Finding the right question for each system or situation is the hardest part of my work.
Jill Magid’s feature documentary debut The Proposal is the final chapter in the conceptual artist’s extended, multimedia project The Barragán Archives, an ambitious five-year endeavor spanning numerous exhibitions, installations, performances and publications from 2013 to 2018. The film, in which Magid acts as narrator and protagonist, both chronicles and extends her quest in examining the legacy of the late Luis Barragán, the most revered Mexican architect of the 20th century. Her inquiry is multifaceted and alluring: What does it mean to own an artist’s legacy posthumously, and what happens to intellectual property once it has been privatized by a corporation?
As laid out in his will, Barragán’s vast archive is split into two parts. Along with the majority of his architecture, his personal archive remains in Mexico at his home and studio, Casa Barragán, which is now also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 1995, Rolf Fehlbaum, the Chairman of the Swiss furniture company Vitra, purchased Barragán’s professional archive, including the rights to his name—notably, without the accent—copyright and work, and gifted it to his fiancé, architectural scholar Federica Zanco, as a wedding present in lieu of an engagement ring. Although Zanco publicly announced that the archive would be opened to the public, they remain closed 20 years later and housed in a bunker at Vitra corporate headquarters, where it is guarded with a tight grip by the same gatekeeper who has hampered Magid’s efforts in opening it back up. Instead of indignantly going on the attack, Magid courted a friendship with Zanco through a series of intercontinental “love letters,” demonstrating their shared passion for Barragán. With that letter-writing campaign, Magid concocted a “proposal” of her own, offering a ring—controversially exhuming the ashes of Barragán’s cremated remains and having them pressed into a two-carat diamond—in exchange for the repatriation of his professional archive to Mexico.
The Proposal is a meditation on ownership, copyright and legacy, which places it right in line with Magid’s larger artistic oeuvre exploring ideas about access, power and control. Through her performance-based practice, she has long established intimate relationships with impersonal structures of authority that function at a distance with wide-angle perspectives. At the 2004 Liverpool Biennial, Magid presented Evidence Locker, in which she became the willing subject of the city’s CCTV surveillance system. In 2005, the artist infiltrated the Dutch Secret Service agency to create The Spy Project. For 2007’s Lincoln Ocean Victor Eddy, she shadowed and befriended a New York City cop, who covertly trained her in a series of nightly meetings and disclosure.
The Proposal is now playing at select theaters and with a national rollout to follow.
What drew you to Luis Barragán’s work in the first place, prior to extending your research into his professional archives and before you were made aware of Federica Zanco’s role in his posthumous legacy? Were you simply captivated by his work?
After seeing my work at the Tamayo Museum, I was invited by LABOR gallery in Mexico City to make a new project. Understanding that I’m often inspired by visiting a city or site, the gallery invited me back to Mexico City for a site visit. While I was there, I visited Casa Barragán, Barragán’s house and studio—now a museum and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I got a private tour and I was extremely moved by the house and his architecture. I had a strong desire to live in the house and write. As my work historically deals with questions of power, control, access and individual agency, I don’t often get excited by another artist’s work and make a project about them. So although I was so inspired by Barragán’s work, even haunted by it, I did not think I would make a project about him. But then I learned about his contested legacy, and the legal challenges around reproducing images of his work. I had a meeting with the museum director of Casa Barragán to learn more. She explained to me how his professional archive, containing thousands of his drawings, plans, negatives and models, had ended up in Switzerland, strictly protected by copyright law and intellectual property rights. Now it was Barragán’s work and these issues of access, law and property, all of which strongly resonated with me. That’s a long way of saying that it was Barragán’s work that drew me in, but it wasn’t until I realized that his legacy was in a problematic position that I recognized it as a space that I wanted to explore more deeply within my practice.
Speaking of legacy, in the film you mention how Barragán always seemed to have an eye towards his own legacy, and you describe legacy in your director’s statement for the film as “something potentially alive and full of possibility.” In 2005, for Auto Portrait Pending, you signed a contract with Lifegem, a company that specializes in turning cremated bodies into diamonds. With that contract, you, too, will become a ring like Barragán. Do you think about legacy often in your artmaking?
