Christina McPhee : Double Blind Studies : an interview with Louis-Georges Schwartz
Christina McPhee : Double Blind Studies :
an interview with Louis-Georges Schwartz
translated to French and published by Aliette de Certhoux at criticalsecret.net December 2012
Louis-Georges Schwartz : What can you tell me about the process for the double blind studies ?
Christina McPhee : In December 2011, I produced a suite of ‘blind’ drawings in black ink on white synthetic paper. I filled the paper with permanent black ink and taped into the image, then pulled off the tapes or drew into the black ink. causing levels of resistance to the black. I thought of these as ’blind’ drawings. This was in mid-December, around the time of Saint Lucy’s Day. Santa Lucia is the patron saint of sight. I wanted to ‘work blind’ by covering many layers of markings until the densities of ink were thick on top of the synthetic paper. Then, when I gouged into the layers of ink, the synthetic paper substrate emerged. The effect was like a frisson of light at the edges of the darkness, an effect of marginal illumination. The drawings also had a certain quality of blinds, like venetian blinds.
The paper substrate for the blind drawings is a synthetic, recycled, polymer paper. This synthetic paper is impervious to absorption. India ink sits on top of the paper and spreads in filigree-forms.The intensity of surface development on a super slick surface. I considered layers of blindness ‘as’ layers of ink. The metonym is of an image of ‘blindness’ to ‘cover’ a mass of glyph-like markings—as if the paper is ‘blind’ to the markings (macchia). The markings struck me as resembling notes on a board, like Braille. It is my custom to photograph drawings for my digital archive. We shot the drawings with a digital copy lens on one wall of the Shed (my drawing studio). The drawings were stuck to the walls of the studio with pins, like specimens to a wall. In the digital manipulation that followed, I noticed that if I reversed the values to make a digital negative, an effect of ‘life’ forms emerged. The effect was intensified by doubling the ‘negative’ (white on black) digital files, then flipping the doubles so that they ‘face’ themselves—a bilateral symmetry. That’s how I arrived at the discovery that this project involved a forensic observation of ‘specimens’ as evidence of “life.”
L-G.S. : Conceptually, I’m very interested in the way, according to your account, the final doubling in the “double blind” stage, emphasizes the figural aspect of the prints. I don’t think it’s by accident that the pieces reveal another creature and have a strong sense of life. Traditional images of even the most demonic forms of life rely on symmetry to figure the living and the undead. A certain kind of viewer, one more or less like me, might even find a way into the prints by seeing them as an exploration of William Blake’s phrase from The Tyger, “fearful symmetry”. It almost feels as if part of your project had been to gouge away the context that has rendered Blake’s words so clichéd as to be almost unreadable, bring them back to life along with the images. The more I look at the prints, the more they remind me of bioluminescent deep sea fish — not formally, but because the figures that look back at me, or as you say “come back at me,” seem to live in a way that exceeds mere survival, despite the more or less abject darkness that surrounds them. Much of your work involves “life,” or “living,” and as you know, that category interests me as well. In your account of your process for the Double Blind Studies, it sounds as if the gothic mutant others at their centers suddenly appeared in materials that you describe in terms of inorganic objects (“venetian blinds”) or as graphematic traces of the living ( “glyphs.”) , What can you tell me about tell me about the way in which, as you work on a piece you recognize the “life” that has emerged in it ?
C.McP : You’re asking about a process of recognition ? I think of ‘reconnaissance’. To reconnoiter—I am hovering over the image looking for evidence, as in an archaeological site— suddenly the shard appears from a mass of jumbled material. A shard is like a glyph in writing— I mean, it’s just a piece of a larger (missing) organism or dispositive. But I looked again and again and again—by layering the glyph fragments in digital files. I layered fragment on fragment, then dissolved the layers ; I added transparent image masks, then removed the masks. Thus far the process was just a continuous sublation. The element of ‘study’ came into play dramatically when I doubled the image files, and faced the doubles towards each other, as if each could be a site of reconnaissance for the other. Bilateral symmetry immediately delivered an impression of alterity, another ‘coming back at you’. There was, suddenly, an effect of a forensic scene : we are comparing ‘mugshots’ in a police line up, something like that….
L-G.S. : How do you understand “time” in your work ? In part I’m asking this because so much of what you do involves a distinct conception of life, and “life” cannot be separated from time. As Henri Bergson wrote somewhere in Creative Evolution, “Wherever anything lives, there is, open somewhere, a register in which time is being inscribed.
