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“Everything that is IRL about Freedom”

50th Anniversary Issue

September was Art Forum’s special 50th Anniversary issue, called “Art’s New Media.” It’s a great issue that covers a lot of ground, there’s an essay on Jurassic Park (yes!) and Bruce Sterling writes about HELL_TREE, Petra Cortwright’s new e-book (also awesome).

I just finished reading a media study column written by Ryan Trecartin on page 471. There are ~50 of these media studies by different artists (from Barbara Kruger to Alex Bag) in the issue. Trecartin uses prosumerism in his piece to frame experiences of consumption as forms of production. “Prosumer” generally means a consumer that produces content, or some other kind of value in a marketplace without receiving compensation (think: yelp reviews and/or the venture labor of blogging for free). The futurologist Alvin Toffler created the concept in the 1980s to mean a proactive or professional consumer who contributes to the development of new products and production processes, blurring the roles of producers and consumers. The term can also refer to actual things like video equipment or digital cameras and the semiprofessionals or über informed consumers who buy them. Prosumerism has been revisited by sociologists and social media theorists to describe commons and participation on the web. Nathan Jurgenson and George Ritzer have written that prosumption is a key characteristic of participating on social media platforms because, “Web 2.0 facilitates the implosion of production and consumption.”

In this media study Trecartin describes consumption as production, putting them on a spectrum of commensurability. This is the first time I’ve seen the term explicitly used in art writing, though Trecartin is not the first to demonstrate prosumption techniques in art practice. What is interesting to me is that Trecartin is not writing about social media or even artists using social media as practice, he’s talking about the implosion of production and consumption in everyday networked life. More importantly he points to practices of prosumption without a.) relying on an artificial online and offline distinction of experience (or what Jurgenson describes as the fallacy of digital dualism) or b.) rejecting digital dualism by theorizing what digital dualism isn’t to make the claim. He’s using the term in a completely new way. And while he’s a prosumer in much of his video work, Trecartin is using the term wrong in his column (perhaps another kind of implosion?). He writes,

“Childbirth, which is typically seen as some weird selfless and/or selfish act of productivity, is ultimately a very complicated system of consumption and collaboration–a kind of natural prosumerism synonymous with existence.”

This statement that frames childbirth as natural prosumerism is incoherent and biologistic. And sexist. He fails to mention the importance of actual BODIES in the metaphor, so maybe it’s just a sloppy metaphor? In any case, most of us can foresee the problems with naturalizing anything that women’s bodies do or don’t do to exist. Trecartin has displayed a weakness for this trap of reductionism and women’s bodies before. How he manages to avoid getting caught in this trap has not been explained to me (yet).


I will admit that his ideas about space-times are very engaging. Trecartin is an artist who addresses online networked living through his video practice, subjects, and collaborative process. Critics argue that his work is commentary on using technology in the digital age. Kevin McGarry has written that Trecartin’s video art, “advances understandings of post-millennial technology, narrative and identity.” A bona fide prosumer at the beginning of the third millennium, Trecartin distributes most of his video art through YouTube, Vimeo, and he uses a lot of IKEA furniture in his installation work:

Trecartin 2010

Any Ever 2009/2010 video series

Trecartin concludes the column with this gem:

“I’m personally very interested in art that manages to operate as a tool, a system, a generosity, an agency, and some kind of an actual alteration in the network of shared language and personal space-times. This is one reason why I love hammers, editing software, and humor: They are, in form and in function everything that is IRL about freedom.”

Trecartin is speaking to the possibilities of prosumerism beyond the rise of consumer-grade digital equipment of the 1990s and the Web 2.0 of the present, despite the fact that he uses both to make and distribute his video work. So it’s interesting to think what is IRL about the freedom and obligations to prosume having viewed some of Trecartin’s films. The quartet Re’Search Wait’S  in Any Ever was definitely my favorite when it came to LA’s MOCA PDC cube. Many of the videos featured female characters using cell phones. Cell phones, avatars, and sped up footage provoke the viewer to acknowledge the prosumption implosion of our networked cell phone subjectivity. Patrick Langley probably captured this sentiment best in the title of his thorough review of Trecartin’s work:



***thanks to AMM, KK, and AJL for helping think thru some of the ideas in this post,
also The Society Pages Cyborgology blog has been a great source to read about digital dualism