Jill Magid

by Shana Nys Dambrot

Many a Little Makes a Mickle
We tend to think of technology as part and parcel of the digital age, but in its most basic form, technology is simply a matter of tools, machines, and processes. In interdisciplinary artist Jill Magid’s methodology, closed-circuit surveillance cameras and the Internet certainly represent technology—but so do oil paints and print magazines. That’s because Magid thinks of technologies as systems unique to every context, whose features become part of the work she makes inside them. The works in her varied, eclectic projects and exhibitions are heterogeneous, comprising drawings, videos, novellas, and hybrid forms. It’s her conceptual framework rather than a signature aesthetic that remains constant. “When I explore a subject,” she explains, “often it begins with a system or situation, like a corporation or a government; and if that entity employs certain tools, then I’ll use those tools.” It’s a methodology not an aesthetic; one always asking the same questions: How does one participate in power relations? Who has access and at what levels?

Other expressions of technology of paramount interest to Magid include mechanisms of production and reproduction, especially vis-à-vis issues of copyright and authenticity. Walter Benjamin, it seems, is always with us, and we are having his full conversation over again, starting from the beginning. For artists like Magid, functions of presence and persistence of “the aura” are more salient than ever. “My second step is always about embedding myself into the given system,” she explains. “Using its technology on myself.” In her 2004 work Evidence Locker, she initiated an overtly technological dialog with the city of Liverpool’s CCTV. Videos of her actions were “filmed by the police” using their own surveillance cameras, at the behest of the artist who would phone in her locations and ask to be recorded in real time. To get the footage, she had to send in formal written requests explaining herself.

A further manifestation of embedded technologies is her 2014 Homage project, wherein she treated specific notes left by the painter Josef Albers detailing his paint choices and other studio insights as “directions” or “instructions” to be executed without deviation in her attempts to “authentically” reproduce his work. Those conceptualist dictates assumed the role of the technological system. Many of the colors Albers called out are no longer in production, or their formulas or names have been changed, etc., and she was “not allowed to mix, that would break the construct. I called every paint company I could find trying to track down as much authentic material as possible. The Albers Foundation guy finally said to me, ‘Everything you’re doing is right, but you’re still doomed to fail.’ He felt bad I think but I thought it was beautiful.” In the end, that chasm became the findings of the project, and its true subject, succeeding even in so-called failure.

The intimately related Barragán Archives is an ongoing multimedia project delving into the legacy of Mexican architect Luis Barragán (1902–1988). The Albers show was also very much about reproductions and copyrights, as expressed in the central connective fact that Barragán had two “fake” Albers hanging in his house, cheaply made prints on fabric. Technology enabled their reproduction and distribution, but here’s the thing bugging Magid—when photographs of his house appear, especially in black and white, the prints look in those pictures exactly like Albers paintings. “In those contexts, you see a picture, you assume it’s real—the question doesn’t even present itself. It’s an unexpected way to be thinking about technology.” When she was installing an element of the project at the Guadalajara Museum, she was photographed painting the upper floors in Barragán colors for what would be a formal dinner for his heirs. She knew he’d collected photographs of women—some original, commissioned, some ripped out of magazines—and she added herself to that archive, signing the print, “I’m wholeheartedly yours, Jill.”

“I always write letters, love letters I call them, in my projects,” she says. Back in Liverpool, Magid completed those footage-request forms like missives to a lover, or private diary entries. And for the recent Postcards from the Pier, her contribution to the exhibition “Pier 54” in which 27 contemporary women artists responded to a 1971 exhibition staged nearby, she wrote love letters to each of the 27 exclusively young male artists in the original show. Besides her work in video, photography, and drawing, she publishes books as integral parts of certain projects. These novellas are what happen when the research and/or letter-writing becomes its own thing. In The Spy Series, the Dutch Secret Service’s legal boundaries were such that she could only take handwritten notes during meetings. That notebook ended up being heavily redacted, and the government confiscated the uncensored original from a subsequent Tate Modern showing. She agreed to this arrangement because her overarching rule is to “follow the law to the point of absurdity as the best way to make the rules of the system visible.” The law is a technological system, too, and these days following the rules is something of a radical act. When the adversarial binary is broken down, “the person and the system become recognizable to each other, and the exchange that happens is always unexpected. True rebellion can come from vulnerability and engagement, not only from trashing.”

Installation view from “Dearest Federica,” (2013). Slides, Audio, furniture after Luis Barragán. Courtesy the artist and Labor, Mexico City. Photo: Stephen Probert.
Installation view from “Fact Istol,” (2013). Mounted digital prints, furniture after Luis Barragán. Courtesy the artist and Labor, Mexico City. Photo: Stephen Probert.
Detail, “I Can Burn Your Face,” (2008-2009). Neon and transformers. Courtesy the artist.
Still from “Control Room,” (2004). From Evidence Locker. Edited CCTV video. 10 minute loop. Courtesy the artist.
Still from “Control Room,” (2004). From Evidence Locker. Edited CCTV video. 10 minute loop. Courtesy the artist.