On Ryan Trecartin

Ryan Trecartin's Any Ever, via.

Some artworks edify, some perplex, and some coerce, evacuating everyone who views them to a new and better reality. To watch the videos of Ryan Trecartin–“the most consequential artist to have emerged since the 1980s,” per the New Yorker–is to be led out of a cave of ignorance by a queer, 30-year-old Socrates. Burrowed in a couch in one of seven viewing rooms at Any Ever, Trecartin’s “game-changing” summer exhibition at PS1, you become addicted to the Ryan-verse and the fast-talking shape-shifters who live there. You cut loose from your previous, encumbered life and never look back.

It’s useless to summarize Trecartin’s films, which dart like vipers through a marsh of incoherence, but they do share certain preoccupations. Any Ever brands itself as a “diptych”: on one end lies Re’search Wait’S, a quartet of films about tweens, market research, and time-travel, and on the other Trill-ogy Comp, a three-fer revolving around family crisis, global enterprise, and the life-principle of “vacation.” Just because there’s no story doesn’t mean there’s not a moral. “Turn off your phone and sleep around, you idiot”; “Give me real solutions and don’t sepia-tone them”; “Being abandoned is like wearing a sexy necklace: you’re free to take it off.” Entire personalities could be built from these aphorisms–and many surely will. Instead of tracing a plot, the films build a culture, depicting and championing modes of behavior different from and superior to the professional etiquettes that govern ordinary urban life.

Watching Any Ever, a phantasmagoria of life in the Sunbelt, makes you want to leave New York. Most of its videos were shot in Dade County, a land of kidney-shaped swimming pools, white tiled malls, and timeshare beach houses dressed in bright plastics and cheap wood: paradise. The chintzy ambience facilitates expression and also destruction, allowing Any Ever‘s cast to smash and scream with an avidity unthinkable in the orderly precincts of Mitte or Manhattan. New York is a city ruled by priceless objects; in Trecartin’s metro-Miami, nothing is antique, and everything is possible.

This marks a shift. For most of the postwar era, provincial life notoriously stifled any impulse towards strangeness. In the suburbs, mall cops, nosy neighbors, and helicopter moms colluded with police to criminalize adolescence. Open space made it easy for the middle-class panopticon to spot a nonconformist. Arty queers didn’t stand a chance. Faced with the institutional might of the neighborhood association and the consolidated school district, the dominant strategy was to fly the coop and land in the big city.

In large, densely populated metropolises like Manhattan, the vagaries of urban geography meant there was always space beyond the reach of public authority–a roof, an alleyway, a secret dungeon. You could punch someone in the face and run away and never see her again. Unfamiliarity provided infinite freedom. As suggested by Celine Dahnier’s poorly made but nostalgically satisfying documentary, New York was a “Blank City”–the perfect canvas for artistic hoodlums.

Over time, though, that blankness has been defaced. Behind a veneer of permissiveness, a malign decorum prevails. Living in close proximity to eight million other people–a million of them millionaires–turns out not to be as “electric” or volatile an experience as a hoodlum requires. Here the rules are sustained not by parents or local government authority but by the surveillance of embarrassed strangers. The public square is so immense, it’s immune to intervention–there are no pranks to play because no one cares. Stability squelches recklessness. There are too many prizes to be won. When we encounter out-of-towners, we blanch if they speak too loudly. The characteristic New York experience isn’t a riot or block party–it’s riding the subway.

Today, and especially since 2007, when “mortgage crisis” entered the vernacular, it’s the boomtowns that are “blank.” Transgression tracks land price fluctuation. Issues once known as “urban social problems”–drug abuse, divorce, racial antagonism–are now psycho-suburban. Since every mortgage is underwater, no property is worth maintaining. Since every appliance is from Target, nothing is irreplaceable. Possessions—toasters, careers, significant others—become projectiles. Where seventies No Wavers found their playground in the abandoned Lower East Side, the Trecartin wave finds inspiration in the improvident lifestyles catalyzed by the collapse of Florida real estate.

Watching Any Ever, which calls itself “social science fiction,” makes you want to break up with your boyfriend.

You know the one: tall, wispy, often nude. Broad-shouldered, high cheekboned, snow-white skin beaming with preternatural youth. He doesn’t say much and avoids making sudden movements. He’s 35, but doesn’t look a day over 15. Urban-bucolic, avant-Danish, he describes himself as an artist but works in the fashion industry, either as a photographer, or, more often, a model.

