The following text is a recent interview I did for Digicult with American artist Christina McPhee. This exchange of ideas was a fascinating and overwhelming experience in the world of one of the most radical artist within the contemporary art scene and an exceptional human being. I will never stop thanking Christina for such an opportunity.
Californian artist Christina McPhee has an educational background in painting and printmaking, and she currently works with different media, spanning from video and digital technologies, to drawing, painting, and photography. Her works are shown in several public collections worldwide, such as the Whitney Museum of American Art (NYC), Rhizome Artbase-New Museum (NYC), Center for Visual Music (Los Angeles), Thresholds New Media Collection (Perth, Scotland), and elsewhere. Solo and group exhibitions include prestigious places and events such as the American University Museum (Washington DC), the Institute of Contemporary Art ICA (London), Documenta 12 (Kassel), Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive (Berkeley), just to name a few. She has recently taken the position of advisor at the Transart Institute, the International MFA/PhD Creative Practice Programs (New York and Berlin), and works with students around processes and strategies in drawing, painting, photography and moving image.
Christina McPhee’s works are stunning, intricate and abstract figures in which the artist combines both digital and traditional techniques in order to give a visual representation of her ideas, experiences, and her strong engagement with nature and its processes of creation and destruction.
I have recently had the pleasure and the honour of interviewing Christina. What follows is an insight into her inner and outer worlds, where themes such as nature, landscapes, climate change, feminism, and politics are translated into her works through performance, paintings, drawings, data visualisations, photography and video installations.
DM What are the key references that have influenced your artistic view and production? And how your Californian roots have informed your tight bond with nature?
CM A strain of American drawing and painting and performance charges to the sensations of the visual world an account of a witnessing body, the artist as a sensing receptor — I respect a combination of traumatic drama and ‘stupor mundi’ — amazement at the wonder of the world, in diverse works from Joan Mitchell to Vija Celmins, Philip Guston to Lebbeus Woods, Edward Hopper to Lee Bontecou. Haunted, also, by canvasses by the post war Italian artists, especially Marisa Merz’s drawings and structures, and Alberto Burri’s collaged canvasses, I notice how and where traumatic sensation stores itself inside materialities of support and surface, through overlays and slash and mark making. The performance works of Joan Jonas and Trisha Brown use drawing as choreographic fields to foretell or, nearly, prophetically foreshadow future states of life. I love the visual music of Len Lye, Jordan Belson, and the cutting aesthetic of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil.
When I was a kid of seven our family moved from Los Angeles to the middle of the continent, in the tallgrass prairie country. Here was this weird lonely sea of land, a place of intensity in extremes, with dullness in the middle range. The prairie attuned me to how the smallest curve of a feather might connect visually to a cumulous cloud towering overhead. That tight bonding you speak of, comes out of exile. I taught myself to draw out in the country, while a social ‘real world’ of school and home was a tough game of warfare, boys against girls, or vice versa— the rough tumble of mid 20th century sexual violence and repression. The world seemed ripped to shreds. Drawing on my own made things integrate. When I returned to California to live, it was coming home, to a rural landscape visibly marked by the San Andreas Fault. Living on the Pacific plate, I made an elision in my media work between traumatic memory and the prediction and visualization of seismicity—‘seismic memory’.
DM As I was born in the Eastern part of Sicily, a place where earthquakes and volcanic eruptions represent a routine, I’m particularly fascinated with your explorations of the ephemeral power of nature. How did natural events and processes first inspire you?
CM ‘Nature’ has materiality, rawness, is the same as my hand, even the same as the digital keyboard upon which I write here and now. ‘Natural’ is a cluster of swerves, of now you see it, now you don’t. Now you access a truth beyond reason and perspective, now you lose it. Nothing is predetermined, no perspective is optimal, no subjectivity commands authority. I like this kind of space even if it’s imaginary. It’s a math and music space like a series of polyphonies by Hildegard of Bingen, in her Origin of Fire, which I ‘ve been listening to in studio while working on a painting about arrhythmias. A perfect analogy for this situation of ‘nature’, if it is a subject for art or the other way around — is the trope of the earthquake. Scientifically, it’s not possible (yet) to predict precisely when earthquakes come. The blurred edges of vision contain the force of these events hurtling towards us from the future. Post-traumatic visualization— in nightmares—is a site in the brain, in the inner vision behind the retina. I want to snap to attention at the first signs or traces of a future disruption, or a break in the fabric of the everyday. An everyday practice involving a searching line.
