Throughout the ’80s, Christina McPhee used drawing and painting to investigate landscape and its relationship to time through work at archaeological and geological sites. By the mid-’90s, she began new media explorations of human technology and the environment by mining traumatic memory patterns and what they might uncover about geomorphologies in sites such as the San Andreas Fault. Her current exhibition Tesserae of Venus at Silverman Gallery in San Francisco imagines a world simultaneously on the verge of destruction and regeneration. Videos of alternative energy facilities at dawn on the edges of cities—as well as her richly layered photo montages and drawings—inspire consideration of what she describes as “bastard spaces,” places we will reimagine in order to survive the coming carbon storm, when atmospheric carbon concentration exceeds limits beyond our control.
Melissa Potter: I’m fascinated with the contradictory implications of Venus’ uninhabitable atmosphere as the inspiration for this body of work. It operates in these pieces both as a symbol for the earth after what you suggest is the inevitable moment of carbon saturation and as a fantastical shelter from this storm, something you’ve coined, “tesserae tents.”
Christina McPhee: I started thinking about using the tesserae—complex ridged folds—of the surface of Venus, as a simple visual analog for carbon intensification in our atmosphere. It’s thought that Venus may once have had water, even oceans, but that there is no carbon cycle on Venus, so there can’t be any absorption; there are no oceans to take up the excess carbon. The planet is in a deeply entropic process. Most of us are wondering how much longer the carbon increases in our atmosphere can go on before there is massive loss of coastline, dramatic changes in ecosystems, and then what about us? So I was trying to imagine improvised shelters at, or inside, these neglected areas, often alluvial or littoral swamps, marshes or riverbeds; I thought of intimate spaces on the scale of the waterfowl and the rushes: a mammal’s-eye view in contrast and immediate proximity to alternative and traditional petroleum energy-producing plants on a huge scale.
I was out shooting still and video footage in sites like these, at the edge of cities or in the desert and felt that there was an invisible assemblage going on, maybe on account of Venus-like intensifications of carbon in the air. I started to imagine how, as we try to quickly build and go online with alternative energies, at the same time we might not be converting away from carbon emissions fast enough.
I am really fascinated by how abstraction is a kind of tactical move to deflect attention from the literal reportage of a photograph, and I am involved in exploring that lag between the image recognition (the documentary moment) and the sense of an overwhelming dynamic system, something that can’t be described by direct reportage. So I decided to just start drawing abstract studies based on the Magellan Mission to Venus—to explore the topologic fantasy of these early ’90s photographs, some of which are online thanks to NASA and the Jet Propulsion Lab. It was part of the ironic charm or sense of black humor that I feel in the face of climate change to start riffing off these old school photos as if they could hold some clue like a secret trap door. I was doing a kind of reverse of the tensegrity forms of Bucky Fuller, thinking of how the tesserated (tiling) surface of Venus is a model of dissipation or slow flow, the opposite of a Bucky fantasy structure.
I also chose drawing in ink and watercolor and airbrush paint as a kind of gaudy antidote to what I sometimes feel is a faked, or at least disingenuous, confidence in 3-D modeling on the computer. So instead I made these things by hand. As they started to get larger and more out of control, I kept wanting to be folded and scored, assembled and reassembled, and that seemed to lead to outdoor installations. I knew I wanted to reverse the usual direction and produce work from analog and physical sources, then later move into digital montage. I realized that I could make these balancing structures of large sheets of paper, hang them, crush them and pile them in precarious masses, then pour day-glo airbrush paint over them, then hose them down, letting the paint dry in rivulets. The structures took on the aspect of crude modeling or topologic studies. Often they were peaked or hooded, like masses of semi-collapsed tents. The hot colors were deliberately a pleasure to scream out “tacky shiny luscious bad taste!” as I imagine Aphrodite and her fans might prefer. Since these paper structures were kind of anti-models, really, then the color could go wild and schlocky and excessive, carnivalesque. Assembling the stacks of folded paper sheets in precarious balances, I work with one hand on the sculpture, the other with a still digital camera or with my HD video camera, pouring water from the hose into the pooled iridescent and probably toxic puddles of airbrush paint, as at the same time I shoot and edit inside the camera.
MP: I’m equally compelled by your concept of the kairotic or “bastard spaces,” such as the Sunset Midway oil fields near Taft, California, that exist on the edge of civilization where you have been shooting video. These unwanted and neglected spaces seem to have something different to say to us, something that may even provide us solutions to this ecological conundrum.
