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The Passion Of Petra Cortright

The webcam video performance artist and digital painter has become an evangelist of the selfie.

Frieze Art Fair, London, Oct. 2013

Californian-born Petra Cortright is becoming increasingly known in the art world for her webcam video performance work and digital paintings. Having developed a financial system of art worth based on YouTube hits by making haunting short films, she's now throwing-up seeing her own work on TV...

Net Art in the Void

During the brief few days that Frieze Art Fair London appears in town it's the best place in the world to find new contemporary art. Every global gallery of note has an exhibition stand and every deep pocketed collector comes to invest. To put it bluntly it's an eager circus of horn-rimmed dealers, burgundy corduroy slacks and dishevelled jewels of old art money.

Fresh blood is poured in through Frieze Projects and Frieze Films, two self-initiated offshoots from the fair that allow a sophisticated programme of talent that doesn't require establishment networking to sustain interest. Talks and performances from singer and composer Meredith Monk sit alongside films commissioned by Frieze Film 2013 and EMPAC/Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

It's here that Petra Cortright sits with her home spun glitchfully youthful selfies, presenting to the world an the image of a warped malfunctioning Martha Stewart.

Cortright is innovative not just in work but also in the business of getting digital work to pay. One of her earliest shows in L.A. brought the issue of what to charge for pieces that were online. Cortright came up with a great response, “I said 'I fucking hate this, I wish it could be 10 cents per YouTube viewer, the curator laughed and said he'd never heard of anyone doing that and so we did and still do, it works.”

Nothing of Cortright's was for sale at Frieze. Instead she presented a project co-commissioned by Frieze Film 2013 and EMPAC. In doing this Frieze set Cortright's first-ever residency. In fact she'd never even had a studio before, preferring to work from home or her parent's garden in Santa Barbara.

The night before this interview Cortright's piece for Frieze, entitled Bridal Shower, had featured on Channel 4, a national British TV station. The program, called Random Acts, aired all four of the commissioned pieces for the fair.

“I had a really weird reaction to it,” explains Cortright, "I watched it on TV in my hotel and I was really excited and then very quickly I felt really sick and I threw up, no joke.”

“I'm pretty sure it had something to do with the fact that TV is... ” Cortright trails off, before coming back with, “If you post something on the internet there is this level of reaction and interaction at least. Even if it's a negative comment on YouTube, which I love by the way, it's nice to know that there are people reacting in some way. But with TV, there's just this void–it went into this void and that was it. It only airs once and that's that–I don't know who saw it or what happened and I guess I've never really thought about that kind of stuff before and it was really strange for me.”

This appraisal of TV as a void fits, but where does Cortright's audience fit in a world created by her webcam and laptop? Does she ever wonder about audience reaction–after all, after business meetings and long distance family reunions isn't the webcam the tool of the long distance lover on the enforced step down to voyeur? Could it be argued that Cortright is flirting with the darker end of the spectrum; the manipulation of the body as some kind of acid-porn?

Is Cortright happy with the word 'performance'?

“It's not exactly a performance, it's maybe half-performance” she responds. "Of course I'm aware that other people are going to see it, but then there is a side that is very sincere and whatever is going on at the time comes through as well. I don't really think about the audience because it doesn't matter to me so much. I really don't like watching people watch the result. That sets the element of voyeurism almost and I really don't think that that's there.” 

How vital is the self-expression within the work? Could Cortright direct others rather than just perform solo? “A part of me wishes that it wasn't me, the image, but I also know how to direct anyone else how to do it,” she said, before adding simply, “Also I don't want anyone else to do it because it's fun." 

With the move to residency, international art shows and film are we witnessing a transformation here from domestic lo-fi to something more art industry led?

“All of my work has this domestic vibe,” agrees Cortright, “it's very much like me in a room, [the Empac residency] still had this feeling like it was my room–because no one ever bothered me and I could rearrange things...The studio they gave me was massive and it was also soundproof, I was listening to music ungodly loud at 4 AM to 6 AM that no one could hear. It felt so isolated, I was high off how fun it was. I was massively productive, I've never made so many videos and every single one of them was like this is working, this is working.

I ask if Cortright feels like she is haunting herself when she sees her image on TV?

“Yes,” she says emphatically, “going back to the voyeurism thing–I have no problem posting things to the internet because anything that I post, I've approved. It's this act that I'm doing willingly so I only show exactly what I'm comfortable with. But there's something weird about flying out into the void of TV and maybe not getting some kind of feedback in return with what's happening.”

Cortright is in a new place; the void. The piece that Cortright showed at Frieze was shown twice a day on the large screen in the auditorium. I waited around to see it and was taken aback at it's cinematic presence. The entire experience was like that of a glitch blockbuster trailer for an epic virus. The soundtrack leaped at you and the Cortright's presence on screen was claustrophobic and mesmeric in equal measures. Old broadcast techniques rendered anew. This kind of discomfort has driven change and in turn will, perhaps, move Cortright further along on her own path. One certainty is that the circus will be in tow.

Petra Cortright. Bridal Shower, 2013. Webcam video, 2 minutes

Images courtesy of the artist and Steve Turner Contemporary, Los Angeles

Petra Cortright

Frieze London