Petra Cortright on selfies and the feminist question

Petra Cortright. Photo by Anastasia Muna
Petra Cortright. Photo by Anastasia Muna

Since 2007, Petra Cortright has been cultivating a devoted online audience with her enigmatic webcam self-portraits that employ various software tools to distort and adorn her body. Critically lauded too: Bruce Sterling called her work “clear-eyed, dainty, and intuitive… weird in a way that net art has never been before.” This signature weirdness can be found throughout Cortright’s videos, digital paintings, websites, ebooks, printed silks and canvases as well as in her collaborations with fashion designers Stella McCartney and Roberto Sanchez. She has had solo exhibitions the world over, and her works have been shown in group exhibitions at the New Museum in New York and at the Venice Biennale. On the eve of her first solo show “Petwelt”, at Berlin’s Societe gallery, Cortright told Sleek the history and future of her singular vision.

Hi Petra. Why did you start making Internet art?

Hello. I’ve been making these videos for seven years but I’ve been taking selfies ever since I got a digital camera when I was around 15. My first camera was a Canon Powershot ELPH; it was so cute. And at some point I just became curious to learn what makes digital photography unique, since it doesn’t have same the precious quality that analogue has. I feel lucky to have grown up with it, as well as the Internet. True, I started early but technology wasn’t so developed that I felt entitled to the endless amounts of resources that have become a birthright for kids now.

What sort of techniques and software do you use?

I use a lot of stuff everyone uses – all the Adobe shit – but I also have a collection of virus-y PC-based freeware. Ultimately, all I need is a computer. I don’t have to pay for paint. Of course it gets produced as a physical thing and that costs a lot of money but I have the files. I’ve never been worried about running out of ideas because I can experiment so much.

Since you’ve gained renown, has the way you work changed?

It’s changed in unexpected ways. For “Bridal Shower”, the project I did for Frieze, they had everything you could ever want but I only wanted to use a few things. When I arrived, I showed up with just a laptop and a webcam. They were so surprised, but there was only a fortnight to prepare, which wasn’t enough time to plan anything bigger, and it took a lot out of me as it was. I didn’t sleep, I drank too much and I just made too many videos. Following that, I’ve turned into a healthgoth. I’ve started drinking protein shakes and juice and I’ve quit smoking and alchohol too. Back in LA, I even have a trainer. I guess that’s been a positive change!

Petra Cortright. Photo by Anastasia Muna

How do you feel about collaborating with other artists?

I enjoy it when what we’re doing isn’t too different from my own work. But I’m not into pushing boundaries or going too far out of my comfort zone. It’s also hard for me to collaborate with most people unless there’s a clear goal. It’s easier with music and fashion because those roles are more clearly defined. Hearing the words “do what you want” feels like an incredible burden.

What was it like working with Stella McCartney?

It was so fun! We did a series of videos together, and she was so generous with her clothes and hook-ups. The paintings translate really well into prints too. I just sent her a PDF of designs for Autumn-Winter 2015, so those will be ready in spring. Each of my paintings has nearly 100 digital layers, so we’re playing with what they will look like in real life. She’s the designer though – I have a very fashion vocabulary. I can only discuss details and vibes.

Earlier this year, Dazed Digital listed you as a “digifeminist” artist, but do you think about gender politics in relation to your work?

I feel like I’m bombarded by people asking me if I’m a feminist, and I’m squeamish about it because it’s a completely redundant question. If you are a woman, how could you not care about this issue? Personally, I don’t want my life’s work to be condensed into the proposition, “Was Petra Cortright a feminist, yes or no?” It’s boring. But one thing I have noticed is that the higher you progress in any industry, the fewer women there are. Therefore, if you are a successful female, it’s important to pass that knowledge onto others, and I’m definitely interested in supporting all women.

Do you think more men should be asked if they are feminists?

Yes, I think they should, because men never have to justify their masculinity in the same way that women are made to talk about being women. For example, discussions about women’s work always has to mention femininity – it’s never just about the work. And that sucks!

Petra Cortright. Photo by Anastasia Muna
Petra Cortright. Photo by Anastasia Muna

Taken from Sleek 44 – What Women Want

Interview by Ella Plevin

More: print features online

Petwelt – we review Petra Cortright’s first solo show

Review of “Body Anxiety”, the online exhibition about female self-representation in net art

The Ephemeral Work of David Cata Gets Under the Skin