La Conchita mon amour: ‘bare life’ and the traumatic landscape

Christina McPhee in conversation with Amy Wiley *

x #05



La Conchita mon amour is a multimedia art project involving photography, video, digital print, net art and drawing. It meditates on an impossible future and traumatic existence at a beach town along the California coast, La Conchita, built on an ancient mudslide, and suffering from the aftermath of a new slide in January 2005. In this conversation, the artist reflects on double consciousness, of being both inside the horror of what is happening/has happened, and being able to absent yourself and to observe and document, brings about a condition in the spirit, from which you can create a landscape or topology of trauma. 

July 22 2006

CM   From the beginning, La Conchita was seductive, a quick flash on the freeway north of Los Angeles in 2004. Then the mudslide happened at La Conchita in January 2005, I didn’t want to go there. I was too afraid to go experience the slide in the middle of the town. Afraid of what I might feel about it and pretty sure that I had some kind of call to study the site.  It was not until around September 2005 that I started to go there every few weeks, to photograph and make videos of the site of the mudlside. Since then people keep putting up shrines to the dead and then maintaining the shrines, building gardens on the mudslide, renewing the posters and photographs in laminated plastic sleeves, refreshing votive candles, leaving little scraps of letters or prayers to the dead. I feel I move in a trance like attentiveness. I return every month. I document changes around the 10 acres of debris flow remnant, a pile of mud and rock, right in the middle of this little beach town, and underneath there lie the dead ones who can never be recovered. I resonate to ‘hole in the world,’ inside me, inside this place, a double overtone. The shock of what has happened, it’s been erased and not erased at the same time. In the beach town of La Conchita, getting up and leaving on the freeway for work in Santa Barbara or Carpenteria. Stopping off at the town’s one retail spot, the gas station and convenience store. Kids play in the street after school. Dogs and cats hang out; the seller of avocados, oranges and sweet shrimp opens and closes.


AW: Narrative is always part of some system.  As soon as you think about how to describe what happened you are already part of the community voice, the narrative of lived experiences.


CM When I am there, shooting, talking with people, moving in slow motion through the alleys, in the shade of the banana gardens, I feel an absenting, or, a phenomenology of absence. I feel checked out, robotic, ecstatic.  I work well with my cameras in this state.  I learned how to observe like this through trying to recoup pain and abstract it. Like, remaining able to stand the pain of emotional and sexual assault. You will put yourself up on the ceiling, like a fly on the ceiling and watch what was happening to your body, so that you will separate your soul from your body; so in a sense to stay conscious you have to anaesthetize yourself against the pain.  If you experience the pain directly, without absenting, you are, you become,  ‘bare life’, you become speechless, more than aphasic, really gone. The you of your body are gone. Your mouth doesn’t work. You can’t form words. You can’t breathe a word. You can never say ‘what happened.’


AW The experience of pain is pulling you out of the narrative. Out of ordinary time and the everyday illusion of flow. Outside the system of community.  Let’s say, the rule of law is analogous to everyday lived experience, or, we process everyday experience through the rule of law. It’s always already part of the community voice – “I am going to the grocery store” – a narrative of lived experiences and functioning in a community. Also this is a middle ground between being present in an experience and being absent to it. Because as you are doing these things -- going to the store, making a salad -- you are also planning to assign meaning to them, so you are not as one with or part of the moment. The salad is made according to the way we make salads. It’s analogous to the situation in which you are not really listening to another person because you already anticipate the narrative of what they are going to say, your mind is racing ahead to form the words of what you are going to say in a moment.   So you aren’t present to it in the way you’d be if you were experiencing it as such.


CM For Agamben, ‘bare life’ is exposed by the actions of democratic states, as they suspend their own rule of law, in the name of war against terrorism.  The state itself has declared a suspension of its own rule of law in the name of a state of exception, in a status of permanent emergency. We find ourselves in a permanent landscape of terror coupled, in the most chilling way, with amnesia. A terrain of trauma.  I experience post-traumatic memory as characterized by flashes of brute memory, like film stills, freeze dried in the amygdala. The flashes occur as responses to triggers in the environment or in dreams. It’s necessary to forget about the pain in order to go on living everyday life. You move around anaesthetized in a landscape that seems to be perfectly normal except for the giant pile of rubble and dirt, crowned by tipis and flags, and surrounded by an ineffectual chain link fence installed by the county. 

Christina McPhee, Move 1, digital light jet C-print, 183 x 183 cm, 2006



 AW.  A hegemonic system always makes space for an element of resistance to the system within it, and this validates the dominant narrative by negative example. The PRI in Mexico used to fund the Communist party so that they would control it.  Things that appear to be acts of rebellion against the state are always already part of the system, continuing in the same hegemony.


