In this 33-minute video titled Comma Boat, Ryan Trecartin has introduced us to a varied group of characters, each wearing ill-fitting wigs and misapplied metallic face-paint. Familial, ethnic, and gender affiliations are obscured and no names are given as to the identities of these people. As the film opens a young character in a wig starts to sing the word “sorority yeahh!” while the camera shakes and changes angles in a messy room that houses only a bed and a keyboard, with a mirrored panel inset within the wall. This singer is later joined by a person who begins to sing with him in his sorority duet. The screen dissolves and the title “Comma Boat” appears against a green background. Five minutes into the film, a woman holding a camera dressed as news reporter talks about how she really has to “get ahead” while addressing three other characters who tease her in their best Valley Girl accents. They are talking about her as if she is not there as she goes around and inserts herself into every frame. All the while we are watching this on an inset screen, three outer panels are playing previous or corresponding footage in extremely close, opaque shots that further add to the sense of overwhelming sensory overload.
Comma Boat is like a compilation video of all the worst reality TV shows. The affected California accents, as well as the camera in every shot and the constant vying by the cast members for the most amount of on-screen time, is reminiscent of the show, Keeping Up With the Kardashians. The constant talking over each other and general chaos harkens to any and all of the Real Housewives reality franchises. The characters are constantly trying to outdo each other with outrageous statements like when one of the characters jokes about opening a daycare center that is like a gas chamber, where one can enter but never leave. There are other moments where the film seems to be a music video, the cast members are gyrating and dancing to a hideously, AutoTuned rap song.
Comma Boat is frenetic and over-stimulating. It is an audio and visual monsoon that leaves the viewer questioning everything they just saw. Themes of narcissism and constant self-documentation place this film firmly into modern era relevance. There is an element of chaos and randomness in Comma Boat although every shot in the scene was planned out ahead of time and storyboarded. While it may seem that the characters are just babbling strange statements in an incoherent stream of consciousness, most of the dialogue that is spoken has been highly planned out and written by Ryan Trecartin. This strange line between randomness and an almost overbearing control is perhaps what connects it so strongly with modern day reality television--where scenes are staged and edited together for maximum drama and participants are encouraged to act out in order to secure the most amount of on-screen exposure.
In Comma Boat, Trecartin has given us a manic compilation of all the content out in the world right now---a selfish, self-oriented, and self-conscious look at the era in which we live. It is thoroughly modern, entirely relevant, and mesmerizing to watch.
Another artist making strange and confusing videos in a style similar to Ryan Trecartin is Jon Rafman. In his 7-minute video titled Mainsqueeze (2014), Rafman has compiled a collection of videos and images from the internet and displayed them on an inset video panel similar to Comma Boat, where an action is happening on the periphery of the screen as well. In one scene a washing machine is set to run on a wooden pallet in a backyard, over the course of the film it will destroy itself, spinning out of control until the doors and panels fall off. In another scene, an incredibly fit man wearing only his underwear crushes a watermelon between his thighs. In a quick slideshow, the audience is shown a dozen images of passed out drunk men with slurs and names written on their faces in black marker while their friends smile next to them.
Similar to Trecartin, the dialogue is incredibly banal and seemingly lacking a clear narrative, although Trecartin wrote his intentionally to be that way, Rafman’s is a combination of modified quotes from literature, Tumblr, and comments on various message boards that he then reads as a voiceover in the video.
The voice speaks to the viewer directly and invites them to visit this strange and dark underworld of the internet, to watch things that they might be uncomfortable viewing. In doing so, it has drawn the audience further in, making them complicit with the things happening in these scenes, blurring boundaries between reality and the virtual and inviting us to join this bizarre reality of attraction and repulsion. In Comma Boat, Ryan Trecartin showed us a world he had staged in order to unsettle, confuse, and surprise the viewer, Rafman has simply taken scenes that already existed and compiled them together for a heightened sense of unease and chaos. With Trecartin the viewer can remove themselves as the scenes are manufactured, with Rafman we are playing peeping Tom on a world that already exists under the corners of the web, just one strange Google Search away.
If Trecartin makes it seem like the 21st century is all about being seen and heard as much as possible than Hito Steyerl offers a respite from this constant stream of content. In her 16-minute instructional video titled How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, Steyerl guides the viewer through dozens of ways to become invisible in a world that is all about being seen. Steyerl shows us we can do this in simple ways by covering the camera lens with our hand or living in a gated community to being a female over 50. Some are practical strategies, others are tongue-and-cheek commentaries on modern day society.
Trecartin has showed us the most reality TV aspects of this modern age--the banality and the complete pointlessness of it all. Steyerl is also critiquing our current society but in a way that is more nuanced and easily palatable. She has given audiences tools to avoid the constant desire to be noticed even if some of them are ironic and more representative of the ways in which society imposes invisibility rather than a conscious effort on the part of the person to remain unseen.
Mentioned locations Comma Boat has been displayed:
- Venice Biennale
- Andrea Rosen Gallery
- Athens International Film and Video Festival 2018
- New Museum
How Not to be Seen