Jenny Death


Art-world titans of the 2010s anticipate a fast, frenetic future.


Early on in Center Jenny, a 2013 film by the experimental videographer Ryan Trecartin, there’s an androgynous talk-show host surrounded by speed-talking sorority girls, each of whom is giggling—as annoyingly as possible—through self-centered, solipsist gibberish. The host seems to be aware of this, and for a second, just one second, there’s a glint of justice: “You’re always mean to people who don’t belong… try being a little bit nicer,” he sasses at one of the sisters, flashing a sardonic smirk. “When I don’t like someone, I’m always nice to them, because I’m a nice person.” It’s simple, the same way the Golden Rule is simple, or empathy is simple, or saying thank you is simple, or being a good person is simple. But it’s also a scam, which sucks, because like many of these things—the Golden Rule, empathy, saying thank you, being a good person—making it a scam, a falsehood, is far more difficult than simply doing the right thing. The talk-show host is lying through his teeth: his strange enclave is an in-group that knows it’s being looked at, and in knowing that it’s being looked at, weaponizes its insularity in bright, garish, fuck-you-colored fits. You’re always mean to people who don’t belong, he says; but he talks just as quickly as they do, says just as many solipsist nothings, gives just as many (zero) fucks about anyone else. You’re always mean to people who don’t belong, he says; but the people who don’t belong are us.

“When I watch his videos, I feel a speeded-up version of what we’re all doing.”

Center Jenny was filmed exclusively after sundown, which is a trademark of Trecartin’s early work: he liked being able to control set lighting, but also thought nocturnes evoked “interior fluid containment,” as if spaces, particularly the ones we occupy after dark, were malleable. At 43 years old, he’s a relic of an awkward technological middle-ground, where teenagers who tinkered with nascent websites in the 90s grew up to tweet through one digital revolution after the next—Blackberries to iPhones, desktops to laptops, cable to streaming. If Y2K was a harbinger for the aughts, this tentative decade that trudged towards suspicious technologies, the 2010s were something of a speedrun, barreling through yesterday’s boundaries at breakneck pace. And this limitlessness, the “fluid containment” Trecartin envisioned for his productions, was something his work over-lavished in, almost pornographically. To watch a Trecartin film is to be inundated, like a prisoner strapped to a torture chair, with things of varying levels of importance. Or, put more plainly, to watch a Trecartin film is to be online. There are half-naked women, snobbish academics, indiscernible slang-spitters, copycats. They’re all occupying the same digisphere, and they all think they’re the most important person in it.

Still from CENTER JENNY (2013). Image courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York / Regen Projects, Los Angeles

It’s strange to revisit these movies in 2024, and not only because they’re aggro, or unconventional, or slightly disturbing. When Trecartin was an undergraduate at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he made his most revered films, he etched a place alongside the Soulja Boys and Lil Bs of the world: early-2010s torchbearers who broke through the aughts’ digital barriers, and in doing so, became intellectual curiosities. (It’s well-known lore that Lil B once embarked on a series of university lectures; at his famed NYU speech, he knighted a wide-eyed kid named Timothee Chalamet.) This was apt, because new digi-anarchy meant a need for new figureheads: not necessarily to establish parameters, but more so to demonstrate how far, and how freely, the parameters that already existed could be pushed. “It was like a cultural watershed,” Massamiliano Gioni, the artistic director of Manhattan’s New Museum, told the New Yorker of Trecartin’s work, in 2014. “I felt this was the voice of a different age and a different time, a different sexuality, a different kind of behavior. There’s this idea that a character can be many people at the same time. And the act of communication becomes the subject of his videos. We’re all trying to communicate, and what we communicate about is less and less relevant. When I watch his videos, I feel a speeded-up version of what we’re all doing.”

