Like something almost being said: Petra Cortright’s HELL_TREE

As winter creeps upon us here in Ohio, with its cold and dark, and leaves litter the ground, my newly invigorated daily bogging on Minus Plato may appear like a longing for spring. As such, it has brought to mind Philip Larkin’s poem The Trees:

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Yet the real driving force for this spring into daily action has been my discovery of the work of Petra Cortright. Back in September 2007 Cortright bought a $20 webcam and uploaded her first YouTube video called VVEBCAM. Less than 2 minutes, VVEBCAM shows a dead-pan Cortright testing out the default effects of her new tool, as she becomes both user and object within the online world of self-display and viral culture.


Since then Cortright’s practice has continued to explore the interplay of ironic and sincere self-exposure at the core of the internet, even if the palette she uses has taken her far from her modest YouTube beginnings. She has created lush animated digital paintings and also worked with fashion designer Stella McCartney on intense video works for a collection.

At the very same time that Cortright was embarking on her YouTube odyssey, she also started using Twitter from the account @petcortright. Her first tweet, dated September 16th, 2007, she writes:

made out with future boyfriend

Three days later:

the plants are healthy

Then, after several other mundane posts about her family, getting drunk and her art school classes, on October 6th something bad seems to have happened to her computer:

the devil manifested itself into the folder of 1,828 zipped files on my external hard drive

This is the first Twitter post that makes an indirect reference to HELL_TREE the e-book that she would publish in 2012 with Paul Chan’s publisher Badlands Unlimited and which will consist of listing these older Twitter posts as well as other notes written to herself on various topics on her computer. HELL_TREE, like VVEBCAM, conflates the simple form of online diarist activity with the primitive visual effects of the technology Cortright is using, supplementing the bare daily narrative with retrospective illustrations of inhabitants of this ‘hell’,  such as dragons to peacocks.


Now, this post is the first of what will be many musings on HELL_TREE in an attempt to make sense of why I feel like Cortright’s sprawling e-book chimes with the genre of the handbook or guide to ancient ethical philosophy, such as Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, which Pierre Hadot has discussed as ‘spiritual exercises’ in terms of understanding ancient philosophy as a ‘way of life’. As I go about engaging with and posting on HELL_TREE with this analogy in  mind, there is, however, an important caveat presented by Cortright herself in her most recent tagged Twitter post.


Posting about her life-long obsessions – soccer and dogs – as a way to keep away the ‘philosophy loving’ art world may seems to be a fair warning against my analogy. What would be worse than interpreting HELL_TREE as a work of contemporary ‘care of the self’ in the ancient mold? However, Cortright’s rejection of philosophy actually highlights an important aspect of the works of ancient ethical philosophy that I am interested in – the warning about philosophizing too much and not keeping our sights firmly on the expedient. This ‘therapeutic’ approach to philosophy was a central concern on the Hellenistic schools of Epicureanism and Stoicism, as well as a particularly important debate in the relocation of Greek philosophy into the imperial Roman world.  In the days to come, as I write about other artists and ancient ideas, Cortright’s HELL_TREE will be a consistent reference point, but one that maintains a clear and critical attitude to the simplistic conflation of art and philosophy, daily life and didactic lessons, both in antiquity and today.

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