Ryan Trecartin’s A Family Finds Entertainment (2004) initially came to the attention of the art world in an article by Dennis Cooper as one of the emerging artist picks in Artforum complete with the backstory of how video artist Sue de Beer discovered the work while on tour when someone showed her an excerpt on a social networking site. Trecartin’s forty-one minute madcap video went on to become one of the major hits of the 2006 Whitney Biennial. Trecartin was picked up by Elizabeth Dee Gallery in Chelsea, and his work has since been included in the Saatchi Collection, cementing the young artist’s status as one of the art world’s hot new talents.
This past Fall, Trecartin had his first one-person show at Elizabeth Dee, where his latest video, the feature-length I-Be Area (2007), played in the back room as part of the exhibition. The new work displays much of the same manic inventiveness that distinguished Trecartin’s previous effort. In it, Trecartin morphs into a an assortment of different personae, while exploring issues of gender and identity, cloning, Internet adoption, and other aspects of digital culture. Trecartin’s characters share an idiosyncratic method of line delivery and stylized acting derived from campy children’s TV shows, as well as the video artist’s penchant for hysteria, chaos, destruction – reminiscent of Red Grooms – and ’70s-patterned clothes. Once more Trecartin’s use of color is wildly hallucinogenic, as characters’ bodies literally become canvasses for the artist’s carnival-like sense of bright acidic colors and wacky costuming, so that they all might easily be mistaken for clowns.
Although Trecartin works from a script, what’s truly amazing about his videos is how he is able to translate his vision to so many different performer friends, who in turn add an improvisational aspect to the work. In an interview on Filmbrats, Trecartin told Joe Swanberg, “I worked from a script extremely . . . But it wasn’t a line: process out of order and everything changed all the time. (Actors changed things and freedom happened) It was really malleable like playing football in a circle field. Like all nasty. It was a script.” The mannered language of Trecartin’s description of the process is not all that different from the zany speech patterns his characters employ in his videos. A Family Finds Entertainment has more of an overarching narrative than I-Be Area, as well as a layered density that creates a compressed sense of visual and sensory overload. Both image and sound, including the voices of the characters, are often so digitally manipulated that when simple live-action passages appear, they seem downright mundane and boring in comparison.
An energetic mixture of live action, animation and digital special effects, A Family Finds Entertainment is a teenage “coming out” film – a seeming indictment of the “poisonous” and incestuous aspects of the nuclear family. It tells the story of Skippy, a closeted gay teen, who, following a failed attempt at committing suicide, discovers queer sex, gets outed by his parents, and then banished from home. After briefly becoming the subject of a documentary film, Skippy gets hit by a car, before becoming born again at a wild party that culminates in a massive display of fire works. While Skippy’s story manages to provide the narrative thread that holds it all together, the video feels more like a medley. Various characters come and go, change identity, introduce non-sequiturs, play group games, engage in musical interludes, break into lengthy monologues, or chant advice like a Greek chorus. Even a large sea shell ends up conveying an important message to Skippy. Trecartin’s video seems like a TV “after-school special” gone bonkers.
A Family Finds Entertainment begins with colorful visual static, and the sound of thunder. A small white dog stares at the camera, then runs off as a light flashes. A young girl named Lisa opens the door of a closet and a clown-like guy (Trecartin) in painted face pops out, causing her to laugh. He asks, “Do I have to stay in here forever?” Trecartin, now dressed as a blond-haired woman and exaggerating the wiggle of her butt, chases Lisa upstairs with a spotlight and sits on her bed. Lisa’s mother comes to the door and sternly asks, “Lisa, what are you doing out of bed? It’s midnight.” As the mother leaves, she announces, “Lisa, it’s you that I love.” Lisa sits back down on the bed and suggests that she has a story inside a box – “like a bed-time story” – which provides a narrative frame for what follows.