CM: I film on the fly at high-tech energy installations. They are often under surveillance so you have to shoot at dawn, dusk, or after-hours on weekends, never for more than a few minutes at a time. I shoot the video as a kind of drawing. I work within a sense of the rhythm of the site, for example, in response to the rich sound rhythms from turbines. The shoots—guerrilla-style as they are—involve a poignant gesture or kairotic moment, which in urban slang may mean, not only the “perfect time or apt moment of luck,” but in a strange reversal also “is used to express gayness or queerness or just to make fun of people who you don’t like as in “go away you kairotic bastard.” I’ve never actually heard anyone say this, but the Urbandictionary.com gloss on kairotic as perhaps opportunistic, fortunate, and non-standard is so trippy. You can’t really visualize what the world is going to be like if the Arctic sea ice melts. You can imagine drowning cities and things like that on a grand scale, but what about the intimate detail, the less obvious byways? In a sense, the future is a kind of forbidden landscape. It’s possibly so alien to the familiar and the everyday that no speculative images exist yet of it. One is left like Blake to imagine dynamic worlds of elaborate strangeness. Or to create launch pads like installations for time travel to a future after oil, as Isa Genzken has done. So in fact by analogy the thing to do is to shoot at difficult-to-photograph sites. At Sunset Midway I get stopped by security even when I am shooting from the public road because I am told that the airspace, the view itself, is a property of the petroleum companies!
Alternative and petroleum energy extraction is usually going on in rejected or neglected natural areas, especially littoral or marginal streambeds, riverbeds, and swamps or sloughs in estuaries near the ocean. Usually this is because of the need for large amounts of water for cooling. Thus an assemblage of disconnected elements are thrown together. The point of contact is a kairotic moment-that’s where the video montage is an attempt to condense these points and extract their sweetness, like squeezing fruit for a stream of luscious juice.
MP: Your method of translation from video to layered and sequenced stills provides a 2-D foundation for these investigations. You mention that you seek traces of something not found in the video footage. What are you looking for? What have you found?
CM: I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of the “model” in the context of this project. Many of the photomontage works are titled with a descriptive phrase from scientific literature on global warming (Dynamic Sink Pulse, Arctic Sea Ice Extent (Average September), Carbon Cycle Model); I am concerned with “performing” a different rhetoric of visualization around the notion of modeling near-future trends in the impact of anthropogenic (human-caused) carbon concentrations, especially in terms of oceans.
The documentation of alternative energy installations is diminished to slight visual hints at the margins, like castles in the background of a late medieval book of hours. I am trying to create a record or report of an attempt to model, with my deliberately ironic and absurd DIY materials, something incommensurate to the imagination—like the incredible fact that Arctic sea ice will be seasonally absent by 2030 or sooner. Or that there hasn’t been less sea ice in the “average September” measurements since 1979. That’s something you can’t shoot. How can we understand this immanence in a visual rhetoric that makes more than a simple metaphor, like a=b?
Let’s say science has to put forward images under an assumed rhetoric of objectivity and transparency. I am interested in something alongside this, but something more: in which the visual rhetoric of the image convinces us that something powerful and immanent is happening, something that cannot be fully seen. I put together a kind of poetics of the partial into a montage. But it’s not enough for that just to become a bunch of incidents and accidents; the authenticity, and the audacity, of the image has to reside in the visual record of this attempt to measure the incommensurable future of the melted ice and rising seas. I have to give you something incredibly concrete from my world, from the closest zone of work in my own spaces-yard, shed, deck, interior walls, night studio. On the principle that the global meaning has to be measured in the local and the intimate-in fragments.
MP: You describe new media as a profound vehicle for exploring an urgent social issue. What are the distinct characteristics and narrative capabilities it lends this new series of works?
CM: It’s interesting to work in phased installations that are both made in the real physical world and remade in the digital photomontage and videomontage. It’s a double entendre. The pulse of a set of four Tesserae-Hot Pink installation variations (or shot sequences) set into an implied doorway in Dynamic Sink Pulse One One One One is in the formal rhythm of the hot pink forms and is also about carbon cycle pulsing. There’s a feedback loop in the atmospheric release and marine uptake of carbon. These pulse phases are getting more intense as polar ice is melting and sea levels are rising. In multivalent variations I can only begin to touch on these models. So this is a way of modeling this futurity, taking the pulse of the sea ice. In the Tesserae models I am also rethinking a Smithson—like play on the idea of time emitting from objects. In the essay “Quasi-infinities of Space” Smithson thought about how time could be emitting from objects, from the local, rather than as time as linear expansion from a single point of origin in the distant past.
