The American artist Ryan Trecartin makes digital videos that centre on the self-presentations common to video-sharing sites such as YouTube. Named by New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl as “the most consequential artist to have emerged since the 1980s” (84), Trecartin’s works are like high-octane domestic dramas told in the first-person, blending carnivalesque and horror sensibilities through multi-layered imagery, fast-paced editing, sprawling mise-en-scène installations and heavy-handed digital effects. Featuring narcissistic young-adult characters (many of whom are played by the artist and his friends), Trecartin’s scripted videos portray the self as fundamentally performed and kaleidoscopically mediated. His approach is therefore exemplary of some of the key concepts of automediality, which, although originating in literary studies, address concerns relevant to contemporary art, such as the blurring of life-story, self-performance, identity, persona and technological mediation. I argue that Trecartin’s work is a form of automedial art that combines camp personas with what Sianne Ngai calls the “zany” aesthetics of neoliberalism—the 24/7 production of affects, subjectivity and sociability which complicate distinctions between public and private life.
Performing the Script: The Artist as Automedial Prosumer
Both “automedia” and “automediality” hold that the self (the “auto”) and its forms of expression (its “media”) are intimately linked, imbricated within processes of cultural and technological mediation. However, whereas “automedia” refers to general modes of self-presentation, “automediality” was developed by Jörg Dünne and Christian Moser to explicitly relate to the autobiographical. Noting a tendency in literary studies to under-examine how life stories are shaped by their mediums, Dünne and Moser argued that the digital era has made it more apparent how literary forms are involved in complex processes of mediation. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, in response, called for an expansion of autobiography into “life writing,” claiming that automediality is useful as a theoretical frame for contemplating the growth of self-presentation platforms online, shifting from the life-narrative genre of autobiography towards more discursive and irresolute forms of first-person expression (4). One’s life story, in this context, can be communicated obliquely and performatively, with the choice of media inextricably contributing to the subjectivity that is being produced, not just as a tool for rendering a pre-existent self. Lauren Berlant conceives of life writing as a laboratory for “theorizing ‘the event’” of life rather than its narration or transcription (Prosser 181). Smith and Watson agree, describing automediality as the study of “life acts” that operate as “prosthetic extension[s] of the self in networks” (78). Following this, both “automedia” and “automediality” can be understood as expanding upon the “underlying intermedial premises” (Winthrop-Young 188) of media theory, addressing how technologies and mediums do not just constitute sensory extensions of the body (Mcluhan) but also sensory extensions of identity—armed with the potential to challenge traditional ideas of how a “life” is conveyed.
For Julie Rak, “automedia” describes both the theoretical framing of self-presentation acts and the very processes of mediation the self-presenter puts themselves through (161). She prefers “automedia” over “automediality” due to the latter’s tendency to be directed towards the textual products of self-presentation, rather than their processes (161). Given Trecartin’s emphasis on narrative, poetic text, performativity, technology and commodification, both “automedia” and “automediality” will be relevant to my account here, highlighting not just the crossovers between the two terms but also the dual roles his work performs. Firstly, Trecartin’s videos express his own identity through the use of camp personas and exaggerated digital tropes. Secondly, they reflexively frame the phenomenon of online self-presentation, aestheticizing the “slice of life” and “personal history” posturings found on YouTube in order to better understand them. The line between self-presenter and critic is further muddied by the fact that Trecartin makes many of his videos free to download online. As video artist and YouTuber, he is interested in the same questions that Smith and Watson claim are central to automedial theory. When watching Youtube performers, they remind themselves to ask: “How is the aura of authenticity attached to an online performance constructed by a crew, which could include a camera person, sound person, director, and script-writer? Do you find this self-presentation to be sincere or to be calculated authenticity, a pose or ‘manufactured’ pseudo-individuality?” (124). Rather than setting out to identify “right” from “wrong” subjectivities, the role of both the automedia and automediality critic is to illuminate how and why subjectivity is constructed across distinct visual and verbal forms, working against the notion that subjectivity can be “an entity or essence” (Smith and Watson 125).
