Known for his movies full of tripped out characters drawing much of their language from the Internet, artist Ryan Trecartin is an unlikely developer. He doesn’t know how to program. He spends all his time making movies. This hasn’t changed, though he is the driving creative force behind a new chat-routlette-esque platform conceived last spring in collaboration with tumblr Founder David Karp at Rhizome’s Seven on Seven conference. Dubbed riverthe.net (formerly Project Ten and currently at the temporary url riverofthe.net), the online tool strings together 10 second videos uploaded by users through tag alone. Only three tags can be given to any video.
Today, Trecartin releases the URL for the first time to the public, exclusively through AFC. It will also be presented in the form of a projection, October 20th as part of The New Museum’s Free, an exhibition curated by Lauren Cornell exploring how artists are responding to the new, expanded public space the Internet has created. What follows is a conversation between Trecartin and myself about riverthe.net.
Paddy Johnson: Can you talk about Rhizome’s Seven on Seven technology and art conference, and how your project was born evolved out of that event.
Ryan Trecartin: With Seven on Seven, when I got paired up with [Tumblr founder] David [Karp] last April, I was really happy. We were thinking about creating a small tool that could be utilized within a larger context of media being interactive. In River The Net (riverthe.net), [first conceived as Project Ten back in April] you can upload a ten second or less clip, anonymously, and you have the option of giving that video three tags. When you go to the website, there's no interface, you're immediately confronted with a video playing full-screen. It picks a tag randomly, and follows that tag. Basically, it creates a situation where there's a movie made by everyone and the plot arc is the life of a tag. One of the things we kept talking about was wanting to see the interface move inside the content, rather than surrounding the content.
PJ: What does that mean?
RT: Well, the way the web works now is that content will be framed by the interface, the tools circle the content. So when you play a movie, there's something around it, framing it, and the buttons are there, and everything is laid out so it looks like a weird calculator.
PJ: So it's like a fake TV screen within a screen?
RT: Right, with faux remote control buttons, and everything's very framed and positioned around something. It would be nice if the functions of an interface were inherent and merged with the content being explored. So when you go to a website, you're not really in a location. We talk about the “desktop” or “home page” like they're locations, but really, they aren’t — I think these transitional labels encourage nostalgic design, keeping much potential closeted. We don't need to think of [these files] as a location, and when we start to make the interface not have to feel like it's a place, it starts to be more like what [the web] actually is, rather than looking like a house or a notebook. We started talking about different sites that we love, like Chatroulette or Dump.fm, and how we wished people used them more intensely as tools. They're amazing, unfortunatly sites often blow up for a period of time and then cool down before they have a chance to evolve, while things like Facebook, where you can organize everything, linger, because people can be lazy about destination, maintence and navigation (myself included). How do you gather all these things and use them more as tools without a home base? One of the cool things about being paired with David is that Tumblr is really good at allowing people to organize and share anything in ways that dont feel overly shadowed by the site as a destination. We were thinking really big picture about all this stuff, and we were like, “Well, let's just make a tool, that can work into a larger idea later,” which is how we started to narrow in on this idea of Project Ten [River The Net].
PJ: Do you have a Tumblr?
RT: Um, no, but I use it a lot, I like searching on it — I avoid creating usernames, because I'll shape it for a period of time and then drop it, and I don't like dropping things. So I'm not on Facebook, I abandoned my Friendster in 2004 or 2005 — I focus mostly on sites that deal with video. Even so, my vimeo and youtube are neglected most of the year.
PJ: The kind of regularity, though, that's not required for Tumblr — I mean, you can update it a lot or not very much at all. It seems like the days of posts saying “sorry I don't have time to post today” are coming to an end.
RT: I think you're right; just today, I was thinking I would start my Tumblr today because it is less stress than the other options. There aren't any rules.
PJ: And users will go through intense periods of activity, and then go dormant, so it feels far more fluid, to me — there's not that guilt associated with it.
RT: Yeah. That was one of the things that led us to talking about video in particular. David was interested in hearing more, from someone who makes videos, about what they think about Youtube and Vimeo. And one of the issues I have with those sites is that they're still stuck in this broadcast-mode type of mentality where you post something and it's there, and any sort of interactivity takes place in the form of a list. Obviously, there's so much you can do with that, and you can expand it in so many ways. I feel like the iPad is going to help people start to see movies as datasets, instead of linear pieces that you look at from beginning to end, so people start navigating these spaces more horizontally.
PJ: Why do you think the iPad will change things? Why is it different from a laptop in terms of viewing experience?
RT: I don't think the iPad will be any sort of end-all, but the iPad is encouraging people to make apps, and that structure allows people to see the Internet the way they want to see it, in the context of the app’s content, it’s like making a curatorial lense for an idea. It opens up and organizes, suggestions that are already there. I want to provide the option to treat the seven movies I just finished [Any Ever] like a dataset, and allow people to have an editorial voice. I want them to be able to navigate and research within the content of the movies, to have that experience of watching something you steer and that can go across different spaces of media. Watching becomes a form of reading. As all forms of media merge and collaborate I think the future of movie making might invlove creating the supplies and a structure that can house the supplies potential, the viewer becomes an editor in which the experience of viewing and reading involves personal agency and creative problem solving.
