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Petra Cortright: Post-Internet Art in the Social Media Age

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Petra Cortright in collaboration with Roberto Sanchez and Alvaro Nates, 2011.

Petra Cortright was raised in Santa Barbara, but she grew up on the Internet. The Los Angeles-based artist's work is often typified as "post-Internet art," which roughly translates to art that uses the Internet as its medium, source, context and place where it is performed, all at once. It's a mirror and a mindbender. Curators Karen Archey and Robin Peckham define it as: "art, consciously created in a milieu that assumes the centrality of the network, and that often takes everything from the physical bits to the social ramifications of the Internet as fodder... This understanding of the post-Internet refers not to a time 'after' the Internet, but rather to an Internet state of mind -- to think in the fashion of the network."

Oftentimes, Cortright is in her own videos, doing something, but not in a particularly active way. In "snow2???" (2011), the artist sits in her bedroom in front of the webcam, not really doing much. Then hazy glitchy "snow" effects appear on the screen, making this work something between a vlog entry and an experiment with the manipulation options offered by YouTube. Cortright's work is self-conscious, socially anxious, and rather sensitive. It is feminist, without being overtly so, and social, without being extroverted. If we quantified this using a Myers-Briggs pop psychology acronym, it might be something like INFP or INFJ.

"I find the Internet very democratic, especially because of how good content gets rewarded," says Cortright. "People share it around -- I look at it as a positive thing for sure. And I can post to my thing, then [people] can watch or not. I love how passive it can be."

All of Cortright's videos are two minutes or less, she explains, because online audiences tend to have short attention spans. She also makes physical works that use Internet imagery, creating an uncanny experience as the digital realm migrate to the physical world.

Her digital painting "Night Heat 5" (2010) is simply a very tall palm tree against white satin. Other pieces like "marbles/crystals" (2009) are presented as JPEGs as weird, kitschy arrangements of digital imagery that the Internet and computer programs have to offer, arranged in ways reminiscent of screen savers, rain falling from the sky, or "Pac-Man" blocks traversing the image.

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Petra Cortright, "How To Download A Boyfriend"

She's also known for her 2007 short video "VVEBCAM," which is funny, in a very post-Internet way. For a little under two minutes, Cortright stares transfixed at the computer screen -- that typical not-looking-into-the-camera gaze that's apparent in selfie culture usually involves the person's randomly darting eyes across the screen, not quite inviting the viewer to look but not rejecting them either. It is this passive Internet gazing at screens that we've become accustomed to through video chats on Skype and FaceTime, or sending selfies via mobile devices. Then clip-art style graphics dance across the screen, as she is presumably adding them onto the image. Cortright tagged this short video with highly searchable terms ranging from innocuous -- cat, Hollywood, Tokyo -- to much more vulgar terms she gleaned from looking at the passive searching patterns of YouTube users.

This video was ultimately banned from YouTube because of the search terms, which seems to encourage a deeper conversation about the pornographic nature of the Internet. Cortright mentions how porn is such a huge part of the Internet and that it's something always at the back of her mind, particularly in relation to working with womens' bodies online. In an interview with Jennifer Piejko at I-D, she discusses the ways that porn is the reason much digital technology changes so quickly: "...it's what gets file sizes down and pushes for better video quality and interesting streaming innovations," she says. The problematic nature of straight porn, for some viewers, is that a woman's body is the object of male desire, as a vehicle for him for sexual gratification. The man's on-screen orgasm often ends a porn video, a visual symbol that he's satisfied, that it was "real," even though the situations are often staged and even choreographed.

Similar porn-inspired themes take shape in the work of L.A.-based artist Charlie White, who is generally fascinated by the commodification of the white teenage girl body while acknowledging how much that sexualization is influenced by porn. In this sense, Cortright's work overlaps with artists such as White because she is directly using the female body in her work. It's something that Cortright is aware of, particularly whenever she chooses to use female bodies in her work.

Still from Petra Cortright, "Enchanted Foreststrippersnopeleeasy2girls," 2012.
Still from Petra Cortright, "Enchanted Foreststrippersnopeleeasy2girls" 2012.

"It's kind of a shame to me -- it's a bummer -- working with women's bodies, it's so loaded," Cortright says. "I'm very concerned about whether I'm exploiting the girls [I am using] -- but if there's a deep level of care and thought, then I think that's feminist. That's a deep part of feminism -- actually giving a shit about peoples' bodies and feelings."