CM At La Conchita, lawsuits by the residents are proliferating against whomever could be identified as a culprit in ‘causing’ the mudslide, such as the county of Ventura. People are trying to assert their rights, their property rights, and their sense of having been wronged. They believe that the state of California participates in the neglect of their situation. They’re trying to build a story of La Conchita, to attract the attention of the governor and the press.  Some have approached me to hire me to make a film about their story. They want to use the film to make the case for the town’s comeback.  They want to disprove that La Conchita’s site, built over a major fault, is subject to the delicate balances of an unstable sea cliff, itself the remnants of an ancient slide.  There’s no way to be safe there. But to recognize this as a fact would make the harsh truth that they can’t sell out and leave, insupportable. The shock of what has happened there makes it impossible to deal with it except in a series of delays. People stay in some kind of cycle of forgetting because of the shock of what they saw on that day. 


AW The way you get out of a system would be akin to the experience of pain. At least as it’s happening, pain, it’s not narrative.  It has no meaning. The space of the pain has no meaning.  Fear is the anticipation of the loss of narrative or meaning.  Pain pulls you outside the system into a zone of pure experience.



CM Optical observation is constantly being overwritten by a haptic, visceral response to repetitive shots of the ruins. The half buried houses are cloaked in spring flowers, then choked in noxious weeds, or engulfed in fresh shoots of willow, quick-drawn, captured and released, seized and spent. I shoot hundreds of digital photographs using a Nikon digital SLR, along with dozens of medium format photographs.  It seemed right to start making a database of straight, Magnum style documentary transparencies from the film shots.  I saw, when I scanned them into the computer, they were tending to mimic something out of sixties new wave cinema. I had an instinct that I must desaturate them and intensify the contrast. Semantics desired, especially, from  Renais. Hiroshima mon amour inspires montage of obsessive repetition of image fragments in a visual relentlessness that forces delays, jumps starts, and returns da capo al fine; and the way that the main characters in Duras’ story admit to the necessity of amnesia.   “I will forget you.”  The love carries the forgetting.  I love the ‘little shell’ and in the same moment I wish to forget her. Maybe I do participate in the town’s obliteration, its ‘oubliette’,  by desaturation and image manipulation. In Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Deleuze speculates that the digital information images [only] have the power to turn back upon themselves. A process of decomposition of the photographic images into long arias or arrays with much ambient black zoning, often in the middle of the tableau makes it not possible to grasp things altogether, rather with peripheral sensing.



AW You also make drawings, conceptual drawings, of the debris flow.


CM Not on site but in the studio, away from the site.


AW The debris flow is the split in consciousnes.  You seem to show in them how you split from the body in order to avoid the experience of pain. Fragmentation becomes atomization.  The debris flow drawings retrofit the energy of the split, the energy produced by diverting away from consciousness.  Negative energy.


CM Those debris flow drawings are in pencil and black ink on creamy fine sheets, a sensual skin like quality, as if the drawings are tattoos. They might be stop action animation stills. They look to me like they could be the moment-by-moment fall of the slope above La Conchita. I leave the paper pretty well unscathed except for the falling lines. They give me some relief from the inarticulate, the hole in the world. 


AW They hold an energy produced by absences, unlike your strike/slip seismicity drawings, wherein energy that is produced by contact—a metaphor of the transform strike slip faulting, along the San Andreas Fault.  The drawings look and feel like the experience of a psychic split; the drawings are about the attempt to absent oneself. Your process of drawing requires you to go to the place of observation and simultaneous unconsciousness.


CM By abstracting it, taking it apart, fragmenting it into study sheet after study sheet, second by split second. The drawings imply the next moment, and the next, and the next but in a repetitive cycle as if not being able to turn away from seeing the moments unfolding. The slide never completing.


AW This way you can bear witness to the traumatic event. This is a healing thing because the drawing is in fact a kind of reintegration or reorganization.


CM When the angle of repose is superseded the debris flow occurs.


AW The drawings represent what you‘ve been through and what you want: reintegration but at that paradox of location.  Of balance in which the consciousness is going off into the corner of the ceiling (absenting itself) and at the same time reordering itself relative to the memory of pain. You communicate, or actually, perform the destruction and construction of meaning at the same time.




Christina McPhee, La Conchita Collapse Mechanism, digital light jet C-print,  86 x 183 cm, 2006


CM How can you communicate (re- present) trauma and the experience of violence without reinscribing it on the audience, or even fully re=experiencing it yourself? There’s no way you can know La Conchita’s trauma by studying it as an exemplar. Nor can you understand it just by having a look around. Even though the mudslide is right there decorated, amongst flowers and crosses and Buddhas.


AW Usually there’s some kind of critical apparatus or function a way of interpolating the experience into an already accepted structure for meaning. 


CM  Traumatic landscapes are phenomena at the edge of visual memory structures. La Conchita attracted because it seems to play out a series of displaced references.  The ruins topography at La Conchita are displacements, a series of delays. For one of the videos for La Conchita mon amour, I’ve integrated the still photography into standard and HD animated video just so as to move the time in a remix of four strands of video and stills  La Conchita mon Amour (TAO) privileges the strange voice and electronic composition of Kyong Mee Choi, to be the carrier of a movement forward: the soul of the place in agony, ironically 'tao'  -- implying balance or evenness. For the visual editing, in late 2005, I first went to the Experimental Television Center in upstate New York, where I  worked with their special analog sequencers, to destroy the continuity of four lines of video signal (all of which were either standard video shot at La Conchita, stills or geologic and topographic visualizations). The mechanical rhythms of oscillation and recursion opened up images hypnotically.


