Petra Cortright on self-isolation, Zoom mania, and her early webcam works
April 20, 2020
Petra Cortright is known for her webcam videos, paintings, and other screen-based works, which—simultaneously cool, playful, and errantly feminist—often toy with the vocabulary of online imagery and self-presentation. Her first webcam video, VVEBCAM, 2007, shows Cortright distractedly cycling through preset video effects and is included in Rhizome’s Net Art Anthology. An exhibition of new digital paintings, “borderline aurora borealis,” opened at Team Gallery in New York City on March 5 before closing early due to the coronavirus pandemic. Below, the artist discusses webcam cinematography, the intensity of watching yourself on Zoom all day, and how difficult it is to be both the person filming and being filmed.
I FEEL LIKE I’VE STEPPED INTO A TIME MACHINE and been transported back to ten or twelve years ago. Being at the computer and online was a big part of my life and work back then. There was this certain consciousness that I wanted to record—the spirit of AOL Instant Messenger chatrooms. But people stopped hanging out on their desktops and moved to their phones, which I think are less helpful in artistic pursuits because they’re constantly asking for and dividing your attention. Now, because of self-isolation, everyone is on the computer again.
It is physically and psychically painful to be in front of a computer all day, especially looking at yourself. That’s what most people do on Zoom or FaceTime: They look at themselves. It turns people a bit manic and kind of silly. It’s easy to become a cartoon. We watch so much entertainment, and we’re used to seeing work that is produced by a team of people that are filming other people, but we aren’t used to having their own image circulating so freely. Most of us don’t realize that it takes a lot of work to be the person in front of the camera and the person in charge of filming. That’s why things like the “Myspace angle” or the “selfie angle” exist. They’re physical templates for you to be alone, reassurances that you can look okay.
Of course, the webcam that’s built into phones and computers is almost unusable to me because that perspective—looking up underneath your chin—is so unflattering. There’s no good way to do it unless you’re really away from the computer and you lift the computer up. But then you can’t actually use the computer. I always have to position the webcam higher to make a video. I use a Logitech webcam that I bought in 2009. It has a long neck, so it’s kind of up high already. But I usually need to even boost it up higher on a stack of books, my glorified pedestal.
When I was making videos of myself using a webcam, I always wanted maximum control, but that’s very difficult to achieve when you’re alone. People have always underestimated how much control I’ve exerted over the files that I’ve uploaded or made available publicly. I used to get asked, “Oh my god, aren’t you weirded out that you’re beaming your image for all the world to see?” And it’s like, no, not really, because it’s been vetted by me, it was not live. There’s no editing, but it’s prerecorded, which is a big difference. And in a way, the works weren’t about me at all, but about maintaining a sort of neutrality, letting the customization effects overpower any sense of self. It’s funny to me how overlooked this has all been when people talk about the webcam videos.
Over time, I made fewer and fewer videos because I wasn’t alone as much anymore. I wasn’t as lonely. With painting, I’m interested in world-building, and that’s easier to do when I am not alone. It’s much more of an escape. A lot of my paintings are landscapes: calming, other worlds you can enter. That’s why I think people are playing games like Animal Crossing. It’s a more gentle, world-building mindset. And right now, people who are at home kind of have two different paths: You can go into other worlds, or you can bug out and make deranged Instagram stories. I have a history of doing both.