Considered a prophet of the digital age, video artist Ryan Trecartin transforms contemporary culture’s addiction to the internet and obsession with technological devices into a violently exuberant visual orgy. Watching his work feels like riding a roller coaster into the vertiginous depths of the Web or looking through a kaleidoscope on acid; it is an experience of hysterical nonlinearity, relentless mutation, and extreme visual and verbal cacophony. On March 25, 2014, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) premiered the four newest additions to Trecartin’s adrenalized oeuvre—Junior War (2013), Comma Boat (2013), CENTER JENNY (2013), and Item Falls (2013)—at the Bing Theater. The nature of this viewing experience was particularly well suited to the content and conception of the works themselves; though each piece can stand alone, they are all part of a larger project, connected by repeated thematic and visual tropes and therefore most effectively watched consecutively and without interruption. Trecartin is insistent on the classification of his creations as “movies,” and seeing them on the big screen complements and magnifies their sensory intensity.
The first work, Junior War, consists of repurposed footage shot during the artist’s senior year of high school in Ohio. Inspired by The Blair Witch Project (1999), Trecartin used a Handycam with a night-vision lens to film the euphoric vandalism that occurred during the bacchanalian ritual of Senior-Junior War, which is exactly what it sounds like: classes battling each other in a series of drunken misdemeanors. The footage is edited with Trecartin’s signature freneticism, and as we are jarringly bounced between the greenish frames, an ominous bass line increasingly hints at the approach of an impending catastrophe. But this never materializes, and much of the destruction we witness is either futile (kids repeatedly bang on metal mailboxes that just won’t break) or funny (television sets get thrown out of car windows and shatter on the sidewalk amid the laughter of boisterous, intoxicated perpetrators). The film is a quasi-anthropological investigation into the unleashing of human nature’s animalistic side (destruction as a creative act is a recurrent theme in Trecartin’s work) and how the presence of the camera, right before the era of ubiquitous self-documentation on social-media platforms, affects the behavior of these teenagers.
This exploration of the camera’s presence and the type of performances it induces is continued and deepened during Comma Boat, in which Trecartin plays a garishly painted and ludicrously controlling director in the process of shooting a movie. In this extravagant, grating parody, a character holds a camera in nearly every frame, and visual communication is the only means of individual expression and validation. “I don’t believe in journals anymore—I write things on the back of my eye,” declares Trecartin’s character, wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with an eye and the words “WITNESS © 360,” in a particularly potent one-line manifesto. Though the behavior of Comma Boat’s characters is an exaggeration of today’s brand of techno-narcissism, there is nothing that blatantly indicates they are not human. This changes in CENTER JENNY, in which Trecartin transports us to an ambiguous, post-human future in which a horde of squealing, screaming, singing tweens (most named Jenny and all descended from animations) are enmeshed in a competition–audition that fuses a video game with a sorority rush. The ultimate goal is the imitation of a paradigmatic Jenny who has transcended to a higher existential plane. In this bizarre caste system, these aspiring, uniformed imitators are distinguished and ranked by how far along they are in the Jenny-becoming process; here, self-actualization is achieved through totalizing homogenization. But in characteristic Trecartin style, this “plot” completely abandons linearity and logical causality; instead, it is horizontally hyperlinked and aggressively nonhierarchical. Post-production editing reinforces this overarching drama of manic metamorphosis, cutting up and splicing together the action at a breakneck speed. Dialogue is largely supplanted by monologic rants and bombastic declaratives spat directly into the camera, oscillating between nonsense and profundity. However, amid this anarchy we are given a loose historical timeline that locates us more firmly in this semi-apocalyptic future. During one scene, a male professor delivers a history lesson of sorts to a gaggle of Jennys in green bikinis, and evolution is a key theme of their conversation. “Back during the human era, dinosaurs evolved into chickens. This is a fact,” spouts the professor. “We have evolved from animations, those are our ancestors.” In response, one Jenny states: “Like, the further we all move away from humanity, sexism just becomes, like, the coolest style.” The chunky television sets and mailboxes of Junior War mirror the now-irrelevant human constructs and classifications in the grotesque humanoid world of CENTER JENNY; both are relics of a bygone era.
Item Falls, the most atmospheric and seemingly plotless of all the movies, takes this Trecartinian evolutionary scheme to its most extreme, as the work seems to be a representation of the next existential level to which all Jennys aspire. Constructed sets give way to virtual environments where characters’ avatars walk silently through air like zombies. We repeatedly watch human forms dissolve into animations as the boundaries between the technological and the human explode and disintegrate. The evolution of our relationship with the camera parallels the evolution of humans into animation-based cyborgs. In Junior War, protests against the camera’s presence are rampant, with variations on the line “Don’t film me!” insistently puncturing the action’s flow. At the same time, individuals are also motivated by the desire to act for the camera, but these performances are awkward and uncertain (“Let’s fuck shit up…that’s the phrase, right?” a boy asks), representing a gangly evolutionary hybrid somewhere between dinosaur and chicken. Over the course of the next three works, hyperconsciousness of the camera becomes characters’ default state, and its presence does not inhibit but rather intensifies animalistic behavior. This continues to the point where technology is completely internalized and the objective of existence is to successfully audition for the camera. The ultimate implications of this progression are sinister; a techno-skeptic Trecartin seems to suggest that the product of this constant surveillance (and consequently, constant performance in front of surveillance devices) is collective brainwashing and cultural homogenization. This is a much darker view than the one reflected in the artist’s earlier works, where the technology-afforded, post-physical freedom of endless mutability is celebrated as a way of eroding and transcending the confinement of historical and societal constructs. For Trecartin, technology has now become another means of entrapment.
Junior War (2013), Comma Boat (2013), CENTER JENNY (2013), and Item Falls, all films by Ryan Trecartin, were screened at LACMA on March 25, 2014.
Allegra Krasznekewicz is a recent graduate of Yale University, where she majored in art history with a focus on new media art and wrote her thesis on Ryan Trecartin. She currently lives in San Francisco and works at Pier 24 Photography.