AW What you’ve done in this is to find a way through representative echoes, phenomenological echoes, to reproduce the energy of the event and still walk the line, between making it into many fragments (via the critical function), and the experience of the moment of pain itself.


CM La Conchita recalls the appearance and disappearance and reappearance from the underworld performed by Persephone, the daughter of the earth goddess, Demeter, in Greek myth.  Persephone goes to the underworld, where Hades, who has made her his wife, has captured her. Demeter, left alone above ground, nearly dies of grief. Since she’s a goddess she can’t die, but the earth turns to winter. All the plants die and the animals and people starve. Finally she strikes a deal with Hades to let her beloved daughter return every spring.  The promised one returns. She is always en train de something else, becoming someone and never totally actualizing as someone, a slippery girl. Deleuze refers to this figure as becoming-girl;  In and out of the ground, her back and forth movement unfolds a virtual topography like a fugue. Recursive themes, like the coming slope collapse next time, like the return of the town,  and the return of me and the cameras, reinforce congruence, or adaptive codependence, between the act of photography and the vernacular shrine making.  I wonder if the documentary remit must forget that its own action is part of the same impulse to make a memorial. Performing its own becoming, and at a remove. Is shooting the evidence, like the hanging of a thing onto another thing, like a prayer flag with a heart onto a chain link fence at La Conchita? 


AW A memorial is another type of double experience, like the traumatic memory. It is a spatial representation of a moment of absence, and, it echoes with that sense of meaning at a distance, at a remove but itself does not produce meaning Memorials mimic the process of creating meaning , but there is no meaning because there is nothing there in the place of trauma. Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial turns black walls into sites of concentrated emotion, doesn’t compensate for the loss, and doesn’t put it into any meaningful structure because you cannot justify that loss. Her design instantiates the experience of pain and violent loss but under cover of a meaning that isn’t.


CM Perhaps there are no terms of rapprochement with La Conchita’s ineluctable future, yet people keep trying to make it right, to make it a place of life, a place that matters.  As do I, following in their trace.  This paradox reflects on documentary art as ritual act. Ritual involves actions through intentions to nurture a belief or value of something that you hold precious.  As an action of retracing the action, one further maintains that belief: it is through the recursion of the action that the ritual holds power.


AW The shrines at La Conchita seem to desire stopping the perceived flow of time.  La Conchita privileges the past.  The memorials nullify what has happened and that also makes it seem as if it’s over. As if there could be a frozen moment in the continuum that might be preserved. La Conchita wants to keep time away; to keep away the inevitable moment in the future when the debris flow will return. La Conchita is trying to stop time.  The afterlife of the dead buried under the mud lives on in snapshots hung on the fences. Paradise is another La Conchita, the dream of  time as an integrated whole. Suicide bombers blow themselves up to make themselves meaningful. To stop time is to enter heaven. 


Christina McPhee, La Conchita Heaven, digital light jet C-print, 122 x 183 cm, 2006



Christina McPhee, Debris flow 2, graphite and ink on paper, 66 x 48 cm, 2006




La Conchita mon amour opens as a multimedia installation of photography, digital video, HD video and drawing at Sara Tecchia Roma New York, New York in October 2006


* Christina McPhee’s installations have shown in 2006 at the Cartes Centre for Art and Technology, Espoo (Helsinki), Finland, and Bildmuseet, Umea, Sweden; and in screening at the Pacific Film Archive for the centennial of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. She has recently created a five channel theatrical video for Pamela Z’s Wunderkabinet, a multimedia opera created in collaboration with Matt Brubeck and based on stories from the Museum of Jurassic Technology (Los Angeles), in debut at the LAB, San Francisco (2005).. Her writings on media theory and practice are published with Ctheory, Neural, drunkenboat, and for the -empyre- soft-skinned space collaboration with the Documenta 12 Magazine Project (2006-2007). Born in LA, she was a student of Philip Guston at Boston University for the MFA in painting, following Kansas City Art Institute (BFA, painting and printmaking) and studies in art and art history at Scripps College, Claremont. Her media art is found in festival venues and museums internationally since 2000, including FILE Sao Paulo, prog:me Rio de Janeiro, Cybersonica at the ICA London Digital Arts and Culture Melbourne, and the Royal Academy Copenhagen. Cornell University Electronic Media Archives, the Pandora Archive at the National Library of Australia, the Whitney Museum of America Art Artport, and the New Museum of Contemporary Art / Rhizome Artbase. Her paintings and drawings are found in American museums including the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.,,


Dr. Amy Wiley is a scholar of performance and narrative. She earned a PhD from the University of California-Davis in comparative literature.  She teaches English and comparative literature at California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo.