What would happen if, surrounded by the innumerable surveillance cameras and sleek counter-terrorism technologies of the modern capitalist state, you began to make overtures towards the unseen humans who operate those technologies? What if you tried to actually get to know Dutch secret service agents? What if, instead of only tacitly consenting to the possibility of being searched as you waited on a subway platform, you actively asked to be frisked?
These are some of the questions posed by the work of Jill Magid, a 40-year-old New York-based artist who spoke to a crowd of about 30 on December 12 in MICA’s graduate studio center. In clear, accessible language, she offered a compressed overview of her practice, focusing on a half dozen projects from the past decade. And, quickly, certain consistent themes and interests surfaced. In a 2007 piece in Bidoun, Magid told Elizabeth Rubin that “I seduce systems of power to make them work with me.” At MICA, she refined that claim by evoking some of the complicated ways in which her process of seduction can both humanize and deflate the impersonal logic of the systems, while also pointing to the nebulous boundaries that separate artistic work from illegal activity. “Art,” Warhol once observed, “is what you can get away with.” For Magid, the process of learning exactly what that is – what, precisely, one can get away with – seems a central component of her practice.
Take, for instance, ‘Evidence Locker.’ In 2004, Magid repeatedly called the Liverpool police responsible for the 242 surveillance cameras in city center, letting them know that she would be wearing bright red, and asking them to film her in particular places, or even poses, at specific times. Soon, the cameras began to follow her; not long after that, she had befriended some of the police, and even begun to teach them some of the basic principles of French New Wave filmmaking.
“We started treating the system like a film crew,” Magid remarked at MICA – that is, she was actively collaborating with the men in the command center in producing increasingly ambitious images and videos. As an experiment, she proposed strolling with her eyes closed along a busy pedestrian street, guided by the voice of a security officer who followed her movements through one of the cameras. The resulting video, entitled ‘Trust,’ is beguiling – as she moves hesitantly through a busy crowd, the security officer enthusiastically remarks that “It’s really amazing to see people’s reactions” – and a provocative demonstration of the degree to which security networks might be appropriated, or re-purposed.
As she interrogates seemingly ordered systems, Magid thus reveals what she calls loopholes: exceptions in the systematic logic, and spaces in which novel alternatives can be imagined. In her 2005 ‘Auto Portrait Pending,’ for example, Magid drew up a contract with Lifegem, a company that converts bodily remains into one-carat diamonds. On one level, the project simply calls attention to an exotic permutation of the death industry; on another, it condenses a morbid fascination with the powers of modern technology and an interest in the most basic symbolisms of romance.
But the piece quickly forced other complex questions, as well. Jewish law, for instance, typically proscribes cremation, but Magid consulted with several conservative rabbis, and found that they condoned her gesture, seeing its openly interrogative attitude towards death as spiritually defensible. Meanwhile, her lawyer informed her that if her piece were purchased, the buyer would technically own her living body, as well, due to a legal convention. Would this then mean that she couldn’t get, say, tattooed without the permission of the owner? Only a court case, she learned, could settle such a question. Her work had exposed a gray area in legal theory, illuminating an unarticulated border of our legal system. What exactly does it mean, then, to be converted into stone? Once again, a seemingly direct gesture soon opened onto issues of considerable depth.
Magid likes to refer to her work as romantic conceptualism, and the term does seem apt. The twinned interests are visible in much of her work, but perhaps nowhere as clearly as in ‘Lincoln Ocean Victor Eddy,’ a 2007 project. Back in New York after five years in Amsterdam, temporarily unable to sleep and unsettled by the proliferation of anti-terrorist measures, Magid eventually approached a subway station night guard and asked to be searched. When he declined (citing policies involving female subjects), she asked instead to be trained. A tentatively proffered phone number eventually turned into a series of surreptitious appointments, during which she learned the forms of his duties, the contours of his day – and even the shape of his fantasies (he liked to listen, he told her, to early morning birdsong, imagining that he was elsewhere). Eventually, he allowed her to handle his gun, and even gave her one of his hollow-point bullets: a gesture that could have led to his dismissal, but that acquired, in the context of his relationship with Magid, the compressed power of a romantic gift. Confronted, initially, with the severe stare of the security industry, Magid had proven literally disarming.
