The Proposal, a Film by Jill Magid.

The life and death of Luis Barragán

It is our pleasure to have sponsored the making of conceptual artist Jill Magid’s first feature film, The Proposal, which explores the legacy of the renowned Mexican architect Luis Barragán. The film will be released in select theatres beginning May 24.

Poetic, provocative, and at times unsettling, The Proposal questions the legal and cultural definitions of ownership, access, and intellectual property. Through the curious story of Barragán’s archives, Magid grapples with the question: how does an artist survive his or her own death? 

 

Alice Gregory sits down with Jill Magid to discuss her process of merging conceptual art with documentary-making. 

Jill Majid Landing Page Image Container

In conversation with Jill Magid

Interview by Alice Gregory

Jill Magid makes conceptually clever, emotionally resonant, and intellectually provocative artworks with and about entities that would seem to resist any sort of aesthetic engagement: intelligence agencies, law-enforcement units, corporations. We first met in 2016, in New York, where Magid lives and works, when I began writing what would become a New Yorker article about her most recent project, The Barragán Archives. Even the most straightforward description of this part-performance multimedia piece sounds like a dream. When Magid learned that the professional archive of the Mexican architect Luis Barragán had been held in Switzerland for over twenty years (and that access to it was extremely limited), she embarked on an international mission, questioning the restrictions and seeking the archive’s repatriation. The seemingly absurdist operation, which took Magid to Mexico and Switzerland and involved gravediggers, bureaucrats, and jewelers, was followed everywhere by a film unit. The result, a feature-length documentary called The Proposal, directed by Magid, premiered earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival. Magid and I caught up in September in Brooklyn Heights, where she recently moved with her family.

How do you describe your art practice to someone who isn’t familiar with conceptual art or performance art? Say—I don’t know—your parents’ friends?

When I try to speak generally about my work, people seem to look a bit puzzled, so I find it helps to describe a particular project. I begin by explaining that I’m interested in systems of power—the law, corporations, police, intelligence agencies—and in finding meaningful ways to engage them. Or that I embrace power in order to view it critically. Since that’s pretty abstract, I give an example, and I tend to use Evidence Locker, because it engages citywide CCTV, a system people are very aware of.

When I made Evidence Locker, in 2004, the CCTV surveillance system in Liverpool, England, was the largest of its kind in the world. It was run by the police and the city council. The system had 242 cameras in the city center alone. A team of officers, stationed in a hidden control room, manned the cameras. Footage was held in its original format for twenty-four hours, and then went to a time-lapse version. After thirty-one days it cascaded off the system forevermore, unless the police pulled it—because it documented a crime, usually—and put it in their evidence locker. It turned out that members of the public also had the power to request footage. You had to fill out a legal document stating who you were, where you were, the time of day, and the “incident” that happened. As long as you sent in a picture of yourself and the required number of British pounds, the police, by law, had to pull the footage and put it in the evidence locker. Interestingly, the term “incident” was never defined. Picking up a coffee—that’s an incident. So I went to Liverpool for thirty-one days. Each day, I wore red and filled out a request form, treating them as letters to a lover. They started, “Dear Observer.” I filled in the required information, as well as how I was feeling and what I was thinking. To find me in the footage, the officers were forced to read my diary. Initially I thought, Maybe I’ll get a minute of footage, and I’ll put that on a loop in the Tate Liverpool [where the work was first shown, as part of the Liverpool Biennial] and exhibit it alongside my letters. But within a few days the officers got really into it and started following me through the surveillance cameras all the time.

We developed a close relationship, and I would set out on routes or remain in places in which I directed them on how to film me. On the last day, the officers planned a motorcycle ride—one of them drove me while others filmed us passing by multiple cameras. At the edge of town, we rode off the system into the sunset—literally. The city transformed, through its “closed” CCTV system, into a film set. I made four videos from the fourteen hours of footage they gave me, and edited the letters into my first novella.

That seems to help people get a sense of what I do.

How do you begin projects like this?

