This interview was originally published in Phaidon's Co-Art: Artists on Creative Collaboration, where twenty-five leading artist duos and collectives give insight into how and why to work collaboratively.
Lizzie Fitch (b. 1981) and Ryan Trecartin (b.1981) met in 2000 while they were studying at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), and they quickly became close friends. Their first collaborative exhibition, “I Smell Pregnant” took place in 2006. Fitch and Trecartin’s works explore the fluid nature of personal and group identity and the new forms of language borne of a consumerist, post-millennial society in the midst of profound social and technological change. By presenting sound and video in elaborate installations, which they refer to as “sculptural theaters,” Lizzie Fitch/Ryan Trecartin immerse their audiences in new worlds characterized by angst, humor and absurdity. Projects such as the “Any Ever” series (2009-10) are the result of their close collaboration over several years.
Both Fitch and Trecartin have successful solo practices, and they bring the strengths of their individual work to their collaboration. Trecartin writes the scripts for the movies that feature in their installations, developing storylines and crafting dialogue from a composite of colloquialisms, pseudo-technical jargon, and philosophical musings. During shoots, Fitch reinterprets elements of the scripts in conversation with Trecartin, and together they design the overall production and sets, usually working with a large cast of performers. Fitch and Trecartin prioritize the audience’s bodily experience of their works: their installations in galleries and museums are furnished with a range of sculptural seating for viewers to use while watching the videos, and provide headphones to offer an uninterrupted experience of the dialogue and soundtrack.
Their work Site Visit (2014) was filmed in a vast abandoned Masonic temple in Los Angeles, a setting that enhanced the post-apocalyptic, horror-movie overtone. The video footage was shot by the artists with handheld cameras as well as by performers wearing GoPro digital cameras, and was later presented in a sculptural environment containing six screens and a thirty-channel sound piece. The artists often refer to the centrality of collaboration in their practice, and not just as it relates to working with each other: Fitch/Trecartin projects involve many collaborators, from the performers and actors to the artists who contribute to the sets or create animations and other effects for the movies. Everyone involved is featured in the extensive credits at the conclusion of the videos. We met in Berlin, during the opening weekend of the 9th Berlin Biennale (curated by DIS), which featured new ‘sculptural theaters’ and videos.
How did you first meet?
Lizzie Fitch: We met in college, during our first year studying at RISD, in Providence.
Ryan Trecartin: I remember the first time I saw Lizzie, she had a shaved head and I thought she was really handsome. She was wearing a Cleveland Browns football scarf, and—I don’t know what the hell is wrong with me—I didn’t know about Brown University for some reason. So when she made some joke about dropping out or transferring to Brown, I thought she meant the football team. She intimidated me and I thought she was maybe kind of mean, even though she wasn’t. Then we ended up working together at the RISD Store and we became best friends immediately.
And how did you begin working together?
LF: Working together at the RISD Store evolved into making music and the first time we really worked together on art was filming Kitchen Girl in 2001.
RT: It was the first time I worked with editing software. Lizzie taught me how to crochet and we made a bunch of crocheted props and then we shot them. Back then, whenever I was working on a movie, the set and props were created before the script. We both cared about making the objects that would be used in some way. Lizzie was studying painting but she was always making other kinds of things—hat boxes, hanging objects that functioned like obstacles, signs, sculptural props—and we would put props and objects that related to our ideas in some way in each other’s spaces. We didn’t think of it as making art together, though.
LF: It wasn’t a choice, like ‘we’re collaborating’, or ‘we’re making something together’; it was fluid.
RT: In Providence, there were many collectives in the generation above ours, and when we were at school, people would see us making stuff together and ask us if we were a collective, too. We were anti that concept because it was a time when social media was emerging, and we thought that by becoming a collective, it was be almost the same as making work that was authored by one person. We were more interested in how people could maintain their autonomy but be networked together.
LF: More like a band.
How do you think your work together has changed in the sixteen years since then?
LF: Recently we’ve done some visits to universities and colleges and there’s definitely this idea floating around that collaboration is an important part of artistic practice. It’s interesting that it has evolved to be that way.
RT: It’s being taught.
LF: Students collaborate and there is an encouragement of that. In a way it’s positive that it’s part of the curriculum and that people are talking about it in terms of strategies to make work. But at times it feels like it’s a means to an end. I think the collaborations that end up working are those that really are organic. It’s not a practice that you can necessarily teach or assign.
