Petra Cortright"The value came through viewership."
Self-Portrait by Petra Cortright
Last year, the celebrated cyberpunk novelist Bruce Sterling described the work of Petra Cortright as “weird in a way that net art never has been before.” This was one of the first acknowledgements of a broader cultural phenomenon: the emergence of a new generation of digital native artists who never knew art before computers and the Internet. Since 2007 Petra Cortright has used her website and social networking platforms to share her videos, gif animations, and photoshop works, building a massive following both in and out of the art world: Her video "vvebcam" got over 60,000 views before it was taken offline by Youtube for mis-tagging, and she was one of the youngest artists to be featured in the 2009 Venice Biennale. Through all this, Petra has managed to avoid online art’s worst cliches of self-referentiality, instead showing a return to the traditional interests that have historically preocupied artists- formal discovery and personal expression.
Were computers around in your house from when you were born?
I had a computer since I was one. My dad had one of the first Macs.
Why did your family have Macs?
My dad was the head of the Art Department at UCSB. I think early on a lot of artists used Macs. When I was in school most people had PCs until I guess the late ’90s, when they made the candy-colored iMacs. Then those got super popular.
What did you like to do on the computer?
I was really into SimCity 2000. I never really played videogames like Nintendo—they were too violent and scary. Even Donkey Kong was stressful. I liked computer games. With SimCity, you could edit the landscape. I would just do that, for the longest time.
What would you put on the landscapes?
Like thousands of trees, waterfalls and stuff. I didn’t really care about the game. I also remember really early drawing programs. One was kind of like Kid Pix but it was black and white. That was when I was really little.
Most kids like to draw. Did you prefer to draw on computers?
It was more fun. With computers you can do stuff that’s way more complex than what you can do with your hands.
It’s complex but it’s also super easy.
I’ve always had a friendly, playful relationship with computers. It always felt really natural, like an extension of drawing. It was just a way to be creative.
So your parents were in the arts?
Yeah. My dad died when I was four and a half. He was a master printmaker and sculptor. My mom has a Master’s in Painting from Berkeley. Also, one of my parents close friends was Marcia Tucker who founded the New Museum. I grew up with a lot of art and artists around.
What was your first experience of going online? I guess it was AOL. My mom got AOL pretty early. She was a member of all these chat rooms for widows. I remember she had this printed out list of emoticons. There were smiley faces, all these words next to them, like happy, sad, hugs...
It was just two brackets, and that meant hugs. I wish I still had that list. It would be so good to look at now, this printed-out list of emoticons.
Were you going to chat rooms, too?
Not really. It’s hard to remember the internet before Google. The first time I used Google I was in the 5th grade. The librarian was telling everyone to use Google instead of Yahoo because it was better. I thought it was a weird word.
What about Google image search?
I specifically remember my first image search. I searched for trees. Like, “green trees.” And it was really overwhelming because there were so many pictures of trees, all at once. Before, you could only look at books.
So you were into it.
I was totally obsessed with image search after that. It’s still that way when I work. I feel no need to take a photo of anything. If you can’t find exactly what you want to find, you can usually find something better than what you were looking for.
When did you start putting things online?
It was in high school, so around 2001. I had LiveJournal and wanted to put images up.
Had you been saving your computer drawings before that point?
Not until I was posting them online. Then it became important. Before that I didn’t even think in those terms, because no one else was going to see it. I think there’s a really strong link with people sharing stuff and saving stuff—posting something online, and the validation that comes with that. It is kind of hard to separate at this point.
Were your friends at school on LiveJournal?
My friend Jaime, who now makes music under the name M.E.S.H. got me into LiveJournal. He went to my high school and I had a crush on him, so I was always trying to impress him. He introduced me to other people online.
There was this thing called NowGoCreate—this website created by Damon Zucconi, Mike Tucker, and Milan Zrnic. I ended up meeting so many people from that site in person.
What was NowGoCreate?
It was kind of like Deviant Art for people in 2002 learning Photoshop. It had a snarky, fine art approach. There weren’t that many people on the site, maybe 30—it wasn’t a big thing at all. Jaime Whipple was on it, Jessica Williams, Will Simpson, Ilia Ovechkin... a lot of people that were in the surfing club Loshadka. Many ended up going to Cooper Union and MICA.
What would people post?
People would post typography, projects that they were working on, photos. It was in that era of graphic tees, when Adobe Illustrator was really cool. Like a bunch of triangles with crows flying.
Were they trying to get critiques for it?
Yeah. You would post something, and then people would try to flex their pre-college, art-school talk about it. Things would sometimes get pretty heated. It was not good.