Sometimes projects begin organically: I’m curious about a system and pose a question to it. In Lincoln Ocean Victor Eddy (a.k.a., L.O.V.E., 2007), I shadowed a New York City police officer for five months in the subway on his night shifts. Since this was a few years after 9/11, cops were allowed to search people indiscriminately. I approached one of them and asked him to search me. With the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service, I was commissioned to make a new project, so I proposed that they hire me “to find their human face.” I wanted to know what it was like to be an agent, and to become anonymous. That project [The Spy Project, 2005–10] ended with the agency confiscating the only uncensored copy of the book I wrote about them from my exhibition at the Tate Modern. I later published the book, 40 percent of which had been censored by the Dutch government.

I do as much research as possible when beginning a new work, to get a sense of the system before embedding into it. Each system has its own language, its own set of rules and laws. To have a dialogue with it, or even to be recognized by it, I need to speak its language. Through that process, I build a new visual vocabulary specific to each project. The media I choose to work in depends on which ones make sense for the project. With Evidence Locker, it was edited CCTV footage; with The Spy Project, it was a series of neon works that “burn”—or expose—an agent’s identity. Rather than artifacts or documents from a process, the artworks function as operations. They provoke dialogue, ask uncomfortable questions, or entangle those of us inside in the system more deeply within it.

Unlike your past projects, which engaged government entities, with The Barragán Archives you’re engaging a private enterprise.

Yes. It began with me trying to understand what happens to an artist’s legacy when his archive, and the rights to his name and work, are controlled by a corporation. Unlike the projects I mentioned before, there were multiple players involved in this project—the corporation as well as the foundations that “protect” Barragán’s work. Before the project developed into a feature, it was an evolving series of exhibitions, including sculptures, objects, performances, and short films. The project interrogated copyright law and involved my learning about the implications of those laws internationally. How Barragán’s work was protected in one country differed from another where, say, the fair-use doctrine didn’t apply. I made artworks whose forms challenged copyright law by almost infringing it. I had to alter the works depending on which country I showed them in! I found this very inspiring: to adapt the work to its legal context. The artworks enacted the law. But in many ways the process shared similarities with my other works: I call it a process of seduction. The projects start with a request and lead to an engagement. I never know beforehand how it will play out. In this case it started with my request, twice denied, to see and work with Barragán’s professional archive at the foundation in which it’s held. I don’t mean seduction like some Harlequin romance, but for my projects to work, people within the system must engage them. Just like the Liverpool police officers took up my request to follow me, the director of the foundation responded to my letters. She wrote back, over three years, as I made a series of exhibitions that questioned the limited access the foundation provided to Barragán’s archive and to his architecture. The work is a way to think through questions about the proprietary nature of legacy. It is a way to think about possession.

Was The Barragán Archives the first project in which you were tempted to make a feature film as part of the process or part of the work?

I’ve been wanting to make a film for a while. My work is narrative, with exhibitions unfolding in real time like chapters along a storyline. I take the position of a protagonist, using myself as a tool to enter systems in order to question them. The process creates subtle and dramatic situations that have a cinematic feeling. They seem absurd and fictional because they’re so foreign to those systems. With The Barragán Archives—as with all my projects—I was constantly writing. I thought the writing would become another nonfiction novel, but when I was approached [by the filmmaker Laura Poitras] about making a documentary, I focused on the script. What was so great about making The Proposal was that the story was unfolding while we were filming it.

Talk a little bit about The Proposal. It’s not a typical talking-heads-type documentary.

I didn’t want to make what I thought of as a “traditional” documentary. I wanted the film itself to be a proposal, and an extension of my artwork. The letters between the foundation’s director and me form its spine. It’s a kind of love story. While my position is not neutral, my goal wasn’t to use the film to prove something. Like the artwork, the film is meant to provoke dialogue about access to legacy and its proprietary nature. But it’s also a rumination on mortality. Legacy is complicated, and Barragán’s is beautifully so. I wanted to make a film that meditated on these questions. The film is dreamy, but it also has the sense of a thriller. I’ve always loved the work of Ryszard Kapuściński. He was a Polish writer and journalist who worked by embedding himself into countries in the process of a coup, a revolution, or some kind of governmental collapse. His work was reportage but reads like literature, even magical realism. The experiences described are factual, and highly subjective. I think it can be hard for people to understand—with all my work—this idea that I’m myself in a real situation, but also performing a role and creating a new situation.

