ryan trecartin’s Tommy Chat Just E-mailed Me

10th June, 2008
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Trecartin describes Tommy-Chat Just E-mailed Me as a “narrative video short that takes place inside and outside of an e-mail.” Trecartin’s intense visualization of electronic communication is inhabited by a cast of stylized characters: Pam, a Jewish lesbian librarian with a screaming baby in an ultra-modern hotel room; Tammy and Beth, who live in an apartment filled with installation art; and Tommy, who is seen in a secluded lake house in the woods. Pam, Tommy and Tammy are all played by Trecartin, who, wearing his signature make-up, jumps back and forth between male and female roles.

Totally self-absorbed and equipped with vestigial attention spans, the characters are constantly communicating with one another on the phone or online. Their e-mail exchanges and Internet searches are channeled into bright animations that intersect with the “real world” locations. The story moves from person to person like a browser surfing through Web pages. Engrossed in manic electronic interactions, the characters become increasingly isolated and solipsistic.

-from: eai

…and so are we.

i’ve seen this work several times, and i find the description from eai very interesting, although i don’t think we, or even the character’s in tommy chat just emailed me, have a vestigial attention span. We have instincts to interact with our environment, including each other by:

  • observing and learning from other people
  • by interacting with objects in the physical world, and
  • by engaging with intellectual constructions – things like boolean algebra, relativistic simultaneity (general relativity), the economy, governments, the internet, etc. in short, the manipulations of symbols into logical and, increasingly, physical structures that ‘make sense’ as intellectual developments of logical systems of our own design, but seem to differ from our instinctual understandings of physics, and knowledge gleaned from observing each other’s behavior, in that intellectual constructions, while actual and real, seem somehow less instinctual than physics and anthropology.
  • we seem to enter this world with less of an innate ability to cultivate, discover, and develop intellectual constructions than we do to pick things up and use them or to learn by watching others. as such, the intellectually constructed seems more potentially complicated than our other understandings in that they seem always to have a quality of ‘otherness’.
    i’m again referencing piaget and peirce’s observations from a previous post.

    my point is that i find ryan’s work to be a mesmerizing and a compelling portrait of life lived within a dynamic matrix of instinct, impulse, and intellectual construction.

    it seems that one feature of an industrially revolutionized civilization is a separation of members of social groups – a spreading out of peoples: families, friends, etc. as mentioned by piaget, our instinct for what poincare and einstein described as simultaneity, and what piaget described as the coordination of distant events, is something for which we have little primitive instinct – this is relatively new terrain for us. Yet we do have a will to connect with each other (anthropologic impulse). a major challenge for separated social groupings is maintaining a sense of connection – enter the intellectual construction of digital communications.

    the combination of the availability of connecting with someone digitally – via phone, sms, email, chat, etc, together with our lack of instinct for coordinating events at a distance, and our tradition of close physical proximity to important people (work, family, etc.) from whom we continually learn from and adapt to – equals an often complicated and highly chaotic environment that we are instinctively coming to consciousness within.

    the more our world develops the more space we seem to be putting between ourselves, and the less information rich and meaningfully synchronized are our connections – but our desire to be connected at a distance remains. the resulting noisy, and chaotic, and often out of sync blasts of information from the digital afar seems to put many of us in a broadcast mode of expression and ‘interaction’, where what becomes primary is the sound and content of our own expression as understood by ourselves. we are often essentially shouting our needs and thoughts into what amounts to a somewhat familiar void, without being sure if our message will make it, and, if it does, what it may mean in the undoubtedly noisy and chaotic domain of the intended receiver. either that or minimizing our expressions to raise the chance of being understood.

    Tommy Chat Just Emailed Me makes me think about how it is that i know what i know, and that i know who i am at any given moment, and how i am coming to an understandings about my identity and my surroundings by triangulating these three different, but intersecting qualities.

    i don’t feel these qualities and interactions are happening simultaneously (but, based on piaget’s observations, i’m not sure if i could really tell if they were happening simultaneously anyway)– at least on a conscious level, but I do feel that they are happening persistently and in close, temporal proximity, and that they are being triggered by other elements beyond my actual influence so that my overall interaction with them is chaotic. i feel they are often competing for my attention and essentially, and often interfering with each other.

    as i sense that my response to these various stimuli is beyond my precise control i feel that my current environment is prone to levels of conscious complication and epistemological turbulence that can become perplexing and chaotic in a way that causes me to scale back my efforts to develop and follow through various plans, ideas, and levels of interaction.

    some examples (there are many): i’m meeting with you and both of our phones are telling us that we’ve got messages – and both of us take time to look and see who the messages are from, and perhaps even quickly respond. or,

    my impulse is to share my feelings about you while i’m checking my email from work and getting an sms from a casual friend, and you are im-ing with a sibling while keeping an eye on tweets from a colleague. and we can’t help it….

    this is what i think ryan’s work does an excellent job of portraying: the epistemology of our digital world.

    my instincts, an aspect of which is my attention span, are in no way vestigial, they are quite active and a part of who i am, but there is another, actual, significant layer of connection with my environment that is, in fact, rather different from my instincts, and recent, and a major component of i am and who we are now. embodied and amplified by the density of intellectual constructions embedded in our landscape. i find the interrelations of these elements compelling and current.

    at the conclusion of ryan’s film the characters are in a lake-house bathroom, chanting the same lines together. in peter galison’s talk about poincare and einstein he recounts:

    one day in the summer of 1997—I was in a train station in northern Europe, looking down the platforms at these beautifully arranged clocks. The minute hands were all the same. I thought, “God, they made these extraordinary clocks back then. What an extraordinarily wonderful piece of machinery!” But I then noticed that the second hands were also all clicking along in sync. That meant the clocks were too good. So I thought that maybe they’re not good clocks — maybe they’re synchronized clocks bound together by electrical signals that advanced them together, in lockstep.

    the clocks peter saw, if synchronized as he suspects, are not really clocks – they are actually one clock. the same effect could have been produced via mirrors. we seem to have a much better understanding of simple synchronization than we do for poincare and einstein’s ideas on relativistic simultaneity, which require a careful intellectual construction.

    in watching ryan’s characters chanting the same lines together i imagine a future where, having grown accustomed to the cacaphony and high chaos of broadcasting our own point of view within the thicket of digital communications, our face to face encounters are reduced to synchronized, homogeneous, chanting, a localized ‘solution’ to the sense of not really being fully connected or really heard via our digital communication protocols.

    a future where we really don’t listen, and don’t really expect to be heard, but need to express ourselves, and a future where our instincts are still functioning and a future where the relationship between these elements was not carefully explored.

    a future where the richness and complexity and otherness of our intellectual constructions wasn’t accepted as both actual and real and here and now. a future where we failed to take this opportunity to let our primitive instincts and recent developments coexist as they are, and to act as foils for each other to permit us a more detailed understanding of ourselves and our experience.

    ryan’s work, at least to me, is an inspiring, critical, timely, and poetic gesture.

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