Ten years later, the films are still speed-runs of what we’re all doing, which is stranger now than it was then, because we’re all doing those things far faster than we ever did. In retrospect, immersing—then recognizing—oneself in Center Jenny’s insular digital wasteland is also acknowledging, even if subconsciously, a crucial line of questioning: Where do we even go from here? The 2020s are only four years old, but within that brief span, the answer has seemed to be an emphatic, eye-rolling “everywhere.” The boundaries Trecartin’s early-10’s films fucked with aren’t so much boundaries, anymore, as ghostly suggestions, old wraiths of a bygone time that used to think certain things were off limits. Today, not only are old border-lines largely obsolete, but they’re laughable, too: of course you can have a different sexuality; of course you can have a different kind of behavior; of course you can be multiple people at the same time; of course all of us are trying to communicate; of course none of this is going to matter in five years. Faced with its own fleetingness, our fast-paced era resolves to do everything as superlatively as possible—no different, in theory, from the Trecartin-heads who YOLO’d through the 2010s, or the GeoCities geeks who hacked through the 1980s. Every day, the prefix “hyper” means less than it did a week ago.

“Every year we acclimate to a faster pace. (…) It’s as if the momentum and transformative possibilities of information are more important than securing a static legacy.”

Still from CENTER JENNY (2013). Photo courtesy of Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal

Center Jenny revolves around a group of evolved sorority sisters, most of whom are named Jenny, and all of whom speak the same trippy digi-dialect dotted with idiosyncrasies. Their problems feel faintly of our era—“My parents bought me a consciousness expander to automate my homework,” one Jenny yelps, and she could easily be talking about ChatGPT 4—which is slightly odd, given that they’re all computerized post-human entities. When I watched the film a few weeks ago, I couldn’t stop revisiting a scene near the midway point. There’s a circle of cunty cyborgs seated in an open-floor space, staring at each other between word-dumps of weird shit. “That’s something I actually teach my student,” an imposing professor tells them, seconds after spawning out of literally nowhere. “We’ve evolved from animations, and these animations actually evolved from humans. (…) At our university, we teach people about our ancestors. And when I say people, I mean the things that you have become most recently.” This fluid definition of evolution, one that shirks stringent demarcation—the “this” era, the “that” era—for something sentient and amorphous, seems unsettling by 2013 standards, but hauntingly familiar by 2024 ones. Trecartin’s “limitless” logic transcends film, or phones: as we’ve done things faster, and kicked old limits farther, we’ve also flattened time, even if only the way we remember it. It’s difficult to call anything a new “era,” let alone grant any era the permanence that word suggests, when the lifespan of an era has shrunken down from centuries, to decades, to years, to album rollouts. Trecartin’s work, per the New Yorker’s Calvin Tompkins, is “not about technology or social media, (…) but about how the Internet changes the way we relate to the world and to one another.” Evolved or not, we aren’t entirely different from Center Jenny’s sorority solipsists: so long as we’re online, we’re just as post-human as they are. Time doesn’t matter; but hey: that’s okay. Neither does anything else.

If Trecartin’s filmography is any indication, post-humanity might also be over-humanity. Like his other early-2010s productions, Center Jenny is largely concerned with consciousness, particularly when placed, then left to rot, in digital hive-minds—social media services, cell-phone tracking systems, online forums. Death-by-indulgence isn’t a new idea, but it’s disarming to see it enacted by people who look like us, even if exaggeratedly. Depending on who you ask, a thematic thread might be traced back to the Decadent Movement, a 19th-Century push that saw European artists vouch for proud-faced hedonism—torture to a waning British Empire, but a boon to people whose pleasures, up to then, had largely been private. Across the ocean, contemporary American subcultures brimmed with sex throughout the 20th Century, but never as publicly, nor proudly, as they soon would online: a bustling body-economy, steeped in cameras, and coinage, beyond Hugh Hefner’s wildest dreams. Like Trecartin’s odd generational middle-ground, these eras, too, were faced with a post-barrier cultural question—Where do we even go from here?—which all seemed to yield more indulgences, more overstimulation, more consciousness-expansion. And as much as it may hurt to admit, someday long after today, you, the person reading this, are going to look around at whatever new boundaries your neighbors—all of them younger, all of them idiosyncratic—have broken, and wonder how everyone seems so synced, so identical. They could all be named Jenny.

Trecartin knows this. It’s a major reason why his films, Center Jenny especially, play so recklessly, so dangerously, with time. “I like exploiting certain things that I know are going to become dated. Pace is one of these,” he told Frieze, in 2011. “Every year we acclimate to a faster pace. (…) It’s as if the momentum and transformative possibilities of information are more important than securing a static legacy.” To his point, Center Jenny might have a plot, but whatever it may be, it doesn’t really matter. You don’t know what’s going on, and for reasons both terrifying and weirdly appealing, that’s no object: it’s all happening so fast that you can’t possibly be bored.

