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  • Source: Skira Rizzoli
  • Author: Cindy Sherman
  • Date: October 1, 2011
  • Format: Print

Cindy Sherman Interviews Ryan Trecartin

Included in the monograph: "RYAN TRECARTIN: ANY EVER" (2011) published by Skira Rizzoli

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CINDY SHERMAN: How do you view your physical self in your work? Do you feel you disappear in the videos?

RYAN TRECARTIN: I want ideas to translate from a place that isn’t about the person that I am. But I can’t entirely disappear, so there’s always a struggle, and byproduct friction and drama, which forces the physicality of character concepts to mutate, more so than a successful total dissolve would. It’s important to me that the work invent new or alternate meanings in the context of something familiar, rather than merely demonstrate something already known.

It would be amazing if we lived in a post-information world where we could truly transcend form and habit. If we did, I would be exploring different ideas. Where we are today, even people who are excellent at mimicry have to deal with the limitations of the forms their body can assume and the behaviors they don as vehicles for transformation. I’m excited for a future when something like “gait” is still perceptible underneath character, but rather than as form in action, it’s present as something like reconstituted perspective as form.

In a similar manner, it’s important to me that the traditional director-actor hierarchy disappear into the work. In the movies to date, I tend to play characters who orchestrate “curatorial” personalities for themselves: They have editorial skills that lead them to make selections, pairings, and contexts for others. I think I have been drawn to this by the dynamic of performing and directing at the same time, while also concentrating on maintaining enough openness in the shoot for other performers to have a degree of agency over their scripted lines and their own linguistic mannerisms. I want everyone to have authority in their relationship to being directed, which often makes my characters straddle a blurry line between being directed and directing.

CS: Do people assume that your videos are some weird form of self-portraiture? (This is a comment I get all the time and can’t stand.)

RT: I think I haven’t gotten very much of this because people approach movies and photos in such different ways. Also, artists like you have established the photographed body as a medium, and the idea that working with one’s own body in this way does not automatically imply self-portrait or even self-reference. What I have to deal with more is people assuming that the movies are improvised parties. I spend a ton of time scripting the work on many levels, and the process is choreographed accordingly.

Everyone involved works their asses off! The improvisational moments are always contained within their own specific part of the script or intentions of a scene. I also find that people often read, reductively, the people I work with as a posse or collective, or that we have a Factory-style relationship, which is very different from the way we actually collaborate. In reality, those kinds of models can end up being uncollaborative because someone or something ends up overemphasized, and individual contributions fade from record. The way Lizzie Fitch and I work with collaborators has grown out of a network culture perspective that sees authorship as a fluid space and collaboration as an inherent, connective reality. A collaboration doesn’t necessarily need its own label, unless its purpose is to announce an autonomous concept. There is a freedom in transparent, role-based credits that do not clump or elide details. For many art forms, audiences are familiar with navigating a group effort, even if they identify particular names as being primarily responsible for the structure. Credits can feel overly didactic, but as our abilities to search and sort information grows, the importance of project-logging creative contributions is huge. People should be able to find out who did what if something excites them, so that they can find out more and make contact.

CS: Do you find the work in front of or behind the camera easier, or is there no distinction?

RT: For me, there isn’t a consistent distinction: holding the camera is itself a performance. The camera has linguistic potential—as a subject that captures itself through the act of capturing something else. This is in a period of growth and transformation now. I’m excited about 3-D cameras, and 360-degree capturing and editing. I’m looking forward to when editing will be more about cropping and rearranging time and space rather than footage. I think there will be a point when cameras are so advanced that they disappear along with screens. Then I think it would be interesting to explore the organizational, programming, and structural components of a merged media experience as an active performance. Structures and tools are important terrain for contemporary art.

CS: Are you ever self-conscious about or tough on your performance or a specific persona? Are there moments when you cringe and end up having to edit out some aspect of how you see yourself?

RT: Yeah, but these performances are made to be cropped, altered, repurposed, and enhanced. Each line is said, on average, about twenty-five times, and a ton is edited out. The performance is not live; everything is performed for the edit—performed to become live through mediation. Editing is itself a part of articulating the character, and so I see it as a performative gesture. Sometimes I’ll take the cringe-worthy moments and juxtapose them with causes or effects that during shooting were never intended to correspond. Framing a context can legitimize anything. Purpose is often framed and then rewritten. For me, it’s all about whether or not it helps the scene, the mood, the story, the idea—potentially everything is useful if the right spot is found. A lot of massaging takes place in the editing: If the voice sounds wrong, change it; if the face looks weird, change it…

CS: What about the makeup? It’s so antithetically “makeup,” nothing like what a professional makeup artist would come up with. Only someone applying it naively could be free enough to create such un-selfconscious characters.

RT: Well, even though none of us has been schooled in makeup, we’ve been collaborating on it since the first short movie in 2001. I think the naïveté has dissipated, and a language has developed that has become more and more critical of itself. There is a continuum between the sets, makeup, wardrobe/styling, props, and body language. These elements are interdependent and define themselves based on the way certain exchanges are activated by the spoken word. So, in a sense, the makeup is not un-self-conscious—it’s aware of itself as a means of exploring ideas and language that are not exclusively makeup-oriented. Makeup, however, is an area where we embrace a more intuitive extension of the personality of a character, or where we frame the character’s conceptual focal points We might try to interpret a car commercial as a hairdo, an ideology as a designer skin tone, a banking situation as a cheekbone, copyright issues as a jaw line, or maybe an application as a facial agenda.