C.McP : I’m stalking the ‘animism’ in the double blind studies photographs, from one to the next. The prints surprise me in how much they reveal a delicate intricacy in line and folded line, as if to suggests lines of flight or time-lines. There’s the ‘life-time’ of a drawing ‘from life’ in the glyph drawings ; but then, the double blind scenario suggests a score, by which I mean, an event-sequence which is implied, and propels a series of double blind studies, not just one. I am composing a scenario in which live things are to be studied and compared, or, are studying themselves. So this implies a time-based dynamic in a still medium. The situation also gives rise to a question of knowledge production- how does life have ‘connaissance’ of itself ? Here is the place where that a ’life form’ arises. Is the drawing blind to itself ? Is one side of the bilateral symmetry ‘blind’ and the other not ? Which side is a test of the other ? Imagine that the two sides are in a relationship to each other like that of the ‘call and response’ back-and-forth dynamic of voices in a theatre or a church…. a relay back and forth between the two sides of the double blind study. In an Althusserian mood I may propose another interpellation—between the apparition of a ‘life form’ and the viewer of the photographic image. Is the moment of interpellation, the moment of the creation of a subject ?
L-G.S. : In addition to implications of what we might call “lifetime,” some of your work is serial, which implies a certain temporality of experience for those who engage with the pieces as series, if not always for the production of the work. In the case of the Double Blind Studies, making them involved at least six months of your time, which seems to me an important aspect of their blindness. I suspect neither you nor the objects in the glyph drawings saw that they would become part of the new series when you began them in July 2011.
C.McP : It’s true, I really didn’t understand the glyph drawings until I worked through the blind drawings. They hover in a shivering space at the edge of a linguistic symbol, a letter or a scrawl. Lacking a linguistic context they iterated into more and more grapheme like shapes. I see a curve of risk arising between the ‘aesthetic object’ as subject and the ‘brain’ or ‘network’ as subject—something is happening between subjects and neither can see totally what this ‘is’ or could be.
L-G.S. : Or again, certain aspects of the drawings seem to happen on a pre-subjective level, which, I think, has to do with your description of the life of the moving line as a change or delta extending from your limbs.
C.McP : This could be a delta value—the differential of drawing-action, relative to the memory of the bodies of the marine animals, equals a calculation of risk—a ‘glyph’. The body of the drawing grows from layered inscriptions of ‘glyph’ gestures. If I take drawing into the photograph and double it and release it into the silver gelatin, I’m creating a second body for the drawing as a map to act on. A second life…the strange reversal effect of ’life’—that flip move into the ’alterity’ or otherness of the reversal and bilateral symmetry seems to develop an ultra-register in which time is being inscribed. The sensation is that the body of the drawing is in some kind of recently completed process of growing from an originary inscription (or glyph).
L-G.S. : You describe the life in the double blind series as a kind of growth from “an originary inscription.” I wonder if you could say a little bit about the moments when that growth confronts, or even is, a crisis. I ask not only because of the darkness of the ground in the double bind series and the gothic aspect of the figures, but also because you seem to be interested in various forms of crisis in some of your other time-based works (SALT, Shed, Deep Horizon.)
C.McP : A year before I made the blind drawings, in December 2010, I shot video for six days on board a marine biology research voyage in the Gulf of Mexico. This was just six months after the BP oil spill, off the coast of Louisiana. The scientists were studying marine biodiversity in animals and algae to compare ‘before’ and ‘after’ populations at specific sites along the Continental Shelf and in the deep ocean (to a depth of about twelve hundred meters). The biologists skimmed the ocean floor with a large ‘benthic skimmer.’ Profuse crustaceans and rarely-seen bioluminescent fish came up at night from great depths, into the blinding white light on board ship. I was filming the triage of the animals, their dissection, or sequester into buckets of ice. It was a live montage. Huge masses of marine animals and substrate gushed onto the ship’s deck—partially disarticulated crustaceans, bivalves, dead algae, and often, the nauseating scent of petroleum. The figuration of a bioluminescent deep sea life ’looking at you’ is the psycho-gram of shock at being close enough to touch some of these strange animals from as deep as fifteen hundred meters. Humans ’bring them up’ from the deep. Triage them—some to be dissected, some to be saved in buckets of ice (about the same temperature as they were used to in the deep ocean). To bring them up into a cultural site, to ’bring them up’ from the deep metaphorically as well as literally, is to make deep ocean life visible to us ; but can that life ‘see’ us ? I’m interested in that moment of interspecies crisis, of mutual shock ! while displacing that moment into another register, that of the space of the ‘double blind study’- a forensic move.
