Petra Cortright, born in 1986, is a Los Angeles-based artist whose work initially became popular on the Internet a few years ago when she began interacting with audiences/users through her performative YouTube, webcam videos. In these solos, which, perhaps unconsciously double as self-portraits, Cortright who often sports sunglasses and bright lipstick, uses her movements to convey a vibe of sorts. Without any dialog, but often incorporating electronic tracks laid over the video, she addresses her audience by looking directly into the camera, while at other times wanders seemingly aimlessly as if deep in thought and unaware of her self-documenting process. Humor also often comes into play as Cortright uses programs such as Photoshop, Photo Booth, Magic Camera, Flash, After Effects and Maya to manipulate and skew her own image.
Over the past few years, as her work has gradually transitioned more and more into the three-dimensional, real space of the white cube with group and solo exhibitions of her video along with other works like a series of flags and “paintings” on aluminum, Cortright has also continued to become more and more infamous within Internet communities of artists and other visually-minded, new media thinkers who are utilizing the unique terrain of the Internet to modify how art can be made, disseminated and even bought and sold. The melding of the online and in person quality of her work proves that regardless of the realm in which she experiments, her gestures and the tones that she subtly yet specifically sets through her body language and digital morphing resonate with an emerging group of artists who work fluidly between media and presentation platforms.
In an interview with Jeppe Ugelvig for DIS Magazine, you mentioned that you didn’t fully understand the discussions and debates around selling digital art, even though you’re a part of it and have even produced work that directly references the issue (with Video Catalog). I have to say, I’m kind of in the same boat. For me digital art seems like just another way of making art. In that sense, it is also confusing that artists such as yourself are usually noted as “digital” or “Internet” artists—though we don’t always specify ‘this person is a painter, a sculptor, etc.’—probably because more and more often people are working in different ways that defy categorization. You mentioned that your video work is an interactive, social media project, in that viewers leave comments and the videos can be easily shared, while at the same time they are also documentation of performances. With all this in mind, I suppose my question is simply: do you think of yourself as a digital artist or as an artist who utilizes digital tools in order to produce a desired effect?
If anything I’m actually starting to think of myself as a painter really. Even the videos that I make come from an obsession with composition, color, lines, movement—a very simple idea of beauty. I’m interested in very classical subjects like landscapes, portraits, still life. These interests apply to all my work and the work happens to be digital. I grew up around computers, so working with them is what is most natural to me.
It seems obvious to me that the definition of nature is what you know and you can’t change that. Growing up, my dad had [one of the] first Macs, not the Apple II, but one of the pretty early versions. I remember a time before Internet, but that was when I was like ten years old. My dad was an artist, master printmaker and sculptor, and my mom has a Masters in painting from Berkeley. They did everything with their hands, that’s what was natural for them at that time.
I asked my mom once if she could give me oil painting lessons but she said I’d hate it. So I got all the materials myself and tried to learn and I only lasted an hour. It was very difficult to not be able to copy and paste or to be able to change and delete things. People our age get very impatient; everything has to be instant gratification. For example, now with everyone using Instagram, you just post one photo at a time, as opposed to when Facebook was more popular and it was all about waiting until you had a set of photos and then posting a whole album at a time.
I certainly see something that could be interpreted as painterly in the way that movement and the subtlety of affect or tone that is achieved therein, plays into your videos. Can you tell me how you approach the relationship (or discord) between the bodily movements that you conjure in your webcam performance-videos and the technical implementations that are then added in with other programs? Does the movement come first and set the tone or is it a bit more arbitrary?
I’m a bad liar so the tone is very real in all the work, and I think that’s the start of it every video. If I’m feeling blue, that is going to show through in what I make. I don’t try to fight against that because that seems counter intuitive—why fight reality? The tone dictates everything.
I like that you are an emerging artist based in LA and that that environment tends to come through in the tone of your work. However, I imagine you also spend a lot of time online as well. Can you tell me about your online environment? Sites that you enjoy visiting, certain networks that have been resourceful or inspiring?
I get really jacked up on Pinterest before I paint. I used to do that with Google images but now I’m more into Pinterest, because the images are really curated. It’s really generic dreamy, like dream house boards, flowers people would like to have at their wedding, exotic travel landscapes and cityscapes. The format of the site is great because it’s just a sea of images. I also like the mood it puts me in, it’s very tranquil.
