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Christina McPhee’s Carrizo-Parkfield Diaries
Transport Gallery, Los Angeles March 5 - April 16, 2005

“What are we to make of the popularity of such tourist targets as celebrity murder sites, concentration camps, places where thousands have been shot down, inundated with lava, herded off to slavery, crushed by earthquakes, starved to death... or otherwise suffered the excesses the rest of us hope we will never experience?”
Lucy Lippard, On the Beaten Track, The New Press, 1999.

For those that have lived around earthquakes in California for a while - a group to which I don’t belong - the regular shifting of the earth is part of the social memory in a mundane, as well as terrifying, way. This interaction between social and geologic memory is the concern of a recent body of work by California-based artist Christina McPhee in collaboration with Terry Hargrave (video), Jeremy Hight and Sindee Nakatani (texts and programming) called the Carrizo-Parkfield Diaries.

Carrizo-Parkfield Diaries manifests itself as an artwork in three complimentary, yet distinct ways: a series of large scale digital prints, a video and a web-based “movie.” The title references the town of Parkfield, California, and the Carrizo Plain - a National Monument often called “California’s Serengeti” - two places in which the San Andreas Fault is a visible geographic force. Beginning in the 1970s, scientists began an attempt to “trap” one of the region’s oddly regular magnitude 6+ earthquakes (occurring roughly every 22 years since 1857). The quake that was to be trapped sometime between 1988 and 1992 was over a decade late when it struck on September 28, 2004.

The prints in Diaries are tall, vertical columns, composed of layered photographic pictures, unidentifiable charts and graphs, and elusive architectonic drawings existing within a dense and spacious black background. Placed close together, the combined verticals - taking up much of the space between the ceiling and the floor - visually combine to create a larger, horizontal presence - not unlike a view through the large windows of a sky-rise office building. But rather than the usual pastoral impression of a landscape, a partially submerged view is created by the striations of pictures, drawings and textures. This layering and vertical stacking of imagery suggests that we are looking through, rather than over, the surface. The combination of scientific-looking data and transparent layers of images adds to this effect, recalling technological displays imagined in sci-fi films like Minority Report.

Similarly, the web “movie” layers audio, animated images and texts in a manner that suggests both a spatial and conceptual depth. Rather than using input from visitors to generate its dynamic mix of media, data from other external sources is used to produce its changing composition. This data, live information from seismic monitors near the San Andreas Fault and archives from a significant 2004 Parkfield quake (the one described as “late” above), “collides” to produce a series of number strings - visible between “chapters” in the movie - that determines the combination of media experienced. What occurs, in various arrangements, are distorted images of the Carrizo Plain, hauntingly minimal audio tracks, and elusive fragments of a narrative recounting memories of death and the trauma of being in an earthquake.

In the exhibited video, McPhee can be seen exploring the rugged terrain of the Carrizo Plain’s Soda Lake - recalling Smithson walking around his Spiral Jetty. Remembrances of the interventions of “earth artists” like Smithson inevitably attach to other memories associated with deserts and other “uninhabited spaces” - places where the avant garde, whether the Manhattan Project or artists from Manhattan, see nothing but a blank canvas to be shaped by bulldozers and atomic blasts. The violence enacted in and upon the US West, including its indigenous inhabitants, surely leaves behind what Lippard referrs to as “invisible” monuments, where “something awful happened but its traces have disappeared leaving only the voids to speak.”

For McPhee, the remoteness and openness of the Carrizo Plain seems to suggest the spatial equivalent of the subconscious, a place where trauma may reside undetected, except for sudden and unpredictable eruptions. In her Diaries of these “invisible monuments,” we can find a relationship between social memory and natural history, mirroring the way that human activity has irreversibly become part of the geologic record. I have the feeling that we are being taken on our own tragic tour of some fault line that extends from the Carrizo Plain into the social imaginary, looking for clues to past eruptions and hoping we’re not there to experience future ones.
Ryan Griffis

The Carrizo-Parkfield Diaries Project can be found online at: