Petra Cortright

Petra Cortright photographed at home in LA by David Black.

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.


“My whole thing is: Every program or software I use, I use wrong.”

You seemed to have transitioned away from the webcam videos that defined your early work.

Yeah, I'm really not that interested in filming myself. I have a sort of gut reaction to what I want to do, and I'm pretty firm about following that. My worst nightmare is to do things that feel really forced and corny. I'm actually not a big fan of leaving my comfort zone. I think it's really overrated. I always try to do the same thing over and over again. But it's somehow not possible. So I just kind of tell myself to do the same thing but then I can't—it's always new, and that's how I keep progressing.

Also, the webcam videos were from a different time in my life. I was lonely and I had a lot more time. There was a very specific mindset for making those videos. There was something very authentic about them. I can't recreate that now, and I don't really want to.

What about the interactive element of works like VVEBCAM, where you replied to people in the comments section of YouTube?

That was something that surfaced after I made the video. But yeah, it did kind of become part of the work later on. I was really playing a part. This was in the really early days of YouTube where people were really harsh in the comments. The vernacular of each website was so different. And on YouTube, it was kind of like the streets—people would say sort of rough stuff. So it was like, okay, if I'm going to be involved in this, then I have to speak the same way that these people are speaking to me. My policy became to reply with an equal to or greater level of offensiveness. So I used to say horrible things and I had so much fun doing it. Of course, I didn’t mean any of it. I was interested in this ridiculous language that people were participating in. But you couldn’t do that now. You would be canceled. There's no nuance anymore.

Do you consider that work your breakthrough?

That really was a helpful one. It was just such a weird video. It seems to hold some power over people in a very odd way. It's honestly a boring video, but I'm not doing what a girl in front of a webcam is supposed to do. And people either really like that, or they really fucking hate it.

Ha. Really?

Yeah, people have strong reactions to it, and to a lot of my webcam videos in general. To me, they are a bit sad. Some of them are goofy. Ultimately, they were self-portraits from that time.

My whole thing is—every program or software I use—I use wrong. I used the webcam wrong. You're supposed to be sexy and hot in front of it, and I'm just kind of depressed and performing in an odd way. Now I use Photoshop to paint. I mean, it's supposed to be software for editing and retouching photos. If I actually had to make something look nice in Photoshop, for an advertisement or something, it would look like the work of an eight-year-old.

Where does that impulse come from? To use software or digital tools the “wrong” way. Is it specific to technology?

It definitely comes up the most when I’m being creative. I mean, it's a punk attitude for sure. I’ve always felt like it was a way to differentiate myself. Also, this being cheeky and a little contrary with software—it’s just fun for me. I mean, half the time, I’m just entertaining myself. And I feel like when artists are having a good time, there's something that comes through that you can't replicate.

How did you decide to become an artist?

I went to art school for graphic design, because I wanted to have a job and make money. But then I realized that it’s the kind of job where people tell you to change things all day. And I was gonna lose my mind over that. I have a painter's brain. I cannot be told to change a color. It’s so important to me. So, I realized I would just be doomed from the start if I did commercial work. And, of course, that resulted in me not really having a job and just being completely on edge—so poor, so miserable—for a long, long time. There was a lot of moving back in with my mom.

But you were committed?

It's a compulsion, almost. And I kept failing at anything else I would try to do. I would pick up things here and there, and I would just be terrible at them. I think being part of a community of artists online helped. I was really obsessed with like... okay, I have to post this video or this Photoshop thing that I did, I really want to see what people think. I put that as a priority over anything. I don't know if you could do that any more. There's so much noise, so many people online. I don't even know how I managed to pull it off. I feel like it could've gone the other way.


"I'm actually not a big fan of leaving my comfort zone. I think it's really overrated."

What was it like being the first part of the first wave of digital artists?

Well, technically I consider myself second wave. There was a whole group that came before me in the ‘90s. But that was before social media, so it was a completely different kind of work—very personal website-based and chat-based and stuff like that.

In the years since you started out, do you feel like the art world has become more receptive to digital artists?

I mean the art world is pretty pathetically slow. A lot of stuff that I saw during COVID on the “online viewing rooms” (and I'm saying that in air quotes because they're literally just websites) has been available for so long. But most people have not spent as much time in front of a computer as I have, which is probably a good thing to be honest.

What about NFTs. You made one recently, right?

Oh my god, I did hundreds of them. I'm not going to talk shit about NFTs. I had a really good time doing them. They also don’t change the way that I work in any way. So it’s fine to engage because, why not? I mean the hype around them is just ridiculous. And the aesthetics are pretty awful for the most part. There's just so much hideous stuff going around. We need curators. We fucking need gatekeepers.

In terms of subject matter, what are you currently working on?

Landscapes. I just love to do them. It’s so relaxing. And they are such an absolute classic theme in art. I think that making something beautiful and simple is a really noble, good thing. I don't have any desire to make the content of my work be current. I make art to not think about that kind of stuff. It’s the exact opposite of what they tell you in school. But there are other people that totally want to engage, and good for that. I’m interested a contemporary process, but not contemporary content.

Do your process and content “speak” to one another?

Yeah, I mean probably. There’s stuff that sort of is gonna leak in subconsciously. For a really long time, I was obsessed with sourcing images from Pinterest. I was making a lot of paintings with dream kitchens or wedding dresses—weird stuff like that, which is, I don't even know what kind of psychological. But then I stopped using Pinterest because I started to see too many of the same images over and over again, and it wasn't interesting to me anymore.

Digitally, your work is endlessly mutable. So, when you make a print, it’s totally unique. Is there a hierarchy between the physical and digital iterations of your work?

I call the digital version the “mother file," and all other versions that come out of it. And then I save every “brush stroke” as well.

And you reuse them?

Yeah, I break apart things all the time and make new things, but it's almost unrecognizable. Even if I'm using a lot of elements from old works, I'll change them around to make something completely different and new. But I love having everything that I've ever done — all my successes and all my mistakes— on file. If I have some kind of block, I can look back to see how I made something work.

And you have it for forever.

Right. My husband is an oil painter and when he makes something really nice and it leaves the studio, it's gone, he can't get that back. Of course I make physical pieces, but I still have the digital part of it. So I don't feel like I have ever given something away that I didn't wanna give.

Ok, last question: in 50 years, what do you envision the art world will look like?

I think there are some things in art that are so inherent to humanity that I hope that they don't change too much. Certain processes—especially handmade stuff—that's really important to preserve. Digital work, I'm sure, is gonna be a thing more and more. And NFTs. But I’ve just seen so many utopic views of the internet fail and I feel this is kind of another one. The idea that the artists will have total control of their work, with no middleman. I mean, in reality, that's not what's gonna happen. There's still going to be the old systems in place. I wish it weren't that way but things just simply doesn't work like that.

Keep up with Petra:

Twitter: @petcortright
Instagram: @petra_cortright