With a site like Pinterest I will see something like someone’s dream house board and I’ll [bring that into whatever I am working] on and sample a certain color. That’s just the reality of how I can work and what’s possible when you are able to use the Internet as a resource. I mean, there is no reason why I wouldn’t do that. It reminds me of something that Jeanette Hayes said, I think it was in her TMI video for VFiles. She said, “When you put something on the Internet, it’s mine.” I really love that quote. It just sums up that the Internet is forever, you don’t know who saved what, when, it’s kind of this communal thing. Of course there’s a fine line between stealing and re-using, but that can get pretty blurry.
Yes, the Internet is clearly the most obvious and available resource for everyone. Whether you identify as a “digital artist” or not, I think it would be difficult to find any artist who is not utilizing it in ways that are fundamental to their research and even processes of production in many cases. You are now working both online and off. Can you tell me about any differences or surprising similarities/parallels, that you have encountered while exhibiting in these two different modes and types of spaces?
I want to start posting more files of the paintings before they are printed because they look very different online vs. in print. But in general there haven’t really been a lot of surprises. I think the differences are in the communities. When you make things that hang on walls it’s a different community. Probably those people don’t know how to use computers. . . . Just kidding, of course they do, but still, it seems like the differences are the usual suspects. It’s a question that confuses me when I think about it. Or maybe it feels taboo to talk about in a way. I don’t want to outright say some of the things I want to say . . .
The online environment is more democratic, whereas the gallery system not so much. For someone like me, who is used to doing everything on my own because it was more convenient, having to give control over to this other system, a system that seems a little outdated, is weird. I’m really not advocating against galleries, but I think artists really needed them before the Internet. I’ve come so far on my own even though there is a whole other system to navigate, but the Internet is just as much involved with gallerists and curators and all those people and traditional systems.
I think they need to use the Internet more effectively. I think the gallery system could get its shit together a little more and start being smarter about the Internet. I’m used to making every thought into a tweet. It’s even more than that—I mean, ever since Twitter came out I think my thoughts have become shaped into 140 characters. So I’m from this generation that just adapts by default and everything is out in the open. So it’s weird to come into this system that isn’t used to operating like that. If anything I sometimes feel slowed down by it. But there is something so beautiful about having an event in a certain space and time. It’s classic. LOL
The biggest difference is the hush hush attitude that seems so traditional and kind of… slow? Like holding off on posting a picture of the show at least until the opening —I think most galleries would prefer that, but I feel like it’s a little strange that they don’t want people to see the rawness of the install. It kind of slows me down mentally, because I’m from a generation that makes every thought known to the world, a few seconds after it occurs.
Yes, it definitely comes through that that continues to be important to you. I think that “Video Catalog” shows your commitment to a free and open-source online environment.
Yes, with “Video Catalog” I didn’t really plan it beforehand as an aspect of my work, but it was my first two-person show, my first non-group show and the gallerist was asking me about how I wanted to price my videos and the whole question of it made me un- comfortable. I had no reference for what a webcam video should cost, so I just jokingly suggested that we charge ten cents per YouTube view—so we wouldn’t have to think about it. And he was like, “Wow, good idea, let’s do that!”
Artists aren’t really in charge of the monetary value of their work, so I don’t even want to pretend that I am, but the art world doesn’t really decide either, so this way, it depends solely on how many people are looking at the work, which hopefully reflects something about their interest in it as well. When coming up with this catalog system, I took into account the rare case that a video would go viral, and end up getting millions of views, then the price would actually start to go down instead of continuing to go up. I think that is also important because obviously you can buy views and there is a lot of trolling and stuff like that. So that is a rule that I use for all my videos now. I find it de-motivating to think too much about systems overall or working within them. I do well within certain sets of circumstances, but it is more about comfort than pressure for me.
This kind of reminds me of a curatorial way of working, in that, for example, when I curate a show I want the curatorial structure that I employ to emulate as closely as possible the modes through which the artists produce their work, so, with “Video Catalog,” you have made the structure or the sort of “rule that your work follows,” reflect the ways that your primary audience (YouTube) functions. Do you think of it that way at all?
Well, I can see that in a sense. I think that things are very fragmented and I don’t like making precious things or the idea or myth of an artist making this golden, secret shining thing. . . . That is why I like to make things available to as many people as possible.
People, audiences, expect to be part of the process now. I feel weird if I don’t post anything online during the process of making a new video or body or work. Now I am always engaged on some level even before a show opens or a new video is up online…because that’s the way living online is: constant.
I think this also relates to your choice to often use default settings when manipulating or enhancing your images. Can you tell me about your interest in default settings, especially as they seem to be evolving more and more these days? Does default connote familiarity to you, or is it something else?
It’s a structure that is nice to work within. At some point you have to set up some rules or structure so that you can have creative freedom. I find that having infinite options is oppressive. At some point you have to start making decisions and I love trying to push tools that other people have already created and used.
