Who is afraid of the camera man?

29.11.2019, Interview Kunst

In the early 2000s Ryan Trecartin and fellow artist Lizzie Fitch began to captivate the sorrows and thoughts of their pre-millennial generation in fast-paced video compilations. Little did they know that they were anticipating a phenomenon later to be known as Youtube – long before the online platform even started to exist. In fact, one could see Trecartin as a delicate seismograph of the contemporary Zeitgeist. With precise sensitivity to cultural vibrations, the artist picks up on notions of pop culture and society, way before they manifest and has thus earned himself a reputation as the pioneer amongst contemporary video artists. 

The protagonists of his films are eccentric characters that find themselves thrown into the turmoil of modern day life. Here they are facing many challenges: burnout, coming out, family dramas, work-life, society. Trecartin’s films present themselves as an explosive narrative of many layers: separate story threads are ripped apart and brilliantly recombined, language and visual effects superimpose each other, sexuality, queerness, camp, drag and theatrical self irony – everything culminates with excessive speed into a colorful disorientation, which finally, as if by magic, always finds its way back into a meaningful bigger picture. 

Trecartin, who was born in 1981 in Ohio, studied at the Rhode Island School of Design. Even early on, his qualities as an author, director and narrator were exceptional. A talent that didn’t remain unnoticed by the public for long. But other than initially planned, the movies of the artistic duo Trecartin / Fitch were not shown at arthouse film festivals, but made their way into the blue chip galleries as well as into the most renowned institutions such as the MoMA PS1 in New York or the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. 

Trecartin himself has recently moved back from Los Angeles to Ohio. Here he lives on a farm with Lizzie Fitch and some of their best friends – they are currently creating another art project. In the meantime Trecartin’s gallery Sprüth Magers is showing a retrospective of his early work in Berlin. It is a show that can also be understood as statement on how our behavior towards cameras and our perception of moving images has changed over the past fifteen years. „We live in an era that now fears the camera“, Trecartin says. Seems like the perfect moment to take a closer look. 

NUMÉRO HOMME BERLIN: When I now rewatched those first films, I thought it was really interesting how the characters deal with early existential topics. In Ready, which is part of Any Ever, the protagonists face the new dynamics of a work environment, for example. Did a lot of this derive from personal experience?

RYAN TRECARTIN: When Any Ever was made, all of our friends, everyone that we created work with, were entering different stages of their individual careers. People started to have more responsibilities, and were starting to figure out ways of balancing creative ideas with financial needs, oftentimes finding themselves in situations they did not want to be in, but maybe had to in order to survive or fuel a dream. So a lot of our conversations were about business culture, internships, about the work environment, about hobby versus a career versus a job and the different types of cultural or financial access people found themselves proxy to. All of that became a huge part of our regular conversations and a lot of people brought their own experiences to the table, interpreting or adding to the scripts as we shot the scenes. 

NH: I imagine you being quite young, still in college or at the beginning of a career as you said. How did you find funding for these early films?

RT: At that time the worldwide financial crisis was starting to unfold and we were living in Miami thanks to a residency with The Moore Space. After we completed the residency we decided to stay in Miami and make it our new home cause we loved it. We began funding the majority of our 2008 shoot production using zero percent interest credit cards, which we kept on transferring from one to the next as soon as those introductory interest rates were expiring. We were basically doing what everyone else was, but certainly in pretty extreme ways. Meanwhile, the houses in our neighborhood were starting to go into foreclosure and it became sort of impossible for us to ignore the credit and debt culture of America in terms of everything: personality, comfort, aesthetics, property, language, everything.

NH: Now, how does one get out of this vortex of credit card depths?

RT:  For Lizzie and me, a couple things happened. The Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia got involved during post-production right as we were unable to secure additional credit cards and The Goetz Collection supported the production of our first installation of an Any Ever work, which was called Premise Place. It was exhibited as part of the Younger Than Jesus triennial at the New Museum.  We were also represented by Elizabeth Dee Gallery at the time and it was huge to have a dealer focusing on our work the way she did. These things all came together to move the project forward at a time of great luck for us as I won this award in 2009 called the Jack Wolgin Prize and with this we were able to pay off the credit cards. If that had not happened, we may not have been able to continue with the material in the ways that we did. It felt like magic because this was before the full body of work was completed.

NH: You literally earned that award.

RT: I felt bad that we didn’t use it to make new work and instead paid off debts, but this way we could move forward with evolving the material, instead of looking backward, which was such a huge gift. 

NH: In all of your films, and especially in those early ones, an over-accentuated artificiality in language, aesthetics and gestures is a recurrent theme. Often even a certain bitchiness. How humane are the characters actually meant to be, is there real friendship? Or are they more a representation of the sort of self-indulging (pre-) millennial?

