Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Art Fag on Ryan Trecartin

For further (or, perhaps, less) edification on the subject of video-maker Ryan Trecartin, here is hands down my favourite reaction to his work, in essay form. With apologies to Sholem Krishtalka who has since gone on, I believe, to have entirely comprehensive, multi-tiered, professionally-paying and loquacious views on the subject, this represents something like Mr. Krishtalka's first then second stab at coming to terms with Mr. Trecartin. And in my mind, something like the perfect critical first response to Mr. Trecartin.

Sholem Krishtalka is Toronto-based.

"Providing a detailed summary of I-Be Area is much like providing a detailed summary of the rest of Mr. Trecartin’s oeuvre; certainly possible, but one runs the risk of sounding like someone given abrupt leave of their senses (“so there was a guy with a yellow face, and then he became a girl with a yellow face, but with long hair and gym shorts…”). By now, darlings, we have watched I-Be Area two and half times, and while we do feel like we’ve just been run over by about five rollercoasters, we are no nearer to providing a cogent synopsis."

Taken from Art Fag 17 and Art Fag 23.

from Art Fag 17


Thus far, we have only been detailing our daylight viewing habits. Some of our evenings (the ones we see fit to narrate, that is) were spent in the arms of the New York Underground Film Festival. We shall not bother to detail every program consumed, but end our travelogue by sharing an epiphany.

It concerns one Mr. Ryan Trecartin. We have been eyeing him with intense suspicion ever since we came across his name in the pages of Artforum, where his singular genius was extolled by none other than that perpetual coddler of damaged fags, Mr. Dennis Cooper. Mr. Cooper was working himself into a hyperventilating frenzy over Mr. Trecartin's epic "A Family Finds Entertainment," which largely defies description, but has loosely to do with the adoption of a runaway hit-and-run victim by a houseful of hard-partying cartoon psychotics, and is ladled with heavy doses of camp. We had seen snippets at the Whitney Biennial (and what a dog's breakfast that was, ladies and gentlemen), and seen it in full at Pleasure Dome's recent "Bad Boys" program, where it was the star attraction. Even after the full 40 sensory-assaultive minute running time, we could not come to a firm opinion of Mr. Trecartin's work; there were moments of starlit genius, where the lunacy of his cast and their improvisatory abilities made for utter brilliance. And there were just as many moments that came off as mannered and irritating, like the grating antics of an overindulged and understimulated child.

We met with one of Mr. Trecartin's shorts at an Underground Film Fest program, and we have been further edified. In fact, we are currently happy to hop on his bandwagon (even if we are a little leery of how crowded it is, and how fast it's going). The short, entitled "(Tommy Chat Just Emailed Me)," concerns the perils of internet dating, single motherhood and constipation, and involves many of the same characters that populate "Family...". As you might be able to glean from our description, it involves the same general tenor of "Family...", but this time, the brief running time has reined in Mr. Trecartin's more indulgent sensibilities. Despite its apparent insanity and the ludicrous behavioural tics of its characters (at one point, the single mother, cruising the web for a lover, locks her baby in the shower to get some alone-time), the durational brevity forced a more stringent structure on the proceedings; the video, in all its antic absurdity, came off like a Bach fugue; the unfolding of motifs was made transparent, its progress made clear while still maintaining its anarchic tone. Consider the final moments of the video: throughout, Catherine Pimples (the heroine of the constipation storyline) holds court from the toilet in a lake-house. The final moments of the video finds all the characters in the bathroom with her. Mr. Trecartin (in character as Tammy) raises his hand like an orchestra conductor and leads his introverted, self-referential characters, all still trapped in the bathroom, in a slow, rhythmic chorus of "What's outside? Oh my God!" as the camera makes a slow pan of the surrounding environs. This single moment casts an illuminating pall over the entire video, revealing its parallel strands of containment and sequestration (both social and intestinal).