PJ: All of this, then comes out of Project Ten and correct me if I'm wrong, but you see Project Ten as coming out of a desire to get away from artificial desktop player-sets, and towards something more interactive and intuitive.
PJ: What's the URL for this?
RT: It's riverthe.net. The first thing you should know is that the decision to finish the piece for Free [at the New Museum, from October 20th] happened fairly recently. So the site will most likely change a lot in the next couple months as we figure out any kinks that come up. I don't know how to program, and [tumblr's] David Karp is very busy, so Lauren Cornell put me in contact with Nick Hasty, who's been completely amazing and doing all the programming, with the help of Sergio Pastor, who I’ve collaborated with in the past. They're doing a ton of creative trouble shooting and all the grunt work for this, really making it happen. Also, the new URL, and thinking of it as a river was Nick’s idea and I think it’s a really good one.
PJ: Now, these tags — the words do seem like they could serve as icons, as something more directorial. It seems like there's no way around using text.
RT: It would be cool to avoid text, hopefully we can eventually branch into icons and emoticons as tags as well. Words are very inspiring, and picking a tag, being able to poetically translate and add to that, is exciting. Also, you can use this as a tool to research things — if you type in 'client', you can draw on the collective consensus of the users of the site, watching their idea of the meaning of the word 'client' as a movie. One of the things I want to be able to do with this is to give every tag a URL, so that if you're using a word in a blog, that can be a link that goes straight to it’s movie stream. Links that act as jumping off points into the river of that topic.
PJ: That's fantastic.
RT: So that's where it becomes a tool, and not just a contained site.
PJ: This reminds me of Lance Wakeling, the editor of Private Circulation, a PDF bulletin distributed only through e-mail, who recently talked about how when we introduced print media, it made language physical, a medium which is by nature immaterial. His argument was that our move to the web takes us one step closer to approximating how language is supposed to function. It seems like this could work towards that, as something more intuitive as if mimicking the process of thinking itself.
RT: It’s interesting how forms of intelligence are endless. I feel like our ability to understand vibes, and to exchange intuition is growing; there's a way to express a whole idea without using words, and it's happening more and more, as we invent new tools. As these tools get better and better, we seem to be slowly coming at some sort of a full circle; having formed language, we are now moving back to thought, to knowing things before articulating them, and articulating being just for fun or a creative experience. Instead of defining something, [with riverthe.net] you link to an accumulation of how a topic or idea has been resonating or vibrating in culture. If you let that wash over you, you get a perception that you can't get from a definition. Definitions are important too, it's just that there's more to work with. And maybe definitions are now more like filters and applications that grow meaning rather than containers that crop, lock, and compress meaning.
PJ: So, for Free, how will it be presented?
RT: What Lauren [Cornell] wants to do with it, and I'm really excited about this, is that at Free it's not going to be interactive at all, it's going to be projected really big, and just left to run in a kind of auto-party mode. Picking its own tags, and it will be like a movie — you'll be watching a movie that is a river of themes and topics, with the plots curated by the viewer as they investigate the transitions, the edits. Obviously, there will be information as to what it is, and then hopefully people, when they go home, will want to see how it works as an interactive thing, and people will start contributing to it. I’m excited to see how people manipulate the tools potential, for example one could make a fictional character, idea, or phrase as a tag. As people stumble apond that tag they will see the shape of that characters collective narrative and can alter it by contributing. This happens on youtube all the time, but the chatter happens as a list out side the original, with the the river, the orignal will never be noted or prioratized, and there will be no opportunities to flag a video, or conceptually own the identity of it, and so the collective shape of that particular stream will be 100% open. A tag could potentially become virally particpated in, but a particular video couldn’t become viral as an autonomous item unless it’s being hosted somewhere else, since it wouldn’t ever be able to be accessed directly at will from the river. Also the site wont have any way to favorite or house content in any sort of user based screen name way, and so the tool must be brought to other sites such as tumblr if one wants to lubricate there connection to a tag. Also I hope to see people use it as a research tool, for artists and writers and such; when you're working on an idea and you start Googling it, this is another place where you can sit back and watch the flow of that topic, if that topic has a tag.
PJ: Fan fiction will explode once more on the internet! Also, I would use the site.
RT: I would too! It's slightly selfish.
PJ: Well, I think that's why things like this get built. It also seems to fit perfectly squarely into the exhibition theme, which is to explore the limitations and freedoms of a space reliant on the web, so even its presentation occurring in two different forms makes sense for the thesis of the show.
RT: I'm really excited about the way she [Lauren Cornell]'s approaching the show. She doesn't want to have any obvious interactivity in the museum space. She's showing art that is related to our technologies, but she's not just going to throw a bunch of technological devices all over the place. I think it's really going to challenge people's ideas of where we are actually at. I think technology is us, and we've changed with ourselves; it's not an other. When you show a stagnant or unplugged item, in a world that is post 2.0 programming, you start to see how much our mind sets have grown and changed language and meaning. The tools stay with our thought process even when we aren't using them.