When something is housed in its usual environment, we see it not for what it exactly is but as what we know it’s meant to be, given the circumstances; transposed into another environment, we sense the whole vibe of its body, and the friction it makes against these ideas of what we “know.”

CS: Can you describe your working process? The videos seem so stream of consciousness that, as you said, people think there isn’t a script although there is one. But does improvisation still play a part?

RT: Improvisational extensions of the script are encouraged within the general structure. Some of the best lines are said wrong, or pop out of the collaborative flow of the shoot. But I think that the feeling of improvisation also arises out of some very specific aspects of the work process. For one, I don’t let most performers see the script ahead of time, because I like them not knowing where their character is going. I tend to feed the performers their lines one or two at a time, and thus their performances often capture the feeling of still figuring out what a line is about, even as they’re saying it. When you don’t know exactly where your character came from and where they are going, your face has an openness that allows words to freely expand, keeping the agenda of a word specific to its moment.

The writing of the movies tends to occur on distinct but overlapping levels. The most obvious is the written script, which can change form depending on the type of scene and the people involved. At times, the shape of the script can be fairly traditional, with play-by-play, character-assigned dialogue sequences. Other times, the script is a list of phrases, a monologue, or a poem with no concrete delineations of characters, so that its precise dynamics get worked out during the performance. Or the script can be a structured agenda, where the goals of its structure are explored based on suggestions, allowing for collaborative, assignment-based translations of phrases and ideas. The sets, props, costumes, hair, and makeup also constitute a type of script. The editing, sound design, and effects processes are another phase of writing that reconsiders everything that has been captured on camera as raw supplies. Putting all these components together constitutes a new script that is performed by watching and reading the movie as a viewer. Editing of some scenes commences while scripting and shooting of other scenes continues, so by the end of production and postproduction, the final product and the raw materials will have mutually influenced each other.

CS: You started by casting your friends, but you’ve recently hired professional actors for your videos. How do these two ways of working differ, or do the various levels of acting complement each other?

RT: Yes, The Re’Search (Re’Search Wait’S), one of the movies from Any Ever, is cast mostly with professional tween and teen actors from Orlando and Miami. I try to mix together many different ways of directing, as well as different ways of being a performer. The way a person receives information and translates information is an exciting pivot to play with; it’s a performative intersection: The response to direction, depending on a person’s preconceived ideas of acting, is as much of a variable as a person’s raw talent.

I’m starting to explore the performative potential of shoots designed to exploit contradictory skills like these. When a performer, an actor, a channeler, a translator, a sayer, an expresser, a non-considerer are all in the same shoot, it really fucks with the perceived agenda of the scene. It’s hard to compress a dynamic range, and I like that.

CS: What doesn’t work—what do you edit out or ask to do over?

RT: Translating a script into a reality is as destructive as it is constructive. But the failures often inspire the most productive narrative growth in the stories. Failing to get a good take of a certain line in one scene might end up—in the attempt to fill the conceptual gap— causing a whole new scene or plot dynamic. The first scenes I shoot for a new project tend to be used in the middle of the finished movie, even if I think I’m writing and shooting a beginning. As the project develops, the ideas radiate outward from the center of the piece to the point where the idea of it having a center is irrelevant.

I think this effect relies a lot on making use of the variable of not getting what you want as an idea farm The excitement of destroying and reinventing an original idea is mirrored in the characters’ relationships to props and language. Also, when you perform in order to generate supplies—for editing, for additional writing—it’s all about covering ground. Scripted events that aren’t working can still be great to explore because reflection can be added during editing.

CS: Is the gallery environment as important to you as the video element?

RT: The movies are meant to be native to multiple contexts. When a viewer navigates the movies online, the frame of the computer affects how the content is read and enhances certain very important ideas that tend to get lost in linear presentations. When a work is seen in a movie theater, people think more about the form of the movie: narrative arcs, character development, scene setup, and plot dynamics, which are important elements. These understandings pull out other aspects that might be overlooked when viewing online. When watching the movies as “movies,” people see events sequentially and tend to process narrative elements more easily.

The gallery/museum space is an opportunity to create a much more poetic frame. The sculptural theaters that Lizzie and I create are almost like packaging for a person to sit inside and experience the movies. It’s a unique frame that the person inhabits, and it creates a resonant hum with the cinematic content, both visually and linguistically. I hope that the variety of experiences, these options, leads to a variety of nonhierarchical conceptual understandings of the work. I also hope this opens multiple avenues of accessibility to different dialogues and audiences.

I try to work within simultaneous cultural histories and contemporary discussions, which are neither linearly related nor independent of each other. I think it’s important to acknowledge and reference this aspect in the works’ various presentations. I’m excited to expand the variety of frames the work can inhabit, and I’m trying now to explore applications, hardware, and software ideas that would give more navigational agency to the viewer—literally merging access points and medium conditions into a viewing space where “reading” and “writing” are conjoined in a performative act of an “editorial process,” the sum of which would be movielike.