RT: I think that there are true relationships. I often intend the movies to take place in a setting that is game-like. So things that seem insulting, combative, or inhumane act as vehicles for something else and the parameters of the fictive space of the movies mutate the relationships of cause and effect as well as reason, purpose, or intention. Destruction is often deployed in the work as a creative or inventive act used to evolve an idea, so the humaneness of any given behavior is often masked or disguised. So, essentially, the work is about humanity. 

Still, Ryan Trecartin, The Re’Search (Re’Search Wait’S), 2010, HD video, sound, duration 60:47 min © Ryan Trecartin


NH: Often language serves as a tool for protection. Does the theatrical use of language in your films help the protagonists to shield insecurities?

RT: Within the psychological space of insecurities there are the individual insecurities and then there is the landscape of being insecure with your environment. The characters are oftentimes trying to maintain an existence and shape context to gain agency. So they are always trying to define and articulate the parameters of who they are inside a reality where their identity is shared in some form. It is not to cover anything up, but it is more of a way to steer reality and maintain it – or insist on developing one’s own traits of existence.

NH: I remember how a lot of this American culture of the 2000s – the language, the aesthetics, the affectation – spread pretty fast around the globe. Especially due to reality TV, Paris Hilton’s The Simple Life, The Real World etc. it all became part of our culture. 

RT: I feel like this is a natural development. A lot of the times the tools themselves insist on certain things or modes of articulation. When we shot A Family Finds Entertainment in 2003 there was no YouTube yet, but all of the tools for YouTube to exist were already there. A good example are the camera angles and related acting styles that we used in the beginning that felt native to flip-screen handy cams. They seemed alien at the time to a movie context but that‘s only because the capture tools predated the platforms that would naturalize them best.

NH: They seemed pretty Blair Witch Project-inspired.

RT: For sure! If you had a handheld camera, it was just natural that you would use it as such. This is what I mean when I say that tool and medium insist on artifacts from their use as aesthetic content and meaning. Often these things are in the air somehow and then all of the sudden there is a platform or realm to make sense of it and it spreads from there. So what you are saying about the language; it does not come from just one space, it is the merger of the way language is training us through these different tools as well the way we train language while using them – a kind of call and response development. 

NH: Do you think that there was more unique way of being in the early 2000s, before the overflow of the internet, social media and the omnipresence of reality TV started? Looking at how people present themselves over the internet today they often seem like the clones of their own generation. 

RT: I think in the early 2000s there was this magical moment for a lot of people where the possibilities seemed really open. It felt very inventive and now there is more of a stillness because the rowdiness has been trapped and tamed. New standards have developed and are feeling stale.

NH: You mean generally, as in towards the exposure of video, media tools and the internet?

RT: Let’s take YouTube as an example. The way that people were using it in the beginning was in very novel ways, but things become standardized over time. Before the standardization of social media platforms this space was really raw and a breeding ground for inventing language and ways of relating ideas and exchanging them. The stakes were low and the possibilities high. Now I feel like it is a little bit the opposite. Or maybe it’s also just a pendulum. It’s not like language isn’t constantly still morphing at full speed … i just think the site or locations that are most exciting are less obvious at the moment.  

NH: What struck me was that your characters nowadays seem more lost than those in the past, even though back then they were thrown into this new and undiscovered world. Is it the naivety of the youth that allows boldness?

RT: All the work has dark and sinister aspects to it but the newer work is definitely sort of focused on certain trappings and struggles where the older work was more focused on certain possibilities. Even though I think in all the work I try to create opportunities for people to think about things, I have always been interested in showing the contradictions rather than parsing them out. But yes, I agree that the approach of how the characters interact is very different now and it reflects what we are talking about. 

NH: Have you witnessed a lot of change in people’s behaviorism towards the camera in the past ten years?

RT: Oh my god, it has changed so much! In high school, when I had a camera, people would run away from it. “Don’t film me, why are you filming me?! Are you a narc?“ was said a lot, there was a worry that the footage would end up with a parent or a cop. The assumption was that there was nowhere to share the footage and that it would only lead to trouble.  Some people would switch from this ‘You’re a narc’ vibe to one that related more to America’s Funniest Home Videos and make sense of the camera’s presence as though it was an act related to a family moment or making a documentary but this was channeled through a broadcast mode of thinking so people would start narrating everything they were doing because for the most part the camera was still simply a recording device – not easily accessible to editing software – and of course there was no platform to share it easily through. At best the video you just made would make it to your own living room or maybe a local theater – or so we imagined at the time. 

