Faultfinding IJohn Haber
in New York City
Christina McPhee's Digital Landscape
Sol LeWitt, Kysa Johnson, and Casey Reas
Christina McPhee starts with just the facts. "It just happened. The ground is still moving."
Just the facts: it sounds like a classic of detective fiction. In this two-part essay, I want to uncover its narrative—and the body. In the case of The Carrizo-Parkfield Diaries, the facts have an unquestioned pedigree, but are they for real? And what does the question say about the claims of digital art to map a virtual reality?
I shall imagine a viewer questioning the data and, from that beginning, the processes underlying a digital work. I shall argue that one cannot simply oppose data structures to narrative ones or the literal to the metaphoric, and not one of these structures implies a restriction to a linear unfolding. Rather, the translation of data into image and interaction amounts to a progressive layering of representations, including the artist's self-representation. Through that layering, art has the power to watch stories unravel and return like memory.
I shall focus on an appreciation of The Diaries and McPhee's eight-minute video titled Salt. The argument will take me through Sol LeWitt wall drawings and paintings by Kysa Johnson that similarly scale up patterns in the manner of scientific models. In the second part of this essay, I then return to the digital world, starting with simulations by Casey Reas that simultaneously invoke Minimalism and organic form.
One might call the data underlying McPhee's Web-based work unquestioned, but hardly faultless. Her title refers to north-central California, where for three million years the San Andreas fault has been slipping about two inches a year. One does not often feel its tremors, perhaps ten thousand in a single year, no more than one can feel one's fingernails grow at roughly the same pace. Yet from its shocks, great and small, McPhee purports to visualize an active landscape.
The Carrizo plain, straddling the fault zone, has become a national monument more for its geology than for its scenic beauty or still-recovering ecosystem. The narrow mountains to either side, the Caliente and Tremblor Ranges, could well stand for California's twin terrors of drought and disaster. Their very names invite one to feel the heat and the trembling. Parkfield, roughly halfway between Monterey and Bakersfield, could in turn stand for the state's notorious transience and anonymity. The Diaries translate real-time data for both sites into shifting images.
McPhee relies on data from the U.S. Geological Survey, much as other artists have used the national weather service to map parallels between art and science in Brooklyn. That means more than just high-res scans and the art market. She takes her visual vocabulary, however, from her own abstract paintings and past new media, as well as from drawings and photographs made on the spot:
I incorporate layers of field observation within a dream-like sequence of abstract images, where passages of linear structures and shadowed mass allude to ruins and debris in the wake of recent tremors. By means of architectural scale, at 72 to 92 inches, each print is like a page torn from a cinematic notebook—film stills from an event-scene that has almost materialized, laced with traces from geomorphologic maps. Flash animations trigger from a selective crashing of online live data against archived data from the recent 6.0 quake at Parkfield.
For comparison, the damaging 1994 Northridge quake had a magnitude of 6.7. Reconstructions of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake place it anywhere from 7.7 to 8.3. The largest magnitude ever recorded, in Chile in 1960, reached 9.5. Anything greater than 6.0 officially ranks as strong.
Like her concept and materials, her language in describing the work moves readily across media—with references to painting, drawing, earthworks, architecture, prints, film, and video in only three sentences. It also mixes naturalism and fantasy, materials and their traces, present and recorded or remembered experience, brute calculation and an artist's power of selection.
Can digital art lie?
Do the results, however, really reproduce the landscape, and how? Do they serve as a vision not unlike traditional landscape painting, a scientific or architectural model, or a personal diary of displacement and terror? Do the data at their heart give the representation special authority, or do they suggest the potential for the virtual to displace the real?
Do the data, in fact, even exist? What if McPhee is making all this up, if images spin out on screen according to her whim or at random? Would that make her representation less reliable, or would it make them closer still to the entropic, emergent patterns of life?
I shall argue that experience of the work involves a weighing of all those claims and all those patterns of representation. Moreover, it requires understanding those patterns as the work's description of itself and the world, with all the arbitrariness that implies. As in every classic of detective fiction, the arbitrary moment of entry already propels a story—and demands questions.
Too often, digital media has seemed above that kind of scrutiny. Between the language of data sets on the one hand and virtual reality on the other, it begs for the aura still accorded both science and art. It can seem as immune to artifice as implied in the title of an innovative Web site, iheartphotograph.com. the world of random access, one can easily forget the symbolic strategies that enable access in the first place. And a good way to begin to locate, revive, and unravel the narrative is to ask first if digital art can lie.
Of course art lies, as Plato notoriously objected. Artists have always created images and objects. They have invented or adjusted represented scenes. They have evoked, parodied, and sustained myth, mistaken beliefs, and outright propaganda. Like Buckminster Fuller and Fuller's 4D Towers, they have embraced space-time at one moment and concrete design in three dimensions the next. When looking at "realistic" art, it pays to ask what constitutes realism. It also helps to expect multiple answers.
From the very start, then, one is talking about representation, narrative, metaphor, and their criteria. Database-driven art does not change that. It does, however, relate to claims to the literal truth particular to art of the last half century or so. Like much conceptual or Minimalist art, digital art comes with directions for its own making. Again the medium's authority has run into a problem—a family resemblance to older practices. A more thorough questioning must therefore begin with them.
Would Sol LeWitt lie to you? In a trivial sense, he does repeatedly, and one happily ignores the fact. His lines have thickness, and their application by assistants inevitably diverges from the stipulated pattern. His Equal Cubes at the National Gallery are inherently unequal. Even if one expects his chalk lines to disguise a white lie, however, one has a puzzle—the puzzle of taking in the facts at all.
