent shows. Trecartin’s art is so fast and smartphone-slick, cyborgian and apocalyptic, hypersexualised and exhibitionistic, greedy and broken, that afterwards you feel compelled to move to the countryside.

“As a teenager I wanted to do video dancing, like Janet Jackson!” says Trecartin as he plops down on a plastic garden stool in the courtyard. Beside him sits a laughing woman with curls: Lizzie Fitch, up to now the only consistent working partner in his crew, who, on the side, makes sculptures out of cardboard, tape and clothes: these lie around like props in the office area of the studio. Trecartin and Fitch met each other while studying at the Rhode Island School of Design in the early 2000s. “At the beginning I knew absolutely nothing about art. Generally, I hardly read anything myself. Everything I know, I know from my friends. I remember something when I learn about it through the passion of others. I am interested in how people share things or feelings,” says Trecartin, smiling – as he talks, you realise that he somehow fits alongside his stuttering figures, with their constant outbursts of “I love that!”, ‘Fuck you!” and “That’s so funny!”

The teens and tweens in his films – with whom Trecartin, wearing a wig and bra, mingles every now and then – reflect the standard hysterical marketing language of a generation that erases questionsabout skin colour, national origin and sexuality – and thus comes across as having completely bought in to conformity

The teens and tweens in his films – with whom Trecartin, wearing a wig and bra, mingles every now and then – reflect the standard hysterical marketing language of a generation that erases questionsabout skin colour, national origin and sexuality – and thus comes across as having completely bought in to conformity. In Center Jenny a purple alien-teacher sits in a plywood TV studio set in Trecartin’s atelier and explains: “Right before the second Big Bang, we were able to print weapons with a 3D printer!” The teacher’s grotesquely overstyled listeners shout out sentences like, “The further we move away from humanity, sexism becomes like the coolest style!” and address the camera frontally as if in a YouTube video or Sasha Grey porno, as if they might lick the lens at any moment. Images and words crack, repeat themselves, are collaged together, brake and accelerate; there is neither a beginning nor an end; if a hundred years ago Futurism added up to rightwing macho behaviour, here it leads to digital celebrity narcissism.

As a post-Internet artist – a term that has meandered through critical discourse and, subsequently, the art blogs for the last half-decade or so – Trecartin is certainly not working through any personal identity crisis: rather, despite his obtrusive aesthetic, he maintains a distance from what he films: for a long time his films have been meticulously elaborate – the chaos has a system and, despite the dialogue seeming improvised, reflects an overall concept in which the artist writes screenplays with sentences that are recorded up to 25 times. “But there is always room for everyone to make something of their own out of it,” he explains, adding that not only his friends take part, but also lesserknown actors like Molly Tarlov from the MTV series Awkward.

Nevertheless, these freakshows are also a part of Trecartin’s own life. He lives a 15-minute drive from here with seven people in a house where all the doors are open, in the living room a huge flatscreen is stuck in front of the fireplace, and next to it tower green plants and a gigantic cat tree. A series of unmade beds against the wall smell musty, cats jump over open boxes and computers; in the whole house there are at least 20 monitors. Built-ins made of artificial wood, eBay furniture, colourfully painted walls and dusty knickknacks exude a communal apocalyptic mood. Stairs lead to Trecartin’s room, which looks like a nerdy hippy hell. Socks, pens, bags and tissues fly around, a schedule is stuck to the wall that is colour-coded for writing, thinking and filming; the bookshelf is lined with vitamins rather than books. Formerly Trecartin tended to film in similar houses across various cities, working with a different group of friends in each. Now he prefers the studio, where employees take care of the technology and props. However, Trecartin doesn’t act like an art superstar when he says that “galleries should provide us with a creative environment!” Even as a schoolboy his anthropological tactile sense had led him to film friends, though in those days the idea of being constantly recorded still felt foreign. Today, however, in an age in which Twitter has replaced the analyst’s couch, Trecartin’s virtual twisted media reflection exposes how much the camera has become an ally of one’s own self-portrayal and communicative conditioning.

Today, however, in an age in which Twitter has replaced the analyst’s couch, Trecartin’s virtual twisted media reflection exposes how much the camera has become an ally of one’s own self-portrayal and communicative conditioning

“Ryan has a completely new way of dealing with images – one that, even early on, reflected the Internet’s aesthetic and its simultaneity of different image and sound levels, and that’s defining for so many young artists today,” explains Ellen Blumenstein, director of the KW, who showed Trecartin for the first time in 2007 at ZKM in Karlsruhe. “While watching his films I always think: I have never seen this before – Ryan’s pictorial language tells me something about our present time that I could have never expressed myself. Apart from this, his films are simply smart: one must not be deceived by the hysteria that dominates the figures. Ryan takes a close look at the American psyche and its chasms and confronts us with the mirror. This can be very funny but also unsettling.”

So, the same story once again about the dark side of the American Dream? Yes; but only insofar as man, in his pursuit of happiness, has always been driven by the same urges – which, even before that aforesaid pursuit was enshrined in the US Constitution, have sometimes propelled him into the grotesque. This morbid atmosphere can already be detected in Hieronymus Bosch’s overpopulated depiction of hell and Otto Dix’s doomsday parties, and in Kelley, Sherman and Bock’s abject art – which, alongside the camp cinema of John Waters, Jack Smith and Kenneth Anger, paved the way for Trecartin’s surreal chatter.

Following the popularisation of the label ‘post-Internet’, he now also carries an official sign around his neck that categorises him historically. This, paired with the philosophy trend towards ‘speculative realism’ – a term that first appeared at London’s Goldsmiths in 2007 – serves as an intellectual spam filter, one that shows how Trecartin’s generation removes itself from the subjective thought constructions of postmodernism. According to the basic thesis of this philosophical worldview, the world also exists without the viewer’s individual perspective. The scanning perspective of today’s young artists, who are more interested in online consumer behaviour than in superior utopias and a gender-driven search for identity, comes after Jean-François Lyotard’s declaration of the end of ‘grand narratives’ in postmodern society (set out in the French philosopher’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, 1979) – according to him, the overarching metanarratives that had once been used to explain the world had been succeeded by a variety of private stories.

As it is, Trecartin’s work comes across like a mixture of the TV studio and test laboratory, where everything and nothing are equally a sensation: everything is worthy of being photographed, even if it’s nothing special. However, when you look at the artist, it seems likely that he’ll subvert the post-Internet label that his work both exemplifies and anticipates. As of recently, there’s a gigantic chicken coop in his courtyard, which he has plans to employ in his forthcoming art. It seems quite possible that Trecartin is using that to hatch something that is once again radical and new, and that will make him the forerunner of the next label. ‘Posthuman’ is a term that’s been used before in the art of recent decades; Trecartin, though, may be about to make it new.

Translated from the German by Emily Terényi

This article was first published in the Summer 2014 issue

Ryan Trecartin has a solo show at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, from mid-September and an exhibition at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, which opens on 13 September. Trecartin’s Priority Innfield is on show at the Zabludowicz Collection, London, from 2 October to 21 December 2014.