Yayoi Shionoiri: Thanks so much, Jill, for taking the time to chat with me today. To get started, how do you define yourself to someone who doesn’t know your practice?
Jill Magid: Depending on who asks, I’m an artist, writer, and filmmaker, or a conceptual artist, or I say what I do and not what I am. I seduce systems of power—such as CCTV, intelligence agencies, artist’s estates or corporations—to make work with me in which I explore individual agency, starting with my own, in relation to them. I use a variety of media, including sculpture, film, performance and text, depending on the project or idea.
Shionoiri: Your finished output, whatever it is, and in whatever material, is as important as the process by which you make it.
Magid: My process strongly informs the works I make. With each project, I create a new, formal vocabulary based on the system that I’m interrogating. The works are in dialogue with the system, in intimate, absurd, or provocative ways.
Shionoiri: How do you decide which kernels of ideas you end up researching further and developing into a project?
Magid: Often, an invitation from a museum or an institution brings me to a new site. It’s a combination of timing, chance, and intuition. Like when LABOR invited me for a site visit to make a new project for the gallery, I toured Luis Barragán’s house in Mexico City, which eventually developed into the extended project, “The Barragán Archives” (2013–16). I did not expect to make a project about the architect’s work until I was so moved by his house, and learned about the contested status of his archive. But questions around artistic legacy, property, and access had already been occupying me for years.
I’m excited by organized, seemingly bound systems of power that seem invisible and yet can be all-encompassing—like the law. These systems are all around us, like open secrets, but we often don’t know how they operate. There’s something seductive about a system that has boundaries where you can’t feel the edges unless you’re in it. There’s also a futility and tragic beauty to a system designed to exert full control, because there are always leaks and slippages.
Shionoiri: Do you consider the law as a medium in your practice? Or do you consider the actions that you undertake within the legal system as your medium?
Magid: Both. The law is a system and a manifestation of the (dominant) culture, gender, class, etc., of people who produced it over time. If I want to engage that system, I better learn its language and rules, or else I’m not going to be able to play with it.
When I started to work on the public art project, Tender (2020–ongoing), I wasn’t familiar with how US coins came into being and or how they circulate. I had the idea to engrave a phrase on the penny’s edge, intervening between the propaganda on its faces. I knew that in the US, you’re not allowed to deface currency (18 US Code Section 331). But the edge is not a face; it’s a smooth, empty space and thus a legal loophole. I engraved the phrase “THE BODY WAS ALREADY SO FRAGILE” on their edges during the pandemic, and circulated them.
I was captivated by the idea of the exchange of cash during the pandemic—thinking about who was using and touching money. We often think of cash as being purely transactional and emotionless, but when we were cut off from each other during COVID, suddenly, the handling of money appears as a social interaction, with potential intimacy, and risks, too.
Shionoiri: Your pennies—120,000 of them—have gone out into the stream of commerce, and now your project still continues. People can interact with the work at differing levels; not everybody who handles a Tender penny will know what it is. An art person might go hunting for one, while a person receiving it as change at a bodega may not realize what they received. There’s a subversion that I think is very elegant.
Magid: Artwork as rumor is interesting to me, where a mere idea can disseminate and change someone’s perceptions. I also care about the physical encounter of my work, as objects, films and installations. When you come across a Tender penny, it is quite beautiful as an object. It is a sculpture that is also legal tender. That duality is part of the work.
Shionoiri: It seems to me that when you’re in pursuit of an idea, the mental energies and efforts you invest in your research leads to an output that appears simple—“perfect” might be another word, or maybe even “obvious”—in its execution.
Magid: I write and sketch through a concept that then gets crystallized into a final piece. It’s a process of distillation, and once I get to that final work, I feel like it can’t be anything else, except for that. Every material, every aesthetic choice, even the way it’s shown is dictated by the concept. That’s what I mean by building a project’s formal vocabulary. It happens over time and often by making a series of works along the way. Tender is also a film. There’s so much of my process that a viewer will never see, and that’s okay because it’s part of my practice, and those experiences get folded into the works, and help me know how to make them. Each artwork is an attempt to distill what’s at the heart of a question, and how I might most beautifully form it into something so dense that it explodes.
Shionoiri: In the past, you’ve discussed the strategy where something is made into art and “it’s no longer dangerous.” How does this view affect the way you think about your practice, and does this somehow mean that art can be outside of the law?
Magid: I believe art can be dangerous, as well as the questions it provokes. But the Dutch intelligence and security service (AIVD) showed me that art can hide things. They commissioned me for a project in 2005, resulting in an exhibition in 2008 in The Hague, and another at Tate Modern in 2009, and, at both exhibitions, the AIVD ended up confiscating some of my works. For the exhibition at The Hague, I’d made a series of letterpress prints, “18 Spies” (2008), with prose-like descriptions of the agents I’d met, as well as a series of neon sculptures—one for each letterpress print that served as its map. The AIVD confiscated seven of the letterpress prints in 2009, but left the neon sculptures behind, even though the words in both were the same, just in different form. Through their actions, the AIVD evidenced that the descriptions are threatening as text on paper, but not as sculpture. It was as if they could not see the words once they were in sculptural form.
For me, “no” is as much a beginning of a line of inquiry as “yes.” “No” signals that a boundary has been reached. Why no? What is being protected? The legal framework appears to be concrete, but is open to interpretation—based on who gets to do the interpreting. I see permission, or the lack thereof, as a material of my work. Whether or not I have permission changes the work’s consistency and perhaps, in its affect, even the system itself.
Shionoiri: What do you hope viewers of your work take away regarding the law as it shapes everyday life?
Magid: I want to make work that enables people to become aware of or think about the world differently—at least, that’s what I want art to do for me.