RT: Yes. We collaborate and work with many people, and each collaboration is unique. Most of these relationships have just emerged naturally, they’ve never been forced or over-conceptualized ahead of time. It’s always been so fluid and that’s one of the reasons why, when a work is exhibited for the first time, there’s generally no title yet and sometimes even the authorship is decided immediately before the work goes on view. We always wait to credit something until it’s done so that the process of making the work is a fluid as possible—in some ways it’s the process that determines the authorship. That’s one of the last limitations that matter.
You both described your collaboration as coming out of a kind of attraction; is that the same with your other collaborators?
RT: Different people want different things, some people want to work anonymously and there’s freedom to that—ideas can be explored without having to be responsible for where they go. In that kind of environment, you can embrace intuitive thinking much more easily. I’m not sure what the words for it would be, but it’s kind of a safe space for exploring ideas. For example, some people want to use their performance or the set of a prop they’ve made as a platform for their own voice and have ownership of that, yet they allow it to be contextualized as fictional as the movie incorporates it. Lizzie and I have always been inspired by the multiplicity of platforms that can exist inside of a larger work, and the ways in which a single work can house many types of contributions and encompass many ways of thinking, sharing and expressing.
The process of making can definitely result in a kind of bubble around you, at least temporarily—but the rules of the quasi-hermetic space are a function of the terms that we ourselves set up. Scripting doesn’t end with language—I think of scripting in a really expansive way. It encompasses casting, all aspects of pre-production including planning and making agendas, constructing the set, props, and creating the vibe setting.
Are you open to people dropping in? I mean, if somebody famous says, “I want to be in one of your films”?
LF: We have done that.
RT: Yes, though I don’t think we would be interested in using somebody solely for their identity in real life. But who knows—I could see that changing for us, if a project conceptually seems to be calling for that way of casting. But people do drop in the shoots unplanned all the time. Someone might show up with a friend or a sibling and we will generate a reason for that to be an opportunity rather than a problem.
You both have solo careers and also a collaborative identity as Lizzie Fitch/Ryan Trecartin, with gallery representation and shows for each of those identities. How do you decide about whether what you do is solo or together?
RT: Recently we started allowing people to assume it’s a collaboration until told otherwise because, in the past, what would happen is that we’d get an opportunity and because of the way Lizzie and I work, we’d rather just start working than figure this out. We’re beginning to realize how much of the uncertainty is due to us just wanting to begin the art-making part, which means we end up putting off some of those conversations.
For our first exhibition “I Smell Pregnant” in 2006, we were so naïve. It was a great opportunity—we had recently left New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina after living there for a little over a year and we were living in LA with free studio space. We made this show and all of us worked on it together, the way we would work on a movie. The show went up, and it was doing well. But it was all under my name, which was incorrect, and we did fix the crediting later. We grew a lot after that experience and we decided then that we had to think about credits, authorship, and what it means to present work and be responsible to it and the people involved. It was the first time we realized how differently the crediting system is in contemporary art versus other forms of art like dance, music, theater, movies.
How we think about these things has evolved a lot over the years, particularly as the work has evolved—and we are still changing our ideas about this with each new project. But from the earliest days we wanted to take what the movie and music worlds had already and start insisting that if a sculpture was fabricated by someone who contributed significantly to the aesthetic conceptually or physically, there needs to be a credit for that fabricator. We wanted to ask: why can’t that be listed on the wall label rather than the dimensions? Who worries about the size of an artwork they are standing in front of it or sitting inside?
To some extent formalizing the collaborative practice beyond stand-alone sculpture happened around several exhibitions from 2009 to 2012: for “Any Ever,” particularly the later shows at MoMA PS1 in New York and the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris. We coined the term ‘sculptural theaters’ around that time to describe the environments we created to show the movies. Our normal extensive crediting was still very much part of each work, but the ‘sculptural theaters’ eventually evolved into proper Fitch/Trecartin works.
How does the division of labor and assignment of roles work when you collaborate with a big group on a movie?
LF: It’s specific to every situation; sometimes we strategize, like everyone wears the same outfit. But even then, each person puts it on differently and so it becomes part of what they’re contributing.
