06.24.11

A Brilliant Web Overdose

Ryan Trecartin, a young video master, skewers our Internet culture in his frenetic new show in New York—and asks us to consider a world ruled by the whims of teens. By Blake Gopnik.

Think of a 13-year-old girl from the suburbs of Miami, addicted to the Web, and imagine the stream of consciousness running through her brain as she and her friends down their first Jagerbombs. However bizarre and frenetic and off-kilter you imagine that consciousness being, the video art of Ryan Trecartin would beat it on all counts. Since breaking out in New York just five years ago, the 30-year-old has had a growing roster of high-profile outings, culminating this week in a solo show at PS1 in Queens, the experimental branch of the Museum of Modern Art. I’ve been following Trecartin from the start, and wanting to hate what he does. It is juvenile and aggressive and almost unintelligible. That, as I’ve come to realize, and as his PS1 show proves, is what makes Trecartin’s vision more original, and in a weird sense more cogent and pointed, than what you’ll get from most of his peers. If there were a Spirit of the World Wide Web, Trecartin would be its medium on earth. Of course his art is grating; the Web, taken as a whole, is a grating and ungracious place, and at its worst it steals grace from the rest of the world. Trecartin captures this.

At PS1, Trecartin is screening seven recent video projections, each one in a room with its own outrageous décor. (One includes sofas whose legs are set in fancy purses; in another, we watch the videos as we sit on tall beds, accessed via swimming-pool ladders.) Cumulatively titled Any Ever, the seven works are nearly plotless accumulations of snippets of video that portray, and are often Flipcam’d by, a recurring cast of characters that includes tweenage kids, but also Trecartin and his gayfabulous friends in drag. Everyone is absurdly made up; wigs often appear; nail polish is de rigueur. There’s so much fast-forwarding that voices often become a Chipmunk-style blur--which you figure is fine, since when you CAN decipher the dialogue, it is either inane or opaque. “I’m me, the practice space, and I’m mad about it this time,” says a teen with her face painted white, speaking with a perfect Valley Girl intonation. “Breaking down our fathers’ network is so demo,” replies the girl in the next shot, as she does the splits on the floor. (All of Trecartin's videos are on his Vimeo page.)

Trecartin’s videos are opaque, but not in the pretentious way Matthew Barney’s can be, where you’re not given anything intelligible to follow but are also made to feel stupid for lagging behind. Trecartin’s no riddler; there’s no signal we’re supposed to pick out of the noise. There’s just the governing idea that the noise itself is taking over in our culture, incapacitating anyone who sinks too deeply into it. Or, to head highbrow for a minute, you could say that Trecartin’s febrile semiotics don’t lead to any coherent semantics. There’s just a wild and random collision of signs, picked up here and there from our culture, the way a magnet dragged down the street will gather nails and paperclips and maybe even hypodermic needles. (Gold, of course, won’t stick to it.)

Did I mention a 13-year-old? Actually, these videos sometimes feel more like the vision of a giddy first grader on a bad sugar trip, pushing the grownups to their limit. Anyone who has babysat knows that frantic moment, a few hours past bedtime, where you just want to swaddle the kids so tight they can’t move. That’s what you want to do with Trecartin.

You might start out charmed and laughing at the antics on view in Any Ever. But then you realize that there’s a manic, angry edge to its wild play. We’re not witnessing a celebration of inanity, which is how I misread Trecartin’s art when I first saw it. Rather, we’re being given a grim encounter with how inane and fractured our Web-based reality can be.

Like someone randomly sampling the e-world we now live in, Trecartin gives us a mash-up of out-of-control consumption, absurd self-display and facile stand-ins for real human contact and pleasures. Trecartin’s videos ask us to picture a reality ruled by the appetites and urges of suburban middle-schoolers. And to recognize that that’s where we’re headed.

Incredibly, there’s also a bright side to this picture. Trecartin’s own videos are so impeccably crafted, with their perfect evocations of juvenile crap, that they reveal a grown-up hand at the tiller. There’s a long credit roll for each of his pieces, making clear the effort and skill that has gone into them: every instant of “random” behavior on the part of his actors had to be captured by someone sober wielding a camera; the frenetic pace of his videos’ cutting had to be achieved by painstaking work in an editing suite. The very success of Trecartin’s art at capturing the chaos threatening to drown us proves that it’s possible to keep your head above water.