I remember studying, at five or six, a catalog of Vincent van Gogh at Auvers. I still have the catalog in my library. In the color reproductions the artist moved from sensation to sensation matching his move to the move of a tree branch, a pile of dirt in the road, a scuttling cloud. That drawing is not a view of, but is inside a time, the time of Vincent drawing the drawing. I assumed ‘art’ was a correlation to ‘being there being here’ from within spatial layers of time. Art objects held time in a sensual volume, or, could release time from within that volume. What if time seeps out from local objects? – a magical thinking moment, I’m sure, but if you can imagine the space/time curve as a surface, then perhaps gravity is a function of time, or, operations around objects ‘bend’ the curve of time. I visualize geologic layering like saturations of time in local nodes or sequences of nodes, a bit like a musical score. In the nineties, I had the opportunity to make repeated visits to Mauna Kea volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii, and it was here that I started working with lifting emulsions of photographs I shot at the active volcano and setting them into monotype prints. The print medium felt as if it was a way to take or capture an impression of the explosions both visible and under the earth that were happening in the Pacific Ring of Fire.
DM It seems that you act as a sort of catalyst, activating a sequence of reactions between natural and digital elements/tools. How do you position yourself within these practices?
CM Yes, a catalyst, within a matrix where there’s constant differentials flowing between mark making and energetic forces external to, and yet also integrated inside the mark-making. That’s a weird description, I know. To unpack things a little, imagine tools as outlets that sort of release or seize upon and then release time. Erotically, to pun on ‘tool’ as sexual. In English, there’s an insult, ‘Oh he’s such a tool.’ I like the negative implication of the insult… Insults are resistant. I love the contradiction of the negative label. ‘Digital’ and ‘natural’ are stereotypes that may seem to be set in a binary, against one another. As if they are things you can seize upon and grasp and know. As in a Cartesian worldview. This never has made sense to me. Nothing is ‘not’ natural, nothing is ‘not’ digital, for me, it’s all drawing. Drawing is energetic, doesn’t have to respond to the exclusively sighted or visually programmed. Drawing is making a world through receptivity to sensations, to being present to phenomena in a certain place; to being present to the sensations of having already lost sight of something. Drawings for me seem ‘complete’ whenever they reach thresholds of what may appear ‘off-screen’ in future. Ephemeral processing, referring to what’s not identifiable, what is yet to come, suggests to me that any kind of sign language can become the subject of a drawing too — like scientific visualizations, predictive graphs of risk, data analysis; fragments of messages, like shards. Drawing can occur across media: in video, on paper, through photography.
DM How do you approach the sites of your installations and audio-visual works? What’s your relationship with these places?
CM When you ask about the approach, I’m grateful how you phrase this, to emphasize ‘approach’ sites, the approach comes through a drift, as I am moving around, through a kind of casting process, like casting a line. Casting a line out. I’m attracted to sites where the biosphere is in flagrant tension with large-scale technologies— in California, energy producing sites like geothermal plants along the San Andreas fault.
A recent video work, Microswarm Patchwalk, rescales the technologic event to my own retina, after surgery. Remember Luis Camnitzer’s self portrait of his profile as a ‘site’ with little houses and toy animals clustered around his eyes? I wanted to make a video about a site being at the retinal level, inside the eye, when the eye is patched because the retina is hurt, torn, and damaged. A walk on the beach while semi-blindfolded. Sight and sightlessness collide. At the beach, the film offers a visual and sonic field of imaginary numbers rising from the ocean’s edge.
For Double Blind Studies, I made a series of photographic prints generate in analog format (gelatin silver prints) out of drawings of marine animals. Not literally descriptive of taxa, rather the drawings emerged from the video footage I shot on board a research vessel with biodiversity scientists in the Gulf of Mexico during and after the BP oil spill of 2010. I shot digital photographs of the drawings, then turned them into Rohrsach-like symmetrical images through layering, resulting in a digital negative, from which a print, in gelatin silver processing is made, by hand.
DM In your ongoing guerrilla-style interventions – such as the Tesserae of Venus and Carbon Cycle videos, you have filmed in discarded areas that you have defined as “bastard spaces” – spaces where decomposition and re-composition are possible. Could you tell us more about the symbolic value that these places have within your body of work?