My questions and thoughts around legacy have grown in different ways through the Barragán project. I wouldn’t say, especially as a younger artist, that I was really thinking of the legacy of my work. I probably should’ve been more. Auto Portrait Pending (2005) was the first piece that dealt directly with legacy. In it, I sign a contract with a company to turn my body into a 1 carat diamond upon my death. The work consists of an empty right setting (essentially my grave), and a series of letters and contracts. It is an artwork that has two lives: It’s the potential of the work, and the future realization of the work post-mortem. My questions in that piece were about the confluence of the artist’s body and the artist’s body of work. I was very interested in how people say, “I own a de Kooning” or “I own a Pollack.” There’s a kind of slippage between the artist as his or her own person and what they produce, which I find intriguing. Auto Portrait Pending was also about the commercial space of the body versus the body of work. The collector is “buying” the artist, literally, in the case of Auto Portrait Pending. There’s a long history of artists that have worked with their own bodies or the products of their bodies or the bodies of others like this. For instance Piero Manzoni’s Artist’s Shit. But with the Barragán project, the questions around legacy ,access, ownership and private property are added, along with a series of institutions such as governments, foundations, and individual groups committed to Barragán’s legacy. My neon piece Barragan® sums it up. The neon toggles between Barragán with an accent, and Barragan without an accent, as his name was trademarked. The man and the man incorporated. And, very importantly, unlike , The Proposal (the artwork, 2016) is not for sale. It is a gift that requests a gift in turn.
Touching on the idea of the body for the body of work, there’s a real humanity to the way you approach your art and your subjects—significantly in your desire to give back as much as you take. Sometimes it’s less ambiguous, like removing ashes from Barragán’s urn and placing a silver horse statuette in its place. For the Lincoln Ocean Victor Eddy project, you exchanged your knowledge about art with the police officer training you. This notion of a fair exchange seems to be operating on a far more significant level than just for the sake of art.
I think through my work as a series of relationships composed of gestures and exchanges. The work unfolds as gestures, actions or sometimes as gifts which are offered and in some way reciprocated. Artworks like sculptures, text pieces or 2D works, grow out of these exchanges, and also function to push the projects forward, deepening or challenging these relationships. And maybe it sounds corny, but I do think of art as a kind of gift. That doesn’t mean it’s always rosy—there are gifts with thorns. They are ways and forms through which to expand our thinking or enable us to transcend the position we’re in, and how we operate in society. I would also describe the epistolary relationships that are often the backbone of my process as a kind of non-financial exchange. I am not working in a vacuum in my studio. To understand a system and pose questions to it, I have to engage it, and be engaged by it. With the example you gave of the silver horse, I knew that if I was going to be removing a fraction of Barragán’s ashes for an artwork, I wanted to give him something in return. So I made him a solid silver horse, equivalent in weight to that of the ashes removed. During the exhumation, I showed the silver horse to Barragán’s family for the first time, and suggested that they put the horse next to the urn to keep Barragán company. Barragán was a lover of horses and even designed architecture for them. Hugo Barragán, Luis’ nephew, took my offering a step further and put the horse inside the urn, within the remaining ashes. I think there was something that felt complete for those of us present in that exchange. Which is not to say that the horse and ashes are equivalent, but rather that one gesture inspired another gesture, expanding our relationship not only to the project, but to each other, and to Barragán.
Because you’re driven so much by burning curiosity—I don’t think a lot of people would go to the lengths as you do, especially weighing the possibility that you might become a national threat, which is what occurred on The Spy Project—it opens up doors that might otherwise be closed indefinitely. You once said in a talk that when you ask unorthodox questions, that can be the best way to circumvent the no’s you’re bound to receive because it suddenly provokes thought in the receiver as well. Was there a time when it became a crystallized truth for you that it was this unrivaled tool?