“I ponder digesting razors just to be done with you. I love you so much.”

Lizzie Fitch/Ryan Trecartin, SITE VISIT (2014) installation view. Photo by Thomas Eugster. Courtesy the artists; Andrea Rosen Gallery New York; Regen Projects Los Angeles; and Sprüth Magers Berlin London.

Nine years ago, the experimental hip-hop trio Death Grips leaked Jenny Death, the second of two full-length projects they’d eventually compile into a 2015 double album. Where its predecessor, Niggas on the Moon, felt a lot like a Trecartin film—indiscernible Björk samples; itchy E-drums with weird time signatures; word-vomits digi-bludgeoned into diced, dramatic-sounding dogshit—the new disc was noticeably rockier, a guitar-driven tour-de-force that featured real words, real instruments, real suffering. No proof exists online that Center Jenny was an influence, but to diehards, it’s become something of an open secret. Three years prior, the band had sampled Trecartin’s I-Be Area on @deathgripz, a loosie track that premiered exclusively on Adult Swim. (“That’s me!” the sample rasps.) Like the filmmaker, Death Grips’ influences lay somewhere between hyper-onlineness, death-by-digisphere, and overstimulation; if Center Jenny centered, well, Jennys—martyrs of the internet who become its jelly-minded ministers—then Jenny Death seemed to embody freedom by suicide, a deliverance from the matrix that demanded righteous self-destruction. For an outfit that had long relished in back-alleys and bloodspray, it was somewhat shocking to see death not only laid bare, but pointed inwards instead of at the world. A glance at the tracklist was telling enough—“Inanimate Sensation”; “Turned Off”; “Beyond Alive”—but the messaging, too, was considerably more clear-eyed, more vulnerable, than it had ever been. “I ponder digesting razors just to be done with you,” frontman Stefan “MC Ride” Burnett screeched, midway through “Centuries of Damn.” Much like Center Jenny’s talk-show host, he was either lying or conflicted. One second later: “I love you so much.”

“Anyone could be a Jenny.”

A month or so ago, a fan took to the band’s Reddit forum to share a 2015 exchange he’d had with a Center Jenny actress on Facebook. While Death Grips increasingly relished in ambiguity, the myth surrounding their output mushroomed; in scrounging for potential exegeses, eager followers pounced on Trecartin’s productions, rabid for hints. For the most fervent of the faithful, Center Jenny was key to cracking the code. The glitched-out gibberish, the digi-dystopianism, the breakneck pacing: if Death Grips were to make a movie, this had to be what it looked like. The problem was that nobody knew what it meant. “Uh center jenny is a hyper depiction of a post internet sorority world where everyone is beyond human,” the actress wrote, in one of several messages. The fan asked what a “Jenny” was; she gave two answers, the first of which was somewhat specific—“they are like super human girls who are also insane monsters”—and the second of which was more vague: “anyone could be a jenny.”

Still from official music video for Death Grips – “On GP”

There’s truth to her take, and in some sense, it’s a truth the Powers That Be are catching on to. Two years ago, Senators Richard Blumenthal and Marsha Blackburn introduced the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), a bill that, if passed, would regulate digital content by forcing social media apps out of algorithm-based frameworks. Though ideas of content-monitoring aren’t necessarily new—for our era, nor the ones that preceded it—this new iteration rides a larger, more widespread distrust of “big tech,” a loose conglomerate of influential IT-industry fixtures lambasted by conservative outcry. KOSA is one among several battlegrounds hosting this particular culture war; across them all, the general call-to-arms seems to go along these lines: Not only are the evil companies taking our money… but they’re using it to stupefy, harm, and mutilate our children! This past February, Blumenthal and Blackburn’s bill reached 60 backers in the U.S. Senate—much to the dismay of Civil Rights activists, who’d long cautioned against its implications for censorship, manipulation, and revisionist history. (Among the most pressing dangers for kids on social media, according to Blackburn: Critical Race Theory.) After failing to pass in 2022, the bill rode President Biden’s State of the Union Speech into newfound popularity; last year, a reintroduced version was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee. As of this writing, it has yet to make it to the House of Representatives.