CM Well, I’ve thought of these spaces as bastard not in a pejorative sense but in the sense of the kairotic – the opportunistic and lucky and mixed-up— the incalculable, chance encounter. The ancient writer Lucretius talks about the swerve, or clinamen, that creates new things. Just as drawing might comprehend all kinds of bits of information, or shards of data, or phenomenon, in its questing task to trace, note, make a mark, so I also look for places or spaces that could be taken as, or deeply appreciated, as possible sites of the ‘new things’. The word ‘swerve’ is slang for saying ‘no’ to a request, especially an unreasonable one. And to ‘swerve on’ is to get in the mood for a party, for swing time, for going into a mutual flow and rhythm without concern for ends, to party on. To dance is to pattern structures that mix one’s life into and within the lives of unknowable others, a process linguistically and narratively produced on one level (in time based media) and on another in the still moment between the slip of one image-still and the next, and those levels together make a new thing, as Zadie Smith’s novel, Swing Time, suggests. For e-flux journal a few years ago, Hito Steyerl anticipates free fall, or a situation of groundlessness, as a condition of culture, unremarked, even unconscious. Maybe to dance is to mark out the rhythms of free fall. This is an oblique, or even bleak view of such a mix-up everything is falling into disorder, mayhem, and dissolution. How absurd to montage a space of recomposition. I think of the absurd, the negative way, the via negativa, where every fall can be taken as a defiance against necessity: I made a drawing, Arm of the Starfish: Temeridad after one of the Enigmas of Juana de la Cruz, the Mexican Baroque poet. In phrases nearly impossible to translate into English, she demands:
¿Cuál es la temeridad
de tan alta presunción
que, pudiendo ser razón,
pretende ser necedad?
My drawing’s title also checks into Arm of the Startfish, a novel by Madeleine L’Engle, which I read as a girl. That book is about regeneration.
DM Time is a power that we can’t control. It is also a recurrent theme in some of your works – such as: SALT, Shed, Deep Horizon and Double Studies. How do you deal with the concept of ‘time’?
CM Probably my work takes on rhythms, it counts time, like music, participates just in time, stops to face the possibility of endless time, wonders about the world beyond human time, plays a melody in counterpoint to a signature of measured time, this last usually through repetition of cuts. Holes. Time warps. Tesseracts. Places you can’t find on a map because they are to come, or are disappeared. Places where the sound environment is cyclical and rhythmic. Machines, like oil derricks, creaking as they move up and down. Sucking up the oil, which is hidden in the tubes, lines and tanks of the oil field. At sea, the drift of oil down through the photosynthetic layer, down to the benthic layer where the crustacean live, and the sightless fish. Casting topologies, this process of tracing indeterminate and forces without predicate, without objective. The digital-analog ‘divide’ is subsumed under my process that wants to move against the certain positive identification, the surveillance-derived identity.
DM I find highly compelling the overlapping lines and the shadowy representation in most of your drawings and printed works – e.g. Double Blind Study, Persons of Interest, Moonbeam Reduction, Hungry Ghosts, etc. What can you tell us about the light/shadow dichotomy?
CM One must try to ‘shadow-forth’ (to borrow a made up verb from the English poet, Hopkins) modes of comprehending a site, whether it’s textual, or it’s around a comic strip, or if it’s a Moebius strip, or if it’s a physical place… when learning or knowing a space means risking being outside of comfort—in the wild—in the countryside of a world that’s not objective, but rather is speaking or shadowing-forth towards us— we understand in parts. In architecture, the term ‘parti’ denotes the decisive decision that is a matter of taking the part of, a certain design direction for the future built form. I love the play of ‘taking part’ with ‘taking apart’ and the ‘part taken up’—implication being, that you must, in the image, rely on a partial comprehension, there’s always something that exceeds the ‘parti’, which will be a built thing— the full realization of something as yet in shadow. I’m happy I can actually see, for real: but what I see I can’t really grasp except through this shadow play. I often think of the surface of a work, whether it’s a painting, a drawing or a photo or a video still, as projections or residue-traces of projections of something via a screen. Kaja Silverman, in her recent, magisterial book on photography, The Miracle of Analogy, comes to the end of describing a dialectical relationship between projected image of the ocean from within the spaceship in the film Solaris, by Andre Tarkovsky, and a possibility that photography captures a projection from outside us, when she surprises us with this amazing comment, which is core to her argument pro photography (and which I wishfully, errantly, extend to the visual image in general): “Like Tarkovsky’s scientists, we have secured ourselves “behind a barrier of perfectly engineered glass,” so that we can ‘study’ an oceanic planet without getting ‘wet.’ This planet is as ‘intelligent’ as the one in Solaris, and it also communicates with us through images. Like the hallucinations in Tarkovsky’s film, these images are ontological calling cards: a summons to relationality. This oceanic planet, however, is our world, and it is through photography— rather than hallucinations—that it speaks to us.”