Cortright's recent solo exhibition "NIKI, LUCY, LOLA, VIOLA" on view at the Depart Foundation in Los Angeles (July 9-September 12, 2015) considers the female body through a variety of women she constructed and blew up to 150 percent of their normal size. The work was created using open-source, screensaver software and purchased virtual strippers, all cast into videos and animations arranged using green screens, Internet painterly landscapes, and obvious synthetic materials. In this way there is a pop art-like aesthetic to Cortright's work -- a sense that anyone could have made these, but instead she did.

Her commentary on the pornographic nature of search terms in Internet culture, as evidenced in the early "VVEBCAM" video, became well-received once it was banned from YouTube. It also became a snapshot of an early Web era, documenting the rigidness and sexism inherent on YouTube.

Petra Cortright, "Sunrise," 2009.

Yet the majority of Cortright's work could even be seen as more of an Internet pop art, oft-times charming in its consumer banalism. She collects digital detritus and recombines it in uncanny ways. The mundane-ness of GIFS and screensavers, for contemporary audiences, obfuscates the real meaning behind the images that clutter the Internet as a kind of landfill, where low-rez JPG's and BMP's become sediments for future Internet archaeologists to dig up. They're artifacts of the recent past. And her YouTube manipulations utilize a folksy aesthetic, appropriating the visual vernacular of young users who are likely doing the same thing with their sharing abilities, posting for fun and boredom, and then moving on to a shinier distraction, sticking to that post-Internet networked state of being.

Artbound recently caught up with Cortright to discuss using the computer as an art tool; encountering "the gaze;" and exploring the "femininities of the Internet."

How did you come to the Internet?

I believe that it's a generational thing, of course. I think that there is some level of impatience [of] working on a computer; I was able to do more with a computer than I could do with my own hand. I could make more sophisticated work. It felt really powerful to me, and it was quicker than using just traditional materials. I liked the unlimited resources. Especially watching my husband, Marc Horowitz, [his work] is so different than mine. He works more in traditional materials. He has to really be strategic about what colors he buys, they're expensive. I'm not used to having color cost money. My brain has been taught not think like that.

Of course, with digital work there is other limitations: sometimes it doesn't have this unique, authentic feel -- or this "physical thing," which is so amazing about physical objects -- but that also doesn't both me either. I make physical objects too. There are ways to make them feel, they can still maintain a certain aura, or authenticity to them. I guess we have this personality type: I work really well alone, sometimes I feel like I can be the most creative alone making my work, just being able to make work on a computer in a bedroom, anywhere in the world, not having to rely on any geographical constraint. I'm drawn to that. For a while, I didn't know -- it seemed really second nature, now it seems like a newer way of working. It's sort of like an affliction in a way. Even if my work didn't have a certain notoriety, I would still be doing the same thing regardless. It's amazing I can make a living off of it. I just work with really basic tools. I just need a computer.

Petra Cortright, "Gold Drip," 2009.

Have you ever taken periods of time completely away from the computer?

I don't think I have. In the past year, I've tried to make some breaks from social media but not from the computer. That gets a little intense. Definitely that FOMO [Fear of Missing Out] thing, I can see it for kids, especially teenagers, it's probably really difficult. Because social media is such a powerful tool but sometimes the pictures look better than whats actually going on. I haven't really limited myself at all. The workflow, I'll focus on one kind of work for a while, whether it's videos or painting. It's difficult to work on more than one body of work. Once I do a session with painting, I'll then take weeks or maybe months off, and then I'll do it again. I guess I kinda work in sessions.

Kind of like recording sessions?

Yes, I guess. I have these mother files -- variations and versions. One file can produce an entire show. Versions of that file.

Petra Cortright, from "Glow Drawings." series, 2006.

Do you experience "anxieties of the gaze" both in digital and in real-life spaces?

Especially with the webcam videos that I make; at times it's been almost unbearable being in a gallery setting and then watching people watching me. I find it incredibly uncomfortable, and it's very weird for me. I'm always grateful for people who support my work, [but] that's a really hard one for me.

I was always drawn to the Internet. Then they think I'm so weird when I say that because [they say] "you're comfortable posting it to the whole world to see but you don't want to be in a room with 10 people?"

