Jill Magid’s art includes being hired by the Amsterdam Police Headquarters to bedazzle their security cameras (“System Azure,” 2003), orchestrating a trust game over CCTV with Liverpool police (“Evidence Locker,” 2004), and late-night rendezvous with a policeman surveilling Manhattan (“Lincoln Ocean Victor Eddy,” 2007). In all of them she finds unusual spaces for connection within inhuman systems. Her videos, photographs, and sculptural installations are bound together with powerful first-person writing, usually published as novellas. Taken as a whole, her collected work can already be seen as an atlas: mapping the potential of human relationships across contemporary technological and political landscapes. She sat down with Jarrett Earnest to discuss her new commission and upcoming solo exhibition Woman With Sombrero at Art in General (November 2 – December 21, 2013).
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): All of your projects are multifaceted, evolving from complex personal and historical situations, so can you start by explaining the backstory of your current exhibition?
Jill Magid: The upcoming show at Art in General is called Woman With Sombrero and it’s part of a larger project that I’m working on called The Barragán Archives. The story began with looking at the legacy of Luis Barragán, a Pritzker Prize winning Mexican architect who was born in 1902 and died in 1988. I believe everything he built was in Mexico, but I’ve read about a possible fountain in California. He was inspired by European Modernists like Le Corbusier and brought a new genre of Modernism to Mexico adding that flavor—wood, stones, and very bright colors, pinks and yellows, on textured walls. After he died his will broke his legacy into two parts: his “personal” and “professional” archives. He did this quite beautifully by way of a door, in his house, which is now a museum and UNESCO site. He said “everything on this side of my studio door is my professional archive and everything on the other side is my personal archive.” The personal part went to a group of architects predominantly based in Guadalajara, where he was from before he moved to Mexico City. That included his library which was extremely important to him. He left his professional archive to his work partner, as well as his copyrights. Five years after he died his work partner committed suicide and the professional archive fell to his partner’s widow. She tried to sell it in Mexico and did not get the price that she wanted so it was eventually bought by Max Protetch in New York in the mid-1990s.
The next part of the story involves Vitra, the family-owned Swiss furniture company founded in 1950. The director is Rolf Fehlbaum. He married an architect and writer named Federica Zanco who loves Barragán’s work, so they bought the Barragán professional archive in New York and took it to Switzerland, creating the Barragan Foundation under the auspices of Vitra, and trademarking his name. Then in 1997 the Barragan Foundation acquired the archive of Armando Salas Portugal, the photographer of Luis Barragán. So they now own Luis Barragán’s name, his professional archives, and all the images he sanctioned of his work. This was controversial in Mexico, while outside of Mexico there was an appreciation that the Foundation would take care of Barragán’s legacy with Frederica Zanco dedicating so much of her time to his archive. The story and the ensuing controversy brought me to a question that lies at the heart of this project: “What does it mean for an artist or architect’s legacy to be owned by a corporation?” The next question I found myself asking is, “How does one insert oneself into a dead man’s life?
The exhibition at Art in General focuses on the personal archive, which I’ve gotten full access to by the group of architects I mentioned earlier, known collectively as the Fundación de Arquitectura Tapatía Luis Barragán. At this point I have not been able to visit his professional archive. According to the Barragan Foundation’s website the archive is open to researchers and scholars of Barragán’s work and can be accessed by writing a letter and describing your project. A curator for Art Basel did this on my behalf, as I was hoping to visit the archive when I was in Basel preparing a piece for Art Basel Parcours this past June. Zanco declined, explaining they were engaged in producing a major publication on the archive.
Rail: There is a very beautiful continuity in your work, and in some ways this project restates a larger question you have been asking, which is: What are the limits imposed on our ability to represent ourselves—and what agency can we have in them? What is interesting about the Barragán story is the question of who “controls” the circulation of the work once the artist is out of the picture. Is there a claim that we have as artists and interested people in the world, or is it controlled top-down from a corporation or institution that legally “owns” it? And that is the question for those architects in Mexico who may feel that their cultural figure had been taken to be re-assimilated by European Modernism. How did you become interested in this subject?
