An Interview with Ryan Trecartin (2011)

On August 31st I interviewed the artist Ryan Trecartin in New York city. Katie Kitamura participated virtually in this interview. Hence the composite K/K identity. Trecartin's video work is some of the most important and exciting art being made in the US today. Below is a 1500 word edit of a very long conversation, made in collaboration with the artist. It was originally published in Frieze 142. We hope to extend this edit into a longer piece some time soon.

K/K: How do you start generating material for your work?

RT: Normally I collect information linguistically, it’s all written down or it’s audio. The visual components are usually linked to linguistics as well... logos, products, graphic design, interfaces... The first stage is script-writing, it normally starts off as a poem, or a list of words... And then I start to think of the script spatially, characters emerge, and I consider signifiers, mentalities, and accents as forms. As the project gets underway the script disperses: sometimes the center drops out and no longer even ends up in the final work. I write alone, but what's actually shot and edited into the movie is also the product of synergy between the script, situation, and performers. Within the work there are platforms for free agency, for people to create something new, for meaning that I never necessarily intended to be there.

K/K: Lizzie Fitch is a long-term collaborator.

RT: I’ve been collaborating with Lizzie since we met in 2000 at RISD. It’s a continuum that's evolved over the years. I work on lots of her stuff and she works on lots of my stuff. For Any Ever, everything except the script-writing and the editing is a collaboration with Lizzie. Even casting and directing, how we decide to conduct the experience of the night.

K/K When you say ‘conduct the experience of the night’? You set up a situation and then film what happens?

RT: Shoots happen at night because we can control the lighting. We start getting ready as the sun’s going down. We shoot individual lines and segments of scenes over and over, maybe 25 times each. People don’t know what lines they’re going to be saying next. They don’t know their agenda. It’s like writing for a game. Any path could be taken. This keeps performers in the moment of the scripted line, in a kind of container that is sectioned off from the holistic picture of dramatic motivations. There can actually be more performative freedom when a performance is decentralized like this; every individual moment becomes the work's center, as it occurs. The use of night shooting and artificial light began logistically, but after some of the early works, I realized that it was conceptually useful for the lighting to be controlled, it helped portray a feeling of interior fluid containment, outside of any particular place. As if space could evolve and change at will.

K/K The dialogue in the films has incredible flow and momentum. At the same time, there’s a secondary quality to the way your characters express themselves. Even when they’re being intense or dramatic, they’re being dramatic ‘as if’ they’re in a telenovela or a reality show.

RT: I think we’re living in a time when you can use more than just words and how they're strung together to express an idea. Because of the way people read, share and merge information now, the way something is contained and framed is just as valuable as the content inside.

K/K One of your characters says ‘my mother accused me of being accumulation posing as independent free will’. These characters are signs piled on signs. Do you feel melancholy about that? Is there a nostalgia for something lost, or a yearning for authenticity? Or should we be excited?

RT Well I'm excited. I think it’s a natural extension of how our brains work. It’s just that we have more of an ability to tap into these ways of communicating. Accumulation is an editorial process even if it's all additive.

K/K There’s a layer of corporate globalisation, but what’s being expressed through all this is an intense, overwrought world. There are grudges and feuds. What’s the role of drama in all this?

RT: English has been so influenced by capitalism. Words that etymologically carry neutral connotations have become good! or bad! through corporate, legal and other types of disembodied usage. The characters are like projections that come out of these word systems. I think particularly in English-speaking cultures the idea of globalization is decorative. It seems like it’s much more in the realm of spinning and advertising and rhetoric than it is demonstrative of a functioning global community. That’s explored in K-KoreaINC.K (section a). Everyone’s same-paged in this white-out work face, which is like blank white computer paper, and everyone has these different names of different countries but they’re all basically the same maintenance.

K/K There are a lot of systems collapsing in your work: computer systems, credit and banking systems, even language. Is this idea of collapse or entropic decay interesting to you?

RT: I think it’s more about celebrating transition as a generative process . People often ask how come there’s no male characters in the work. There is maleness but they don’t see it, because it’s collapsed—it's a kind of queerness, beyond gender or sexual orientation and toward an erasure of forms of otherness, toward their collapse. If everyone’s individualized and can make decisions, and can composite their identity, there’s no authentic point of origin.

K/K There’s a character in the movies who’s just a black hole, over which logos and messages scroll…

RT: That’s Twi-Key. Think of it like - existence is a temporary state of maintaining a situation. As if there are proposed realities that inhabit themselves and then disperse when they’re no longer needed by the entities involved.

K/K Is that where the word ‘situation’ comes up for you? In one of the films there’s a copy of the US constitution where the word ‘God’ is replaced by ‘The Internet’ and ‘people’ and ‘humanity’ are replaced by ‘situation’. So people are just areas or spaces? Is this what “I-Be Area” means?

RT: We’re all networked and we’re maintaining our own discrete networks of multiple selves, too.. And we're moving towards more corporeal expressions of this. Versions of yourself layered together might actually be an emerging form of collaboration.

K/K Bodily contortion plays a role, whether this is gymnasts or body builders, or digital manipulation. There’s still flesh in here, right? We’re not pure data.

RT: As far as the body is concerned – there’s a lot of tension in the movies between the way the characters want to believe their world works and the way it actually works. I like that there's also friction between the movie worlds and the world we live in. I keep this transparent. I’m not creating a world completely divorced from the current human body.

K/K:. How does speed function in the films, particularly as time stamp in our culture of visual acceleration, an indication of the date when something was made?

RT: I like exploiting certain things that I know are going to become dated. Pace is one of these. Every year we acclimate to a faster pace. Also pitch. In pop music the pitch keeps rising. Voices are moving out of human range. I think currently, people are getting behind things that make sense in the moment, with out being concerned with transcending time in a grand sense as a creative goal. This thing about transcending time, it’s a little bit like: who cares? It’s as if the momentum and transformative possibilities of information are more important than securing a static legacy.

K/K There’s a line in Sibling Topics, ‘I can’t go outside because that hasn’t been rendered yet.’

RT: The characters are constantly negotiating ideas that I conceive of as architectures: their reality as an architecture, their being as an architecture... The space surrounding these structures is speech; reciprocally, articulation creates space. So, the characters are in the space of speech. Space is a translation of language, of information. Characters are always declaring things to explore and define where they are situated, to find out if they’re participating in the same architecture; to find out if they're collaborating or not.

K/K : You did a fashion spread where you have a ‘facial steering wheel’, You say it’s for navigating memory. Elsewhere you have this retroactive notion of adjusting the past from the future.

RT: The future and the past can be equally malleable, and I don’t think they go in opposite directions. Memory is more an act of memorizing than recalling: you’re creatively constructing something that doesn’t really exist behind you, it exists in the same place the future exists. In the movies the characters try to treat that idea as fact.