I'm actually not that interested in voyeurism. Other female artists are more interested in that. Sometimes people will throw that word around with me. I am not interested in it at all.

My work isn't live. It's very controlled, I make it by myself, it's my decision to post it, and then I get some information back, you can see the number of views or likes. I see that people are watching it. Then you have this nice support, people are interested in this work. I really love that passive element. I'm not sure if I'm really conditioned to liking that because using that from an early teenager, and getting conditioned in that environment. There are definitely studies that show your brain getting dopamine with likes.

I guess that's a huge criticism that people have with millennials, that they don't know how to interact in real life. It's a bigger question, I guess.

What's so great about online is that if you don't want to watch it, you just close the tab, or you just don't watch it. I used to get some pretty funny comments -- there's literally comments like "WTF DID I JUST WATCH, I JUST WASTED TWO MINUTES OF MY LIFE CAN YOU GIVE IT BACK TO ME." They would watch the whole thing and then take the time to comment. I love my haters. You can't get those two minutes back and you watched this bizarre video, and I think it's really cool and feel really accomplished. You are creating some sort of interaction and commenting. You can have someone's full attention for two minutes, and that's like two weeks in Internet time. People have incredibly short attention spans at this point in time.

People like it, it can be shared around so easily, it doesn't take so much on my part. If they like something then they share it, with their network and their friends -- it doesn't have to be so me. I can post to my thing, they can watch or not, I love how passive it can be.

I find the whole thing democratic, and good content gets rewarded. They share it around -- I find it very democratic, and look at it as a positive thing for sure.

Petra Cortright, "twisted metal2 codes," 2013.

Are you interested in Second Life or the construction of "feminities on the Internet?

I never got deep into Second Life. I think I made an outfit entirely out of water, and then I got bored. It was more about making a full outfit. I remember that it seemed "not scary," but it was like a very in-depth community, and it was very open, but I guess I remember not having the energy for it. This is like an entire other world, I don't think I can dedicate the time to this. Some of my peers have made amazing stuff with Second Life. I guess, at some point I like programs that are a little bit more... I never liked video games or computer games much because there is so much interaction with the outside world. I wanted more of a closed environment, more control. Something that was a big influence on me was Sim City, more gentle things, I think. It's not like interacting with anyone else.

Installation view from Petra Cortright's "NIKI, LUCY, LOLA, VIOLA" at Depart Foundation in Los Angeles.
Installation view from Petra Cortright's "NIKI, LUCY, LOLA, VIOLA" at Depart Foundation in Los Angeles.

How does porn influence your newest work, "NIKI, LUCY, LOLA, VIOLA?"

With the virtual girls, it's definitely an influence. I wouldn't say that porn is not a major influence on me, but I find all of these issues incredibly complex. I'm still trying to work it out -- I think that it's problematic thinking that there are so many choices that women should be able to make, and porn is usually considered a pretty negative thing. I find it problematic. I'll get a few comments here and there [about] images on the Internet -- people hadn't even seen the work, saying that "this is horrible, they're exploiting women."
I don't want to be judgmental of anyone's decisions to do anything with their bodies. There are a lot of opinions on what women should or should not do with their bodies, what a feminist looks like or how they act.

Definitely with this work, I've been trying to bring up more questions than answers. I don't feel prepared to give anyone answers. With the virtual girls I've been working with, I know I want to accomplish a feeling, in as non-judgmental a way as possible. I'm perfectly fine with the girls being sexy and beautiful. They are gorgeous, fit women. I was even thinking of them as virtual athletes at some point. Very seductive, sexy. In the show, [in] the way they are presented, they are aggressively large. They're not double -- they're 150 percent, they're quite big. I wanted them to be extremely powerful, but they're also really in-your-face. It's such a complex issue. I think people are really confused about it all the time. It's just not a simple thing. There's some very deep ideas about what women should and shouldn't do. And not just men. Women as well.

It's kind of a shame to me. It's a bummer, working with women's bodies, the context is so heavy and so loaded. I find it very confusing. I think I'm very concerned about whether I'm exploiting the girls -- there's a deep level of care and thought, then that's feminist. That's a deep part of feminism, actually giving a shit, about peoples' bodies and feelings.

Petra Cortright, from "Poor Traits II" series, 2009.
Petra Cortright, from "Poor Traits I" series, 2009.

 

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