0 av 0

Jill Magid sitting on the roof of Luis Barragán’s home in Mexico City, Mexico. Courtesy of Jill Magid and Field of Vision.

The burial site of Luis Barragán, Rotonda de los Jaliscienses Ilustres in Guadalajara, Mexico. Courtesy of Jill Magid and Field of Vision.

Jill Magid
Tapete de Flores, 2016
Artificial flowers, natural flowers, dyed sawdust, salt, glue. Diameter: 8 m.
Fabricated by Mario Arturo Aguilar Gutierrez and Elesban Ernesto Sandoval Díaz of Arte en Flores, Barrio la Asunción, Iztacalco
Exhibition at Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen. Installation view. Photo: Stefan Jaeggi Courtesy the artist and LABOR, Mexico City


I think people are getting more and more comfortable with this kind of blurriness when it comes to books—some of the most talked-about novels from the past few years have been what you’d call “autofiction”—but you seem to think that maybe it disquiets people more in film?

I found there was a big difference between writing in the first person in my letters or books versus appearing on screen as the protagonist of my film. The “I” of a text can disappear more easily, when you don’t see the speaker. She can function as a kind of window. Because I was the protagonist, or one of the protagonists, of the film, my actions were important to see, so this invisibility was not possible, or even useful, in terms of telling the story of what happened. I had to deal with my physical presence in a way that was new to me.

Going forward, do you think you’ll continue to incorporate film in your work? I would imagine it might be hard not to, once you’ve had the satisfaction of having all your real-time work documented.

An interesting thing happened to me after I finished those thirty-one days in Liverpool making Evidence Locker and returned to Amsterdam, where I was living at the time. I had this complete existential crisis where I felt like I didn’t exist because I was no longer being recorded. I was so used to performing for those cameras that when they were no longer trained on me, I felt I had disappeared.

You describe your projects as being segmented into chapters. I like thinking of them as love affairs—each one has its own private language and its discrete phases: there’s the courtship, the rocky patch, the time we lived here, the time we lived there.

I think that’s really beautiful.

I wonder how introducing documentary film will affect your future projects. You know, in love, you incorporate what you learned in one relationship into the next, even if you don’t really mean to.

I definitely want to make more films. For sure, I will always be writing. The observational, diaristic voice of The Proposal carries through all my work. It surprised me how differently the printed word translates to film. So much language can be cut. Entire paragraphs can just go. The white space of the page is so different from the silence of film. The image is so strong! That negotiation between image and language was really fascinating to me, and certainly not obvious until I was in the editing process.

And Barragán buildings are just so beautiful.

I really wanted to capture the physical, sensual experience of being in Barragán’s buildings, particularly his own house. The house unfolds like a narrative. Staying there gave me a kind of eerie feeling. A feeling of both absence and presence. I wanted the pacing and the editing of the film to reflect that. How do you embody and represent an idea of legacy? Because I didn’t want to lose sight of what legacy is. It’s tied to a physical human body that once existed in the world.

I felt that eeriness in that house, too.

I think everyone does! The first time I walked into his house in Mexico City was for a guided group tour, but I was the only person on it. I forget if it was specially organized that way or if I just went at a weird time, but at that point I didn’t think I was going to make a project there. I was just curious. I was so moved by the architecture. You walk in the door, and it’s dark with this yellow haze, which then opens into this bright, atrium-like room where daylight fills the space. I felt an emotional change in my body. You’re with a guide, so you have his continuous narration; you’re moving through the space according to his plan. I was so conscious of that the whole time, and conscious of how the space was working on me visually, viscerally, and spatially. I left with his soundtrack in my head, and I just wanted to go back and write my own.

You’ve used the word “invitation” before in describing Barragán’s buildings.

His buildings are not just photogenic. They’re photographic. He built them to be photographed, and from very specific angles whose vantages are often inaccessible or just hard to reach. He worked with the same photographer—Armando Salas Portugal—for thirty years. Barragán was even known to adjust his designs to better suit the pictures. So the buildings are a kind of invitation. I, too, had a strong desire to make my own images of them. But there is a tension between what the buildings are asking for and what you’re legally able to do with them. The corporation that owns Barragán’s archive doesn’t own any of his actual buildings. Rather, it owns the rights to images taken of them. I wanted to explore this tension of wanting to represent what I was seeing, while being limited in my ability to do so.