Magid: Questions like those become more pronounced the deeper I go, but the initial reason Barragán interested me was that I went into his house and fell in love with his architecture. Then, when I met the director of Casa Barragán (his house that is now a museum) she was talking about the controversies surrounding his legacy and it immediately became personal—I thought, “Wow, what if I died and somebody owned all my work and my name?” This opened onto larger issues of copyright, and then aura and place—already questionable because we are talking about architecture which has the feeling of being public. It has become about negotiating where the “public” and “private” lay, and how intellectual property rights work when you have the actual thing and the representation of the thing.
Rail: Because the images commissioned by the architect are now “owned” by a corporation, how have you approached making representations of the spaces?
Magid: That is a great question. I imagine that is something I’ll go even more deeply into as my project progresses. For instance, in a few of my works I’ve referred to El Bebedero at Las Arboledas in Mexico City. El Bebedero is a 45-foot-tall white wall and perpendicularly extending from it is a very long trough of water that kind of looks like a mirror. It’s surrounded by eucalyptus trees, and the wall was designed as a screen to capture their shadows. Barragán loved horses and this was a park for riding, so the horses could come drink from the trough. On the cover of Federica Zanco’s book Luis Barragán: The Quiet Revolution there is an Armando Salas Portugal photo of El Bebedero with these two little children sitting in front of the wall so you understand the scale. When I went to see it for myself I took a photographer and I asked him to photograph it from similar angles to the Armando Salas Portugal photos. Because the wall was built in 1958 and now it’s 2013 the space is totally different than when Barragán designed it—today there is no water in the trough, the wall is decaying and marked with graffiti; the eucalyptus trees are thicker and their shadows denser. I asked the photographer to take a picture with me in it, in front of the wall where the children had been. It ended up being a powerful image, folding me into that space in 2013, and into this larger narrative: of the photograph, of the real space, of legacy and copyright—emulating a photograph that already exists.
Rail: Part of the project seems to be about you relating to Barragán, trying to inhabit his work or mind as a way of understanding, and that desire is mirrored by the figure of Federica Zanco. How do you consider her as a figure in this project?
Magid: Trying to understand Barragán, Federica Zanco at the Barragan Foundation, and myself in relation to them is part of the work. Barragán is complete in that he is no longer alive so I can only work with what he has left behind. Federica Zanco—I don’t know, but in terms of having a desire to understand Barragán more fully, we are similar. I have a deep respect for the fact that she recognized the potential of this archive and has committed herself to this man’s work—it’s stunning and awe inspiring how far she reached to gather the full spectrum. It’s brilliant, but also overwhelming. This makes her a compelling figure to me.
Rail: It seems like she is the “professional” and you are the “personal” and Barragán is the door.
Magid: Yes, but then his door is not just a flat thing, it has a weight and different textures, which is to say there is never going to be one way to see him, and I’m never going to know what Barragán thinks about what is happening with his legacy. So, is it necessary to consider what he would want when it is no longer even possible to know? In my mid-20s I used to work for the poet Fred Seidel and I remember once seeing him put a copy of his new book on the coffee table. I had never published a book then and I asked, “How cool is it to see your own book?” He just sat back and said, “It’s not my book anymore,” as if once it had entered the public realm he didn’t have control over it anymore. That is one thing that interests me as an artist: when is the work no longer mine?
Rail: I like what Pamela M. Lee said about the function of the redacted text in your work, that it visualizes a certain type of invisibility, which is about articulating power.
Magid: That has become a real thread in my work: how do you visualize the invisible, or make space for that which you do not know or cannot see, without just leaving it empty? I’m reading all these books that Barragán sent to women he had relationships with and one of them is Malone Dies by Samuel Beckett. In it Beckett writes, “nothing is more real than nothing”; it’s even italicized. Because I’m reading the book after Barragán, this line was even more pronounced. In this project the feeling of absence and nothingness is so present. For instance, the only way I can access the professional archive is by looking at books and by trying to piece together what might be in there from a list of holdings on the Barragan Foundation website. From descriptions like “13,500 drawings, 3,500 negatives” I can fantasize what is in there, but I don’t know. I had to make a space for it in the Art in General exhibition because I felt that the show would be lacking if I didn’t point to the fact that I’m working with only half of his legacy. Making space for that which you do not have access to is as challenging as making something visible.
Rail: How do you know what books he sent to women?
