Interview with Director Ryan Trecartin

May 20, 2008

Ryan Trecartin's first feature-length video, I-BE AREA, is currently on view all through the month of May at the Wexner Center. Click here for complete details.

Here's the complete interview that Wexner Center Associate Curator Jennifer Lange did with Ryan:

I-Be Area is so dense, visually and as a narrative. In less than 2 hours you manage to construct a story using a huge cast that touches on everything from cloning to virtual identities to life in a mediated world. You also make just as many and as varied visual references. What’s the starting point? Is it one idea that leads to another or is there this grand vision that you set out to realize? 

For I-Be Area—I didn’t have the title until the very end—I started the project thinking about the structure of areas and space, both virtual and physical, and how the logics of each inform the other in tension and how ideas of territory change as the idea of space, nature, realness, and time change in a post-industrial, pre-complete technologically integrated world. The first brainstorm for the movie was in celebrating the messy transition of an accelerated crash into a world nature 2.0 that jumps into use before we have the time to ease into it with no culture space to form general understandings of new collective manners and appropriateness or codes of conduct. I love the idea of technology and culture moving faster than the understanding of those mediums by people. It’s like the jumper being jumped before the onset of “jump”—and the whole world is doing that, like tradition out and unmarketable.

I use topics that are universally personal and, so far, I think, timeless to the human race such as family, identity, pregnancy, sexuality, business, money, ownership, trading, sharing, eating, dieting, friendship, back-stabbing,…and then I use them as tools to parallel and describe more in the moment and temporary attitudes and mentalities of transitions in cultural momentum today. I think I do a lot of translating vibes into visually narrative time sculptures that story shuffle questions into abstract plots of now.

It’s kind of like taking peripheral vision and focusing the whole thing while allowing pieces of content to fit with in the expression of idea and momentum through a narrative jump-around. With characters more as vehicles in the presentation of ideas and not as entrapped one-road storytellers with character-driven motivation.

The process starts with themes and agendas/goals, mentalities, expressions, costume ideas, transition feelings, set thoughts—I make lists. At the same time I start work on dialogue in an everything-goes, brainstorm-type way—the brainstorm may start with a place or topic. They start to inform each other—the list turns synthesis with segments of dialogue and I start to pull out scripts and revisit ideas of theme and structure. I start to focus in on the parts that when reread inspire new rants and tangents that shape some sort of an excitement to create workflow. I think about music. Eventually I’ll have a collection of scripts and I start to figure out how they connect and begin to pull characters out and define them more. I melt down numerous characters, lists, or ideas into one character or set ideas or separate themes and goals into places and costumes or sections of multiple character tension. At this point I start to have momentum and the conceptual aspects of the piece solidify and it becomes easier to write because the sections of vision now have pile. All the while I’m considering people I know who inspire me and who I respect greatly, and what or who can do you or that or them and how who can do what in what situation, and combinations of ideas, people, sets, characters start to inspire the quality of scene ideas—how does this person clash with that character or set to play what—it’s like organizing a setting to yield a quality behind the camera that informs the script, directing, set, costume, makeup, and general vibe of the shoot that night and then I go for it with a couple shots—I then build out the story—but I allow my self loopholes and extra shots and free space—I change the meaning of shots by shooting other shots. I fix a failed shot by changing what the shot was about while adding to plot or slicing into new content. The shoots are very active and the directing style is very kinetic and even when we stick to the script in a strict sense the room still becomes very collaborative and people take ownership of their characters and perform outside-of-themselves rather than act. Usually—I mean some people like to perform, others like to act, and some just want to be themselves but louder in a chosen style or imposed accent, accents being less geographic and more collected and sculpted to describe word delivery. And then once with the footage I reevaluate everything as supplies. And then I dive into EditEffect and sound as content and resculpt the whole situation—more than half the script gets cut out and many moments of people giving a burst of inspiration, improv, or add-ons get cut in.

Collaboration is a big part of your practice in both your sculpture and installation work as well as in your videos—family, friends, former classmates, and fellow artists all appear in some form or another in your work. Can you talk a little about their contributions? When you’re writing a script, do you have certain people in mind to play characters?

Every single form of collaboration possible happens—from assignment-based to organized-event- set-up-and- shoot to straight-up equal parts (I equal part with artist Lizzie Fitch a lot). The people I work with are all creators and makers in a wide range of arts. They’re people that inspire me to make—I make these movies for them, and friends. It really is a community effort, I think the word network is usually used in a business-type way—but friends really do network nowdays and make a point to meet friends of friends of friends and it becomes a community web of share and tell.

How much do you encourage improvisation?