We then blast off into outer space. Cheesy psychedelic graphics introduce four young people in a room. The screen divides into various planes of action. We see grainy live-action images, and then a shot of Ben playing a guitar, as Asher sings, “Show me something beautiful and I will live. Show me something to hold on to, and I will hold on.” The camera moves in closer to him, then dissolves to a woman in a green dress (later identified as Veronica) telling Ben, “That was so romantical,” and then addressing the singer, “And Asher, I loved that more than anything.” After Asher indicates the band plans to go on tour, Veronica turns and says, “Patty Mae, I hate you so much.” Patty Mae points to another woman and asks, “What about her?” Veronica proclaims, “I never waste my time on people who are muddy or inconvenient.” The other woman responds, “I’m not mud, it’s dirt. I fell down a hill,” as she makes a zig-zag pattern with her hands. Veronica then shifts her attention and demands, “Skippy, open that fucking fuck door of yours.”
Inside the bathroom, his voice altered to a lower pitch, Skippy (played by Trecartin) responds, “Never.” Ben and Asher suddenly get up to leave, and Veronica yells, “Skippy, your music friends are leaving because the show was a boring bore.” Skippy uses duct tape to attach a knife to the bathroom mirror. A frame within a frame appears and a smaller image of Skippy’s head tumbles down as he bends to turn on the bath water. Skippy announces, “I’m not sixteen anymore, but I feel like I’m five with sunglasses on.” He takes a Polaroid of himself and tries to flush it down the toilet. In a Southern accent Skippy insists, “I believe that somewhere there is something worth dying for, and I think it’s amazing.”After they leave, Skippy cuts his arm with the huge knife in a suicide attempt, as red paint pours down from the top of the frame. Covered in blood, Skippy runs outside and through the snow to a highway overpass, and then uses a garbage can cover to slide down a snowy hill.
An image of Skippy appears over a window, which then spins around as the screen divides into multiple images and Trecartin emplys other digital effects. Various friends respond to Skippy’s suicide attempt. A woman says, “For an evening I’ll cry for you. Not because I care, but because I’m emotional.” Two other women express hatred, which catches Skippy off-guard. One of the women chimes in, “I’ll give you a reason to die . . . to kill.” The white-faced Skippy responds, “Last night in a dream, I was told lots of things.” The woman in the purple dress denies this. They all recite in unison, “Open your eyes, cock. What you want isn’t what you need. What you need is right in front of you. But you have to feel it.” As everyone screams hysterically and one of the women cries, Skippy, holding a knife, continues to maintain, “I did it for fun” and “It’s funny.” Suddenly back in the bathroom again, Skippy wonders who bandaged his arm.
Tina enters, bringing a large seashell that contains a simple message for Skippy: “Don’t do it.” Tina warns, “Be careful of listening. It’s very influential.” Veronica then picks up the seashell. We hear the sound of running water and see a layered image that includes the seashell, tropical foliage, and a small snowman-like figure with a sign that says, “I prefer the tropics.” Veronica proclaims the shell to be amazing, and claims, “It’s like a vortex to the southern breeze.” Tina knocks on the door and announces that “Patty Mae is here.” This motivates Patty Mae, dressed in red and white, to do a minute-and-a half performance about the fact that she is actually in the room and not in the land of boys. As she continues her inspired monologue, Trecartin alters the pitch of her voice so that she sounds like one of the Chipmunks. Patty Mae concludes, “I need to accomplish something with my stuff.”
After more digital graphics, Skippy asks, “What was that?” The muddy woman explains, “A digital relic from a future age of cyber-chaos and analog holocaust.” We see a TV monitor that shows an abstract and colorful fish. The people on the monitor talk in high voices and we see shots of actual fish. Trecartin asks whether they’re ready to play the game. They proceed to play a game of cards in which they attempt to identify images in drawings. We hear words like “pooping” and “surfing,” and “fish.” The players then become concerned about their appearance, and one of them (later identified as Billy) exposes his genitalia, as everyone else laughs hysterically. The disc is turned over at intermission.
