‘I don’t think I’ve ever successfully avoided the male gaze. I can’t even do it, even in the webcam videos, where I’m not even doing anything sexy’
When Petra Cortright talks about her work, she talks about file extensions like .EXEs, .SWFs, and .FLAs in the way that painters talk about cadmium reds, burnt umbers, and cobalt blues. Her Internet-inspired work is highly technical in ways that may not be immediately obvious, and when I spoke to her earlier this week about her Paul Young–curated show at the Depart Foundation, in Los Angeles, it became clear just how much computer-based labor goes into what seems like a simple gesture. In our phone conversation, we discussed the background for her new work in “Niki, Lucy, Lola, Viola,” a show which features Flash animations, videos, and a digital painting.
The videos in “Niki, Lucy, Lola, Viola” are what will strike most viewers first. They feature strippers that the Californian artist screen-captured from a PC program called Virtuagirl, in which users can purchase strippers that dance when the computer goes into screensaver mode. Here, instead of dancing on a computer monitor, the women are projected larger-than-life, gyrating against a green screen. Other strippers appear in her Flash animations against gaudy, layered backgrounds. And finally, there is a digital painting, made in Photoshop and printed on aluminum. (Cortright showed a whole series of these digital paintings at Foxy Production, in New York, earlier this year to critical acclaim.) Below is a transcript of our conversation, in which Cortright told me about the spontaneity of her work, her feelings about painting, and why she could never post these videos on the Internet.
ARTnews: You’ve said that your webcam videos are sincere, but that they’re also half-performance. You’ve also said similar things about the videos in “Niki, Lucy, Lola, Viola” as well. Where can you draw the line between sincerity and half-performance?
Cortright: It’s hard to say. It’s a really intuitive thing. Sometimes, on certain days, I feel like I’m more cynical than others, but in general, I really don’t want the work to be cynical. A good way of measuring it, for me, is I’ll make something and not even think about it too much. Usually, what ends up happening with my work is, I’ll start out think I’m doing a test. If I think I’m going to do something final, that puts a lot of pressure on it, and then it feels overthought, almost immediately. Usually, I trick myself into thinking, Oh, I’m just going to do a test, and then I’ll do another one later. That usually ends up being the best one. In a way, the sincerity is built in. I don’t know how else to describe it. I don’t know if that makes any sense.
It does, and I was actually about to ask about spontaneity in your work. You were saying that your webcam videos are kind of spontaneous. And I was wondering, were the videos in this new show spontaneous at all?
Yeah, kind of. The way that I make the webcam videos can allow for that. You just open up a program and then press “Record.” I’m not setting up a lot of equipment or anything. And with these new pieces—not so much with the Flash pieces, but with the two-hour screen capture with the girls—that’s just a screen capture, just like a flick of the wrist, hitting a key and then it’s going. It definitely allows for it to be really spontaneous. I did it pretty quickly. I bought the girls that I wanted, that I thought would make a good combination. I had this pre-paid credit card, and I’d go through and just buy them. I bought maybe 50 of them in 20 minutes—just scanning really quickly and just hitting “Record” and just seeing how the program was going to react.
When you were going through and buying them, were you looking for a specific kind of look?
I was trying to get a mix of different kinds of women. You can actually search, in the store, for different hair color, different ethnicity, different outfits, like nurse or bunny—all these different categories. Some decisions were purely aesthetic. I think I got more women who wore red, just because I knew it was going to pop so well against the green-screen background that I had set my desktop to. Some of them were super basic decisions like that. And then I was trying to get a mix of different kinds of women, from different eras of the program. The oldest ones I have don’t go as far back as 1998—I don’t think that they have that in the program anymore. But even from five to seven years ago, those women look almost like ghosts of the ones now. The ones from 2015 are 3K, super HD.
Why are they against a green screen?
It was just putting it back in, I guess. They’re just made to crawl out of start menu, if you have a PC. Now, they have it for Mac, too, actually, but I’ve never run it from a Mac. This program’s file extensions are super proprietary. It’s really nicely made technology. There was no way that I could break it apart to extract the animations of the girls. With the animated landscapes, I could break those apart and decompile them. I could first trim it from an .EXE to an .SWF, and then from an .SWF to .FLA, so I could open it up in Flash and change it around. But these would’ve been impossible to break apart. I was like, “Well, I’ll just green screen them.” Just seeing them on the green screen for a while, and just knowing that that’s how they made them in the first place, there was something really weird. They’re made somewhere on a green-screen stage—I don’t know where. Green screens are a loaded thing because it almost puts them in a state of transport. They can teleport into anything. That’s how they started, in the program. They’ll fade in and out. It brings a lot in and it takes a lot out of it. I wanted to reach a point where the green screen was functioning for many different reasons.