When I was ten I was really into Sim City. Before you play, you begin adding what you want to the city. That was my favorite part. I really liked creating environments because I knew I wouldn’t be able to draw that. That definitely has to do with my interest in default. I feel most creative when there are some limitations and the answers get real oppressive, customizing things can be really tiring. For example, I was talking to my hairdresser, because I’m engaged, so we were talking about dresses and I realized that I don’t want to find “the perfect dress.” That’s how you get caught up in the idea of perfection and everything being specifically customized to you, and the truth is that it will never really be exactly the way you see it in your head. This mentality relates to my work and especially the way that it is displayed, like how they are so different depending on whether they are digital vs. printed, and they are both nice.
It seems to make sense that working with pre-fixed settings would be particularly appealing to someone who works through the Internet because even just the idea of a computer screen as a space to occupy and work from is nothing like a blank canvas in that there are already pre-imposed limits that exist. Again, in that sense, I feel like there is something a bit curatorial about your mode of working with defaults and trying to make something out of that which is already available.
Yeah, I hate when people say “you can do whatever!” On Instagram there are a set number of filters, so I know I have these certain options. Similarly, when I start working with software like Photo Booth, Magic Camera, Maya, I usually gravitate towards the shittiest, most notoriously ugly settings and filters.
Then you have a structure within the parameters with which you can be creative. That’s why I like defaults so much. Also I would never come up with those filters in a million years, so it’s nice to open yourself up to other options that you wouldn’t think of on your own. It’s like if you don’t already know something you can’t search for it.
That makes me think of a parasitic, or perhaps referential is a better word, way of working, that is dependent on other systems or structures that are already in place within a certain cultural context. Does that relate to the way that you approach a new project?
Yes, in that the structure of my work is resting on this foundation of other things that already exist. It makes me think of genetics and the fact that genes are stronger when they are not inbred.
Right, I suppose having a setting of sorts already in place allows you to fit yourself into it and focus more on yourself?
Yes. I hate to see people watching me, but it has to be me in videos. I’m alone making videos and I can see myself so if I start over-thinking things I can see it right away in what I’m doing.
But since it is you, they do take on the self-portrait, did you think of that at the onset?
No, I realized that recently. I think actually I‘m interested in the most traditional aspects of art, like landscape and portraiture—the basics. People have always found these things to be beautiful. They are not broken. So as an artist, you don’t need to fix them.
Since you are the performer and the director, in a sense, would you say that there is an element of ‘the rehearsal’ in these videos?
Yeah. I also realized that the webcam videos never have my voice in them. It’s not about talking or dialog, it’s really visual. [Staying silent] helps to remove me from it, I don’t want to give my image and my voice.
Even though there is no dialog—do you feel as though there’s a language that’s built through your movements?
A lot of the movements I do, I do because they’re the best way to enhance the effects that I use [in post]. I use my hands and my hair a lot because you can get a lot of movement out of them.
So hands and gestures act like prompts or an impetus for the tools and effects that you choose to use?
In a way. I have this respect for them because they give me the structure I need to feel the freedom to be creative and make work.
Are you physically reacting to and interacting with these effects as opposed to the ways that they are most often used, which is utilitarian?
Yeah, definitely. I observe the effects and then my physical movements are a reaction to what I’m seeing. It’s not thought out, the more I think the less I move—the goal is not to think.
It brings to mind this series I did with melting things using a basic smudge tool in Photoshop. More so than the effects, the light really changes the way the movements seem to naturally happen. For example, there is a difference between the light in Berlin, which is kind of blue, as opposed to the light in LA where it’s very orange and beautiful. It really looks like a movie.
Is it important that your works are beautiful?
Yes, I mean I don’t care about making things beautiful for everyone, but I make things that I think are beautiful. I definitely just want to be an artist, I don’t want to be a curator or a writer or a gallerist. If I can be a good artist and make beautiful work that’s all that I want.
I know that you are preparing for a new show in Europe, [without giving it all away] can you tell me something about what you’ve been working on? Any new terrain, new challenges, discoveries?
I’m making some huge aluminums for the show in Stockholm at Carl Kostyal. I’ve never made work on that scale before so I’m really excited. That is another great thing about digital work, is that the size is a variable and it’s really fun to be able to fill a space. For the show at MAMA [Media and Moving Art, Rotterdam], we’re building these colored structures for viewing the videos, I think it’s very Dutch, this idea of a bright, colored structure, and it’s a perfect accent to the video work which is very playful and colorful. The show at MAMA opens on the 28th of March, and the show at Carl Kostyal opens April 10th.
For more information about Petra Cortright, visit her website.