Most viewers start by checking for at least a rough compliance with the concept at hand, and most end by giving up. Indeed, that overflowing of perceptual boundaries, while remaining within conceptual ones, gives the work its significance. LeWitt's art can look lush or dry, fully graspable on first glance or beyond recognition, sometimes in different incarnations of the same wall drawing. Suppose, however, that one perceives enough, and one perceives trouble. Suppose that, toward one edge, a diagonal intrudes where a more accurate count of the elements leads one to expect a curved segment.
If it happens once, one might accept it as a mistake, a human imperfection that does not so much disturb the concept as comport with the overflowing. If it happens too often, one may dismiss the work as flawed, at least in this installation but not, potentially, in others At some point, however, one might start to wonder if LeWitt has started to lose it, like an aging Willem de Kooning. At some further point, perhaps, one might start to ask if LeWitt—or an appropriation artist playing with LeWitt's style—had laid a trap. The imperfection has then become part of the work once again, only not the same work as before.
I have previously tried to test the boundaries by examining hypothetical works of art. Arthur C. Danto had compared indiscernible red squares with different titles. He concluded that, since late Modernism, all art has become conceptual. Without wishing to repeat my arguments, I asked whether art's imaginary museum has a closer resemblance than one might think to the real thing. All art is hypothetical, because all of experience involves testing what one sees in light of what one knows—and vice versa. Art at best foregrounds these urges and makes them harder to disentangle.
A conceptual artist always starts by drawing a frame around the work, a frame that then becomes part of the work, like the base in sculpture by Constantin Brancusi. As Jacques Derrida insists, art and philosophies of art inevitably draw such frames—and just as inevitably violate them. Art's vitality derives from the fragility of the boundary between the work and the world. One's physical experience of the work, in turn, suggests the fragility of the boundary between oneself and the world. LeWitt's concepts provide one such representation of human experience, already a model or metaphor. The image provides another, and the work throws them against one another.
A metaphor, by definition, amounts to a yoking of disparate ideas. In effect, the work of art is not just metaphoric, but a yoking of disparate metaphors, a metaphor of a metaphor. Already, then, one has a vital antecedent for the role of data in digital art, including the risk that the data may lie. One has an urgent case for seeking out symbolic structures, linear and nonlinear—including those representations drawn from science and representations of the human body. Indeed, if art appears to generate artificial life forms, Hal Foster has recently noted that Modernism's twin fascinations with the body and the machine age leads to frequent nightmares of prosthetic parts combined with the dream of the superhuman. Consider next some more chalk drawings, drawings that play with exactly all these representations of data and of life.
Some work draws me close to the surface, only to force me back all at once, as I realize how close I came to spoiling it. Maybe I felt the fragility of a pencil trace. Maybe I got sucked into the illusion of oil-on-canvas blackboards by Cy Twombly. I felt that way about Kysa Johnson's paintings, except for one small detail: they are not paintings. That really is chalk or, in a few cases, watercolor on fiberboard.
Many look like particle tracks in a cloud chamber, dozens of them, winding tightly before they give up the trace and decay. However, they also contain a complex overlay of the human hand. Many approximate the Greek symbols that label such diagrams in the laboratory or on an actual chalkboard. Others look like networks of buds or spores. The artist in fact drew on medical imaging of yeast infections. Apparently, art based on computer imaging does not require that the artist give up older media.
Given enough time and distance, the particle tracks gather into larger, denser nodes. The buds together form what look like flowers, vines, or even forests. If I am to trust the artist, the infection spreads by cell division to colonize a lung or two instead. One can even discern a third level of organization, both an overall near symmetry and, in at least two works, the outline of human beings. Johnson has adapted a pyramid of forms from an Immaculate Conception of the Virgin in London's National Gallery, by Juan de Valdés Leal. Call it yet another representation of asexual reproduction.
She returns in 2007 to the iconography of infection and gender, this time arranging the curlicues of microbes into epic battle scenes from the Renaissance and Baroque. Do the germs build toward great art and events, or do they eat away at them? One could emphasize the disjunction, between science and art or between infection and human aspirations, but war kills, too. By contrast, with the Spanish Baroque Virgin, the handling of watercolor against a large, white background feels more stable, more obvious, and less uncanny. Each time, however, Johnson's works that have not found religion keep shifting before one's eyes. They slip between the accidental and the created, the literal and the figurative.
Once again, then, just as with McPhee, LeWitt, or Mark Dion with his archaeology of science, the concept may sound artificial and metaphoric. Once again, too, I cannot swear whether to trust the artist or the art. And once again the different kinds and levels of self-assembly, as well as the fragile nature of the results, held me. A full experience of the work requires seeking connections between each mode of representation at hand. Each serves as a metaphor, or arbitrary linkage, and the work emerges from the further metaphoric linkages between them. If computer geeks talk of viruses and Johnson of yeast, art and the machine alike thrive on the risk of infection.
While art as science experiment can also include the flickering lights of Olafur Eliasson, that brings me back at last to digital art. In the second part of this essay, I shall start with an artist who definitely plays by the rules, with art that resembles computer models of the natural world. I can then ask how Christina McPhee's landscapes emerge and reemerge as well.
This is the first part of a two-part essay. Christina McPhee presented her recent work at Transport Gallery in Los Angeles through April 16, 2005, at Rx gallery in San Francisco through June 8, 2005, in a March talk at the Parsons Design Lab, and on the Web. A related interview quoted here, "1000 Days of Theory: Slipstreaming the Cyborg," appeared May 6 on ctheory.net. Kysa Johnson exhibited at Roebling Hall in Brooklyn through February 14, 2005, and again through May 26, 2007. I give extended space elsewhere to Christina McPhee's digital prints.