The way you talk about the women, it almost sounds like a virtual form of human trafficking, in a way. It’s obviously legal, and it’s a lot more consensual than that. But I think you could talk about it in terms of gender. Is there anything about the male gaze on the Internet, maybe?
I mean, how can there not be? I feel like I can’t really avoid that. If I use my own image, that’s involved in it anyway. I don’t think I’ve ever successfully avoided the male gaze. I can’t even do it, even in the webcam videos, where I’m not even doing anything sexy. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing. I can’t beat the fact that I’m a woman. I just have to deal with it.
This work is incredibly loaded with context. I didn’t even feel like I had to add a lot. I almost think of it as a readymade. In the beginning, I’d put the girls into these animated landscapes, but now, with the green screen ones, I don’t even know why I need to do anything besides take a screen capture of this program. It already functions on so many levels. It’s so weird how you can interact with them. With the screen captures, it’s about two hours, and I’m gently interacting with them over a couple of minutes. The cursor isn’t in the video, but I’ll pick them up and they’ll hang from the top of the screen. It’s really incredible, actually.
It also sounds like The Sims a little bit, the way you can pick up characters and drop them.
Right, it’s a very “hand of God” situation. But back to what you were saying about the girls and human trafficking, a big part of this work, for me, is that I don’t know anything about the girls at all. I don’t know them as people. I have no relationship with them. I have a relationship with the program, and I don’t know anything about the company, how much they’re paid, all that stuff.
You were also talking about the way their availability on the Internet completely changes the way they’re used, and I thought it was so interesting that you chose to put this work out in public, rather than uploading it to your website or your YouTube channel. Why did you decide to show them in public instead of showing them online?
They probably wouldn’t get far [online]. They’d get taken down almost immediately. Even some censored photos of the work have been taken off Instagram. Maybe Vimeo would allow it. The first webcam video that I made was taken off YouTube because of the tags that I used. There was nothing explicit in the video itself—it was actually very straightforward. I was really interested in SEO and those long, bizarre lists, where it’s like, “Britney Spears, Taco Bell, Kim Kardashian, blow job”—it’s just every phrase you can think of. I’ve had a bunch of videos taken down for way less. I don’t know if that was as good an option, to put them online. And also, in the show, the girls are not quite double life size, but they’re 150 percent. I wanted them to be powerful. It’s way, way, way different when you see them in the space, I think. It was nice to have that transformative aspect, because a lot of the work that I make is really flexible. I always consider the file the work, but I’m always flexible with the end output. I try to embrace as much as I can because it’s a huge benefit of making digital work.
One thing I like about the green screen is that you can see how the women are moving. You can see how they’re dancing, and I thought that was interesting because dancing keeps coming up in your work. Is there an interest in motion?
I’m drawn to movement. The contrast of them against the green screen is really great because it enhances the girls. I like the athletic nature about it. Movement can be very powerful. It’s very strange. I know this sounds very New Age, but to move around is to be very free. And the more I look at them, the more I think of them as athletes. Their bodies are incredible. They’re really nice to look at. They have muscles. It’s not easy to do. It’s been interesting to watch them and think about them as an athletic study. They have workout practice—there are stripper-pole workout classes. I’ve never done that, but it’s fucking hard, I know that. You need a lot upper-body strength.
It’s true, because I bet that a lot of the people who see this show can’t do what they do.
I know, exactly. I don’t why they get put into this other category. I’m pretty interested in it on just a physical level alone.
I wanted to discuss the videos that look like paintings in the show. They have this spontaneous look to them. Do you decide their compositions ahead of time, or do you just decide what you’re going to do when you get there?
The paintings are made in Photoshop, and there will be a couple hundred layers. With this new work, they’ve been brought into After Effects, where I mess with every single layer. So I have this 3-D space and I zoom in and out, with everything very slowly moving. They’re very slow. It almost looks as if it’s not moving, but then you look back a second later, and things start to change. Those are definitely not spontaneous because they’re tedious.
The digital painting in the show is printed on aluminum. Why print it out instead of just putting it on a canvas? It’s because you want to use Photoshop, I assume?
Yeah. I’ve tried regular painting. I hated it. It’s really slow, and I thought it was the dumbest thing. You can’t copy and paste or undo. And in terms of the aluminum, it’s a reflective substrate. Not every mark is physical paint. The printing can take an alpha layer. Some of the layers will be 50 percent ink so that the aluminum shows through. It’s really beautiful because it adds a little depth to a digital print. When I make them, I’m looking at this glowing computer screen, and it’s nice to have that light. It’s a completely different thing from the file. It does have that more traditional one-of-a-kind aura. I’m having my cake and eating it, too, but I really like it.