Sharon Lin Tay on Christina McPhee’s La Conchita N=Amour

Dr Tay (Middlesex University, London)  advances discussion of documentary beyond claims to realism and documentary truth towards what Trinh T. Minh-ha calls ‘boundary events.’ Tay argues that digital video, editing and compositing expose the limitations of visual evidence to represent trauma.  Her critique of Christina McPhee’s La Conchita N=Amour also appears in Tay’s  Women on the Edge: Twelve Political Film Practices, Palgrave-Macmillan, 2009.  La Conchita N=Amour as a 22 screen, three channel video work also morphed into a commission for Thresholds Artspace, Perth, Scotland (2008), curated by Ilyana Nedkova; and is viewable as a single channel non-interactive video for installation loop, excerpt here.


“The contingency of meaning is thus heightened within the context of digital convergence, given the non-linear, non-representational, evocative and interactive characteristics of digital media, as the discussion below of Christina McPheeʼs La Conchita mon amour furthers.

Documenting unspeakable trauma

Ethical questions around documentation and reportage that {transcription} and [FALLUJAH. IRAQ. 31/03/2004] raise are also pertinent to the works of the California-based digital artist, Christina McPhee. In particular, her project La Conchita mon amour taps into the states of panic and paranoia that characterize political events post-9/11, albeit in a different way. La Conchita mon amour references in its title the trauma of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima that could not be fully articulated in Alain Resnais and Marguerite Durasʼs Hiroshima, mon amour (1960). Studying the struggles of life in the beach community of La Conchita in California that was inundated by debris flow after a devastating mudslide, the panic that La Conchita mon armor highlights refers to the heightened awareness and fear that living with the aftermath of the mudslide, and continuing fears of its recurrence, brings. Caused by increased winter rain that comes as an effect of global warming, this digital video project documents the interface between human response and geological data, when governmental assistance for victims of cyclical recursion of disaster is not forthcoming. As McPhee notes in the statement accompanying the project, the aftermath of this environmental disaster is one from which La Conchita residents cannot escape and are forced to live through, both literally and financially, given that their properties are rendered worthless by the mudslide; it therefore becomes impossible for the residents to re-mortgage their damaged homes and/or move away from the area.As a performative act of witnessing, La Conchita updates the cinematic manifestations of political modernism, as articulated through the documentaries of film-makers such as Resnais, Marguerite Duras, Agnès Varda and Chris Marker; thereby bringing a formal discourse of the expository documentary into the Internet age at the same time that it transcends the expository mode in specific ways. In her search for meaning after the destruction of the landscape, McPhee records the rituals that the community performs to grieve for those who died in the mudslide as well as to survive as a community abandoned by the state. As a digital project, La Conchita imbues documentary realism with subjective evocation to such an extent that the project effectively displaces the importance of the documentary imageʼs indexicality. Instead of contemplating the impossibility of representing trauma in, for instance Night and Fog (Resnais, 1955) or Hiroshima mon armor, La Conchita attempts the evocation of trauma via the algorithmic processes of selection and combination. The viewerʼs experience of La Conchita is contingent and interactive, and not unlike the notion of mining for geological information. Still photographs, composited images and video clips of the landscape, environment and vernacular shrines allow the viewer to piece together the relationship between geological instability and psychological trauma. In this case, the evidentiary is not dependent on the indexical relationship between signifier and signified. Instead, the viewer arrives at ʻevidenceʼ of the trauma suffered by the La Conchita residents by looking at the mudslide in terms of its geological impact on the psychological subject. As McPhee notes in the essay accompanying the project,

La Conchita stores landscapes of information beyond what the obvious visible evidence discloses. The site is marked by the invisible mathematics of largescale disturbances from seismicity patterns (there is a major fault, called Red Mountain Fault, running through the sea cliff upon which the village rests), to tidal patterns now altered by rising marine temperatures since the seventies. (McPhee 2006: n.p.)

In this sense, the work interrogates the relationship between the visibleand the evidentiary, and shows the limits of representation in instances of panic and trauma. The instability and contingency of meaning that La Conchita conveys differs from the notions of unspeakable trauma or the sublime in which many modernist expository documentaries are often invested. Instead, McPhee gestures towards a non- representational strategy, given the limits of representation, via the database aesthetics of her performative documentary that pivots on the algorithmic processes that Hudson observes as being key in the production of the plurality of meanings. Images and field recordings of vernacular shrines, graffiti, chain-mail fencing and barricades in the aftermath of the mudslide, alongside images of the physical landscape make up the La Conchita project. Geological data and human responses to the disaster quantify the impact of the environmental disaster, in the process broadening an understanding of what the environment means and encompasses. By amplifying the leaps and elisions between observed facts culled from geological readings and the communityʼs trauma as a subjective response to the disaster, evidence is therefore rendered materialist; effectively harnessing the digital and virtual to the material and the political…

Whenever visible evidence fails to articulate the situation involved, ethical questions surrounding the act of representation come into play. La Conchita mon amour seeks recourse in the poetic rendering of the trauma that environmental destruction brings. McPheeʼs use of field recordings and a particular operatic soundtrack featuring a mournful female voice adds to the subjective evocation of the natural disaster. Her documentation of the landscape and instances of human response to the loss of lives, the aftermath of the mudslide and its continuing threat refuses the creation of spectacle. As McPhee claims in her project essay, ʻdisaster images become pornography almost by defaultʼ; she also asks ʻhow to generate narrative about a place of continuing catastrophe in a way that occludes spectacle? Is there a way to escape the anaesthetic of the daily news, and its remains online?ʼ (McPhee 2006: n.p.).”


-Sharon Lin Tay

Tay, S. L. (2008), ʻUndisclosed Recipients: documentary in an era of digital convergenceʼ, Studies in Documentary Film 2: 1, pp. 79–98



video still, La Conchita N=amour, 2008







































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