Ryan Trecartin likes to play with language and a bit of wordplay that recurs in his work—sometimes in the words of the scripts, but more frequently in the way characters and scenarios are constructed—is a confusion of the corporate and the corporeal. It’s like a folk etymology or a pun in the way Trecartin exploits a superficial resemblance of two words to generate idiosyncratic connections between them. But there’s a real etymological connection at the words’ root, and Trecartin’s play animates the forgotten bond between the corporeal reality of a person and the social body of a corporation.
Vocabulary review: Corporeal means “of a body.” Corporate means “united in one body.” To incorporate is to “to put (something) into the body or substance of (something else).”
“Corporations are people.” The corporation is the instrument by which a group of people act together as one in order to to make money, to make things happen, to create changes and disturbances in the world and in the social world. How does the corporation do it? How does the corporation unite so many bodies in its one to achieve its ends? It does it with corporate culture, with human resource management, with guidelines of professionalism—all techniques for controlling behaviors and actions and bodies. Corporations are people but their bodies are huge and grotesque—its avatars have stunted bodies, their impulses and affects are subjugated to the fluid discourses of a brand identity, they speak the stilted business tongue of PowerPoint slides and memos. We live in the time of corporate personhood—when corporate bodies and perlocutionary corporate speech make the models of how a person should be.
Look at K-Corea INC.K (section a)—the title of Trecartin’s video is a corporate name, taken on as a collective name by a bevy of career girls. (What does K-Corea INC.K produce? Nothing, other than its own collective subjectivity.) Korea is a geographic entity; it is a place name—a word that transforms a mass of land into a concept, making the substance of Earth legible in discourse and politics—and it is a near homophone of career. Korea, career. A career is a social concept, a technique by which a person identifies as an avatar of his profession and obscures his individual body to merge with a corporate one.
All the Koreas—Argentian Korea, Iran@-itzerland Korea, French adaptation Korea, Post-Canadian Retriever Korea, Another Greek Korea, Mexico Korea—are dressed identically. They must have gone shopping together for ladies’ business casual at Kmart or T.J.Maxx: white blouses, dark skirts, blond wigs. The clothes and the white pancake makeup makes them identical, in a way, but the forced identity just makes the differences of the individual bodies pop out: this Korea has a moustache, that Korea has real female breasts; this Korea has big biceps, that Korea is paunchy. Traits of individual bodies betray the unity of the incorporated one. But they try their best not to let them! The Koreas are mostly silent, or their speech is an inaudible whispered conversation between co-Koreas. Global Korea is the boss; she’s played the charismatic Telfar Clemens, and she speaks for them all. “We had a meeting,” Global Korea says. “So Lets Have A Meeting!” And the avatars of K-Corea INC.K assembles around a picnic table, outdoors, at night. Having meetings is a habit of the corporation’s inner life, and the word “meeting” has accumulated an array of associations: the conference room, the conference table, the hierarchies of who sits where at this table, a water cooler, an agenda, items, goals, objectives, directives… (Etymology facts: The Old English metan meant to encounter or to find; the “meeting” became an assembly in the sixteenth century.) The way K-Corea INC.K has meetings evokes the contemporary corporate usage while returning the word to its most basic bodily meaning: the simultaneous presence of two or bodies in spatial and temporal proximity to each other. What’s more, at K-Corea INC.K the meeting never ends. This corporation is nothing but a meeting: “We had a meeting. So Lets Have A Meeting!” In the script, when it doesn’t matter which of the Koreas speak, or when many of the Koreas are to speak at the same time, the speaker of the line is given as “Meeting.”
Besides Global the company has a few other very important avatars, including Trecartin as USA Korea, who interviews a wannabe career-girl named Jessica. She’s dressed like the rest but she doesn’t have a Korea name. She’s an intern, an outsider on the inside. She’s a slut: interns are promiscuous, commingling with the corporate body for a limited time, unpaid. “Contemporary Slut!” Mexico Korea (Raul Nieves) rages at Jessica/Cindy. “Every Body’s’ Got the Agenda!” Note the split of “Every Body’s” and think about how a collective is named by indicating its constitution in all of its individuated bodies. And this is important to the business of K-Corea INC.K, which produces a group body that is mobile and communicative and regularly grooms itself by designating its avatars and its Others as hires and fires. This meeting of drag queens and their gofers incorporates—incarnates—corporate corporeality.
And what does “corporate corporeality” mean?? Incorporation is the realization of a dream of a body that can be bigger, more powerful, more durable than a human body—better than the gross animal vessel our spirits carry around. But with the new spirit of capitalism the corporation aspires to be flexible, mutable, and fluid, unlike the old kind of company, the generations-old family business, with its rigid mimicry of aristocracy and sturdily pious Protestant values, its emulation of king’s immortal body. In a time when corporations are people, the incorporated body is more like a real one—or at least the model it sets for how a person should be is gross. The corporate body (or its avatar) lives in a state of precarity, much like the real body is vulnerable to disease and mortality; it leaks, strains, and bulges. It screams at the world and it can’t make sense of itself. It is like K-Corea INC.K.
