Digital Remains: Petra Cortright

Petra Cortright recently opened her first show in Scandinavia. “Never before seen. Very fun”, as the “post-internet”-artist said to Kunstkritikk.

Petra Cortright, stillbild ur Girlfriend, 2014.
Petra Cortright, still from Girlfriend, 2014.

Petra Cortrights first solo exhibition in Scandinavia at Isbrytaren, Carl Kostyál’s gallery on Kungsholmen in Stockholm, lasts between April 12th and May 4th. Cortright is an artist who came out of the movement sometimes referred to as “art after the internet”. The videos she has made for YouTube have drawn a lot of attention, especially after one of her pieces was taken down because of its content description. In recent years she has exhibited at galleries and larger institutions whereas before she worked exclusively online with digital art. In 2009 she participated in the internet pavilion at the Venice Biennale and last year had a work included at Frieze Art Fair in London. While rising to prominence through these videos, Cortright has also delved into more print-based work, which is still marked by the same unmistakable D.I.Y-aesthetic. As Cortright points out, her work always deals with the notion of an “art after the internet”. The possibility to distribute, share or manipulate information on the internet has not only challenged the way that art is considered, especially for the generations that grew up with digital culture, but generated, according to those that talk of “Post-internet” art or “art after the internet”, a different view of the type of networks that make up the art world. Even though these somewhat vague theories have been criticized, it is noteworthy that an artist such as Cortright does not make a distinction between the art world and the internet. Consequently, the art “after” the internet extends into situations and areas outside the internet, where discussions of the “real” are of less importance than the overlaps and combinations that art uncovers between digital, internet-based expressions and the temporary situations that they inhabit. Cortright explains in a conversation with Kunstkritikk that a large part of her spontaneous, webcam-based self-portraits and digital works evolve out of playfulness. They reflect the digital presence of the average internet-user.

Petra Cortright, Flash animation,(detalj), 2014.
Petra Cortright, Flash animation,(detail), 2014.

The video VVEBCAM, first posted on YouTube in 2007, is somewhat characteristic of your work. The lo-fi aesthetics coupled with your slightly bored expression in the video – watching yourself on a webcam while you layer the screen with a multitude of digital effects, as music plays in the background – seems like a suitable place to start. You have said that your videos do not revolve around voyeurism or narcissism, yet you nonetheless frequently use yourself as a performer. In what way are you attracted to the webcam as an artistic tool? I love playing with the webcam software. I use myself because I have so much fun making the work. Webcams are not high definition and they are high contrast, which is a beautiful combination, and in my opinion a lot of people look better this way. Seeing every pore in detail is not exactly flattering. I feel more comfortable using this format because it is a veil. The technology creates some distance between the viewer and me. Is there a biographical aspect in using the webcam? Are you concerned about issues of privacy, online and/or offline? No. I do not think I am concerned with the issue of privacy, if everything I make is so public – all my profiles, etc. I do like keeping an archive. I think it is interesting to have life so documented. It is fun to see ancient profiles that I do not use anymore, Myspace for example. I don’t mind leaving digital remains around. For years now I have had this policy about photos of myself on the internet – the more the better. I would rather flood the internet with lots of things so that it takes the weight off any one photo, or any personal information. Then it sort of turns out that there is so much to know about me that the only way to really know me is in person again, so it is this process that kind of comes full circle. One rarely notices any negative views concerning online behavior, be it surveillance or ethics, in your webcam-based videos. In fact, your distracted performance in VVEBCAM, for example, may seem to point in the opposite direction. Your videos are often comprised of the documentation of a real-time performance, the spontaneity of internet-based tools, D.I.Y. aesthetics and an impartial interest in the relationship between the subject and digital technology. How might one define the characteristically preoccupied behavior in your videos: as a form of immersion or a conscious attempt at colloquial performance in a digital culture?

Petra Cortright, stillbild ur Bridal Shower, 2014.
Petra Cortright, still from Bridal Shower, 2014.

I think that is how a lot of people look when they use a computer: they have this sort of distracted gaze. The videos are recorded live – there is no post-production – so while I am making them there is a level of interaction with the effects that is just me focusing on this computer program. I like that the end result mirrors an average user’s gaze. At the same time, there is almost an element of hauntology in your unassuming use of effects (as well as the noticeable glitch-effects in some videos). In buggin out (2013), for example, you are putting on sunglasses in front of the webcam, and as digital effects distort your face, you continue to observe yourself through the webcam, not as a mirror, more as an unpretentious way to explore oneself through technology, or, perhaps, the self as technology. The video might also reference John Carpenter’s film They Live (1988)… There is definitely some exploring/observing of the self going on. My work is so playful and a huge element of play is curiosity. So I do discover things in the process of making the videos. They are very sincere because there are real things happening. It is not 100% a performance. It is both performance and real at once. The work is athletic to me. Professional athletes are performing because it is their job, they are being watched by coaches, fans, they are being broadcast, but at the same time they are also doing something for themselves. It is also very personal and pure and they would be doing it if nobody was watching at all because that is what they were born to do. You had a piece included in the National Selfie Portrait Gallery last year, initiated by Moving Image Contemporary Art Fair in London, and curated by Kyle Chayka and Marina Galperina. Is the selfie another artistic tool? Sure. YouTube decided to shut down VVEBCAM. Why? Because the video description was considered offensive. It is an internet spam list that I use to title all my work. I also used it as my biography for LinkedIn, a website from which I am now banned. lol.