The idea of responding to brute systems or institutions with a warm charm or affirmation is, of course, not a new one. Judith, after all, managed to make her way into Holofernes’ own tent and to undo the Assyrian general using nothing but wine and the implication of an embrace. Recent artists have also occasionally explored such an approach, using earthy humor and playful eroticism to dissolve or complicate the cold, seamless facades of institutions. I’m thinking, for instance, of Joe Wenderoth’s startling ‘Letters to Wendy,’ a series of philosophical and occasionally raunchy epistles to the fast-food icon that were penned on postage-paid comment cards and later published as a book. (“I love the cleanliness of a Wendy’s,” one begins. “Such a clean is not in any sense a banishing of genitalia; it is the creation of a quiet bright mind-space that allows for the deliciousness of genitalia to become obvious.”) Emily Jacir’s 2000 ‘Sexy Semite’ might belong to the same broad genre; in asking Palestinians to compose personal ads for Jewish mates in the Village Voice (“Redheaded Palestinian ready to be colonized by your army”), she reframed a tense ethnic divide while also polluting, as she put it, an arena of public discourse. The familiar mechanisms of the newspaper had become a space for a subversive project that recast geopolitical tensions in terms of amorous longing.
Magid’s work, though, has tended to involve a greater immediacy, or degree of personal interaction, than those precedents. In this sense, a piece like ‘Evidence Locker’ can recall the socially affirmative tenor of Mierle Ukeles’ ‘Touch Sanitation,’ a late-1970s piece in which the artist (over the course of eleven months) met, shook hands with, and thanked 8,500 sanitation workers in New York City. Both pieces, that is, begin to dissolve the cold anonymity of life in the city; they give a face, or a voice, to bureaucratic departments. To be sure, Magid’s work is darker than Ukeles’ bright exercise in recognizing the overlooked. In making herself the object of the institutional gaze, Magid teased out a combination of ominous voyeurism and unprofessional longing that can lurk behind the proliferation of cameras. And yet, such a revelation is simultaneously tempered by the possibility of partnership, and trust – and even sincere attraction.
What, then, is gained in all of this? In a sense, Magid’s work exposes and pressures the blind spots and weaknesses of systems that can seem, at first glance, irresistible. Her work offers a wry and affecting alternative to Foucault’s overwhelming cynicism: the institutions that comprise power are shown to be all too human, riddled with loneliness and logical ambiguity. And her approach is thus also distinct from, say, Trevor Paglen’s grainy photos of remote U.S. military installations, or from Ai Weiwei’s coolly ironic ‘Surveillance Camera,’ a marble response to the cameras that traced his every move in 2009. Instead of documenting, or responding in kind, Magid chooses to inject herself into the system, and to see what follows. The system becomes a site for experimentation, for a sort of open-ended creative play.
At least, that is, from Magid’s point of view. It’s worth noting that the consequences of such interactions for those employed within the systems might be rather more dire. Indeed, Magid seems at times to recognize this; her decision to wear red as she strolled through Liverpool, for instance, linked her to a long line of femmes fatales – including the Woman in Red, from The Matrix. Like that flirtatious programmed character, who suddenly changed into a figure of lethal violence, Magid too was a pixelated image who had the ability to utterly distract agents.
Similarly, in ‘Article 12’ (2005-8), she interviewed a number of Dutch secret service agents, eventually learning (and recording) a range of compromising pieces of personal information. Arguably, she never acted illegally, but her work was clearly predicated upon the generous cooperation of individuals who violated, at some personal risk, the strictures of the systems in which they worked in order to grant her information. To what extent is the recipient responsible for the means by which a gift was given? Perhaps, Magid’s lawyer would say, not at all. But the manner in which Magid has displayed the bullet that was given to her – in bulletproof glass, as what she called a fetish object – suggests that she is aware of the price with which it was obtained.
Or perhaps Magid’s work might most usefully be seen as a general dissolution of boundaries and facile distinctions. The line between life and art quickly collapses here: the project stemming from her interviews with the Dutch secret police, for instance, was then dramatically shaped by Dutch censors, who violently redacted many of her related notes. In the process, any distinction between artist and subject was also blurred.
“The more they came down on me,” Magid told the crowd at MICA, “the more they were making my work for me.” In the process, moreover, that nameless they – the nameless, faceless system – is embodied, and given names, and even granted a creative agency and charged with ethical responsibilities. The watcher is now watched; the camera is turned on itself. Simply by asking to be searched, it seems, Magid has managed to gain a degree of access to those who claim, behind their lenses and their acronyms and their facades of power, to do the searching.
* Author Kerr Houston teaches art history and art criticism at MICA; he is also the author of An Introduction to Art Criticism (Pearson, 2013) and recent essays on Wafaa Bilal, Emily Jacir, and Candice Breitz.