Published  23/09/2015

Petra Cortright: ‘I wanted to raise questions about the way we view women in a digital landscape’

Petra Cortright: ‘I wanted to raise questions about the way we view women in a digital landscape’

The artist talks about moving from working on computers to painting, linking the two worlds to produce something physical translated from the digital, the importance of layering, surface, and light and making work out of computer errors or spam


Petra Cortright is a Los Angeles-based multidisciplinary artist who works in painting, sculpture, film, video, gif animation and YouTube web-hosted video. Her work is focused on the creation and distribution of digital files most often through gif animations, 2D and 3D objects such as paintings created in Photoshop and printed on aluminium, and a series of flags and sculptural surfaces. She is often described as a net, post-internet, or internet artist, but her work, particularly in painting and installation, extends beyond the limits of those descriptions as it engages subtle variations in gesture, light, ambience, texture and reflexivity.

A Will Brown: Congratulations on your exhibition at the Depart Art Foundation. Can you tell me about the work Niki, Lucy, Lola, Viola, 2015, which was featured, and how the installation turned out?

Petra Cortright: The body of work that went into Niki, Lucy, Lola, Violais an evolution of a couple of different areas of my work. I've been working with the virtual strippers – I call them "the girls" – since 2011-12, and had previously placed them in very lush, animated desktop scenes. The longer I worked with them, the more I realised how deeply fascinating they are on their own, as software and as interactive elements created for a purpose that is not the one I've placed them in. It feels like a very natural next step for me to place them in increasingly minimal landscapes, and allow them to exist for a viewer as exactly what they are, though bigger than life-size. There are also a couple of works in that show that I'm calling "painting videos”, which is a newer process for me as well. My paintings are composed of hundreds of Photoshop layers – the painting videos take each layer and work them into the frame using camera-motion techniques to create a very subtle, ambient, but animated digital image.

The installation of this show was a serious project, between building multiple different projection surfaces, installing carpet and completely transforming the Depart Foundation galleries into a blacked-out void. I was super-excited to get to work with this particular projector paint called Screen Goo: without it, the green screen video of the girls wouldn’t have been 21 feet (6.4 metres) long. You just can’t build a screen that big without seams.

AWB: What were the central ideas of the project and exhibition?

PC: I wanted to raise questions about the way we view women in a digital landscape, but not necessarily answer them. What does it mean to sit and watch a bigger than life-size digitally rendered woman try to seduce you in a green screen void? The space was designed to enable a viewer to slow down and sit with these works, to move beyond the thought that, “Oh, these are strippers” and start investigating their role in viewing them, about their performances versus what their realities might be, or how those overlap. Then, as you move through the exhibition, you view this very light, fluffy animation of never-ending fireworks and into these ambient, highest-resolution paintings – again, working with drawing the viewer in and inviting them to find an edge or a foothold in an infinite terrain. I understand there are going to be many interpretations when you see this kind of work, the piece with the girls is intense – and, again, my goal is to ask questions not to provide answers.

AWB: I’ve been trying to interrogate the term post-internet artist, or internet artist, and am curious as to your thoughts about being, most often, labelled as an artist of one or both of these things? The idea that the internet is some unexplainable part of the fabric of culture seems simultaneously deeply flawed and naive, yet strangely apt.

PC: I don’t really care about being termed a post-internet artist. I’ve also been termed a net artist, but I also think of myself as a painter. No artist works in a vacuum, and I know that categorical terms are necessary to historicise art and for critical discussions, but it’s not something I’m personally in control of, so it is somewhat irrelevant to the way I guide my practice. Yes, the internet and digital tools are completely present in my work, and they would be, because I grew up using these tools. But I also think about making art in terms of colour and space and imagery, not in terms of internet or not internet.

AWB: To follow up on the question about the internet as a kind of fetish, and your use of it as a platform and format – when no one can figure out what you are doing because it is so far ahead of itself, it must be challenging, and I see some of your work, particularly with gif animation and web-hosted video, falling into this category.

PC: Again, I can understand where others might see this as a kind fetish because of the relative newness of the technology and the speed in which work can be consumed and disseminated on the internet. But in all sincerity, I’m not making this work on this platform to be ironic, or whatever. The platform makes sense to me, it feels natural for me to use, it’s filled with peers. Using software is filled with bizarre hiccups and accidents that turn into something worth investigating aesthetically. That’s especially where most of the gifs come from, but video, too – even though these tools are made and sold to be used out of the box, there are always moments where a bunch of shit breaks in the software, things go wrong, or a glitch occurs and that’s where I can dig in.

AWB: How did you come to work with video, and, specifically, to use YouTube as a platform for hosting and distributing your work?

