Trecartin’s work is not only interesting because it enacts a literal illustration of the electric mania of modern life: I get enough of that from sixty seconds online. Rather, I like how his artworks animate the ongoing dialogue between identity and technology. The love/hate nature of this relationship arises from the mix of liberty and alienation that it affords (our world is getting faster, brighter, better; our world can feel disorientating, overloaded with information) and which, with the invention of the internet, entered an era of unparalleled anxiety and opportunity.
This tension has been with us for centuries. In the Phaedrus, Socrates reveals a deep suspicion of the written word that prefigures ongoing concerns about the dubious allure of technology. People who credulously embrace the written word will, he says, ‘appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality’. He claims the written word is ‘no more than an image’: a false facsimile of truth. When we outsource self-expression to the written word we are estranged from ourselves and the world: we dip our heads in Lethe, forget our voice.
It’s astonishing how much of a fuss Socrates kicks up about writing, which most of us stopped thinking of as a technology a long, long time ago. If you hollow out his argument and reassign it as a broad analogy, it helps contextualise what can seem like an exclusively contemporary concern: the lag between the onset of technological change and our ability to absorb it. In an interview with curator Jennifer Lange, Trecartin put it like this: ‘I love the idea of technology and culture moving faster than the understanding of those mediums by people. It’s like the jumper being jumped before the onset of “jump”.’ (By ‘jump,’ I can only assume he is referring to the teleportation film Jumper, mauled by critics back in 2008.)
Socrates’ graphophobia seems petty when set against the insidious imperialism of screen-based life: tablet computers of ever-increasing power and ever-decreasing size, a sense of global contraction, the rise of social networking as a new manifestation of advertising. Like writing, these forms of technological self-extension diminish our agency by challenging our conception of ourselves as consistent, centralised selves. We think of gadgets as our slaves, but the minute they acquire a will or agency of their own they threaten to overpower their users. From Mary Shelley to Isaac Asimov, speculative fiction is littered with technological experiments gone wrong.
Trecartin’s films, by contrast, invert this technological anxiety. In fact, for all they might unsettle us, they present the process as thrilling, impulsive, and fun. Many of his characters read like avatars from Second Life, and the manipulation of the film is so relentless that this fusion of physical digital selves is realised within the plane of the image. This might sound slightly sci-fi, but it’s commonplace today in practices like photographic re-touching and auto-tuning. For all that they need and love their smartphones and digital cameras, Trecartin’s characters hurl them across the room in fits of pique, take hammers to flatbed scanners. The union of self and technology is attended with frustrations; crucially, however, it is not burdened by worry, loss or fear.In Ryan’s Web 1.0 , a series of photo-collages, Trecartin recasts his collaborators/friends Lizzie Fitch, Veronica Gelbaum, Telfar Clemens and Ashland Mines as avatars of future fashion. These thumbnail visions of Trecartin’s world present the self as open network, pervaded by culture. Logos inscribe themselves on flesh, brands become bodies, and personality is realised in an act of synaesthetic over-identification with consumerist ephemera.