I use a script—but everything gets tossed out the window during each line. When we stick to the script the shoots can be very long and hard all-nighters. Sometimes we go on rants that take hours in the moment, idea-sculpting like a brainstorm, and the shoot becomes more like a party or we become an actual brain. People really give a lot! But we always come back to the script just in case. I make the script happen for an editing backbone—everything depends on the themes and content—on first view it may seem like my movies are random bits of chaotic poetry. And there’s truth to the last half of that sentence, but none of it is random, there is a real story. People in general like the structure of a script, it allows for more improvisation in places that are freeing and experimental like body language and prop use or attitude and pose. I shot things in script order, it’s really hot-potato-camera-kinetic, you-go, you-go, you-go shooting. No one reads their part ahead of time; it’s very pile-on. People build their character based on what they said last and how we’re yelling or telling at each other—the room vibe gets made and things play out like my turn with minimal descriptive set-up to encourage chemistry and ownership. It’s like, “run over there, say this, and you’re sad to her right now. And then do it 10 more times with your arms doing this and your head angled like how you feel.” I think the most important aspects of the videos are the script, casting, performance, and scene-shooting style. Most people think of the visuals but that is all used, along with editing as content—to enhance the delivery of areas and moments.

Your collaborators more often than not are your former classmates from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Clearly you all are passionate about each other’s work and inspire each other deeply. I know you’ve been asked this before but do you think there’s something specific about RISD that engenders a certain aesthetic/way of working, or do you think of it as pure serendipity that you found each other?

Well, I no longer find myself in a total RISD bubble and I’ve met many people since school that I’m completely blown away by. I think RISD has a unique set up that encourages community, out of the art world eye, and so for undergrads there is an amazing sense of total freedom and optimism, with absolutely no ugly competitive anxiety. It’s a big small town art bubble with no make-or-die pressures so everyone is left sharing and adding to each other as people and makers while teaching and experimenting in each other’s visual languages. But a school is just a meeting place—four years doesn’t make a person, serendipity happens, and then RISD happens to be a perfect set up for young, naïve, right-out-of-high-school weirdoes to ferment before learning about the world. I do find a bond with almost anyone who has gone there, because RISD seems to bond people more than most art schools and encourage group efforts and extreme focus on multiple things and drive. Seven of my best friends I met freshman year. I think when you meet people that young you collectively make a logic for being critical and hating on things—but you still have individuality in what you love on—so as time goes on you find yourself in very challenging company because they know how your brain works and you know theirs—like blood sisters and teamwork, take it to the group and have it thrown back at you way better.

Despite being included in the Whitney Biennial and galleries and film festivals around the world, you’ve put both I-BE Area and an earlier work, A Family Finds Entertainment (AFFE), on YouTube. Why is this channel so important for you? 

I have very strong feelings about sharing. I make videos for people—the whole process is shared. I’m always seeing the videos in multiple settings and the places for viewing that excite me the most are home entertainment systems: private computers and theaters. I think web 2.0 spaces relate tremendously to the logic and structures of physical space and plot sculpting in the movies. So I think it’s an appropriate home that brings out a quality in the work that you may look over in the gallery. Plus videos are meant to be accessed and watched.

I think it’s interesting that you can watch I-BE Area out of sequence and, in fact, that’s the only way to watch it on YouTube. It’s a totally different experience and yet, somehow, there’s still this narrative to follow. Do you structure the script with this in mind?

I naturally structure scripts this way—I think it may be generational. It’s how I link and flow-out in presentation. Software and Internet platforms feel really natural and intuitive once the tools are understood. I think the brain reacts very naturally to technology that frees it from linear structures of physical space-making. The narrative in sectionalized transitions that contain and then open up is just how I think. In a world where it’s more insane to choose something since everything can be everything or had—slapping up sides and focusing on choice is outrageous and I think those sides create shiftable, episodic sections that work well in a shuffle or a multitasking chunk. It’s more like a conceptual given. People split movies up all the time now and choose their favorite 10 mins., reedit, reshow, reorganize. I’m pre-apart of that world so it kind of has an inherent set up in my post production intentions. I ultimately enjoy the movie in order—cause the flow of transition and order add narrative content that is intentional. With some of the earlier work like AFFE 2004 people talked about how weird, post-camp, and new the acting felt and how the mentality was on Off and On at the same time, unsarcastic and what? Why are these kids acting like this? And back then it was just it—we didn’t even have the Internet in our house. But technology flows with the momentum of culture, our generation was ready for something like YouTube cause we already had it in our logic and in 2005 when it came out—I think it totally changed how people think about the ways in which people act in my movies, like new technologies create different qualities in understanding and presenting ourselves performatively. We’ve come a long way since back when dating online was considered dangerous, gross, and perverted.

Do you read all the comments posted about your work on You Tube?  

Yes, I love when people surf out on a message boarding frenzy.

What’s the next project?

I’m still in the making lists part.