The hybrid moving image works and sculptural environments of Ryan Trecartin approximate the Artaudian conception of cruelty in their visual hypermontage and spectral narrative arcs, usually incorporating a cast of non-actors playing out semi-improvised scenarios that are chaotically edited and re-presented within immersive installation environments. Their stuttering of the textual in favour of the gestural, the overloading of the visual and linguistic facilitates an altered neurological state that uncompromisingly demands its viewer enter into a state of fan-being in relation to the work – pulled into and gifting over to the world on screen, and ultimately undergoing a form of bodily erosion. The 2013 Priority Innfield series, consists of four separate, interlinked moving image works (Junior War, CENTER JENNY, Item Falls and Comma Boat) and screening environments, whose discernible plot revolves around a post-apocalyptic scenario in which approximately-human beings struggle to gain agency within an institutional framework that is redolent of american college education and its accompanying social sphere.

Trecartin describes his characters as ‘avatars’, echoing the surrogates and stand-ins of social platforms, sometimes a prosaic profile pic, sometimes an idealised fantasy construction – often an opportunity to inhabit a body unlike one’s own. These avatars frequently refer to ‘the second big bang’ and speculate about life ‘back in the human era’, and we ultimately learn that they ‘evolved from animations, those are our ancestors…and these animations, actually evolved from humans.’[1] Whether the avatars we see are controlled by a secondary agent or ‘user’ never becomes apparent, their uncanny modes of speech and behaviour seeming to suggest they have become untethered as they giddily grasp towards agency.

Trecartin refuses a reading of his movies that would place them neatly within a tradition of post-modernist nonlinear fictions, preferring instead to frame them as ‘a mesh of linearities or like a multi-linear constellation.’[2] This mesh is formed out of the intersected, tangled threads of characters, locations, scripts and scenarios, which collide many times within single movies, as well as branching out adjacently to the other movies through repurposed clips, characters and lines of dialogue. Trecartin states that ‘every movie functions on its own but also functions as a sideways entry point to all the other movies,’[3] constituting an oeuvre that we might refer to as ‘The Ryan Trecartin Universe’. This state of being alongside extends into Trecartin’s notion of where the movies exist in relation to lived existence: ‘The movies are somewhat sci-fi but they’re more like adjacent sci-fi…a present-side rather than a future or past.’[4]

Much of this enmeshment comes about through the complex ways in which Trecartin treats characters and actors, with single actors sometimes playing multiple characters, and multiple actors sometimes inhabiting single characters. This is the logic of a copy-and-paste characterisation, with the avatar-body becoming a low value flattened vessel, easily replicated and just as easily discarded. Trecartin’s 2007 film I-Be Area follows a clone who ‘exist[s] because of command-V, copy and paste some dudes DNA,’[5] and proceeds to rapidly switch between a multitude of identities (‘skins’ as they might be called in-game). In CENTER JENNY, several sets of young women (all credited as ‘Jennys’) form distinct singular entities, acting and behaving as one person split across multiple bodies, like choruses in the sense of the ancient Greek theatre, designated by their shared costume and unified voice. Simon O’Sullivan describes these figures as inhabiting a ‘patchwork temporality,’[6] and whilst these collective characters may position themselves in an awkward semblance of communality, theirs is a texture of empty conviviality: they gather but do not connect. Such is the nature of online interaction, as cliques of distinct yet highly specific identities inhabit shared platforms whilst seldom entering into meaningful exchange.

For Trecartin the editing of footage is the attempt to constitute a form of timeline within this mesh that is inherently unlike the conventions of narrative cinema, and perhaps more akin to an unfiltered, extra-anthropomorphic perspective in which all timelines unfold simultaneously. Recalling Derrida’s comment on the Theatre of Cruelty as ‘life itself, in the extent to which life is unrepresentable,’ such a mesh also recalls the Tommy Westphall-type shared universe diagram, with its tangled contingency knots. Trecartin finds the currently available technology of video only partially satisfactory for embodying the mesh, and calls forward to a point when this time-editing function of the filmmaking process will become more intuitive and placed in the hands of its viewer, with the ‘initial movie [just] an area of data, and people will participate in articulating all of the potential lineages and narratives and plots by creating structures…There’s potential for movies that expand in all directions with how they’re experienced,’[7]

Such a regard for the viewer in constituting the work perhaps stems from the ways that Trecartin’s mode of production resembles that of the fan-producer. Trecartin insists that his moving image works be referred to as ‘movies’, not videos or films, an attribution that positions the artist in the place of the viewer, the domestic quotidien consumer, for whom film equates to Hollywood, consumed and enjoyed at the multiplex or in the home through a TV or laptop screen. Trecartin frequently emphasises the fact that his background is in video production, not as a visual artist, and that he never considered his films belonging within the gallery environment.[8] Early works were distributed by posting DVDs to strangers he met through the now-defunct social media site Friendster,[9] and latterly are uploaded freely to YouTube and Vimeo, giving them a parity as ‘content’ alongside the chaotic plethora of moving image that these platforms host.

[1] Ryan Trecartin, Center Jenny, 2013, Digital Video, 53:15, Accessed August 3 2019 at

[2] Ryan Trecartin, “Ryan Trecartin Interview: The Safe Space of Movies,” interview with Kasper Bech Dyg, Louisiana Channel, May 1, 2018, digital video, 29:20,

[3] Trecartin, “The Safe Space of Movies.”

[4] Trecartin, “The Safe Space of Movies.”

[5] Ryan Trecartin, I-Be Area, 2007, Digital Video, 1:47:50, Accessed August 3 2019 at

[6] Simon O’Sullivan “From Financial Fictions to Mythotechnesis,” in Futures and Fictions, eds. Henriette Gunkel et al (London: Repeater Books, 2017), 331.

[7] Trecartin, “The Safe Space of Movies.”

[8] Calvin Tomkins, “Experimental People: The exuberant world of a video-art visionary,” The New Yorker, last modified March 17, 2004,

[9] Tomkins, “Experimental People.”

Author: danielseankelly

I'm a practicing artist. This blog is for me to channel my ideas into writing, through short form essays.

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