If you were alive in the 2010s, the 2000s, the 1980s, the 1960s, or even the 1920s, none of this should be exceptionally shocking: when a certain threshold is breached, particularly between what the young can do and what the old can understand, the latter generation frantically seeks to reinforce order—or, in other terms, their grasp on the world. Within a few decades, those young people become older people, and while the culture they once commandeered grows beyond their grip, some begin eyeing their children and grandchildren with increasing concern. A fundamental crux of the issue, regardless of whatever ulterior one serves as a disguise, is that things are moving faster than they ever did, and this time, this time, the treadmill needs to stop. It’s why if you scan the comments, or Letterboxd reviews, of any Trecartin film, you’ll find several instances of “this is so ahead of its time”: not because its specific predictions, if any, have come true, but because it so masterfully nails the pace at which they do. Like he told Frieze, the transformative possibilities of information have superseded, outrun, a number of things—information itself included.

“Sorry… I’m just waiting for my… boyfriend to text me.”

Long before they toyed with online-offline binaries on The Powers that B, their 2015 double LP, Death Grips released Exmilitary (2011), a free-download mixtape that etched their place in a new punk canon. Though they’d pepper their catalog with subtleties later on, “Culture Shock,” a deep-cut on that project, remains their most razor-edged critique of doomscrolling demises, a flattening of spirit by internet. “You speak in abbreviations because real life conversation moves too slow,” Burnett drawls, somewhat mockingly, at one point. “You’re the media’s creation, yeah your free will has been taken and you don’t know… Choke yourself, fuck yourself.” For most of Center Jenny’s runtime, it seems as if he could be talking specifically to Trecartin’s solipsist sorority girls—helpless drones who’ve been possessed by the digisphere, but in their predicaments, opt to flaunt their demons rather than exorcize them. The first scene that made me laugh comes about ten minutes in: there’s a circle of sisters, just as there had been with the talk-show host, and they’re talking about “nanomagic,” which is supposedly the ritual through which they’re about to “access the foundation of consciousness.” “Y’all need to stand up,” a devout sister snaps, glaring at two girls seated on a swing. Everyone is standing in a circle, and the pair are the only ones who’ve disobeyed the instructions: rise to your feet in contrition; put your phones in the middle. “Sorry… I’m just waiting for my… boyfriend to text me,” one of the girls stammers, absent-mindedly getting up from her seat. “Sorry, I’m just waiting for my boyfriend to text me,” her counterpart says a split-second later, like a kid who hears an instruction, hears what their sibling said, then mimics it, as if to preserve mental space for Instagram reels. We don’t get to see whether the nanomagic ritual works, and it doesn’t really matter: wherever the center of consciousness may be, it’s moving a million miles an hour, damning some to chase it in restrictive offline cults, and others to chase it in even more restrictive online ones. It sounds so familiar it’s funny.

When I watched Center Jenny for the first time, it had been a few months since I revisited Jenny Death, which I’d bristled at years prior, but steadily begun learning to appreciate. The previous summer, Death Grips had embarked on a mysterious U.S. tour; by the time they played my local venue, they’d replaced producer Andy Morin with Nick Reinhart, a California guitarist whose mammoth pedalboard(s) made for freakish, alienly iterations of familiar songs. I didn’t record any of the concert, and my voice memo didn’t survive the opening seconds of “I’ve Seen Footage,” but from what I remember, the entire moment felt—not sounded, felt, physically—like a cinderblock of harsh, amorphous noise, pummeling my ears while other bodies battered my bones. As is pre-show protocol, I’d spent the past week or so frantically refamiliarizing myself with Death Grips’ catalog: a fickle, stupid effort that began and ended with The Money Store.  (“Real Money Store guy, huh?” a small-talking fan asked me, moments after hearing my setlist wish-list.) And yet, in retrospect, part of why I enjoyed their set so much was because ninety-nine percent of the time, I had no idea what was going on. Time was moving faster; wounded bodies were being whisked away by guards; water bottles were being tossed out like humanitarian aid; sweat and spilled beer made the floor a sticky soup. I loved being taken somewhere, maybe even more than I hated not knowing where I was going. “I mean, I love remembering,” Trecartin once said. “But sometimes you have to forget in order to grow.” The bigger the “information” in “information era” becomes, the more sense it makes.

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