I don’t know if there was a eureka moment. Finding the right question for each system or situation is the hardest part of my work. With The Spy Project, for instance, I was commissioned to make a new work for the new headquarters of the Dutch intelligence agency, the AIVD. I could make anything, but the brief we finally determined was to help improve the agency’s public persona by providing it “with a human face”. The initial openness of the commission to “make anything” was both exciting and overwhelming. Generally, I start by reading everything publicly available about the system I’m investigating, and often there’s something in the material that snags me, that starts to raise questions for me personally. In this case it was “What does it feel like to be a spy, to have a public persona and a private persona?” and “Is there a center of power or is the agency totally fragmented?” I’ll start to look for a point of entry—a loophole in the law or within the rules. In the case of the Dutch Intelligence Agency, it was an Article that forbid the agency from collecting personal data from its agents. I became the Consultant of Personal Data, and my mission to find the face of the faceless institution. I collected what the agency couldn’t, created artworks throughout the process and as part of our dialogues, and amassed an archive about the agents and the institution at large. This way of working takes time and a very significant commitment in order to follow a project all the way through, wherever that is or may lead. The work requires that of me because, otherwise, none of the questions I am posing through the work could be fully asked.
All of your artworks feel so complete coming out at the other end. It’s fascinating, knowing that so much of your practice exists outside of the gallery or museum space before being placed there. You’re constantly negotiating with people and changing variables along the way. It appears that you don’t always know where something is headed, but that it’s going somewhere interesting.
Yes, each project is its own world that requires a new visual and textual vocabulary. They get constructed along the way. For instance, with Lincoln Ocean Victor Eddy—a project in which I trained with an N.Y.C. police officer in the subway at night in Post 9/11 NY— I didn’t know where it was going, but the rules were very clear. During my training, I wasn’t allowed to photograph the cop to reveal his identity, and I wasn’t allowed to photograph in the subway either but he let me do so randomly, and more so as time passed. The resulting photos were based on those constraints, taken on the sly or videoed by briefly plugging a wire into the police CCTV system, all with the cop’s permission. With Evidence Locker, which involved developing a close relationship with the Liverpool police department and its surveillance system over a 31 day period, I knew that most likely the final piece would have a video CCTV component and a writing component made up of the request forms I had to write to access the footage. So in those cases, I knew a little bit about what materials I would be working with, whereas with The Spy Project, I had to try many different materials because it was so open—and also so closed. To find the agency’s human face, I met with 18 agents over three years but I was only allowed a notebook and a pen, no technical recording devices. I think the questions lead me to find the material forms of the work, but the process of material investigation also leads to new questions. And the artworks are less the result of the process as much as they are materials of it. During the life of The Spy Project, the agency confiscated a series of works, including prints, a sculpture, and the book I wrote about my experience with the agency from my solo show at Tate Modern. In light of those confiscations I altered the remaining works, such as turning off neon sculptures, and the hacking of the book.
When you were putting rhinestones on surveillance cameras in Amsterdam for System Azure Security Ornamentation, a funny thing happened where the police started paying you to do that job—a job that you invented and somehow convinced them was legit. Are you constantly toggling between Jill Magid and performance in that kind of space? Is there a clear delineation to speak of?
I think that is one of the most nuanced questions that I get asked. When I was making Evidence Locker, I was wearing this red coat so that the police on the CCCTV cameras could always find me in the city. It became almost this love story where I was writing “love letters” to the CCTV police system and they would follow me based on what I wrote them. That piece was commissioned by the Liverpool Biennial and eventually showed at the Tate Liverpool. I remember distinctly that one of the curators, while I was in the city for the 31 days, said to me, “When are you going to take the mask off?” I was sort of surprised by that question because I wasn’t wearing one. The work requires different things from me than my life does. It’s normal. You perform differently at work than after work. There’s a different way of speaking, a and behaving—you’re aware of your surroundings. I would say that it’s more about an awareness of my context and understanding what is appropriate in situations, along with the deep commitment to the questions I am asking or seeking to understand. That doesn’t mean what I do or make is not absurdist in some ways—I take the law literally, which can be humorous, but it’s appropriate to the questions being asked. Like you said before, if you just ask a straight question about the copyrights on Barragán’s work, you often get stock answers and a lot of people tuning out. There is a power in asking questions in ways that people don’t immediately recognize. They can hear them. Suddenly those questions are being engaged with a new kind of sensitivity and openness.