Billy lies naked on the couch (he has a white paint around his mouth and his erect white penis has been colored black). Skippy indicates that he has messy dreams and needs to be more confident. He insists, “No more fake blood for me. I want the real thing,” placing his hand on Billy’s penis. His mother, smoking a cigarette with exaggerated gestures, indicates her son is “mad . . . he’s like an alien . . . totally.” Skippy enters a room marked “Jesse and Hanks.” After greeting his parents, he asks, “What are you looking at?” His mother answers, “Son you need to give it up, yeah. This family is poisonous, yeah. You need to find a new home.” As his mother says this, she demonstrates the concept of home through a gesture with her hands, while her much younger husband chews gum.” Skippy’s father says the word “snake,” to which Skippy answers, “Mama is a snake. Yes, she is. Mama’s a snake.” His mother goes into the refrigerator, takes out an egg, and smashes it on the floor. Skippy’s father winks as he says “I love Skippy. I think he’s a winner.” His mother grabs the knife. She says to Skippy, “I’ll burn you like a witch, butt-plugger. I know your secret kept very well. Go eat some estrogen, homo.” His dad chimes in,”Yeah, with your gay friend, Billy.” Skippy asks, “How you know about Billy?”
Skippy’s mother opens the bedroom door, and Billy strolls in naked, even though Skippy continues to be in denial. His mother indicates that “family is poison” and that he “needs to find his home boys.” She takes a fifty-dollar bill out of her brassiere, gives it to Skippy, who rips open his shirt and puts it inside his own bra. His mother then orders him to “get the fuck out,” but, before he leaves, Skippy and his father share a lascivious kiss. Once outside, Skippy runs into a documentary video artist named Zoey, who wants to make a movie of him with her night-vision camera. As Skippy sprints into the street, he’s hit by a car driven by three other teenagers, including the muddy girl. The female driver says, “What the fuck was that?” The guy responds, “Some fucking fuck shit.” They laugh uncontrollably. The muddy girl complains, “Nobody understands me.” The driver explains that they’re only hanging out with her because their mothers are close friends.
Trecartin cuts from Skippy’s face to a colorful re-mixed song-and-dance number involving a red-haired young woman named Shin (played by Trecartin) and her friends, including Billy, complete with various digital effects. Shin screams, “So Honest! I can’t believe it. We are so unpredictable.” One of Shin’s friends, Linda, gets a phone call from Zoey about a boy named Skippy being hit by a car, but it takes awhile before Shin actually gets the message. Zoey asks for advice, but Shin responds, “Just keep filming him.” Shin then calls numerous friends to invite them to a party, as the screen breaks into fifteen images of talking heads at once. In a highly psychedelic sequence, someone asks, “Who’s outside?” Like a kind of Greek chorus, the group chants, “Skippy’s outside.” The person asks, “Am I his friend? Who is Skippy anyway?” Various answers are given: identity failure, exercise, a boring piece of homework, artificial intelligence, cosmic puke, and Michelella. The group repeats various aphorisms, such as, “We inhale anything. We can handle it.” Several guys, including Ben, hang out in a clubhouse. Two more guys arrive and announce that there is a dead boy outside and that a woman is filming him. Only Ben seems to have any misgivings about this news.
Amidst the Dionysian frenzy that ensues once Shin’s party begins, the narrative appears to be temporarily forgotten. But Skippy, or possibly his ghost, eventually rises from the moonlit street and announces, “I hear music.” As a musical note and other symbols float over the scene, Zoey suggests, “You should follow it.” Skippy replies,” I will.” Trecartin cuts to Shin bouncing up and down to music. Carrying a giant flaming sunflower, she leads the party outside, where the revelers sing the same song that Asher sang earlier, and a kind of baptism occurs in a round child’s swimming pool, which seems to transform Shin back into Skippy. In split-screen, the party culminates in a huge display of exploding fireworks, as Skippy dances ecstatically through the streets. Voices then yell for everyone to go inside. We see Skippy, who closes the door to a house. This is followed by credits, indicating that the video is “Dedicated to my Mom and Dad.”
I showed A Family Finds Entertainment last year as part of the Spotlight Film and Video series at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA). It can be viewed in segments on YouTube.