NH: But then social media happened. 

RT: Exactly. It became this first/ second/ third person all blending in together, people started to learn how to simultaneously talk privately and globally, both in a woven-in context but open enough for other contexts at the same time. We started to learn and develop different modes of exchange. Even though people are still using video and photography a lot, I feel that we have started to enter a new era or wave of camera fear. I remember friends throwing party photographers shade in the early 2000’s once it became too easy for photos to be shared on MySpace, like, “Get the photographers out of the party, let’s just have one,“ it is now starting to feel that way not just with video content—as it has become so easy to upload—but with our ideas of audience. It is assumed now that everything might find a platform and gain an audience and so naturally more thought is present.  Currently I think there are some odd kinds of anxiety about audience and platforms coupled with an exciting desire to run away from the trappings of personal brand maintenance.

NH: How does this show in your work as a film maker?

RT: In the early 2000s, asking someone to be in a movie who is not an actor was like “Hell yeah, let’s do it! Fun!”You couldn’t stream video yet, so there was this illusion of containment. Right now people approach performing with more thought and caution: “What’s the context? Where will it be used? How will it be used?” Acting is no longer assumed to be separate from a person’s identity and everyone is surrounded by audience as much as they are themselves audience. I think this stems partly from the ways in which reality TV valued and merged one’s own lived persona with their performed persona, meaning the accumulated version of yourself that it is in the public. People have grown out of some of the older understandings of acting roles as something you take on in a piece of art as being just that – an acting role – something that is not you. It’s an evolution that I find fascinating to explore and think on.  I believe that a person can act or explore a role for a piece of fiction without it casting spells on who they are, but I do think we use more cultural reading tools to digest a performed or fictive context and so modes of interpretation, translation, and exchange are all more complexly engaged with more diverse and more nuanced cultural codes.

Still, Ryan Trecartin, The Re’Search (Re’Search Wait’S), 2010, HD video, sound, duration 60:47 min © Ryan Trecartin


NH: You mean the discrepancy of the public persona and the self, and how those lines are blurred now.  

RT: Yes, I feel that for many people, the public and the self are the same, everyone nowadays deals with a public persona to some extent. In the past you would maybe only have those concerns if you were a politician or famous for example. But now everyone has access to those concerns and has experienced being taken out of or into an unexpected context. So there is a new relationship to performance that relates to the ways in which we live our lives much more publically, and on view beyond local context, and to an individual having a brand whether they want one or particapate in developing it or not. 

NH: What is the general vibe that you observe with regard to this development?

RT: I feel there are developing forms of performance anxiety that we don’t know how to talk about yet. I am friends with a lot of people that are very open to experimenting with acting, people who can be very raw and inventive, and we just go for it together. We also always have people in the movies that we have not worked with before and have met just recently and that is where it’s easier to see some of the shifts in camera dynamics that I’m describing. I mean everything is always evolving and changing, and right now we are in a place that seems to be cautiously reconsidering camera nuances. 

NH:  how does this change affect your role as a director?

RT: It works itself into the actual ideas of the movies and the scripts. I have always worked in a way where I want people to be happy with what their contribution is and I try to talk with everyone involved about how they feel about what we are collaborating on. I do not want anyone to do something they are uncomfortable with, these discussions give the work life beyond what the written script has imagined. So it has not changed that much, it is just that the conversations are more involved and evolved.

NH: You star in all of your movies yourself. Has this different behaviorism towards the camera also changed you personally and the way that you are with cameras?

RT: It has affected me a lot as I think that I now have an angsty relationship to the camera. I get rid of all the cameras on my computer, for example. In the beginning when I was acting I really enjoyed acting for the camera and for the edit. And the characters I am playing now embody more of a hate of the camera and a desire to avoid being overly usable by the edit … well not really true hate. It’s more that the camera is something you now have to deal with like family instead of choose to deal with like …

NH: … a friend?

RT: Haha, yes, rather than with a friend who hasn’t yet become family. Not that family isn’t a friend, but it is this feeling of “You are with this, no matter what, it is part of your life, you cannot break up.” And then there can be a sadness to that for sure. But, again, this is what it’s like now, and will most likely change again.

NH: Throughout your whole body of work, a strong element of humor remains. At the same time  the individual’s struggle in life comes through too, whether it is in relationship to work, family or sexuality. Director Tim Burton once said: “Movies are like a really expensive form of therapy for me.“ Do your films also function as a psychological release?

RT: I am only speaking for myself right now but I think that the process of movie making is hugely therapeutic. I do not approach it that way, but sometimes, when I look back, I am astonished of what reveals itself. It often takes hindsight to understand the deeper layers of something or see what is most obvious. For example, A Family Finds Entertainment. 