In your three-year correspondence with Federica for The Proposal, were these all handwritten letters?
Not all. Most of them were. The meaty ones were, and I would always FedEx them to her. She even wrote me a letter in which she comments on how carefully my letters were written and treated—sometimes I included small packages tied with a ribbon. The letters were also written thoughtfully. She was an excellent interlocutor. I was very careful in how I’d compose, write and send the letters because I think of them as artworks. What tone to take? Which pen do I use? Which paper? How translucent is the envelope? How does the dialogue change if I send her a book or a gift? I mostly wrote her handwritten letters and she always responded via email. Only my practical communications that were time-sensitive would end up as emails- like where to meet and when, but the real gestures were handwritten and Fed Ex’ed.
We see a great example of that in the film where you’re handwriting in cursive, tracing over a typed and printed letter. Also, you handle the stationary in an almost forensic way.
Totally. The form, content, and delivery are extremely important.
There’s a seductive, romantic nature to what you’re doing. There’s also an undeniable seductiveness to your meetings with the Dutch Secret Service agents in The Spy Project, in your collaboration with the police for Evidence Locker, and in the unconventional training you received from the New York City cop, who ultimately gifted you with a bullet from his chamber as a symbol of trust. You’re engaging in this high-wire act, in systems that are pulling you in at the same time it’s trying to constantly spit you back out because, really, none of us are supposed to be in that secretive space.
Yes, and it’s exactly the way you said it: the system’s pulling you in and spitting you out at the same time. It is like a seduction. I don’t mean to get into critical theory here, but Baudrillard is kind of my hero in that space. When I read his book Seduction I was like, “Oh my god, that’s the way I think”—that entering systems like this is a game. I don’t mean that in a frivolous sense. It’s a very serious game, the way chess is. There are players and making moves on the same board. That’s another part of the process: equalizing the board, or playing field. I’m not supposed to be an individual subject with my own agency on a CCTV system. I’m supposed to be this random citizen without an identity, caught on it. CCTV is a one-way form of surveillance. But for that moment during the making of Evidence Locker, the system and I engaged in a dialogue. We were both vulnerable and both powerful in a way, and I think that idea of creating agency in a social or heavily policed space where we’re not afforded agency is really important.
When you were a guest at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design many years ago, the moderating professor inquired about your possible desire in The Spy Project to also find the center of an organization, in that instance the Dutch intelligence agency. I think it was referred to as “finding the wizard behind the curtain” in that conversation. Then at the Whitney Museum panel that you were a part of for Laura Poitras’ collaborative book, Astro Noise, someone in that talk compared looking at the Snowden files as “visiting the Oracle,” which I think is beautifully worded. So how do you best describe the ways in which you have transformed as an artist and as a person accruing all of this information about how the world spins and the systemic structures in which we find ourselves?
I try to communicate what I’ve learned or the questions I am asking through the work itself. Sometimes didactically but often, in the artworks, more abstractly. Film was a different story because the narrative had to be contained to a fixed timeline. I realize that I approach these systems of control with a somewhat romantic lens. Someone once referred to me as “a romantic conceptualist” and I kind of love that title. A romantic approach can have negative connotations, but I mean it more so as a humanistic approach. One thing I learned is not to fetishize the system. For instance, with a surveillance camera, I do not just see a camera but the entire system of which it is a part: from the camera, to the length of time footage is held, to the method of retaining footage, to the CCTV controllers and the institutions they work for. Unlike Liverpool, most cities only hold footage for 3 days. But women for instance who’ve been harassed or abused on the streets statistically report those crimes far later than 3 days after they’ve been committed. So, what is the system designed to look for, or not watch for? I gain knowledge about that question by inserting myself into the system and experiencing it firsthand. Approaching Liverpool’s CCTV system through performance and love letters- a totally unorthodox method- leads to an understanding of not only what the system is designed to do, but also about its potential. For instance, the system can be used as an intimate diary of an individual’s existence in the city. There are very human decisions and reasoning as to why a system exists as it does. Exploring and discovering those decisions is a big part of the work, because I’m trying to locate meaning within the system, so that I, and others, might more mindfully participate in it. Clichés are clichés because we accept them, but there’s a lot of information inside of a cliché. That doesn’t mean those clichés are alright, or that we should just accept systems for what they are. It just means that that’s the norm.
