Ryan Trecartin

Interview by
Michael Bullock
Photography by
Paul Kopkau


The mind of artist Ryan Trecartin is like a non-linear supercollider and, in conversation, his ideas about trannies, gay lady energies, ‘occupational cross dressing’, and getting a boner in the doctor’s office overflow in rapid-fire speech. He is also obsessed with modern technology, especially the Internet, and how it will affect the future of personality, family, and sexuality. Ryan and his group of a dozen or so collaborators have a special talent for making the unusual world in his head come alive in hyper-saturated videos that have made Ryan not only a favorite online (they’re all on YouTube and the likes) but also a rising star in the art world. In 2009 he became the first winner ever of the Jack Wolgin International Competition in the Fine Arts. At $150,000, it’s one of the largest endowments in contemporary art.

Michael: I have to say, seeing you in person, I am really surprised. After having watched all your films, I never thought you’d be such a normal-looking guy.
Ryan: Sometimes I have a little angst about how traditionally gay I am. I’m definitely just a gay guy so far. I’m not trans or bisexual, though I wish I were. I think that’d be cool. I’ve been attracted to trannies, but it’s not as intense as when I’m attracted to a male. I think I’m the straight version of gay, more than I wish I were.
A straight gay?
Well I’m not, like, an Abercrombie, Craigs-list, or marriage gay. I just mean that my sexuality could be a lot more ‘queer’.
Well you can’t be that straight if you think trannies are hot.
Trannies are sexy, but I would still need them to have some kind of wiener. I think it would be awesome if they had some kind of pussy, but then they would need a manly face, and chest. I need one or the other. Isn’t that lame? Like, physical requirements? So gross.
Have you fooled around with the transgendered?
Not really, but I’m open to it in a real way. To fall in love with someone completely revised, and individualized, would be a dream.
Do you have a boyfriend now?
No. I don’t do well in relationships because I work so much. It consumes me. I’m just really hot and cold with affection, and that turns people off sexually. I’ll be with someone I care about a lot, but then the physical chemistry just disappears completely when I start working on a movie. It’s like, I don’t even want to masturbate; I have no sexual desires, period. I can go a whole year and a half without having sex or even thinking of my penis area.
So when the feeling comes back, do you just lose your mind?
Not really. It’s not like it’s orgy-hunting time. I’m a boring first-base slut.
Do you have a type?
This might sound corny, but I like energetic smiles. I like it when someone’s smile is overwhelming, so when they decide to laugh you get excited and just feel them. It can be any race, build, or hair color. In the end it’s the smile that does it. I have the feeling that if I would make a video of all my past boyfriends’ faces together, the smiling, that’s what would interconnect them. Not that their smiles are in any way the same, but they would all have a really serious, unique and genuine expression of who they are. I think that smiles are also just really physically hot.
Could you describe the best sexual experience you’ve ever had?
Mmmh, like when someone hits on me while they are working, or when someone is a good or weird dancer and makes eye contact for a whole song? Or when nudity happens in the wrong place? It’s not that I’m an exhibitionist, but all my favorite experiences have involved someone walking in on me naked, or something unexpected like that, or they just get naked for a non-sexual reason but then something sexual happens. Or when the barrier of work allows for intense flirting that keeps going in a place of restraint. I hate easiness. I like obstacles. I want to feel energy hard at work. Romance and excitement, you know? I like the things that can happen before the sex. Not games of hiding feelings, but reasons to show feelings in strange ways. Sexually, I like pervy situations that have complicated power roles. Like, I always think I’m gonna get a boner at the doctor’s office or something lame like that.
Were you openly gay in high school?
No, not at all, I waited. But I knew I was gay back when we were still living in Texas, when I was really little, like four.
So you were a gay toddler?
Totally. I’d always do stuff with the neighborhood kids when I was in first, second, or third grade. I was really proactive about it; I’d even organize the events.
What do you mean by ‘organize the events’?
Like clubs, and forts with rules very much like: ‘Girls can get in free, but guys have to do all these weird things,’ like taking off their clothes and stuff. There was a lot of getting naked and exploring each other’s bodies with games. Like, ‘Hide something in your clothes and I have to go find it.’ And you kind of know that the organizer is always the one that ends up being gay.
A pervert right from the start…
(Laughs) Yeah! There was this one kid who was really girly. He wore My Little Pony dresses. He was cool and we would hang out a lot, but we’d do it really secretly because he was so obviously ‘gay’. It was in the ’80s, so people already knew that word and used it on him in a very mean way. I also always thought I had AIDS because of all the commercials at the time. I remember once I told my mom: ‘Mom, I have AIDS.’ And she was, like: ‘Ryan, you don’t have AIDS.’ And then she tried to explain butt sex to me, and I didn’t understand what she was saying because she said that you get cut; and that gay people had AIDS more often because there is more potential for cutting to happen in the anus. It didn’t make any sense to me at the time. I thought that you cut people’s butt holes with your wiener to have gay sex, and I was, like: ‘Oh my God! That’s gross!’ But I felt like I did that and was doing that by getting naked with friends and rubbing.
So you thought you had AIDS without ever actually having had sex?
Yeah, until, like, forever. I feel like I only recently got over it.
Does your sexuality become the sexuality of the characters in your videos?
No! I actually think that a lot of the characters are kind of asexual, whereas I do eventually want sex. When I’m making up these characters, I don’t see them as self-portraits at all. That’d be really weird. Perhaps some of the mannerisms are mine, but they absorb so much of the stuff that’s around me that they’re not me.
All your characters have very distorted voices, or talk in strange accents. Do you invent those accents, or where do they come from?
It’s not really how most of us speak today, but it’s a hyper exaggeration of what’s already starting to happen. In any situation the characters live in, the meaning of words isn’t enough, if you want to say something, you have to say it in a specific accent, position, and mannerism to shape its meaning and give it perspective. But it’s never ironic or sarcastic.
So are you using accents as a tool to express a specific meaning, like Oprah? You know, like how she can speak mostly in an ethnic-neutral newscaster’s voice but then suddenly she’ll sound ‘ghetto’ when she thinks she is saying something more real?
Yes, in the movies, mannerisms, genders, accents, personality traits, and body language are just tools of expression that anyone can use. The accents aren’t used exclusively by the group that created them, they’re tools for everyone. Obviously, the location of race, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity is very complicated but the potential malleability is very exciting to me. The other thing is the Internet! I think that the Internet feels ridiculously natural. People often separate it as a technological ‘other’, but I just feel that it’s an extension of humanity and has always been inside of us. I mean, we’re all kinds of psycho and really complicated, and so is the Internet.