Magid: I worked with two translators when I was in Mexico City at Barragán’s house and they translated his letters for me, including the letters women sent him. There is a whole argument about whether he was gay or straight, but from what I gathered he certainly fetishized women as images and was interested in platonic relationships. In the letters many women say: “In the book you sent me …” He would read books, underline in them, and then send them to women he had relationships with. That connected with me because I can’t read a book without a pen, and if I buy a used book I can’t help learning about another person through their marks. There are images of his books all marked up and I can imagine how romantic it was to receive them. Some women wrote back things like “I copied down everything you underlined into my notebook,” so there was this relationship lived through underlined text. I made a list of every book mentioned and am reading them all. There was a really beautiful thing that started happening as I was doing this, at first I was trying to see through Barragán and underline what I imagined he would have underlined. Then I got into a conflict with myself because I underline too—I have artworks where I’ve underlined text—so I started fighting him in my head, making notes in the margins to myself to separate who it was I was underlining for and then I gave up fighting. I realized that that struggle is really interesting, so I continued by notating ‘that it reminds me of Barragán; or of Federica; or of me towards Federica.’ Now that I’m deeper into it I see that he picked books with related themes, so that characters in one book remind me of characters in other books. I’ll underline something and write notes in La Farfalla like “Odile in Climates.” I want to keep re-reading these books because Barragán would re-read and mark them in different color pens each time. I feel that I just have to live these books until they become so much a part of my own thought process that together they weave another kind of narrative.
Rail: You’ve signaled in other works the important relationship between text and lived experience; for instance in your project Failed States (2012) you use Goethe’s Faust, by a quirk of naming (witnessing a shooter named Fausto) as a prism through which you make sense of the events of shootings in Texas. I’m wondering how you see the relationship between reading and writing and living.
Magid: Writing has always been a part of my lived experience. I didn’t know how to bring it into my work though until I wrote “One Cycle of Memory in the City L,” (2004) as part of Evidence Locker, because the city-wide surveillance system I was working with necessitated it—to request surveillance footage from the police I had to fill out an official form, identifying who and where I was and what incidents occurred. I completed them as if they were love letters, and then collected them into a book. When people ask me who my favorite artist is or who inspires me, it’s easier for me to think of writers. When I was an undergrad, Karl Marx was a hero of mine. The faculty used to make fun of me that I had a crush on Karl Marx, but I did. And I didn’t interpret him as a scholar might, I got into his ideas about the loss of connection between a maker and his product. What happens when the shoemaker who used to make a shoe from beginning to end becomes responsible for only one part of the fabrication process? The shoe becomes fetishized. I felt close to that line of questioning, but then he also wrote that artists and theologians were superfluous to society, and I thought, “Here I am in love with this guy and he doesn’t even think I fit in society!” Of course this is when I was 18 or 19, and making works about it, asking “Where do I fit within the social fabric?” I find that reading and living are interchangeable, or at least one constantly affects how I do or think about the other. I’ve never been able to separate fiction from reality: if you can think something up and people can feel through it, then there is a reality to that. That said, my own books are all “non-fiction.” I wish I could pick up a piece of paper and invent a story from scratch—I would write everyday—but I need the experience to write: I see it or live it, then I go home and I write about it.
Rail: On one level you are positioning yourself beside Barragán as his “Girl”—the ur-girl who received all the books—
Magid: But, I am also him.
Rail: That is a complicated dynamic, but one similar to a lot of other pieces that you’ve done. What is different here is the shadow reflection of you in the “professional” woman on the other side. Your work is strongly gendered, usually with a male power figure you are flirting with as you perform/deconstruct the role of a beautiful young woman. Is moving the dynamic toward romance a way for you to destabilize it, toward one you feel more empowered in? For instance, even when you spent three years interviewing anonymous and active agents in the Dutch Secret Service for The Spy Project and Becoming Tarden (2010) your description, meeting in elegant hotels, sounded like having an affair.
Magid: For Evidence Locker when people think they are challenging me they ask, “Do you think the police would have followed you if you were a man?” And I say, “No, because they were all men.” And if you notice in the video Trust—where the police, watching on surveillance cameras, direct me with my eyes closed across a public space through an earpiece—after they are done with me the camera wavers off and starts to follow a sexy woman walking down the street. I occupied a position that was implicit to the system—at least as it was being used by these policemen—either I had to be a “criminal” or “the object of desire” to be visible to it, so I stepped into that space that was available. With the agents I talked to in The Spy Project, half of them were women and half of them were men, but there was a flirtation between us all because they had a secret and I was trying to get it. When I’m fascinated, or trying to understand something, even a book, I can fall in love with it. It is a process of becoming intimate—I need to know it so well that it becomes a part of my body. That is what I was saying about the Barragán books.