Petra Cortright, stillbild ur Bridal Shower, 2014.
Petra Cortright, still from Bridal Shower, 2014.

You have an unusual method of pricing your videos: the more views, the higher the price. You have also said that you reply to the comments on your videos, the hostile comments as well, “responding back in a similar tone”. It might seem as a sinister way of jacking up the price, not to mention enticing the internet trolls. Is cyberbullying somehow related to the art market? There are no rules in the art market so I do not pretend to have prices that follow the rules. How important is the spontaneity of your work process? A video might take 20 minutes to make, you have stated, with little or no post-production added. Are you trying to compete with the short attention span of the contemporary art world? I don’t give a fuck about the audience. It is boring to me after two minutes so I stop. Is there no difference between the art world and the internet for you? What difference is there between making a piece for YouTube and for the Venice Biennale? There is no difference. You published an e-book called HELL_TREE (2012) on Badlands Unlimited, described as “an unfiltered recording of Cortright’s thoughts during the course of her days”. The book might seem at first to be equivalent to Kenneth Goldsmith’s Soliloquy (2001), where everything that Goldsmith said in one week in 1996 was detailed. You seem, however, less interested in the conceptual aspects of the work. HELL_TREE consists of impenetrable and, apparently, randomized catalogues of notes, lines of poetry and screenshots, including a highly irregular form of spelling. Can we even talk about a concept driving your work? I do not really like to spell out concepts. I think things can be a little more complex than that sometimes. I think there is a narrative running through, even if I do not agree that it is impenetrable. I joke that it is unreadable, but it’s not. The typos and spelling are a product of speed and have high entertainment value to me. The book is a simple concept: a collection of my computer texts. The slightly bizarre iconography of your work – where puppies and unicorns meet dancing pizzas in a junkyard of internet paraphernalia and creepypasta – sometimes calls to mind a form of 1990s retromania, especially your references to happy hardcore and Britney Spears-remixes, and an obsession with recycling and rehashing. What role does the 1990s have for you, or the idea of recycling? I guess it is ‘90s but I also feel like it is just kind of early internet culture. I remember downloading Britney Spears on Napster. I grew up with these things and I think everyone has a certain love for the things they grew up with. Other than this warm nostalgia for the ‘90s/ early 2000s, and the fact that it is just fun, there is not a heavy intent or purpose why that vibe is in my work. The idea of recycling is something that I am pretty into, but maybe not so much recycling, more like just taking anything that is available to me, from anywhere. I have quoted my friend, the artist Jeanette Hayes, a few times in interviews at this point, but she really said it the best: “If you put it on the internet, it’s mine.” So yeah, I use all resources available to me, because I want to and because I can.

Petra Cortright, stillbild ur DRK PARA, 2013.
Petra Cortright, still from DRK PARA, 2013.

You recently had a piece included in the show Raster Raster (2014) at Aran Cravey Gallery in Los Angeles. The show, curated by Marisa Olson, purports to display “art after the internet”, an art that “simultaneously enjoys and critiques the internet”. Of course, you are not based solely on the internet. The label of “internet artist, however, often accompanies your work. How would you situate your work regarding the views put forward by Marisa Olson and the idea of “art after the internet”? My work has always been “after the internet”, and always after computers, so to me it is a boring conversation. The work I do is natural to me. It is also very classical. I am interested in portraits and landscapes, that is about as basic as you can get in art. Is avoiding the label of “internet artist” a reason why you have recently decided to use print-based techniques, especially the digital prints made on aluminum? In what way do the prints evolve from your internet-based material and videos? Are you trying to move on? No, I just do whatever I want to, like I have always done. I like making digital work and I like making physical work. I make digital work that can be produced physically into so many different things, so why wouldn’t I want to explore that realm? I do not have to choose between either, I can do both – I can have it all! What kind of work will you be showing at Isbrytaren on Saturday? Everything is new. Large digital paintings on aluminum, new flash animations, new silks and new webcam work. Never before seen. Very fun.