Frieze London | Interview with Petra Cortright

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It’s the second day of Frieze Art Fair London, and the first-rate art market professionals have somewhat been replaced by mortal art tourists and undergrad students who roam the bright-lit gallery booths in search for this season’s creative stimuli. A primary school field trip getting a bit too excited running around the huge, highly secured Jeff Koons pieces at Gagosian was undoubtedly one of the dramatic highlights of the day. Video artist Petra Cortright and I flee to a bench in Regent’s Park withering autumn setting, and I roll her a well-deserved cigarette. Cortright explores online visual language and representations of the self within the computer screen through her freeform videos distributed through her YouTube channel. As a part of the commissioned Frieze Film 2013, Petra is enjoying Frieze so far, although she puked when her video aired on national television.

JU: Tell me about your new piece.

PC: I usually have trouble with commissions, especially with videos because they just kind of happen. It could not be longer than three minutes, so I was like “OK, I’ll try to get it over in 30 seconds”. I was told it would air late at night on national television on Channel 4, but it actually wasn’t too intimidating a commission. It was in the back of my mind that it would be on TV, but it wasn’t that big of a deal. The biggest thing was that they gave me a residency at EMPAC (The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center) in upstate New York. I’ve never had a residency before, and up until recently I’ve never even had a studio.

JU: How was the residency for you, having worked mostly on your computer at home?

PC: It was the most ridiculous place. They gave me a super nice apartment but I was never really there because I would stay in the studio. It’s the kind of place where, in terms of technology, you could get exactly what you wanted. They have stupid technology. Money doesn’t exist. The most ideal situation for artists working with video. If you drop a pin in their auditorium on one side, you can hear it exactly the same on the other; borderline creepy stuff like that. They got really freaked out because I only showed up with my laptop and a webcam, and I didn’t request anything. They put me in this massive room with floor-to-ceiling windows and apologized for not giving me a bigger studio. It had an insane view because it was on top of a hill. They got really nervous so they brought me like five computers, lights and huge speakers. The best part of it was that the studio was soundproof and I had 24/7 access; I was listening to happy hardcore and Britney Spears remixes till 6 AM. I was almost high on how much fun it was, so it was hard to eat and sleep, but I was massively productive and I made so many videos.

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JU: Did all these new technologies and tools that were available affect your work, which is usually pretty DIY?

PC: Well, because the people who go there can get whatever they want, it can become problematic because they end up using stuff that they don’t really know how to use. It was only a two-week residency, and in that time you can’t really figure out that much new shit. I decided to not put pressure on myself. Just because I could didn’t mean I should use it. I don’t think that’s a good reason to make work – because you think you should. I try to avoid that in general.

JU: What’s the process of making your pieces?

PC: With the webcam videos that I do there is this very necessary element of spontaneity. I really can’t be thinking of anything. It’s really simple gestures, like moving my hand. Also there is no postproduction of my videos. I’ll be playing around with it and things happen. There are so many little quirks within it and these very beautiful moments occur. You can’t really force it.

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JU: You initially broadcasted and distributed your videos through YouTube – you were then picked up by a gallery (LA-based Steven Turner Contemporary) and now you’re showing at an art fair. How do you feel about exhibiting?

PC: Even before I had a gallery I always felt a little bit uncomfortable showing my work – I don’t like watching people watch me. It’s in a way voyeuristic, which my work is not about. There’s something nice about just posting videos online, especially because I get so much feedback. I like the negative comments too, because no one is going to say that to your face in real life. Devil’s advocate would say “well why are you in them when you don’t like people watching it,” but I guess the best way to explain it is that I kind of wish it wasn’t me, but it’s not possible. My work is so intuitive that I could never tell someone what to do. I can see myself through the webcam when I work, and these moments of observation are quite important.

JU: The person in your videos can somehow be characterized as a virtual persona, but now here you are, as an artist at a fair.

PC: The webcam is a veil, so being here in person and standing next to this other version of me is very weird. It always looks so much prettier on cam. Unfortunately, I can’t bring that veil here.

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JU: How did it feel to be broadcasted on national TV?

PC: It aired last night, which I only found out a few hours before. It only showed once. I had the weirdest reaction. I was at this dinner and went back to the hotel and turned on the TV, and it just came on! It was really exciting, but all of the sudden I felt really sick and I actually threw up… It was the weirdest reaction and I’ve never had that before. I think it has something to do with the fact that I didn’t feel or understand where it went. If I put something on the Internet there will be interaction and feedback, and it’s, in a way, more tangible. With TV it just goes out into the void. Well, I was probably really tired as well, but still.

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JU: In comparison to shows and biennales, the art fair has much more to do with the art market and money.

PT: I was commissioned for my work at Frieze, so my work is actually not a part of the meat market that is going on around here, but I was recently at the Phillips auction in New York (the first digital auction in history). It seems pretty straightforward to me. My pieces are sold as a USB stick in a pretty box – I just sell the file. At the auction, one of my digital paintings sold for over $9,000. I have never sold for that much before, it was crazy. There is so much discussion about selling digital art and maybe I don’t understand it fully.

JU: Well, do you have to understand it?

PT: I don’t feel like it’s up to me what the value of my work is – it’s decided by all of these other people. I don’t even want to try to price anything. I have never had a good reference point and I don’t think I ever will. Some artists are way more calculated and involved in how they want their work distributed, but I don’t want to play that role. I just want to make pieces. It’s hard enough to do one thing in life.

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JU: Some people argue that artists aren’t even supposed to be at an art fair.

PT: It’s weird to stand next to your shit and be like “I made this,” but there is a certain way in which things work. I’m not trying to go against anything. I’m grateful that Frieze asked me to do something for them, as I know that it helps them. I feel like I can give back something by coming here, and it’s always fun to travel.

As I said, I don’t want to think in terms of should and should not; it’s very overwhelming to me. It seems more fun to do it that way.

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