This is not to sidestep the gender question, which is very important. The systems I’ve entered were generally dominated by men. At the same time I think I’d be interested in whomever it was that occupied that role, male or female. As I’ve written in Becoming Tarden, power is a set of relations. If it were a woman occupying that role I would probably feel an equivalent attraction and confusion and repulsion towards her—of course gender would affect our relationship, but a relationship between myself and a woman in power is less familiar territory because most of the people in power I’ve had to deal with were men. My role as a woman entering and engaging that system destabilized it.
Rail: One of the things I think is deeply political and feminist in your methodology is made clear in your writing. You are always questioning your own desires in relation to the people you are engaging, trying to deconstruct what you want from them—it’s about “situated knowledge.” That is an ethical stance on being in the world which separates your work from many other artists who are foregrounding themselves in the world, but with less self-reflection. I was interested when you interviewed Sophie Calle and asked if it is important to her that she has the consent of the other people she brings into the work and she said “no.” Could you talk about that?
Magid: Although our work has been compared a lot because of the narratives of seduction, our engagements are of a different nature. Usually Calle is engaging a person on equal levels, outside the context of a corporate or government structure. We are entering really different territory with some similar metaphors. The question for her might be about whether she will get permission from the person she is following whereas I am engaging people within a system. If I want to understand that system, I am going to need to get inside of it and this requires access and permission. That was a very conscious decision I made after the piece at MIT called “Lobby 7”(1999). For it, without permission, I hacked into the video information monitor system of MIT and projected my body underneath my clothes in real-time with a tiny lipstick surveillance camera as I stood in the lobby beneath the monitor. Then the cops were called in though I didn’t see them because I was so focused on the screen and recording my body. After a half hour I finished and the cops never understood that it was me. I had people covertly filming in the balconies and it wasn’t until I watched those tapes afterward, seeing the cops run around, that I asked what it would mean if I didn’t play a game of cat and mouse, as I was taught to do. That is a carved out role: artist as law-breaker, protester, often in an aggressive way—all cops and institutions are bad; that seemed like too easy a binary. I wanted to see what would happen if we all stepped into the situation together. That is what I mean when I say that permission is a material; it changes the work’s consistency. Of course, there are levels of permission, levels of access, I am pushing boundaries to see where they actually lie and how far they can stretch: Are you going to let me go further, are you going to stop me? It’s a process of negotiation, little by little, locating the border and seeing how, and if, it is enforced.
Rail: In a talk I remember you saying, “I never say to an institutional power that I am an artist because then the people within it won’t take me seriously.” However, in recent projects you seem to have no problems explaining that you are an artist in the initial approach: How has that shifted?
Magid: Each situation was different. With “System Azure”(2003) I went to the front desk of the Amsterdam Headquarters of Police and said really innocently “Hi, I’m an artist and I want to do this project where I decorate your surveillance cameras with rhinestones.” They just said, “We don’t work with artists.” So I came back and said what I wanted to do without saying what I was, and they heard me. So I figured that was something that I learned, that to say I was an artist made people have certain assumptions that stopped them from listening to me. In Evidence Locker I said I was a “researcher” which was also true, but it doesn’t really mean anything, although it let them hear me. There were other projects along the way, but once I got to the secret service for The Spy Project I was brought in as an artist. I was really terrified and thought they were never going to take me seriously because I’m an artist. The funny thing that happened in that situation was that they didn’t take me seriously so they let their guard down. What does it say about our feelings of the power of art today when being an artist was in no way threatening, to the point that no one in the agency even followed me?
Rail: The question of control and interpretation is important—one of the reasons I left a PhD program in art history was because I realized that an important thing artists do is creatively misread texts, taking what they need from them. Even I can admit that is not what a scholar should be doing. To say that artists can misread as they wish posits a freedom of interpretation as a vital part of art’s meaning.
