Long before there was a term for it, Petra Cortright was “extremely online.” A habitué of early 2000s chat rooms, Tumblr, and AOL Instant Messenger, the pioneering internet artist channeled her preoccupation into her work, exploring themes of web iconography and self-representation through mostly screen-based mediums. While in her early years Petra focused on video self-portraits (she famously flipped the cam girl aesthetic on its head with her 2007 “VVEBCAM”), she’s since turned to digital painting, using Photoshop to painstakingly collage internet imagery and graphics into lush floral landscapes reminiscent of Monet. Below, the LA-based artist talks about her early struggle to make a living, her recent foray into NFTs, and why she's on Instagram (but hates it).
Hi Petra! It’s great to chat. How has the last year been for you?
I mean, I had a great year, which I know is an obnoxious thing to say. But I made so much work because I didn't have any excessive social obligations. I'd work out every day and then paint a lot. It was awesome. When I was younger, I used to get a lot of ideas when I was bored. And boredom is, like, hardly a thing anymore. So that was a really nice element of lockdown for me. I was getting a lot more ideas and felt a lot less pressure.
And by “paint” you mean?
On the computer. In Photoshop.
You’ve recently been doing some work with Adobe Flash, right?
Yes. Flash is a really shitty technology and there was a reason that they killed it, but then once it was dead, I felt like they were kind of daring me to make new work. When someone tells me I can't do something, I really want to do it. I'm using a ten-year-old computer with a pirated version of Flash. I can't be stopped! I'm gonna make new Flash work in 2021.
What is the process like? Is it similar to how you usually work in Photoshop?
Yeah, pretty much every brush stroke is on its own separate layer. A big thing about my work is being able to cut and paste and collage things together. I make a lot of my own brush strokes but then I also use and download things other people have made. Anything on the internet, really. I feel like anything that's in JPEG form is up for grabs. But I usually change things so much that I've never really run into any issues.
The New Yorker said that your work “harnesses the aesthetics of Internet overload to surprisingly harmonious effect.” Would you agree?
That's kind of a cute way to say it. Yeah. It's essentially just processing a lot of information and converting it into—this sounds cheesy—my vision. I don't feel like I have to make everything from scratch or do everything myself. There are just so many more interesting ways to work.
And what led you to this particular one?
It does really come from a deep relationship with the internet, especially surfing the internet, which people don't do as much these days. I used to spend so much time just looking around for odd things or odd software, putting things into search engines that were kind of off, like a line of poetry or something. This was years ago, when things were a little bit less commodified. There are plenty of weird things on the internet obviously now, but you just have to work harder.
How has your relationship with it evolved since the early 2000s, when you started out?
I use the internet a lot differently than I used to, but it was also a really different internet. In terms of social media, I'm a big Twitter person and that's probably about it. I don’t use Instagram in a personal way. I’m just like, here's a painting or project or show. I feel like I'm always defacing myself a little bit and it's just kind of a PR thing to like, remind people that I haven't died.
It might also be that I’m at a different stage of my life? As a young person, you're really, really looking to connect with people and make friends. It's not that I don't want to make new friends anymore, I just don't have as much free time. I’m out of my exploratory phase. I sort of have figured out what I'm doing. I know what I like to do. So, if I have extra time, there are specific projects and things I want to work on. But 10 or 15 years ago, I had no idea what the fuck I was doing. So I was just searching around, grasping for any kind of direction, which is always a very painful process for an artist—when things haven't taken shape yet.