RT: For Center Jenny (2013), we had a make-up artist doing very specific contouring on the Jennys but for the ‘HOST’ characters, doing their own make-up was a creative contribution that each performer made.
LF: A lot of times it’s really a back and forth. You have a rack of clothes and people pick stuff. But the rack of clothes is already kind of curated. Then you still might want to direct someone a little differently. Plus there’s always a dynamic between the people in the room, putting make-up on differently but also wanting to have some cohesiveness.
Do you have any rituals associated with your collaborative work? I remember that you mentioned to me once that Red Bull played a part in some of the earlier work.
RT: Not officially! But that first wave of energy marketing was inspiring to Lizzie and me back then.
LF: We still always have Red Bulls at the shoots though. We had our first Red Bulls together.
What happened when you did that?
RT: I had an energy drink before 2000. I didn’t like coffee so my experience with caffeine was limited to soda during childhood. I had thought Red Bull was just a marketing thing but I tried one and I loved the taste. Plus I liked the rush of adrenaline I got from it.
You’ve talked about how you like to shoot the movies at night. I imagine Red Bull helps with working on that kind of schedule! Beyond that, can you describe how collaboration comes into play during your shoots?
RT: Shooting at night and for long hours started because we wanted to control the lighting easily, as well as attention spans and interruptions. We like 360-degree sets, so that if there’s any fallout it might become material, because there is no ‘behind the scenes’. We also knew that working this way ensured there were not going to be lots of interruptions that would cause people to break whatever trance they’ve developed for themselves. Also, one of the ways the movies reflect culture is in the cryptic or more nuanced things that happen. These moments that are more vibe-based often emerge from a somewhat abstract form and evolve into a materialized form through collaborating, shooting at night and from working in a state of near exhaustion. People will hear a word, and they’ll hear it wrong and then associate it with a prop. Then all of a sudden this prop gets more meaningful and resonant or represents a more complex activation of meaning because somebody saw something that we didn’t see. Ideas are always being reshaped, redirected or recontextualized through the act of the performers working with the scripts. At those moments you’re in a more lucid state and ideas are inserted, and instead of it being a bad thing or a fallout, it becomes something that hijacks the original script, and rewrites it collaboratively in the moment—this is how we add the script as we’re going along. When something develops additional meaning, it’s just another layer that gets put into the mix, rather than erasing the meaning associated with it initially.
It would be good to talk about your use of language, because it’s such an important part of what your work is about: you coin neologisms and verbal expressions that sound so striking and memorable but also somehow strangely familiar. How does that come about? I know that Ryan scripts the movies, but do you ever script, Lizzie, or do you exchange the script at all?
RT: Well nothing is 100 percent set, but I do the scripting, and Lizzie does quite a bit of in-the-moment editing of the script… as we shoot. It’s real-time commenting.
LF: I never see the script until the night of the shoot, so it is fresh for me. I feel that the way I script is in terms of ideas or moments. For the last project (the footage from which was part of various works such as Site Visit, Temple Time, Permission Streak, and Safety Pass, among others) we shot quite a bit with drones, which was new for us. The space was a 100,000 square-foot Masonic temple, and we were always moving around the building whereas with pervious works we were in smaller domestic-sized spaces that were really frontal and in your face. I usually have a sense of the context of the script, whereas most of the actors usually don’t. I think that’s why I am always directing Ryan back to the script, to the lines of thinking. Things go off in different directions, which is what we want to a certain extent, but then they come back to those major lines.
RT: We also insert things like obstacles or opportunities as we’re shooting. So, Lizzie might fly a drone in when it wasn’t a part of the plan, and all of a sudden everyone is distracted by this drone, but it might create an incredible moment that feels like we could never have orchestrated through the script. In effect, though, it’s two scripted agendas that begin to react to each other as they are being captured. Negotiating these moments in post expands the possibility of each script’s original purpose or intention.
It reminds me a bit of a method of directing where the director will try to make the actor cry or elicit a real emotional response in the moment.
LF: I think we try to do that.
RT: We’re interested in language surprising itself and describing the future in a way that is or isn’t actually happening on screen. It’s a conflict between a present intention or a present reality, and the needs of the language to be different from that—or language reaching beyond some observable context. I feel like a lot of the sci-fi elements are located only in the words, rather than in the actual things happening on screen or in the relationship that response might be composed to have cause or effect.