* * *
from Art Fag 23 

Providing a detailed summary of I-Be Area is much like providing a detailed summary of the rest of Mr. Trecartin’s oeuvre; certainly possible, but one runs the risk of sounding like someone given abrupt leave of their senses (“so there was a guy with a yellow face, and then he became a girl with a yellow face, but with long hair and gym shorts…”). By now, darlings, we have watched I-Be Area two and half times, and while we do feel like we’ve just been run over by about five rollercoasters, we are no nearer to providing a cogent synopsis. To say that the plot is loose is akin to saying that the Eiffel Tower is tallish. Still, there are threads and themes, the grandest of which is Command-C and -V (or Control-C and -V for those who are not goose-stepping along with the Apple army): the copy and paste functions; in other words, cloning, replication, avatars, multiple selves. It has also to do with the exercise and application of these themes: adoption, the internet, on-line profiles, and chatrooms. These latter two are especially important, as they provide what could loosely be described as the setting for I-Be Area. As near as we can make out, this is to what the title specifically refers. Each character in the video has their own allotted space, or Area, and much of the vertiginous atmosphere that engulfs the viewer like a fever dream comes from the representation of these spaces: at once claustrophobic and cluttered; tight, cramped little spaces, gaudily painted and garishly lit, each populated, if not by one or two people, then a single minded collective.

Mr. Trecartin’s 100-odd minute opus jetés manically from room to room. The main narrative arc concerns the identity dilemma (or, in Trecartin’s southern-fag drawl, “diii-layeh-maauuh”) of I-Be 2 (Mr. Trecartin), the second in a series of clones named I-Be. He finds no affinity with his previous incarnation (who has become a woman, and rechristened herself You Me Me You), and his on-line avatar has taken on a life of his own. Although this distinction between what goes on in front of the screen and on the screen is virtually moot in I-Be Area. Thus, he embarks on a quest for identity. At its core, I-Be Area is a picaresque tale of self-discovery and self-creation, and bears a striking structural resemblance to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I-Be 2 cycles through identity after identity, and like Huck down the Mississippi, wanders from Area to Area, and so we meet a slew of characters: the den mother of the I-Bes (who, by the by, is the best actress of her generation – she is the only performer who does not attempt to mimic Trecartin’s über-queeny-sassy-fag-on-speed delivery; she translates the idiosyncrasies of his script into a kind of Tennessee Williams heroine performing beat poetry, and all we can say is that Meryl Streep has nothing on her), the I-Be Adoption Agency staff, Cheetah and Jammie (I-Be 2’s entourage), a young boy named Django (who grows up to become a clone named Pasta, also played by Mr. Trecartin, who looks like Linda Blair in a blonde page-boy wig), a preternaturally dramatically gifted baby named Polly, The Everymom (a troupe of adoption-crazy lesbians), a grating creature in pink gym shorts and six-inch platform heels named Ramada Omar, Jamie the pregnant drama teacher/goth band frontwoman who isn’t really pregnant, and on and on and on.

The introduction and subsequent disposal of these characters follows the narrative logic of channel surfing; they appear (or, more aptly, flounce) on screen suddenly, and disappear without warning. But we always see them in their Area, and as the film wears on, the Areas, and the boundaries between them, are violently destroyed: rooms are painted black, windows are smashed, objects thrown in and out, walls torn down in a grinning, laughing, wide-eyed orgy of hopped-up unleashing of frantic energy.

Trecartin’s pacing only goes at one speed: faster. Like a freight train chugging to life at the top of a steep decline, I-Be Area is languid at first; whole minutes go by without a cut. But as the movie progresses, scenes are choppier and choppier, dialogue (whose pitch is sped up and slowed down at will) overlaps more and more, until the final scenes end up as an anarchic riot of cuts and cacophony, a screaming blur of relentlessly jumping images, a Babel of crashes and shrieks and maniacal giggles. It’s exhausting.

So what is to be made of the hour and forty-eight minute stretch of I-Be Area? When we attempt to illuminate the vast and varied thematic territory that he traverses, one might easily be led to believe that Mr. Trecartin’s candied hysteria operates in the service of some sort of commentary. After all, the thematic core of his work is always tight as a drum; adoption, cloning, identity, the internet, profile pages: these are by no means wildly disparate subjects. Indeed, if Mr. Trecartin’s grasp of the conceptual map of his universe were not iron-clad, his videos would be unwatchable. Zany is as good a performative mode as any, but it is a poor organizational method. No: we the viewer are taken on a very carefully controlled path. Its iconography might be the nth degree of a highly individualized eccentricity, but it follows an internal logic. The one thing this is not, and must not be confused for, however, is a critical statement, and Mr. Trecartin is not a polemicist.