BUTT - Ryan-trecartin-2
The artist posing as one of his characters, Independent Avatar, in the 1 hour and 48 minute-long movie I-BE AREA, 2007

Let’s talk about the use of drag in your work. It seems to me like it’s post-drag, like doing drag of people that are doing drag. It’s not really drag of females, but something much more degenerate.
I think it’s cool that you say that. I don’t want to say that I hate drag, because I know so many awesome people who do it well, but I think that drag has become such a game in our system. The way we think of drag is boring, and formulaic, and I don’t think it relates to progress the way it did. The whole idea of cross-dressing is kind of a one-liner tradition that supports traditional gender roles. None of my characters in my movies are doing drag in that sense.
Are they genderless?
It’s more like perspective-bending and personal gender creation, flux and inconsistency. I feel like sexuality is moving away from the genital location to one’s created ‘area’ or individualized perception structures. Occupational cross-dressing is also really exciting to me. For example, in my new movie there’s a vacation agency, but the vacations no longer have a destination. They offer a physical experience instead. I feel like that is part of the future of sexuality: in a conceptual genital world, the sensation of getting off can be achieved in so many different ways.
I actually have no idea what you’re talking about!
Well, instead of buying a trip with a particular location, the customer would buy a specific situation, and the travel agency would simulate that experience or desire.
For someone whose work is post-sex or post-gender, you seem to be kind of fixated on lesbians. Almost every real woman in your films is a lesbian.
I just really like lesbians. The world should showcase more of its gay-lady energies. In our mainstream culture, lesbians are often left out; people now accept gay men in certain roles from a young age, but they’re so much more wary of lesbians; it’s like they’re totally weirded out by them. It’s the same for male bisexuality: when you’re a bisexual guy, people don’t believe it. That’s why lesbians and bisexuals are really exciting to me, because they complicate the mainstream balance and make it better.
And there are no straight-up masculine characters in any of your films. Do you secretly hate straight men?
No, but I just have a lot of faith in the world’s feminine systems, and I think that when I get excited about ideas, masculinity doesn’t come in as much. I actually think the world is physically feminizing. This is a bit of a tangent, but plastic mimics estrogen in our bodies, and we’re actually physically feminizing because of that. For example, men born in the 2000s have balls closer to their butt hole and have smaller penises. That’s one reason why so many adolescents have bigger tits than they used to. Slowly but surely, we’re all feminizing. The thing about plastic is that you’re just feminized in smaller doses. If you’re given a ton of plastic, your body will reject it. But the way we use plastic, like drinking out of plastic bottles, the process is slow, small, and steady. It’s really wild…but I’m a little drunk right now so maybe I’m explaining it wrong.
Do you take a lot of drugs?
I don’t. When I was in my sophomore year of high school we moved to the country, to a really small town outside of Toledo, Ohio. There were all of these modern-day hippies that I had never seen before. I was, like, ‘Oh my God! I’m in the past! What the freak, this is crazy,’ and I didn’t know about the band Phish, and all that kind of shit. This group of hippie friends I started hanging out with wanted me to trip with them because I made costumes and wacko stuff. My mom let me go to this three-day hippie concert with them when I was 16. I took a shitload of mushrooms and then ate a bunch more because I had no perspective on how much to take. I completely flipped out. It’s a long crazy story but it ended with me destroying everything. It was my first drug experience and it pretty much made me realize how easy it would be to lose my mind. So I haven’t experimented with drugs since.
And what are you going to do with the $150,000 you won last year with the Wolgin Prize?
I’m going to spend it all on making art. Also, I want to take classes in ballet, pole dancing, and couples dancing, and learn about choreography. And I really want to take vocal training, and learn Spanish.

Originally published in BUTT 28