Even if you’re not literally dating Ryan McGinley, or one of the hundreds of epicene abstractions he’s photographed over the last ten years in his studio on Canal Street, the person you’re fucking is likely a copy, though perhaps several removes from the ideal. When McGinley arrived on the scene in the early 2000s, his proclivity for wizened adolescence felt fresh and urgent. Although hardly the first to honor slimness–Kate Moss had launched heroin-chic a decade earlier–McGinley helped to elevate a necrophiliac vision of mute youth into the universal condition of downtown existence. Where Moss luxuriated in a frayed portrayal of hungry deprivation, McGinley normalized the Moss physique for men and women–gay and straight–rescuing small-framed angularity from the meth-addicted muscle-worshippers who ruled the roost in the queer community in the aftermath of AIDS.

Now the new Ryan has negated McGinley’s negation, superseding the  gym bunny-heroin corpse dialectic entrenched since the 1980s. In a sense, Trecartin is the first gay artist whose work is entirely AIDS-free. With Any Ever’s authorization, we no longer have to pick between projecting monstrous health or precarious frailty. We have license to look normal.

Which is to say, we have license to look incredibly bizarre. No one looks like a model in Trecartin’s work; chipmunkery prevails. Facial fleshiness turns out to be an asset, enabling a degree of smirky, theatrical expression unavailable to subdued, strong-jawed Scandinavians, whose emotive range may be limited to what the artist-model Britta Thie has dubbed “arrogant suffering.”

Arrogant sufferers look a certain way; they also sound a certain way. Like heroin corpses, they tend not to be big talkers. When they do speak, they speak slowly, and without precision. In this, they conform to the mainstream of sophisticated youth culture, which is only beginning to emerge from a long period during which orality has been viewed with suspicion. Talking too much, or too quickly, or with too much emphasis, has been the prerogative of teacher’s pets, tattletales, PR professionals, gossips, cheerleaders, and other known spazzes. Language has been viewed as capitalism’s tool rather than its scourge. For arrogant sufferers, as for mumblecore practitioners and fans of indie rock, protest against the edgeless norm has been affirmed through silence. To be cool has meant to be “chill.” “Say little and mean a lot.” In the archetypal indie romance, a boy with bangs stares at a girl with bangs from across a crowded room. They meet in the middle and their lips lock without exchanging a word. Sex is sealed as a continence pact.

Any Ever teaches us to adjust our erotic triggers. Trecartin lifts the hysteric out of hipster-exile and elevates her to the summit of a new erotic hierarchy–an aristocracy of attitude. Hyper-orality overpowers boredom; verbal acuity displaces “chill factor” as the motor of attraction; schizophrenia is redeemed as the general procedure of communication.

This is progress, both social and political. Under the old system of stylized inarticulacy, marginal groups were further marginalized. The hysteric was a woman, a gay man, a foreign-born babbler. Terseness was a virtue associated with stately white males. Emerson types. People who like to go camping.

In the Ryan-verse, people, phrases, interiors, and objects, are all miscegenated. Tranny rappers, tanked up businesswomen, futuristic Asians, and jabbering Latinos are all given a seat at the table of oral worship. The distinction between races and genders is overcome by a more fundamental distinction–the chasm that separates outrageous from inhibited; edgy from square; artist from non-artist. Ryan’s world sanctifies a new set of chosen people against an ocean of timid goyim.

In the coming Trecartin era, the youth will get louder and maybe a little stranger to look at. They will also get younger–and more female. If McGinley’s vision of youth culture trained our eyes on adolescence, especially the boyish, cutesy-transgressive kind, Trecartin takes us back a step further. Not all the way back to the pre-verbal whimsy of early childhood–Trecartin is not a suspected fan of McSweeney’s–but to a place in between: tween culture.

Tweens are the new drag queens: though highly sexualized, they lack the equipment and perhaps even the inclination to make good on their erotic gestures. They’re floating divas–larger than life precisely because their lives are small. Tween styles but also tween logic and tween wisdom: “I’m really into the third world right now . . . Let’s talk about Toledo.” Tweens don’t free associate—they just cut out the boring parts.

In The Re’ Search, perhaps the most important film of Any Ever, Trecartin follows a troupe of aggro tween-aged bandmates who stomp and sing and chug mouthwash and treat the world with a ruthless sense of proprietorship. Boys don’t show up until Roamie View, the second video, which depicts “the suburban lair of three average teenaged boys,” one of the few sequences in the entire series where straight men appear. The boys are zombies, entirely subordinated to female overlords. Their voices are monotone, their sentences clipped to the point of aphasia. ”Hi,” honks one of them. “My name’s Jason, I’m a Sagittarius, and I like sports.” The straight male perspective is pegged and chucked in a single utterance.

Tweens are perhaps the first age group in the history of the world to be identified primarily with females. Any Ever depicts a universe with women in charge and gays as assistants. It is an exciting, glorious place and a sneak preview of what’s to come. Art bros, beware: the future does not belong to you. Your generosity will not be exalted; your hijinks will not be adored; your slickness will not be humored. Grab a personality and buy a jumpsuit–the world is about to get more interesting.

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