Figure 1: Ryan Trecartin, Item Falls (2013), digital video still
Given its literary origins, automediality is particularly relevant to Trecartin’s work because writing is so central to his methods, grounding his hyperactive self-presentations in the literary as well as the performative. According to Brian Droitcour, all of Trecartin’s formal devices, from the camerawork to the constructed sets his videos are staged in, are prefigured by the way he uses words. What appears unstructured and improvised is actually closely scripted, with Trecartin building on the legacies of conceptual poetry and flarf poetry (an early 2000s literary genre in which poetry is composed of collages of serendipitously found words and phrases online) to bring a loose sense of narrativization to his portrayals of characters and context. Consider the following excerpt from the screenplay for K-Corea INC. K (Section A) (2009)— a work which centres on a CEO named Global Korea (a pun on “career”) who presides over symbolic national characters whose surnames are also “Korea”:
North America Korea: I specialize in Identity Tourism, ?Agency...
I just stick HERE, and I Hop Around–
HEY GLOBAL KOREA!?
Identifiers: That’s Global, That’s Global, That’s Global
French adaptation Korea: WHAT!?
Global Korea: Guys I just Wanted to show You Your New Office!
Health Care, I don’t Care, It’s All WE Care, That’s Why
WE don’t Care.
THIS IS GLOBAL!
Global Korea: Global, Global !!
Figure 2: Ryan Trecartin, K-Corea INC. K (Section A) (2009), digital video still
Trecartin’s performers are guided by their lines, even down to the apparently random use of commas, question marks and repeated capital letters. As a consequence, what can be alienating on the page is made lively when performed, his words instilled with the over-the-top personalities of each performer. For Droitcour, Trecartin’s genius lies in his ability to use words to subliminally structure his performances. Each character makes the artist’s poetic texts—deranged and derivative-sounding Internet-speak—their own “at the moment of the utterance” (Droitcour). Wayne Koestenbaum similarly argues that voice, which Trecartin often digitally manipulates, is the “anxiety point” in his works, fixing his “retardataire” energies on the very place “where orality and literacy stage their war of the worlds” (276).
This conflict that Koestenbaum describes, between orality and literacy, is constitutive of Trecartin’s automedial positioning of the self, which presents as a confluence of life narrative, screenplay, social-media posing, flarf poetry and artwork. His videos constantly criss-cross between pre-production, production and postproduction, creating content at every point along the way. This circuitousness is reflected by the many performers who are portrayed filming each other as they act, suggesting that their projected identities are entangled with the technologies that facilitate them.
Trecartin’s A Family Finds Entertainment (2004)—a frenetic straight-to-camera chronicle of the coming-out of a gay teenager named Skippy (played by the artist)—was included in the 2006 Whitney Biennial, after which time his work became known around the world as an example of “postproduction” art. This refers to French curator and theorist Nicholas Bourriaud’s 2001 account of the blurring of production and consumption, following on from his 1997 theory of relational aesthetics, which became paradigmatic of critical art practice at the dawn of Web 2.0. Drawing from Marcel Duchamp and the Situationists, in Postproduction: Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World, Bourriaud addressed new forms of citation, recycling and détournement, which he saw as influenced by digital computing, the service economies and other forms of immaterial social relations that, throughout the 1990s, transformed art from a subcultural activity to a key signifier and instrument of global capitalism.
Because “word processing” was “indexed to the formal protocol of the service industry, and the image-system of the home computer […] informed and colonized from the start by the world of work” (78), Bourriaud claimed that artists at the start of the twenty-first century were responding to the semiotic networks that blur daily and professional life. Postproduction art looked like it was “issued from a script that the artist projects onto culture, considered the framework of a narrative that in turn projects new possible scripts, endlessly” (19). However, whereas the artists in Bourriaud’s publication, such as Plamen Dejanov and Philippe Parreno, made art in order to create “more suitable [social] arrangements” (76), Trecartin is distinctive not only because of his bombastic style but also his apparent resistance to socio-political amelioration.
Bourriaud’s call for the elegant intertextual “scriptor” as prosumer (88)—who creatively produces and consumes, arranges and responds—was essentially answered by Trecartin with a parade of hyper-affective and needy Internet characters whose aims are not to negotiate new social terrain so much as to perform themselves crazy, competing with masses of online information, opinions and jostling identities. Against Bourriaud’s strategic prosumerism, Trecartin, in his own words, chases “a kind of natural prosumerism synonymous with existence” (471). Although his work can be read as a response to neoliberal values, unlike Bourriaud, he refuses to treat postproduction methods as tools to conciliate this situation. Instead, his scripted videos present postproduction as the lingua franca of daily life. In aiming for a “natural prosumerism,” his work rhetorically asks, in paraphrase of Berlant: “What does it mean to have a life, is it always to add up to something?” (Prosser 181).
