"I mean, people have a really hard time respecting women. I'm just going to put that out there," says artist Petra Cortright. She's sitting in front of her computer in her Alhambra studio, watching a slowed-down version of her video, Niki_Lucy_Lola_Viola, in which virtual strippers acquired through VirtuaGirl.com do their routines against a bright green background. The background resembles the green screens against which VirtuaGirl models initially perform, before footage of them is used to make animated files that indefinitely loop.
Cortright is hoping that when the video debuts in a dark room on July 9, as part of her exhibition at newly opened West Hollywood project space Depart Foundation, people won't make shadow puppets against the screen, or take suggestive selfies, as they did with the nude, sphinxlike mammy in Brooklyn that Kara Walker sculpted out of sugar. "I feel protective of them," Cortright says of her subjects. "But we'll see. I can't control what people do."
Her exhibition "Niki, Lucy, Lola, Viola," named after VirtuaGirl strippers, is probably the most ambitious the 28-year-old L.A. artist has done. The Depart Foundation, the local satellite of a well-funded Rome-based nonprofit, paired her, at her request, with curator Paul Young, who runs the video gallery Young Projects out of the Pacific Design Center and knows multimedia art well.
The show will include three videos in the main gallery in which virtual strippers are projected so that they're larger than life. A video of animated fireworks — which Cortright likes because they're celebratory but also such passive, predictable shapes — will play against a purple background between the main gallery and the second, upstairs one.
Upstairs rooms will feature complicated, high-resolution "video paintings." Cortright made these in Photoshop, using hundred of layers to generate lush, abstract files; then, with the help of a video editor and animator, she added slow-moving flickers or swishes. It's like Cy Twombly meets Hayao Miyazaki, only denser and more whimsical. These will be on 4K screens, with no pixelation at all — high-tech abstraction coexisting with strippers from a sketchy website, a high-low contrast that epitomizes Cortright's work.
Cortright, who grew up in Santa Barbara, has been interested in Internet sketchiness at least since 2007, when she had just finished her undergrad degree at Parsons New School of Design. She was posting low-res webcam videos of herself on YouTube and had become a prolific user of YouTube tags. She'd use as many as she could, to increase traffic, finding them on lists of keywords spammers often use. (One of her videos was banned as "spam" by YouTube in 2011, a choice Cortright contested to no avail.)
Cortright's work straddles two relatively new categories: net artists, mostly a term for artists who use Internet tools and tropes as material, and post-Internet artists, more often used to refer to artists who know their work will largely be seen online, on their personal websites or their galleries', and so adopt a photogenic hipness. Cortright's a net artist with post-Internet savvy. When she is asked "Why web art?" she tends to cite her teenage years, playing Sims and taking selfies before they were a thing. Conversations around her work began online, first within casual web communities and then on arts blogs, when artist Tom Moody posted Cortright's webcam video of herself watching an online video while gifs and buzzing light danced across the screen. Art writer Paddy Johnson reposted the video to her blog, though both she and Moody struggled to convey why the work compelled them. Was it Cortright's impeccable sense of timing? That she made default imagery look sexy?
Cortright mostly participated in group exhibitions in the mid-2000s, and didn't have conventional gallery representation until recently. Over the past two years, she's been associated with art consultant Stefan Simchowitz, who is known for promoting emerging artists, flipping their artworks quickly and being vocal about his business practices in an art world that's characteristically hush-hush about money. Simchowitz consults with the Depart Foundation, a project space that mostly champions artists with growing market potential. (Cortright's digital paintings have fetched more than $40,000 at auction, and she has experimented with pricing her video work based on YouTube views.)
When Cortright first started working with the virtual strippers in 2012, it was by accident. She stumbled upon software called "VirtuaGirl," which had existed since 1998, eons in Internet years — in fact, users can still acquire "vintage" strippers made with '90s or early-2000s technology, and Cortright has a few. Users who download the program can have strippers dancing around on their desktops, and add a new girl to their "collection" daily. "It's like this snowballing of girls," says Cortright, who uses prepaid Vanilla Discover cards to purchase her girls, because she still doesn't trust the site with her credit card info.
Initially, she downloaded the girls onto a "dirty" PC, one already infected with viruses. She had been trying to make these sumptuous, detailed digital landscapes by mashing together tropes from different screensavers, and she decided to add in some strippers. The result was Vicky Deep in Spring Valley, a video that took nearly a year to complete, in which one stripper in a bouncy yellow dress pole-dances in a forest and another slowly undresses in a field. It debuted in Berlin in 2012. Before that, she'd rarely spent more than 20 minutes on each video work.
"Once I started working with the girls, I couldn't stop," Cortright says. At first, she had been interested in liberating the girls from their normal context, which she imagined being the desktops of seedy guys. But her thinking has changed somewhat since then, and her environments have become far less lush, detailed and cinematic. "I didn't like the idea that I was saving them," she says. "The more that I've worked with the girls, the more I'm into the idea of them existing as they are."
In one video slated to be in the show, a virtual stripper does the same routine over and over again against a Western landscape screensaver that Cortright pared down and altered, so that elephants coexist with a horse and tumbleweeds against a pink sunset. Because Cortright made the video in Flash, each stunted action repeats on an infinite loop. The elephants keep trying to walk forward; the tumbleweeds make little progress.
In another video, also inspired by a screensaver, a blond stripper dressed in bold red floats amid a mass of seagulls. "The [strippers'] personalities are so much louder with these new works," Cortright says. "I think there's something important about that." She adds, "These aren't funny to me. It's not ironic. This is a sincere situation."
The biggest, longest video in the exhibition shows the strippers exactly as they exist on Cortright's desktop. Occasionally, while the video recorded, she would lift a stripper up with her mouse and then let her fall, a feature VirtuaGirl introduced a few years ago, to make the program more "interactive." But otherwise, she doesn't manipulate the scene.
"I've never shown it this purely before," Cortright says. "But just look at it. There's nothing that needs to be done."
Depart Foundation, 9105 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; through Sept. 12. (424) 302-0968, departfoundation.com.
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