It’s interesting that you describe the language as having its own persona and surprising itself, as if it was one of the performers in the work. In terms of developing ideas, do you both have to like the idea to go forward?
LF: No is the answer! There are a lot of conflicting views.
RT: Yeah. Conflicting views, though, can be much more inspiring and fun than they might seem—they encourage novel reactive thinking that when in a creative space often lead to brainstorms that are much more complex and diverse than any single person could have imagined. This also related to play—meaning, creative conflict encourages ‘play’ when the people involved respect and admire each other. We try to encourage surprise and opportunity throughout the making process, rather than feeling that we need to strictly follow the original vision. We are very much inside the process, too: we are listening, watching, being attentive to even the smallest details the performers or the set present, which can catalyze new ways of understanding the content. And the performers often do the same thing back at us.
LF: It pushes you to really have a good reason to do what you’re doing, which is actually wonderful, because you have to justify it to another person. That is one of the really valuable dynamics in our relationship.
RT: You know, so much of that is about not using verbal language actually. We do a lot of non-speaking communicating.
LF: Like punching each other—just kidding! More like strategic tapping and grunting.
RT: But very often—more often than not—we just process both ideas on top of each other or in a conjoined state. We merge them and come up with something better than either of the options that we might have been arguing about.
That’s a really interesting picture. It’s no even like you’re compromising, you’re recombining.
RT: Yes. I actually think the process involves quite a bit of non-compromising behavior. We’ll do everyone’s version, which ends up casting a much wider, more difficult net of supplies to edit from—certain shoots become puzzles.
LF: The editing process turns into a script-writing process again, because you’re not dealing with footage that contains just one thing you want to get from it. You’re dealing with footage which has thirty scenes or moments or elements of a scene you want to make out of it. Sometimes the editing process is about literally cutting up a line and rewriting it word by word.
Do you find that it’s more efficient for you to work together than alone?
RT: I think it is efficient because we embrace this thing where we don’t always have to get each other’s approval. We are very often working separately but next to each other and then bring it together.
Do you have a space where you both work?
LF: Right now we do, but we’ve never had one model for what a workspace should be. We’ve editied in different places, we’ve made sculptures together where we’re not in the same room, and sometimes we’re right next to each other working on one thing.
RT: I think another efficiency thing is that we’re not always inspired at the same time but the project will keep going anyway because as one drops it and gets frustrated, all of a sudden the other one gets really into it, and then there’s a kind of bouncing back and forth.
Do you ever have to have moments when you don’t talk about work?
LF: There are no boundaries. I think each of us at different times wants to not have to work, but that flip-flops.
RT: Yeah, we’re really bad at that, we’re kind of all-or-nothing people. But right now we’re looking forward to taking a break because it’s been so intense these last there years in particular. We’re so inspired by our friends and have been wanting to spend more time just exploring and developing ideas with them, for our own projects and theirs.
Is there a philosophical or political aspect to the act of collaboration for you? Or is there a moral sense in which you think more people should it?
RT: I think the ideal way to collaborate—no matter how that comes to be—ensures that everyone who collaborated feels good about it or at least values the outcome or the process. That means something different for everyone and I don’t feel there’s a way to make a real model for it. I think trying to make one model for it is kind of the opposite of what collaboration is.
LF: It would be limiting the potential that it could actually have.
RT: Yeah, for me, collaboration is not about how things are merged, it’s about preserving diversity and simplifying ideas while simultaneously making the work that results from these ideas more complex and layered. It’s also about being excited about how your ideas are transformed and humbled by other people’s ideas. If they do merge to create something, the people involved are still autonomous and respected, and have authority and agency.
I think that’s one of the reasons we were scared of the concept of a collective at the beginning, though now I have very different ideas about it because I see collectives that are a hybrid of all the different ways of working. Ultimately every artist has to decide for themselves what working process feels right and I think for most this is an ongoing evolution rather than a single moment of epiphany.
Do you think there’s a generational aspect to the growing tendency to collaborate in the generation of people who have grown up using the internet since they were children? To those individuals being networked feels natural and rather than all becoming the same they can be connected and differentiate themselves concurrently?
RT: I would assume that has been a part of it but I’ve also started to feel as though maybe we over-credit technology. I think there’s something cosmic, too, it’s not just the internet.