Figure 3: Ryan Trecartin, A Family Finds Entertainment (2004), digital video still
Trecartin’s scripts direct his performers but they are also transformed by them, his words acquiring their individualistic tics, traits and nuances. As such, his self-presentations are a long way from Frederic Jameson’s account of pastiche as a neutral practice of imitation—“a blank parody” (125) that manifests as an addiction rather than a critical judgement. Instead of being uncritically blank, we could say that Trecartin’s characters have too much content and too many affects, particularly those of the Internet variety. In Ready (Re’Search Wait’S) (2009-2010), Trecartin (playing a character named J.J. Check, who wants to re-write the U.S constitution) states at one point: “Someone just flashed an image of me; I am so sure of it. I am such as free download.” Here, pastiche turns into a performed glitch, hinting at how authentic speech can be composed of an amalgam of inauthentic sources—a scrambling of literary forms, movie one-liners, intrusive online advertising and social media jargon. His characters constantly waver between vernacular clichés and accretions of data: “My mother accused me of being accumulation posing as independent free will,” says a character from Item Falls (2013)
What makes Trecartin’s video work so fascinating is that he frames what once would have been called “pastiche” and fills it with meaning, as if sincerely attuned to the paradoxes of “anti-normative” posturing contained in the term “mass individualism.” Even when addressing issues of representational politics, his dialogue registers as both authentic and insipid, as when, in CENTER JENNY (2013), a conversation about sexism being “the coolest style” ends with a woman in a bikini asking: “tolerance is inevitable, right?” Although there are laugh-out-loud elements in all of his work—often from an exaggeration of superficiality—there is a more persistent sense of the artist searching for something deeper, perhaps sympathetically so. His characters are eager to self-project yet what they actually project comes off as too much—their performances are too knowing, too individualistic and too caught up in the Internet, or other surrounding technologies.
When Susan Sontag wrote in 1964 of the aesthetic of “camp” she was largely motivated by the success of Pop art, particularly that of her friend Andy Warhol. Warhol’s work looked kitsch yet Sontag saw in it a genuine love that kitsch lacks—a sentiment akin to doting on something ugly or malformed. Summoning the dandy, she claimed that whereas “the dandy would be continually offended or bored, the connoisseur of Camp is continually amused, delighted. The dandy held a perfumed handkerchief to his nostrils and was liable to swoon; the connoisseur of Camp sniffs the stink and prides himself on his strong nerves” (292).
As an artistic device, camp essentially wallows in all the bad fetishisms that Frankfurt School theorists lamented of capitalism. The camp appropriator, does, however, convey himself as existing both inside and outside this low culture, communicating the “stink” of low culture in affecting ways. Sontag viewed camp, in other words, as at once deconstructive and reconstructive. In playing appearances off against essences, camp denies the self as essence only to celebrate it as performance.
In line with accounts of identity in automediality and automedia theory, camp can be understood as performing within a dialectical tension between self and its representation. The camp aesthetic shows the self as discursively mediated and embedded in subjective formations that are “heterogeneous, conflictual, and intersectional” (Smith and Watson 71). Affiliated with the covert expression of homosexual and queer identity, the camp artist typically foregrounds art as taste, and taste as mere fashion, while at the same time he/she suggests how this approach is shaped by socio-political marginalization. For Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, the criticality of camp is “additive and accretive” rather than oppositional; it is a surplus form that manifests as “the ‘over’-attachment to fragmentary, marginal, waste or leftover products” (149).
Trecartin, who identifies as gay, parodies the excesses of digital identity while at the same time, from camp and queer perspectives, he asks us to take these identifications seriously—straight, gay, transsexual, bisexual, inter-sexual, racial, post-racial, mainstream, alternative, capitalist or anarchist. This pluralist agenda manifests in characters who speak as though everything is in quotation marks, suggesting that everything is possible. Dialogue such as “I’m finally just an ‘as if’”, “I want an idea landfill”, and “It reminds me of the future” project feelings of too much and not enough, transforming Warhol’s cool, image-oriented version of camp (transfixed by TV and supermarket capitalism) into a hyper-affective Internet camp—a camp that feeds on new life narratives, identity postures and personalities, as stimuli.
In emphasising technology as intrinsic to camp self-presentation, Trecartin treats intersectionality and intermediality as if corresponding concepts. His characters, caught between youthhood and adulthood, are inbetweeners. Yet, despite being nebulous, they float free of normative ideals only in the sense that they believe everybody not only has the right to live how they want to, but to also be condemned for it—the right to intolerance going hand-in-hand with their belief in plurality. This suggests the paradoxical condition of pluralist, intersectional selfhood in the digital age, where one can position one’s identity as if between social categories while at the same time weaponizing it, in the form of identity politics. In K-Corea INC. K (Section A) (2009), Global Korea asks: “Who the fuck is that baby shit-talker? That’s not one of my condiments,” which is delivered with characteristic confidence, defensiveness and with gleeful disregard for normative speech.