It is a mistake to ascribe politics, critical or otherwise, to Mr. Trecartin. If his characters flip in and out of identities (and baroque make-up jobs and dollar-store wigs and Salvation Army get-ups) with the ease of shuffling playing cards, zigging into another gender or zagging out of gender altogether, it is not because Mr. Trecartin is championing a kind of political consciousness. He is merely displaying his inner reality, where outer Reality (or, as Huck might have put it, “sivilization”) has no bearing. In the video-space he creates, there is no consequence to these characters’ queer transgressions; no one argues with them, no one questions them, no one even comments upon them. The people in his videos barely even talk to each other; they talk only to the camera and are subsequently reacted to. There is no outside world and so its conventions of time, space, narrative, and identity have no need to apply; Reality has been abandoned for the funhouse of Trecartin-land, where only the rule is the anarchic Wonderland logic of his internal universe.

The surest signal of this lack of polemic drive and political intent is the kind of dialogue that Mr. Trecartin, in the span of two feature videos and one short, has made utterly his own, to the extent that we find it hard to accurately describe. It is a goulash of slangs and affectations: campy gay, Valley-girl, southern belle (and southern redneck), urban black. It is a babble dialect consisting entirely of abbreviations, shorthands, in-jokes, punchlines, soundbytes and song lyrics, whose syntax is mannerism, and whose grammar is artifice. It even has registers, like Cantonese, only its registers are the gradient between the highest and lowest limits of a pitch controller. Every utterance of every character in Mr. Trecartin’s videos is in this mode. Seriousness, drama, import: these are, if not anathema, then certainly alien to Mr. Trecartin’s language. His dialogue clips along like a series of rapid-fire text messages; there is no time, but more importantly, there is no space for genuineness of affect, or meaning, or any kind. There is only a back-and-forth of one-liners, whose inanity slowly vanishes as it becomes familiar, and habitual.

The result of the anarchic logic and flip, mannered dialogue that are the principal components of Mr. Trecartin’s universe is that any meaning is delivered as if it were meaningless. Thus, because of this misfire, this gap between the spoken word and the substance it purports to communicate, there seems to be a yawning void that lurks behind the colour and the shrieking and the mania. But Mr. Trecartin is not a nihilist: one does not create these varied sets, establish these elaborate narratives that branch and twist and lurch, assemble a vast troupe of people, have them perform like an overloaded synapse, and edit the entire lunatic happening into an hour and forty-eight minute feature for nothing. Things of import do happen in I-Be Area, and in Trecartin-land. Concepts are, if not elucidated, then fenced around, poked at, pulled like taffy, and turned inside out. In short, politics, thematics, concepts: they are all subject to the same gravity as Mr. Trecartin’s dialogue, and the same physical laws as his characters – that is to say, none. They might be meaningful, but they are also infinitely malleable.

I-Be Area is not uniformly engaging, nor consistently good. Mr. Trecartin has yet to master the pacing of a feature-length video; there are parts that lag, parts that are flabby, parts that pedal as fast as they can but go nowhere. This is in some respect due to his performers. He himself is a captivating and energetic presence, but in a style this mannered and manic, one bleary routine can ruin a scene. Mr. Trecartin’s videos are ensemble pieces, after all, and thus, he is heavily dependent on his actors, and not all of them operate or captivate at the same level. There are those who can meet the demands of his dialogue and his situations, and there are those who simply can’t, who do not have the force of personality to play to the camera at a fevered pitch that is difficult to sustain. Rapid cuts and a twitchy finger on the pitch control can only compensate for so much. But this is only his second feature, and it already marks an evolutionary step beyond A Family Finds Entertainment; his universe is being further fleshed out, and one is beginning to get the hang of Trecartin-land. The subtleties of his dialogue are beginning to emerge. A Family Finds Entertainment was basically an elaboration of a simple set-up; I-Be Area does far more daring and complex things with narrative than its predecessor; a storyline that branches and re-branches and circles back on itself, lurching forward and backward in time. The reaction to Mr. Trecartin via A Family Finds Entertainment was fuelled by the shock of its discovery; here was something startling, something dazzling and effervescent that issued forth like the shrill screech of a banshee from a hitherto-unknown; here was some dizzy child of Jack Smith spewing out his frenzied choreographies out into the maw of the internet. But shock and novelty cannot sustain careers. If anything, I-Be Area is a profoundly encouraging sophomore move from Mr. Trecartin, for not only does it signal that his principles – the insistence on his sprawling cast of friends, on a dumpster-drag aesthetic – have thus far survived his art world translation from nowhere to epicentre; in its honeycombed conceptual structure, its narrative sprawl, it signals that his vision and his ambitions have expanded, and it signals that he has yet greater, yet more hectic things in store for us.

No comments:

Post a Comment