Electronics account for a significant portion of the carbon load; new media is enhancing anthropogenic climate change. If you could support the hypothesis that time is coming from objects, even if it’s a “quasi-infinity” you could come to the rationale that making these photomontages as physical objects is accelerating the event accumulations of climate change. But this is inescapable, we are complicit. I often think on the magical geomorphologies of Constant. His New Babylon, as if suspended like night-necklaces over the plains of Northern Europe, prefigure networks. So if that’s where we live now, what happens to the agency of the artist? I think there’s still nature beyond our control even though we are inside it and complicit. There’s still that absolute process.
The tesserated image comes into the physical but moves back into and through the network, as the images are doing in this interview. In the photomontage process, I sense that the image sequence becomes a solid like a wall or a ship’s hull, patched or soldered together in tiles. The inference is that the future, far from immaterial, feels like a mass we can almost touch. Maybe we could see it if we could just get inside the doorways, beyond the portals of the tesserae.
MP: And yet, one of the elements of these works that is so startlingly beautiful is the use of drawing and painting as a way to explore the layering methodologies used to find traces of something not found in the video.
CM: I wish to ask or even try to provoke in both of us what it feels like to be alive now as the climate is going crazy, and for this you and I have to stay real and grounded. One way to do that was to start from the extreme opposite position of fantasy—by drawing very loosely from the Magellan mission to Venus from small jpegs online. The drawings started to go feral, started to move farther away from the conceit of Magellan and into rushes of lyric, even cheesy iridescent paint. It felt right for the drawings to be camp—to quote from Kiss or Kustom Kar Commandoes—as a counterpoint to the dire predictive topologies in scientific literature online. So I began to use loud colors and “bad” paint and make the forms alternate between subtle topographic shifts in graphite and streaks of paint-movement.
At length, some of the drawings grew too large and moved outdoors. The tesserae sequence of drawing installations commenced in the cool north-inflected light of California winter. I would shoot video as I was also pouring paint or water on big swaths of paper stock hung like sheets to dry in the cool morning air. I worked in color sets—tesserae-yellow, tesserae-vermillion—as if to work up and down a chromatic scale, like “scoring” the models in a performance sequence. As soon as I could finish a sequence of video I would arrange the raw footage of the tesserae models into sequences surrounding the energy-producing landscapes, so that the tesserae would seem to be clashing or merging with the turbines and the steam vents. It was as if the video had become a middle term between drawing and painting on one hand and photomontage on the other. The videomontage cancelled the intimacy of the impromptu tesserae models within an alien technology-scape, but moved me back to the attempt to site the photomontage images in replicas of how the drawings looked at the site of their conception. I found, in a forgotten hard drive, an image archive of a series of paintings called Outbliette from 2003–2004. These were oil paintings on doors, as well as white chalk drawings on black paper. “Oubliette” was a term used in the Napoleonic era for a type of solitary confinement in which the prisoner was thrown into a pit, the door overhead was locked, and he would be forgotten. It became quite crucial to the practice of the photomontage that I integrate my Oubliette doors via the photographs I had shot of them against walls and sliding glass doors. I felt that to reset the Oubliette paintings as a photomontage would be to liberate the traumatic content implied or amplified within them. The trauma would be depersonalized and displaced from the imagined space (below) and would resonate more publicly and architecturally as a background for unfolding the tesserae models. I figured you could then transmute whatever force of personal trauma into a space of attempted futures, attempts to measure sea ice extent or model the dynamic sink pulses of the carbon cycle.
What was lost in the videos came back as a shock, as a matter of reconstruction or reconstitution. Now I am working on a large drawing, Guinevere Flats, in which I am drawing out how the video frames iterate into sustained, ridged folds, the plain of Guinevere, back to the surface of Venus; but this surface is also the plane of consciousness, as if to be liberated out of the oubliette, out of a Lynchian Black Lodge. The promise of recursive process yielding serial/modular compositions also asks for a space of refuge in which we cradle ourselves through lifelines that flow within the atmospheric shifts. It may be the drawings are lines like that.
Christina McPhee’s exhibition Tesserae of Venus is showing at Silverman Gallery in San Francisco through December 5.