Guest post by Eric Zobel.
Video artist Ryan Trecartin’s I-Be Area (2007) is an anarchic tour-de-force. Written, directed, and edited by Trecartin, the film tosses viewers into a hallucinogenic virtual world that is both Crayola colorful and utterly confusing. Using forms of new media, the tropes of soap opera and reality TV, and non-narrative filmmaking techniques, Trecartin constructs a world that is at once nightmarish and beautiful. These do-it-yourself mash-ups of homemade costumes, ramshackle sets, and cheap video and audio effects have become a hallmark of Trecartin’s queer world building. His is a world in which current cultural traditions and norms (particularly those related to gender performance and expressions of diverse sexualities) no longer stifle the creative forces that allow for the free expression of the self.
The possibilities and difficulties of freedom mark many of Trecartin’s aesthetic choices. It is in the markers of the amateur (e.g., the video effects and home-made costumes) that Trecartin finds potentiality for new connections between and across realities (virtual and otherwise). The Ikea furniture, cheap wigs, and craft supplies are at once recognizable and yet unfamiliar in these new configurations. In an interview with Lorraine Cwelich for The Wall Street Journal, Trecartin explains that he doesn’t think “there’s distinction between what’s ‘high’ or ‘low’ anymore, what’s professional or amateur, all those dichotomies, they inhabit the same media space now.”
A student at the Rhode Island School of Design, Trecartin’s training is in fine art. But like the work of Jack Smith and Kenneth Anger, Trecartin’s film is indebted to both an avant-garde sensibility and an interest in pop culture, updated here to a world reflected and shaped by YouTube and Facebook. In fact, Trecartin was one of the first artists to use social media as the primary platform of distribution for his work. His first film, A Family Finds Entertainment, was posted to YouTube in 2004. Seen as “conceptually native” to the Internet, Trecartin’s films are now available to a wider public, as well as curators and collectors. Shared online from official YouTube and Vimeo channels, Trecartin’s videos tear across our hyper-linkable and endlessly sharable virtual landscape. For Trecartin, who also plays at least five different roles in I-Be Area, the director is no longer “just behind the camera.” Like the confessional teenage-bedroom YouTube video that serves as a twenty-first century public diary, his films reflect the convergences of the private and the public, the personal and the political.
Trecartin’s interest in the current convergence of media further informs his aesthetic: “As TV, Internet, art, games, and movies all start moving towards the same point, I want to be part of inventing that space.” Like the popular (and admittedly far-ranging) genre of reality TV he references in artist statements and interviews, I-Be Area utilizes both intrusive hand-held camera work and the confessional static home computer camera that have become familiar hallmarks of the televisual (MTV’s The Real World, for instance) and the virtual (the aforementioned diaristic YouTube videos). However, the film is anything but static. The narrative, which revolves around the clone I-Be-II and others such as Original Onxy, Doggirl, and Laurie the Dancer, is elusive at best. The editing is Saturday-morning-cartoon-quick, the jargon-laced dialogue is rapid-fire (and not always comprehensible), and the actors sprint through their roles like hyperactive children. Working with friends and frequent collaborators, Trecartin populates his world with unstable characters that often grapple with the unknowable consequences of their desires but rarely seem to reach any stable conclusions. Indeed, it is difficult to reach any conclusions about Trecartin’s work as a whole.
Purposefully eschewing traditional markers of social critique (is this film parodic? is this film a warning?), Trecartin’s film articulates ambivalence towards the newfound freedoms of our rapidly changing realities, online and off. I-Be Area shows us individuals performing rapid quick-changes of identities, experimenting with community building, and broadcasting intimate desires to share in a wider cultural discourse. Invention is process-driven, messy, chaotic, and at times, terrifying. Experimentation often ends in failure. But in attempting to invent queerer spaces, the risks are well worth taking.
Eric Zobel is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University and co-chair of the Underground Film Series programming team. His research interests include experimental theatre and film, art as social action, and performance studies. His dissertation explores the parameters of the historical “avant-garde” in American theatre and film and focuses on the multifaceted relationships between commercial interests, popular culture, and New York avant-garde theatre groups in the 1980s.