Petra Cortright’s i thot i wuz free is a video installation that is a minute and 23 seconds long.
Cortright exhibited her work at the Wellington City Gallery in 2017. The exhibit included the majority of her work, which consists of digital paintings created in Photoshop, as well as other films similar in style to i thot i wuz free. She conducted a very brief interview for the Gallery which was shown on their promotional YouTube page. In the interview, she bluntly explains the very simplistic hobbyism that provides the foundational process of her work. She said:
“I’ve been collecting very strange, weird webcam softwares, mostly for Windows-based computers, for like ten years, and I’ve always thought of them as self-portraits. I’m kind of like the director, the actor, the editor…everything in one take, because they’re always live. I can see what I’m doing.”
Cortright offers all of this almost lackadaisically, matter-of-factly stating that her work stemmed from a place of pure curiosity, not through happenstance so much as through genuine interest, but as in any authentic conversation, there are more profound truths shrouded across these simple statements. The idea of a self-portrait, the fact that she “can always see what [she] is doing”…there is subtle evidence of a stimulating ideological bridge that Cortright has crafted between herself, her perspective of herself, and the webcam’s input and output. The webcam is regarded as a mechanism for artistic expression, and even further, for deeper identification of (with?) the embodied self.
Full disclosure: I loved i thot i wuz free on first watch because it was really cool, and it is. There was one day where I had just rewatched it, and I had written some rambling, topical words on Letterboxd about it. The next day, I got into a Zoom call to chat with some friends. As literally every person nowadays knows, Zoom gives you a prompt right before you join a call to “Join With Video” or “Join Without Video”, and it shows you what your webcam is seeing, presumably to help you test it but also to confirm that you don’t jump in with some stupid shit on the camera. Before you join a public group of people, it shows you a picture of yourself. There you are.
Seeing oneself processed into pixels and presented on the screen creates an unsettling flavor of distanciation. Especially when juxtaposed against the function of a mirror (which is technically identical to that of a webcam), there’s a puzzling and uncomfortable disconnect between what one is looking at and what one is perceived as. On a voice call, the feeling comes in waves. The conversation ebbs and flows, there’s laughter and discussion, but then I notice myself again, and for a moment, it all compresses my brain again. There I am. Is that what people see?
This question becomes even more complicated when the concept of spectatorship is introduced. It becomes slightly paradoxical very quickly when you investigate it: Am I seeing myself, or spectating myself? The answer is clearly both, but the boundary of the ego starts to take some poke and prod when the question is posed. In the webcam-produced image, I am both seeing myself and spectating myself. As I input a movement with my very own flesh, it is reiterated to my eyes for me to view at my leisure. For children entering the grocery store, this existential question breezes through their heads and quickly becomes a game; a silly face and a wild jump function as a test of the camera, to see if the thing they’re looking at really is the physical form that they happen to be controlling. Is that me? Well, sure it is! I’m jumping, and person on the screen is jumping too! Aren’t we the same?
In i thot i wuz free, Cortright’s casual behavior simultaneously emulates the youthful test of the CCTV and considers the ideological challenge that is offered by the webcam toward the corporeal. She sits and observes herself, the tacky first position of the livestreamed self. As Danny L Harle’s “Awake For Hours” flutters in bitcrushed joviality through the speakers, Cortright begins a naturalistic performance that can be likened to the way anyone behaves when they are home alone: she stares at herself on screen, then at the webcam itself. She smiles, and she dances, and she lip syncs to the music. She just does her thing. This behavior is almost too simple, an evocation of the silliness and selfdom that shines through in all of us when we know that no one except ourselves is there to spectate us.
While this is going on, the image on screen duplicates consistently until it reaches sixteen fragmented slices. The webcam captures Cortright, but the output shows the image flowing in fragments from left to right, so as the real-time editing shreds the moment into choppy ribbons, glimpses of the moment right before flash and decay toward the right side of the frame, fizzling across a wave, away into digitized nothing. Individual frames are sliced into sixteenths and carted off toward the right, and echoes of Cortright’s actions are all we can extrapolate from.
A consideration of digital physicality flows through i thot i wuz free. Cortright uses the dazzling, jittery webcam software and performs as usual, but her behavior is engulfed by digital effects, so that her complete, organic personage becomes warped by the jigsaw electricity she inflicted upon it. The film wonders, “Who is performing for whom? Whom exactly am I presenting when I offer myself to the screen? Who am I really seeing?” These anxieties looms over the keyboard and pierce through the screen. The lyrics of “Awake for Hours” frame the existential musings of the images: “Teardrops feel like showers / I thought I was free…Lying awake for hours / Time stands still around me.” There is a youthful freedom in Cortright’s joyous behavior on screen, but the boundaries of the digital frame still haunt it. She moves organically of her own accord, but the software works diligently to interrupt the humanity of her movement.
i thot i wuz free considers the subtle fractures in the relationship between the digital self and the physical self. It challenges the perceived balance between the spectator and the depicted. Audience is regarded as a vacillating institution, a delicate and meandering construct of personality that, through the webcam, is revealed to be inherently bound to whatever performer or performance is depicted on screen. The deterioration of Cortright’s performance by way of her webcam software elegantly explores the photographic image’s feeble imitation of one’s physical form. The bittersweet cybernetic nature of the webcammed self shows that there is no difference between spectator and spectated; everyone is constantly performing for themselves and everyone else, with themselves and everyone else in mind.
When Zoom asks its users to “Join With Video” or “Join Without Video”, all cards are laid on the table. One must decide if they are willing to offer a warped, pixelated version of themselves to the people waiting beyond the prompt screen. The screen functions as an oppressive barricade between the people with whom we interact and the selves that we offer to the camera. Even as we view ourselves in the top-left corner, the idea of the presented self splits between what we offer in our flesh and blood and what we offer to the looming eye at the top of the screen. i thot i wuz free fights almost desperately against this as a reclamation of the organic human form. Cortright’s personality bursts from beneath the generative software. Her intense gaze directly into the camera is defiant, a direct resistance to the digitization that is, according to the spectator, completely consuming her appearance. Her dance moves do not lose any of their ecstasy amidst the visual disconnect. As of this writing, the piece is four years old, but it displays a victorious, unified collision of the organic and the digital that will persist forever into the technological future. Richard Brautigan put it succinctly:
I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.