I think many viewers will be coming out of the movie wondering what came of your relationship with Federica—I certainly did. How did she react to the making of this documentary and her portrayal?
There are not always conclusions to my work. They are full of potential. As in Auto Portrait Pending where the piece exists in a certain way until I pass away, or with The Spy Project neon sculptures are turned off to reflect the Intelligence agency’s confiscation of works. My proposal, proposed in the movie and by the artwork of the same name, still stands. It is not only a proposal to Federica but to the various audiences and viewers of the work- meaning, to the wider public. What happens when an artist’s work is hard to access or illegal to reproduce in any form? How can people participate in that artist’s legacy or grow it further? For me, it’s very beautiful that the question posed by The Proposal is open and full of possibility. I’m thankful to Federica that she engaged me over the many years of this project. Although it appears that we have different ideologies, without her engagement I would not have been able to continue asking the questions around Barragán’s legacy that I did in this project. During the first exhibition of The Barragán Archives, titled Woman with Sombrero in NYC, 2013, she was interviewed by The New York Times. My questions were clear in the exhibition and in the interview from the outset. Over a year later, she went to see one of my shows in Zurich, called Homage, about artists—in this case Barragán and Joseph Albers- who shared their works with one another and even reproducing each other’s without recourse to law or copyright—and she wrote me her feelings back about it. I see the film as a continuation of the project, existing wholly within that engagement.
As telegraphed in the film, Federica and her husband Rolf Fehlbaum agrees with you in saying that, even if the proposal is rejected, the gesture is a beautiful one. And of course, the paramount questions about access still remain.
For me, the questions are paramount, yes. I tried to make both a film and an artwork that would ask the questions around copyright and property earnestly and beautifully, in a way that felt consistent to me with Barragán’s work, and also with the way I work. How art and the ownership of art in late Capitalism is treated is something as a society we need to really think about, and not take for granted. They’re some of the biggest questions of our moment, and the law should reflect that. Barragán was such an incredible architect, and “the artist among architects, the poet among architects”, as he was referred to in the introduction to receiving his Pritzker Prize. His legacy only grows with access to his work and archives by a variety of individuals.
What questions are you exploring now moving forward?
There are a lot projects going on right now, and I don’t want to get too much into them because it’s important for me to immerse myself in a research stage before I am ready to begin the process of communicating. But one thing I could say is that I just wrote a short piece for Talkhouse. The Dia Art Foundation asked me to an “Artists on Artists” talk and I am focusing on the work of Chantal Akerman. Questions around legacy persist, but they are of a different nature in this case.
I’ve been asking my film director and actor interview subjects about legacy more recently, in broader terms like, “What do you want to leave behind?” I’ve come to find that it’s a tricky thing to answer to.
In a way, this is question of time. I’m aware that my work sometimes takes time to digest. I often think about how a project is legible in its contemporary moment, and how it may or may not remain relevant over time, when context, society and norms change. I think about how a work persists because that’s what legacy is. What more could I possibly want from my work than that the questions I’m asking through it remain relevant and meaningful?
The holy grail.
But if that’s the holy grail, then it sounds inaccessible again. How can the work keep speaking? That’s what’s amazing to me about the film: every time the film plays, it’s asking the question again. It does the work itself.