- © Christina McPhee (2012)
L-G.S. : It strikes me that your work has a completely original relationship to popular culture. Certain examples of the double blind series look as if they could appear on a goth teen’s Tumblr, the signage in the Shed installation read like a real world warning, certain moments in Ava Mendoza’s guitar work for your videos  feel like psych rock. A cursory look at your might be likely to miss these features, but once one has noticed them, they seem as present as the figures one finds in your abstract drawings.I wonder if you could say a few words about your relationship to elements of mass culture.
C.McP : Maybe the goth vibe comes from the sensation of a material texture, that this is stuff that ‘s emerging, live, out of an image. Blooming out of the technical substrate like an oil slick.. I don’t really resist the Rorschach pop-psych impression. It is an interesting device possibly because it should be so ‘empty’, so vitiated, so ready for recycling. To me that’s a lot like a goth gesture. It’s strange, it’s déjà-vu, there’s a time slippage, as in, the image seems ‘dated’—maybe the product has ‘expired’ !—and yet it’s back in front of you, it’s refusing to go away, it’s almost insolent. To me that’s kind of a spirit of the carnavalesque.
L-G.S. : In an earlier response, you mention the moment of interpellation as the creation of a subject. Is there a possibility that some of your work de-subjectifies viewers in the sense of offering them an opportunity to loosen the structure of their familiar subjectivity ? For example, my own experience of the more recognizable figures in the double blind series is that someone else, someone from a different demographic, is recognizing them and that I am aware of that. this isn’t quite the same as when a cop hails me and I feel myself reify into a subject of the law. the recognition seems to happen somewhere else and “I,” the one writing this, isn’t around.
C.McP : I really love the intrigue you are proposing, that there is a missing subject of reception… ‘I’ am not around… so then do we know who is ‘around’ , who is recognizing these images as life forms… ? I often think about an aesthetic-cognition outside ourselves. Is the photograph not just a site of the absence of the real ? What if, after a pop aesthetic burns out all possible intercalations between one image and another, the return of a goth effect signals something possibly quite exciting and beautiful. As Ina Blom notes, “Images may themselves be social worlds.” Two test subjects from one material base, two photographs of the drawing, so that the drawing faces itself, becoming two subjects. The subjects are placed face to face, side by side, as if set up on the wall in a forensic lab : let’s compare the two. We’re studying the faces of the two subjects to see if they are of the same ‘person’, or not. Does subject A see or read subject AA ? The function of a drawing as a ‘glyph’ is ‘blind’ to its own reading- it can’t read itself, can it ? The glyph drawing, when doubled and reversed into a bilateral symmetry, starts being legible on several levels. What if the glyph, when doubled, turns into a thing who might se
L-G.S. : As someone who works on time and the living, as well as drawings and video, I’m curious to know your thoughts on the time of viewing for each and the relationship between them. I ask this question not in the spirit of formalism, but as a way of opening up your relationships (real and virtual) with those who look at your art. As I know from social media and as our interview proves, at least some of your relationships with views/listeners/inhabiters are quite open and intimate in the sense that your time merges with the time of others in an unusually direct way (Even performance artists defend the limits of their temporal engagements via various forms of aesthetic framing.)
C.McP : You suggest that there is an intimate contact not just n the time of experiencing the double blind study images but also in the context of experiencing them as images in the social media networks…an intimacy inside the interpellated space of shared experience “with” the image as an equal subject, as if like-to like-one to one correspondences—in the spirit of Baudelaire. I feel as though I can be face to face in performance in the networks through a sort of double blind matrix.. I can’t really see what others are doing, I can blindly offer them my image-gifts… Response to them has been very intense- people seem to have an ‘aha !” or ‘love !” reaction. It’s really amazing to me— how strongly people respond to the visual intrigue. Almost like erotica, on the screen, are ‘life forms’ skins or faciae, -literally, skins of inference between beings viewing each other.
L-G.S. : In terms of design, or perhaps “architectural logic,” the double blinds look like complex structures with an inside, but the ground of the images isolate those structures, those figure-creatures, occluding any environment except for the generative matrix of night. at the same, we’ve been talking about the figures as more or less biological, more or less vital. Silly as it might sound, where do you think they live ?
C.McP : A few months ago, a pathologist came to my studio looked at the double blind studies prints. She told me that one of them looks like an magnetic resonance image of a human pelvis, view from above. Gazing upwards, I project rococo painted ceilings—pelvis to zenith ! Sometimes, I have a weird sensation of tapping into a lost resource, that of eighteenth century architectural drawing. Rococo’s word root is rocaille, from the middle French, meaning, pebbled, rocky…Rococo as a style is mordant, intimate and ironically festive. Life-like shapes multiply into extravagant populations. Excess is accepted like data debris. It’s an architecture made for living through pathology.