Figure 4: Ryan Trecartin, CENTER JENNY (2013), digital video still
The Zaniness of the Neoliberal Self
If, as Koestenbaum claims, Trecartin’s host of characters are actually “evolving mutations of a single worldview” (275), then the worldview they represent is what Sianne Ngai calls the “hypercommodified, information saturated, performance driven conditions of late capitalism” (1). Self-presentation in this context is not to be understood so much as experienced through prisms of technological inflection, marketing spiel and pluralist interpretative schemas. Ngai has described the rise of “zaniness” as an aesthetic category that perfectly encapsulates this capitalist condition. Zany hyperactivity is at once “lighthearted” and “vehement,” and as such it is highly suited to the contemporary volatility of affective labour; its tireless overlapping of work and play, and the networking rhetoric of global interconnectedness (Ngai, 7). This is what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello have termed the “connexionist” spirit of capitalism, where a successful career is measured by one’s capacity to be “always pursuing some sort of activity, never to be without a project, without ideas, to be always looking forward to, and preparing for, something along with other persons, whose encounter is the result of being always driven by the drive for activity” (Chiapello and Fairclough 192).
For Ngai, the zany—epitomized by Jim Carrey’s character in Cable Guy (1996) or Wile E. Coyote from the Looney Tunes cartoons—performs first and asks questions later. As such, their playfulness is always performed in a way that could spin out of control, as when Trecartin’s humour can, in the next moment, appear psychotic. Ngai continues:
What is essential to zaniness is its way of evoking a situation with the potential to cause harm or injury […]. For all their playfulness and commitment to fun, the zany’s characters give the impression of needing to labor excessively hard to produce our laughter, straining themselves to the point of endangering not just themselves but also those around them. (10)
Using sinister music scores, anxiety-inducing editing and lighting that references iconic DIY horror films such as the Blair Witch Project (1999), Trecartin comically frames the anxieties and over-produced individualism of the global neoliberalist project, but in ways that one is unsure what to do with it. “Don’t look at me—look at your mother, and globalize at her,” commands Global Korea. Set in temporary (read precarious) locations that often resemble both domestic and business environments, his world is one in which young adults are incessantly producing themselves as content, as if unstable market testers run riot, on whose tastes our future global economic growth depends.
Michel Foucault defined this neoliberal condition as “the application of the economic grid to social phenomena” (239). As early as 1979 he claimed that workers in a neoliberal context begin to regard the self as an “abilities-machine” (229) where they are less partners in the processes of economic exchange than independent producers of human capital. As Jodi Dean puts it, with the totalization of economic production, neoliberal processes “simultaneously promote the individual as the primary unit of capitalism and unravel the institutions of solidaristic support on which this unit depends” (32). As entrepreneurs of the self, people under neoliberalism become producers for whom socialization is no longer a byproduct of capitalist production but can be the very means through which capital is produced. With this in mind, Trecartin’s portrayal of the straight-to-camera format is less a video diary than a means for staging social auditions. His performers (or contestants), although foregrounding their individualism, always have their eyes on group power, suggesting a competitive individualism rather than the countering of normativity. Forever at work and at play, these comic-tragics are ur-figures of neoliberalism—over-connected and over-emotional self-presenters who are unable to stop, in fear they will be nothing if not performing.
Portraying a seemingly endless parade of neoliberal selves, Trecartin’s work yields a zany vision that always threatens to spin out of control. As a form of Internet-era camp, he reproduces automedial conceptions of the self as constituted and expanded by media technologies—as performative conduits between the formal and the socio-political which go both ways. This process has been described by Berlant in terms of life writing, but it applies equally to Trecartin, who, through a “performance of fantasmatic intersubjectivity,” facilitates “a performance of being” for the viewer “made possible by the proximity of the object” (Berlant 25). Inflating for both comic and tragic effect a profoundly nebulous yet weaponized conception of identity, Trecartin’s characters show the relation between offline and online life to be impossible to essentialize, laden with a mix of conflicting feelings and personas. As identity avatars, his characters do their best to be present and responsive to whatever precarious situations they find themselves in, which, due to the nature of his scripts, seem at times to have been automatically generated by the Internet itself.
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