DM I’m interested in the ways you physically engage, combine, and re-invent different media and techniques. Could you give us an insight into your creative process? Is it an individual or a team-based process?
CM Most often I work alone, in the physical sense, in a studio-based and field-based practice, but a community of friends and family all around, through virtual connections and real life, make this creative process deeply and structurally networked and supported. In this sense, I never work alone. I sense we are in a community of making, even as we are also diving deep under the veil of being watched or watching. In camouflage. Under the radar, wanting to be with the overwhelming ‘is-ness’ of the world coming at us and through us, and honoring a sensibility of trust and compassion as we stand face to face with each other in a ‘nature’ – world that is both intimate to us in our very cells and molecules and does exceed us at every turn, and also communicates through us. Do I think of recombination, re-invention, and engagement differently than I could have long ago, as a child drawing next to her bicycle in the countryside? Yes, now, making an object around place or the sense of place is a relation of face to face, even virtually, across vast divides, and happens with the participation of many hearts and minds — it’s as if we are all bringing works into being, of which some emerge in this place or that studio, in my studio. If I remember rightly, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas accounts for the human, the creation of the human, whatever that can be, only and always in the moment of facing one another. Sites or places, and my network are alive to me in the moment of mutual face-time. The practice unfolds in the relation. The material trace of that is the ‘body of work’. In video or drawing or painting or photomontage or even video installation. This is a lot harder to talk about than it is to engage in through media — I feel the difficulty of trying to speak of this. The meaning of what’s made arises contextually. Even the titles tend to come ex posto facto the making of the work.
DM In light of the latest political developments in the US, could you tell us your thoughts on how this turning point will change the ways a female artist approaches environmental and socio-political issues?
CM Well, for my new project, Moonbeam, this year, 2017: New topologic drawing-paintings based around the character of Moonbeam McSwine (Al Capp) are inspired by the ‘Pussy Grabs Back’ movement. Moonbeam, a fifties cartoon figure who is the only literate denizen of Dogpatch, USA and lives in a pigsty, was the name my mother taunted me with when I was in high school. Flipping identity politics, I’m making paintings from within the screen filter of “Moonbeam’s” mind, so the paintings are analogies to a ‘digital screen’ construction of her satirical observations and remixes of literary scrawls, anime-like fragments, and scrambled titles. I’m ‘occupying’ as Moonbeam McSwine and delivering gridded topologic feedback. Medium-large canvasses, in flashe, ink, graphite, and dye on canvas, rabbit-skin glue ground, and drawings. Possible crossover works in photomontage and immersive video. Moonbeam ‘reads’ texts and data of various kinds, from cardiac arrhythmias in electrocardiograms, to brain scans, to feminist texts, folklore, and maybe even her own comic strip; the results are ‘displayed’ in lined tablet formats.
DM Have you ever thought of creating a piece in a place outside the US that presents similar characteristics to your local area?
CM During the time I was shooting video and photography for the seismic memory project, Carrizo-Parkfield Diaries, scientists from around the world had gathered in the first days after a 6.0 quake struck along the ‘moving section’ of the San Andreas Fault, at Parkfield, California in 2004. They were at the San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth, as guests of the US Geological Service. There, I met a young woman seismologist from Naples, who told me how thrilled she was to study a cognate landscape to her own in Italy. In the Neapolitan region I would like to work with geologists re-interpreting and recasting their visualizations of real time and recent seismic activity, like landscape data of magma injection under the city of Naples, for example; and combine these visualizations with my field photography of surface views of rifts and other seismic features, into video and photomontage works. From Carrizo-Parkfield Diaries to Carbon Song Cycle, a significant thread or line of inquiry has been to ask how we can differently visualize climate change and geologic processes so that the data visualizations of science can be displaced and recaptured for a kind of sci-fi immersive video…