Look at another Ryan Trecartin video, Roamie View (History Enhancement), from the Re’Search Wait’S cycle. In this one, stock video is a stunt double for the idealized corporate body and it is cut with shots of the weird real thing. Glistening skylines and pristine office corridors of stock footage give way to the plain bodies and grotesquely made-up faces in Trecartin’s own footage. Pseudo-corporate business calls between Trecartin’s players are interposed with stock views of suited corporate employees in a brightly lit office corridor; the speech in the handheld devices gets implicitly compared to the bodies in the office, and both sets of footage are juxtaposed to a tracking shot of a big city’s waterfront, apparently shot from a boat: as the camera moves it shows the glass pavilions and twinkling lights around a port, the node of an international trade network. One thing that all of these pieces of footage share is the color blue. Blue is a soothing decorative element in the stock corporate corridor. Blue illuminates the buildings by the waterfront at night, and blue is the color of the water in front of them. Blue is in the streaky make-up and the cheap fabric of the attire on Trecartin’s players—like the white T-shirt emblazoned with a gridded blue globe that brands the body of the player who wears it with global aspirations. Blue represents water, a substance that enables vessels to be transported from one place to another, a substance that takes the shape of the vessels that it is in. Blue represents the values of fluidity and adaptability; it’s in the branding of Chase and Citibank and it’s the new spirit of capitalism.
So much mobility! And yet—have you ever noticed this?—bodies never move very much in Ryan Trecartin’s videos. (The Re’Search begins with a dance number by the pool—moving bodies, still water—but this is an exceptional scene, not a normal one.) Bodies are meat that sits around—but it sits around expressively! The physical movement in these videos is about gestures and facial expressions: grimaces, turning heads, cocking heads to the side, fidgeting in swivel chairs, waving arms, moving mouths to make words. If people are going somewhere, they’re sitting in cars—and sometimes they’re sitting in airplane seats that have been removed from an airplane, pretending to go somewhere but actually going nowhere, talking into their phones and at the camera lens the whole time. The absence of bodily mobility even applies to the stock footage that Trecartin uses in Roamie View. In one sequence, a man stands with a stoic look on his face; he doesn’t move as his colleagues’ bodies (which are depersonalized as a metonym of the bustle of office life) flow around him. In another sequence, the stock models are all frozen in place as the camera twists around them, exploring the corridor. Bodies don’t move much in Trecartin’s videos yet the videos are characterized by a feeling of constant movement. What makes the movement is editing. Movement is reserved for speech and for technology; bodies move thanks to these things, or as them.
“Neoliberal subjectivity,” the way that bodies behave (are handled) because of (by) the late spirit of capitalism is about subdividing the individual into nameable affinities (Facebook likes, dating profile stats) or competencies (the school assessment report, the HR office review), in order to incorporate bodies as other, more usable substances. Networked social being and bureaucratic procedure reify personal attributes and redefine subjecthood as situational and mobile—but the mobility is a characteristic of the attributes and the tools and technologies that move them, rather than of the bodies they came from.
Bodies become objects of operations. Trecartin, as J. J. Check in Roamie View: History Enhancement, says: “I thought it would be neat and cute if someone took out all the times they say ‘people’ or ‘humanity’ [in the U.S. Constitution] and replaced it with ‘situations.’” Meetings are situations (bodies meet because they are situated in the same area). Situations are states of people. Veronica Gelbaum, as North America Korea in K-Corea INC.K (section a), says: “The New Look for This Company, IS re-Thinking the Word |Humanity| as an Object with a (Goal).”
All of these innovations and disruptions, these subdivisions and operations, are related to everyday techniques of control, but their representation in Trecartin’s videos suggests obsessive-compulsive disorders or cases of borderline schizophrenia. When manifested in the corporate body they are normal and acceptable. But when they return to the individual body they appear as psychic maladies. Recall Melanie Klein’s observation that conditions like schizophrenia, narcissism, and so on are considered psychotic when they manifest in adults but the same conditions are normal stages of infant development. Thus the conditions that are normal to the corporate body appear as psychotic when embodied in Trecartin’s individual players. Trecartin often casts children and teens in his videos, as living reminders of how the body grows and changes—as as implicit suggestions of how the body might grow further, in incorporated bodies, and how all of these kinds of bodies have conditions that inhere in them, and look weird when transported to others, when people behave in a way that might not be suited to their bodies, in order to be part of a bigger one.
Does incorporation MAKE people the way they are? Or is incorporation a manifestation of how people ARE already—of their pull toward the whole? This is one of the antinomies that Trecartin presents, and of course there is no way to resolve it.
People like to say that Trecartin’s work is about contemporary networked technologies. OK fine. But only insofar as these technologies are integrated in the array of social techniques and habits characteristic of human life at this point in time. THIS IS ART ABOUT THE HUMAN CONDITION!! Trecartin’s players hold Blackberries—but they’re just as likely to be hold a sledgehammer, or a flute. Any object implies a use but it doesn’t have to be used in that way.
Any system has an organizing principle, and any organizing principle can be broken. It creates a system of control—and at the same it creates ways of how that control can be defied. (When J.J. Check reads the Constitution he gets talking about how the law can be adapted to suit situations.)
Trecartin’s world is a carnival and it shows everything as it could otherwise be. If a tool can be used to make something it can be used to break something. If a technique is applied to achieve an end it can be applied wrongly, to fail. If telecom technologies enable communication they can also be used to disrupt it. Every ideology opens itself to misinterpretation, abuse, and defiance by any individual. Where there are societies of control there are societies of out of control. Ryan Trecartin knows this and feels this; he likes to play with language and so he knows how any word that means one thing can be misheard, misread, misused, made to mean something else.
Tools, techniques, technologies, ideologies are like language. And in language where there’s a right syntax there’s a wrong syntax; grammar begets mistakes. (Look at how Trecartin tweets: “I publicly believe that cardio clot & your god ends with you. Let’s go on a hike mudda cutta ,” he tweeted in September 2012.) Moreover: language is the medium of incorporation (and other types of transformation). Language provides the techniques by which one substance can be understood as another one. Even if bodies are separate from language and all the things that are like it—and I’m not sure that they are!—language opens up the possibility that they are not. There are languages and there are bodies, and Ryan Trecartin makes videos about how one makes the other, and the other way around.