Magid: I had this experience at MIT where I took a class on metaphor in the science and technology department. In a term paper I was writing a theory about and romanticizing Norbert Wiener, who wrote a book called Cybernetics and was the originator of that term, and the professor just said, “This is fascinating but it’s an artistic writing—I can’t grade this as a scholarly essay.” I think that is just how I am and I feel a certain freedom taking that position in terms of how I approach material and situations. There is also an ethical component. For instance, I have been asked to give talks at surveillance conferences with engineers, technicians, and policy makers and afterward they would all come up to me and say things about how I got farther with figuring out the dynamics of this system than they have in years, but that ethically, as scientific researchers, they couldn’t occupy the position that I occupied and call it scientific research. I think it’s important that as an artist I’m not looking to prove something. When people ask “What is the point? What are you trying to teach people?” I just say I don’t have a point—there are questions that I am asking and exploring and if they explode inside of you and you begin to come to conclusions, then that is great, but I don’t think that is my job.
Rail: Another thing you asked Sophie Calle was if she ever thought she went too far or if she ended a project too early? I wanted to put that to you because I assumed it was something you had thought a lot about yourself.
Magid: She said that yes, she had gone too far with the Address Book (1983) and I respected that answer. It’s always a question and the answer can feel like it depends on how it all ends. My projects are like relationships—you just know when its ending. Evidence Locker ended beautifully—the cops came to the show multiple times, according to the Liverpool Tate where it was shown, some of them cried when they read the book. Did I ever go too far? I think sometimes it goes into the ethically uncomfortable. With Lincoln Ocean Victor Eddy, where I trained with a N.Y.C. cop in the subway at night,it was like a sad break-up when it ended. I don’t regret that I went too far, I went with what I thought was appropriate at the time. Perhaps it was naïve when I invited him to leave his post and go to Taiwan with me. People afterward were like “you knew he wouldn’t go,” but actually I didn’t. I didn’t know he wouldn’t go because I was so “in” it. Think of how you behave when you are in a relationship, you don’t really know if you are going too far. With the spies it ended badly with the administration but I know the head spy was very happy and proud of me with the way it worked. I try to act honestly and that’s messy and I know it’s messy.
Rail: I feel very kindred to your work for many reasons, especially because I try to put myself in situations as a way of learning. When I want to know something I call the person involved to meet with them. Part of why I think those great people talk to me is that I’m not out to “get” anything from them. I just have honest questions. I sense that is how you get where you are going with your projects too.
Magid: One hundred percent. I think a lot of the reason people guess that I’m writing fiction is they can’t understand why these people talk to me, and it’s basic human nature: I’m not bullshitting them. I’m earnestly interested in them. I try very hard to not go in judgmentally. For example, I met a lot of cops and some of them were awesome and beautiful and some of them fit the stereotypes of why people don’t like cops, but they are all just people beneath their uniforms. The uniform—the system, is bigger than them, but they cannot help informing it, and it from informing them. It’s a more nuanced way to approach what we all want from each other. I have complicated feelings about security cameras, and complicated feelings about this professional Barragán archive that is probably impeccably kept and loved and protected. I just think that when I meet people, they understand that I am open and I’m listening and I really do want to understand, and that I am going to push them a little. When I was working with the spies there was a moment I got frustrated with the head spy, the head of counterterrorism, and I just asked him what he wanted from me. And he said, “I want to see what my system looks like through you.” So they are also using me. To say “using someone” is one of those things we immediately think of as negative, and instead it’s more trying to use the situation you are a part of to understand the system and how it works.
Rail: This month’s editorial theme is “vulnerability.” A lot of what I think about in relationship to “intimacy” depends upon shared sense of vulnerability, and I wanted to hear your thoughts on intimacy and vulnerability.
Magid: I think vulnerability is a quality of intimacy. I don’t think you can get intimate unless you become vulnerable and it’s always a risk. If I don’t feel nervous and unsettled in what I am doing then I don’t really know what I’m doing. It can be emotional uncertainty, or intellectual uncertainty—it’s a search for a very deep connection and understanding. I use myself as a tool within the work in many ways because I don’t know how to access those feelings without inserting myself into it. If I’m not there experiencing it, then I don’t understand it. What I love so much about books is that you become embedded in them as a reader; if you don’t then you just put them down. In my work I become vulnerable to the situation in an earnest attempt to embed myself within it, and by embedding myself, reconciling myself to it. I then move through the project being very sensitive and record that process in whatever way, or whatever medium, seems appropriate.
JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.