PC: I started doing video with webcams from the beginning. When I was at Parsons [School of Design in New York] in 2007, I had a video assignment but I had never worked with video before. It seemed like a big hassle to go through the whole thing of checking out video equipment from the school, so instead I bought a webcam for $19.95 [£12.85]. I went home and messed around with it and made a video using just the webcam software and the effects that came with it. I didn’t have any knowledge of video editing programs at the time, I learned After Effects later that year, through a class and also by just teaching myself via online tutorials.

I have always had a strong intuition for making work by myself, and bulky equipment wasn’t going to allow me to do what I wanted. With the webcam, I was the director, actor and editor all at once, all in real time – one take. A lot of the time, putting the work online was much easier than bringing a USB into class. You wouldn’t believe how much of my work has been born out of laziness/high efficiency. If it’s going to be quicker to type in a url than pull a USB out of my backpack, well I’m going to choose the url every time. I have that attitude that I just can’t be bothered – maybe it is a millennial thing. YouTube is filled with people making webcam videos of themselves, talking about whatever, journalling their lives, performing for some audience. It was interesting to have my videos on there, which were related to other videos people were doing but they had a lot of very big differences and were very much in their own realm. Over the years, it’s clearly become a very strong body of work of mine.

AWB: How have materials changed for you over the past few years? What have you been drawn to in particular, and why?

PC: My interest in making new webcam videos has started to wane, in part because of how widespread the aesthetic has become, but mostly due to its age. I’ve been working with webcams for going on eight years, so I think that’s not unreasonable. I was also making the webcams throughout my 20s, and I have just turned 29 and feel as if I’m entering a different stage in my life. You see so much self-portrait work with women because there is so much pressure and anxiety tied up in physical appearance for us. Sometimes people say that it looks like entirely different women have made my videos, especially over the years since I have had different hair colours, or lost or gained weight. It’s true, I do tend to look very different. Part of the work was me just trying to figure out what I actually look like, and for years I just couldn’t pin it down.

After doing it for eight years, it starts to get exhausting, and maybe it’s not as important to me as it was before. I probably know myself much better now, so it’s a question I have stopped obsessively asking in my work. Though there’s often room for me to rediscover older materials – the virtual strippers are a good example of that. I’d left those alone for about three years before picking them up again. Working with physical materials has got me thinking a lot about how digital content translates depending on the surface – screen v silk v aluminium, etc. Everything we see on a screen is contextualised with light, so I look for physical materials that hold light in different ways.

AWB: When did you start making objects, paintings and work offline, and what are some of the relationships you draw between these two parts of your practice?

PC: I started printing the painting on aluminium after I’d been making silks, which was in 2011 – again, with an interest in surfaces. The core of my work is the files I make. I never had the attitude that some other artists working digitally did, which was to keep everything online, like this super-manifesto attitude. I just refused to denounce physical objects as if that was “selling out”. I see the value in both digital and physical: they are two completely different things, but I’ve been happy working in the grey areas in between the two. Printing the paintings is a very difficult process: it’s the job of a master printer, and luckily I work with a woman who is just that. It takes a very special relationship to link the two worlds to produce something physical translated from the digital, but it can be done.

AWB: I have a pretty good sense of your paintings and sculptural, or installation work, but could you tease apart some of the key differences between works such as CALL “GIRL” (2014), (2013) and Bridal Shower (2013)? How do the various materials engage your subject matter specifically?

PC: Aside from the way each of those works are experienced (aluminium painting v print on silk v video), I think they do carry a through line of my aesthetic and thought process. Layering, surface, and light are important, and all those things come into play with all of those pieces.

AWB: Your work Vicky Deep in Spring Valley and that whole series of gif and flash animations are amazing. How do you make them, what ideas are at the heart of them, and why does this form and subject matter persist for you?

PC: They’re all Flash animations, though by nature of those scripts, they do loop infinitely. Each permutation of the loop is technically different, though how that looks really depends on the number of elements involved. Vicky Deep in Spring Valley is a combination of the same software programs I used for Niki, Lucy, Lola, Viola, but a more literal translation of the landscapes. Over time, I’ve started to strip down the 100 or so landscape .exe programs that I had downloaded into something more alien. They’ve been decompiled, chopped up, and then put back together. There’s a lot going on with these works, especially as they’ve developed over the years – there’s the whole porn issue, there are issues of software antiquity and appropriation, there’s the visual registration that all these elements were created at different points in time of tech development but have come together in one place.

In regards to the form – I mean, I hate Flash and ActionScript because they’re horrible to work with, but everybody knows they’re terrible. So it’s as if the act of forcing this antiquated, temperamental technology to do something unexpected and still resonant in 2015 redeems the process somehow.

AWB: Your work has been described as capturing indifference or disinterest in the lens through which you convey images and representations – whether they be paintings, sculptures, performances, videos, or computer files. How does that strike you? I would venture that it isn’t enough, or a fair description, or perhaps it’s lazy. I would say that your work is about much more than a dispirited youth barraged with an infinite amount of seemingly meaningless images via the internet, that there is a gestural and behavioural compositional style and dynamism that you are creating, and working on and through that incorporates healthy doses of irony and humour, but isn’t simply a mirror of sorts.

PC: I pursue very specific images and ideas in my work, and while there is a small degree of side-eye going on with some of it, most of the figures and gestures I incorporate have to do with what is widely available to me and everyone else who has open access to the internet and a computer. I’ll make work out of computer errors, or spam, or hater-y comments, but not without considering images of flowers, or berry icons. Mirroring the bizarre ways in which different pockets of the digital world interact with each other might have more to do with visually remapping a really vast territory than it does with commenting on those who use it. I don’t mind the word “disinterested” being used to describe my work. I think when Paul Chan said that in an article in Spike Art Quarterly a few years ago, he meant it in the best possible way. I think my work can often be a mix of disinterest/sincerity, which is a bizarre combination, but, if anything, that’s saying mostly about how non-political, non-conceptual it is. It just continues to build up, but undercut itself into oblivion somehow.

AWB: With my last question still lingering, there is though, something trancelike and meditative about all of your work. What would you say to that notion?

PC: Certainly. The new painting videos were created particularly with the idea of creating ambient presence or a subtle self-awareness in mind. I think what I said in the previous question about “oblivion” maybe has something to do with it.

AWB: There is also a pervading notion that some younger artists, particularly those born after 1980, aren’t “serious” artists, working with ideas and forms that are meaningful for them and their contemporaries.

PC: No, I don’t think that’s a fair generalisation at all. That sounds just like people critiquing artists because they’re young and have a powerful tool for disseminating their work in their hands. If anything, those born after 1980 might be freer to work with ideas and forms that are meaningful for the contemporary world because they can make work that exists outside the market and still have an audience before they’re 30. Younger artists are very unlike previous generations in terms of accessibility and speed, and maybe efficiency, but isn’t that just a direct and serious statement about the world we grew up in and contribute to?

AWB: What are some of your favourite cities and places to see art?

PC: My favourite cities are sprawling ones – Berlin, Tokyo, Mexico City, Los Angeles – which are also great cities to see art in. I always prefer going to museums that are very classical v contemporary; for example, it’s much more in my personality to visit the Norton Simon in Pasadena than to go to the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art [MOCA]. That being said, one of the most incredible places in which I have seen art was the Chichu Art Museum in Naoshima, Japan. In 2014, I went to Moderna Museet in Stockholm and that was also really special. The pieces they had there were out of this world, and it was so contemporary and relevant, they were just really on their game.

AWB: Which interesting artists have you seen recently? What have you seen that you find compelling? Also, what are some recent, or historic, exhibitions that are meaningful for you, or do you look to?

PC: William Pope.L’s recent show at MOCA was an inspiration for the installation design for Niki, Lucy, Lola, Viola. The Pierre Huyghe show at Los Angeles County Museum of Art was breathtaking – it’s almost like you would have to be a bad person not to respond to that show positively. This year, I feel I’ve actually seen a lot less art, though, which I actively do when I’m in a period of making it myself. I can’t do both at the same time. Kind of bummed out that I didn’t go see Rachel Harrison’s show when it was up at Regen Projects [gallery in Los Angeles] … I don’t know what I was thinking.

AWB: What new projects and exhibitions are you working on?

PC: Really, all I’m trying to do right now is focus on some new paintings. There are group shows all over the place in the next year, but my primary interest right now is in making new work.

AWB: What projects have been the most important for you thus far? What have been some key moments in your development as an artist and a thinker, as well as a maker?

PC: My shows at Preteen Gallery in Mexico City had such a big effect on me. I felt very wild and free flying down to Mexico City by myself and showing my work there. I love that city so much. I didn’t understand how green it was and how beautiful before I went for the first time in 2010. It was my first solo show there ever and I just felt on top of the world. I think it’s been less about projects and more about places that I’ve lived. Living in New York was really important for me, even though I was a terrible student and dropped out of Parsons. It was still important for me to be there and meet so many people at that time living in NYC. Same for living in Berlin, which was after New York. I met so many artists who were doing similar things, it was really important to be constantly inserting myself into these communities. In LA, I guess this has happened as well. The great thing about the internet is that it helps you to connect the dots socially in every city that you go to, and it helps to really form communities that otherwise wouldn’t have formed.

Petra Cortright’s Niki, Lucy, Lola, Viola was at Depart Foundation, Los Angeles, 9 July – 12 September 2015.

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