What were you posting?
I was posting really shitty Photoshop work. I wish I had posted more drawings that I had done, but I was trying to post cooler stuff which in retrospect was not cool. It was just trendy.
Somebody had told me to look at Nasty Nets before we talked. Was Nasty Nets kind of like NowGoCreate?
No. You had to be invited to Nasty Nets. I think it started maybe a year before I was invited to it. It felt like a big deal. I was scared to post at first.
Who was on it?
Pretty much everyone that was a member of it was an artist. But you wouldn’t post your work. You would post things that you found on the internet, things that you thought other people would be interested in. One time I posted my own work, but for the most part it was found images.
So it was a community for sharing things you found?
Yeah. Recently there was this panel discussion and one of the founding members, John Michael Boling, described it in this really good way. He said, “art sometimes happens here,” Sometimes posts that people did would be considered work.
I was looking at the comments on some posts. People seemed really sincere.
Everyone was super nice. There were some Nasty Nets trolls on there too, for sure.
There also seemed to be a major reverence for jpegs and gifs.
Well, this was before animated gifs got played out—before Google+ came out and there was suddenly such a clusterfuck of animated gifs.
All of a sudden they were totally available.
Yeah, which changed the appeal for sure. I hate talking about technology this way because things change, it’s not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just what happens. Things just got more popular and less rare and exciting. You get desensitized to it. The patience of digital culture is so limited now. If you can get someone to look at something that you posted for two seconds, you’ve already conquered the day. People are getting shorter and shorter attention spans, which is okay. It’s just how it works.
You went to art school right? What did you study?
Well, I wanted to do graphic design. I really liked computers and so I thought that was my only option. But graphic design sucks, having to work for other people sucks. I’m a terrible employee.
Where did you go to school?
CCA and then Parsons, but I dropped out.
Why did you drop out?
I had a really hard time with the living situations. I lived in five different apartments and they all ended in horrible disasters. The first one, there was carbon monoxide leaking. The second one, there was toxic mold. The third one, there were bed bugs. The fourth one, there was a flood. And the fifth one was a fire.
The last one was kind of my bad. I had too many candles. There was no structural damage, though.
It sounds like the ten plagues.
It was a little cartoony. I remember so many subway rides, being exhausted for every reason, but none having to do with school. Things like finals didn’t even register on my distress level of what was happening. School seemed like the easy part of it, honestly.
What was your first website?
It was my homepage, which I started in 2007.
How has the site changed since then?
I haven’t updated the look of it since 2008, so all the animated gifs and stuff have been there for five years. It’s kind of a problem—I know this sounds like such a white net girl problem (lol)—but I’m tired of people asking me about animated gifs in interviews.
In a weird way it gives an impression that I’m a crusader for nostalgia or for older internet, but I also make work with new technology. I like both.
I was looking at your site today. I liked the wallpaper backgrounds for the videos.
I like being able to customize. Even just doing a wallpaper behind a YouTube video makes a big difference. It changes the context a lot.
Are you supposed to watch the videos with the backgrounds?
I try to make it nice and at least more special, but it’s not a requirement to see it that way. I’m very relaxed about how people view my work. I’m really grateful if people look at it at all so it doesn’t really matter if it’s on YouTube or on my website.
At what point in all this did you start to regard yourself as an artist?
I feel like I still have trouble with that sometimes. Making the website, it seemed like such a big deal, putting stuff on there and listing it as a piece. That was before I had sold anything.
What was the first work you sold?
I had a show in 2008 at a gallery in Dallas, Texas, called And/Or.
You had been making physical art objects?
They were only made for the show. The gallerist wanted to make prints of the pixel paintings, and some drawings. That was really straightforward but then he wanted to also show a webcam video I made.
How was that weird?
I had never priced work before. I had no guideline. The prints seemed kind of straightforward, you just sell them for whatever you normally sell a print for. With the webcam video, I had no idea. I wanted some automatic way to figure it out because it was really stressful.
What did you end up doing?
As a joke I said “I wish that I could price the video by YouTube views or something.” The gallerist thought it was a good idea. From the start, that’s how I’ve always priced the videos.
So you only make objects when someone gives you a show?
Yeah, because I’ve never had a studio. I’ve never really had a reason to make physical stuff unless there was a show, with resources and money. I never pay to have the things produced.
That’s a pretty unusual way in general for an artist to work.
It makes sense if you’re lazy and poor. I’m also just so flexible with everything. Anything that I make can have so many final forms. It seems like a lot of pressure to decide the best way to show something.