NH: The one where you star a slightly dramatic teenager that faces his coming out, surrounded by a diverse family model. Everything seems very over the top and slightly bizarre.

RT: It was not until much later that I realized this movie was even about coming out. I didn’t realize how much I was thinking about this at the time, but of course I was. I came out to my family only three years earlier. I would even get upset when people described the movie as a gay coming out story because I was focused on the details and couldn’t accept or see the obviousness of the movie’s backbone and how the concepts of finding family or family construction and queerness that I was exploring with the narrative details all hinged on the coming out story as the movie‘s packaging or interface. So now I think of that movie as having a coming out narrative.

NH: A model that you have also chosen for yourself in a way. You are currently living on farm in Ohio with some of your best friends.

RT: That is true, we just moved to a rural area and bought some land that neighbors my brother Adam who I have always loved making stuff with, he has lived here for the past 15 years.  We have been really excited about developing and maintaining the land together as a site that will grow into a conceptual park.

NH: Wasn’t there this really successful documentary about a couple that moves to a farm in order to back harmony to their life that came out only recently?

RT: Do you mean Wild Wild Country, the show about the cult? That was great, we were actually watching it while we were building land sets and housing for our Whether Line project which is a commission fort The Prada Foundation, and will one day turn into a conceptual amusement park. We felt funny reflecting on the parallels between that series and our situation, it seemed very zeitgeisty.

NH: Most of your films take place in constructed sets. That seems different in this case.

RT: Shooting outdoors, especially during the day time, got us in a totally new headspace. I was always into this idea of creating a set that was meant to be contained yet 360 degrees and then mediated. I thought of the movies of being kind of like adjacent Sci-Fi or social / cultural Sci-Fi in a sense. But there is something that the outdoors and a rural location does to the content of a script that transforms what a person uses to fuel their acting and how much of the performer’s body that is in the space of the camera, it’s much easier for environment to assert or insert realities. There are just so many moments or intentions that we were unable to keep fictionalized and the environment would often fall out of a Sci-Fi realm – it just always felt real and of the location. And this changed the acting and the actor’s relationship to the camera so that a lot of the malleability of language came more from “who is saying it when and in what context“ rather than the poetry of the actual construction of the words.

NH: Who are you living with right now?

RT: Rhett LaRue, Lizzie Fitch, Saria Pastor and Alison K. Powell.

NH: All of whom you have been working with since the early beginnings. Collaborations have always been key to your practice and you and Lizzie Fitch created almost all projects together. How did that come about in the first place?

RT: We met at the Rhode Island School of Design undergrad year 2000. Working together came so natural that we did not even know what was happening. We were living together at the time and I was making movies, while she was making these weird paintings that were also crazy sculptures. She encouraged me to use her art works as props in the movies I was making, and we continued to make overlapping, connected, and shared work from there. For me, the question was never “Why collaborate?“ but “Why would you make something alone if you can do it together?“

NH: In terms of copyright, the art world is not always that inclusive. Sometimes one part gets lost on the way.

RT: When we graduated, A Family Finds Entertainment created some real opportunities and we had to start thinking more formally about collaboration. We were pretty naive at the time and expected to all get equal credit for the work we put out. But this didn’t happen and our sculptural works were being misrepresented. It became important to us to define very clearly, who was participating and authoring what, which was not always easy as our set ups change with every single project and so our credits are written when a work is finished. It’s not like I make the movies and Lizzie makes the sculptures, it’s not that simple and it includes many people beyond Lizzie and me. Everyone involved is tapping into everything in fluid ways that are project specific and so insisting on extensive and detailed credits for our works that are more common to movie-making than contemporary art became very important to us. 

NH: What did you and Lizzie think of each other on your first encounter?

RT: I was kind of intimidated by her when we first met. It was in a hallway and she was wearing a Browns football team scarf, which is a team in Ohio but also the name of an Ivy League school in Rhode Island, which I weirdly did not know at the time. This was first week of freshman year.  She said to me: “I am dropping out of this stupid school, I am gonna transfer to Brown“ and i didn’t get that maybe she was joking or that she was talking about a university. And so I thought to myself: “Wow, she is going to become a football player?” I think I might have liked her more than she liked me in the beginning, but then we started working at the art store and became good friends really fast and also moved in together.

NH: Do you guys ever talk about how far you have come together?

RT: Yes, it is funny. Sometimes we step back and ask ourselves “What did we do and how?” We got extremely lucky and made a lot of weird decisions. But in the end, it’s worked out pretty well so far.

Artworks: Courtesy the Artists, Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Sprüth Magers

Text: Anneli Botz

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