Tragic Travelogue, a Consideration Around Christina McPhee’s Carrizo-Parkfield Diaries by Ryan Griffis

Published for Rhizome Digest 4. 15. 05

“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.

“I wasn’t thinking of it before as helping tourism for Sri Lanka as such. I was looking at it as a
holiday,” she says. “Now I feel I’m going out there to help get tourism back on its feet.”


The “tragic tourism” that Lucy Lippard is questioning above certainly took on a new meaning for the thousands of tourists who found themselves in the path of the earthquake-generated tsunami in the Indian Ocean this past December. There was a kind of cruel inverted logic to the televised spectacle of the catastrophic events. Armchair tourists, voyeuristically watching reports of separated families, lost loved ones and miraculous survivors, able to say, “I’m glad I wasn’t there.” As people rushed to generously help those living in the affected regions rebuild homes and infrastructure, the tourism industry made it clear – as it did after the September11 attacks on the economic and military headquarters of the US – that it would not only continue, but would be part of the movement forward. It would not be a surprise if more than one memorial to the event were created and designed as a tourist destination, as the small town of Hilo on the big island of Hawaii has done to commemorate their run in with a killer wave. (see: Mike Davis, “Tsunami Memories”, Dead Cities, The New Press, 2002) One of the more prominent emotions expressed in US media accounts of the tsunami wasdisbelief. How could such a thing happen with no notice? Aren’t there satellites, buoys, and globally positioned networks that should warn us of something like this way before it happens?

Back home in Los Angeles, the thought of earthquakes doesn’t usually produce images of giantwaves, but rather collapsed freeways, imploded parking decks, and expensive hillside homes riding down with landslides. 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. The interaction between a larger social imaginary (that includes movies like the 1970s classic Earthquake), subjective experience and the body of data and method known as geology makes up part of the subject matter (and methodology) 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, online.

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 piece that is accessible anytime, anywhere – given an internet connection and proper plug ins. The prints, on display at Transport Gallery in downtown LA, are vertical columns, above average human height, and are 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, or subterranean, view is created by the striations of pictures, drawings and textures. This layering (surface vs depth) and vertical stacking of imagery suggests that we are looking through, rather than over, the surface. The use of scientific-looking data, along with the transparency of the layers of images, adds to this effect, recalling the technological displays of sci-fi films like Minority Report. Functioning in a similar manner, the web work layers audio, animated images and texts in a way 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 the changing composition of a Flash movie. This data, live information from seismic monitors near the San Andreas Fault and archives from a significant 2004 Parkfield quake, “collides” to produce a series of number strings – visible between “chapters” in the movie – that determines the combination of media experienced. What occur, 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.

Don’t let the earthquakes scare you away from visiting this beautiful town, not a single person has ever been injured from a Parkfield quake. As the sign at the Parkfield Cafe reads, “Eat Here When It Happens,” the same goes for the Parkfield Inn, “Sleep Here When It Happens.” website”IT” Finally Happened! Parkfield experienced a magnitude 6.0 Earthquake on September 28, 2004.” website The title of McPhee’s work 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 (The Carrizo Plain is also known as the “Cadillac of the San Andreas Fault system”). As Parkfield’s official website suggests, earthquakes are a crucial part ofits image. Since the 1970s, the US Geological Survey (USGS) and the State of California had been attempting 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, simultaneously fulfilling and upsetting Parkfield’s destiny.

McPhee’s Diaries seem to play on the tension between these formulated expectations and the more chaotic experience of both time and space (the late arriving Parkfield quake supplied thearchived data for the web project) . Even without Parkfield’s back story, the seemingly desolate landscape of the Carrizo Plain is not where most of us imagine the dramatic effects of earthquakes – while shifted roads and cracked earth may be spectacular, a demolished city often hits closer to home. Parkfield as a site for both symbolic and scientific study is one that is neither here nor there – situated between Los Angeles and San Francisco, it’s off the radar for most California residents. It is a site of inquiry, the geographic equivalent of an “indicatorspecies,” where earthquake patterns can be studied (hopefully) before they affect a major city. 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 referred 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 was exhibited at Transport Gallery, Los Angeles March 5 – April 16,
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the New Museum of Contemporary Art.

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