You love rules.

I do love rules. Learning the rules of a system and where its boundaries lie helps me to navigate it. Much earlier, when I was painting, I found the blank canvas daunting, so I’d often start by pasting some sort of graph or pattern onto it. The graph would disappear, but it provided that initial departure. I like rules and laws because they give me conceptual constraints, and, taken literally, they become absurd. Taking them literally reveals the system more fully. And the more you understand the rules of the system, the more you understand the intentions that went into designing it, and its mission.

The way you talk reminds me sometimes of the way computer programmers speak about their work.

Someone once called me a “social hacker.” Hackers understand the code so well that they can break into it and alter it for different purposes. For that reason, hackers are popular hires for intelligence agencies, but unlike an intelligence officer’s, my role as an artist is to ask questions, not provide answers. I’m not trying to solve a problem or hijack a system for another purpose as much as I am trying to understand it—and my relationship to it—from within. Engaging the system is not about destroying it. I’ve been asked to speak about my work at privacy and security conferences, including very technical ones. Other presenters would come up to me and say, “You learned more about surveillance in thirty-one days than I have in all my years of research”—or design, or installation, or whatever they did in the security world—“but I could never approach the system in the way you did.” There is a freedom in being an artist.

If you weren’t an artist, would you want to be a spy?

When I was commissioned by the Dutch intelligence agency to make an artwork for them, I considered that. During the three years I was meeting with officers, I would think, Forget this project, just hire me as an agent! I wanted to understand society the way they claimed to. But the actual work of an agent in the field is nothing like what we imagine. They don’t want people working “outside the box.” The thing all the agents tell you is, There are no James Bonds. James Bond is a rogue officer—that’s the opposite of what the agency wants. One of the things that interested me most in talking to agents was how they’d speak about the news. They’d always tell me, What’s written in the newspaper makes no sense to us. You have no idea how many crucial events and connections are left out, so much so that we can’t really figure out what everyone thinks they’re reading. One agent described it to me very beautifully. He said, When you’re an agent, it’s like you can peel back the top layer off the newspaper and reveal the text beneath it. I found that very seductive.

What’s next?

While I’m following the film on the festival circuit, I am also digging into new territories. I’ve been spending quite a lot of time in a public, but very empty, law library. Maybe I will make a work that changes the law.

Alice Gregory is a correspondent for GQ and a contributing editor at T magazine.

Top image:

Jill Magid
The Proposal, 83 min. 2018
Production still. Courtesy the artist and Field of Vision

 

On view at the following theatres

    • Opening date
      June 21, 2019

      Address
      166 E Main St, Ashland, OR 97520

    • Opening date
      June 14, 2019

      Address
      164 N State St, Chicago, IL 60601

    • Opening date
      June 14, 2019

      Address
      1550 N High St, Columbus, OH 43201

    • Opening date
      June 7, 2019

      Address
      56 Arbor St, Hartford, CT 06106

    • Opening date
      June 27, 2019

      Address
      434 Columbia St, Hudson, NY 12534

    • Opening date
      June 21, 2019

      Address
      2035 S 3rd St, Louisville, KY 40208

    • Opening date
      May 31, 2019

      Address
      1332 2nd St, Santa Monica, CA 90401

    • Opening date
      June 7, 2019

      Address
      3735 Alton Pkwy, Irvine, CA 92606

    • Opening date
      June 15, 2019

      Address
      500 71st St, Miami Beach, FL 33141

    • Opening date
      May 24, 2019

      Address
      323 6th Ave, New York, NY 10014

    • Opening date
      June 28, 2019

      Address
      400 Ranstead Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106

    • Opening date
      June 21, 2019

      Address
      509 S. Mill Ave., Tempe, AZ 85281

    • Opening date
      June 21, 2019

      Address
      341 SW 10th Ave, Portland, OR 97205

    • Opening date
      June 14, 2019

      Address
      1050 Old Pecos Trail, Santa Fe, NM 87505

    • Opening date
      August 18, 2019

      Address
      1515 12th Ave, Seattle, WA 98122

    • Opening date
      June 21, 2019

      Address
      2301 M St NW, Washington, DC 20037

‘The poetry of bricks and mortar.’

Horace Greeley