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This Artist Is Flirting with Surveillance and Romancing Spies

For Jill Magid, loopholes, laws, and secrets are paint, clay, and canvas.
"Auto Portrait Pending," 2005

American artist Jill Magid likes flirting with power. As a grad student at MIT, she hijacked the main information monitor in the lobby and interrupted the administrative feed with close-up images of her own body, shooting a tiny camera up her skirt and under her shirt. Magid is looking for intimate angles, using her performance-based practice to infiltrate impersonal systems. Often, her projects with "faceless" organizations, like intelligence or surveillance agencies, engage the dynamics of seduction—testing the boundaries of vulnerability and control—and the narratives that emerge take the shape of a love story. In Evidence Locker, Magid filed a series of Subject Access Request forms that required the Liverpool police to store footage of her collected by CCTV cameras in an evidence locker for seven years. She composed each access form as a love letter describing her thoughts and feelings.


Magid sets out the terms of her engagements with institutions according to existing legal frameworks; she follows rules to the letter and exploits loopholes, which usually lead to absurdity—as when the Dutch secret service (AIVD) commissioned her to create an artwork and subsequently confiscated objects and texts resulting from the project. Magid manipulates permission, privacy, and secrets to reveal them as tools capable of giving apparently anonymous systems a visible face. These measures, she says, are her materials, like paint or clay. By personalizing the relationship between individuals and the institutions that "protect" and control them, Magid undermines the omniscience projected by systematized authority.

Magid's work is grounded in her lived experience, blurring—or rather, testing—the boundary between art and life. Her masterwork, Auto Portrait Pending, is still in the making, and consists of a contract and an unset gold ring; upon her death, the artist's cremated remains will be transformed into a one-carat, round-cut diamond by the LifeGem diamond company and put on permanent display.

"I Can Burn Your Face" (detail), 2008. Part of "The Spy Project." All images courtesy of Jill Magid

BROADLY: Your work involves developing intimate relationships with impersonal institutions. What are you looking for?

Jill Magid: Up until recently, I'd mainly engaged with government institutions such as CCTV systems, police, and secret services—which are generally one-way systems of communication. I look for ways to understand these systems on a personal level by forming a dialogue with them. In doing so, I move from an anonymous statistic of the system to a recognized human being in relationship with it. It's a process of gaining or locating agency.


Do you set out all the rules of the engagement beforehand, or can the relationships with these institutions develop organically?

Before I attempt to enter a system or institution, I thoroughly research what is publicly available about its laws, rules, and codes. I'm looking for a point of entry: an institutional quirk, a systemic or legal loophole that allows me to make contact with those on the inside. The relationships I develop once inside the institution are negotiated around, and influenced, by its rules.

Have you ever felt threatened by any of the agencies—government surveillance, police—that you've approached in your work?
When I engage a system, we become mutually vulnerable. The more agency I assume, the more vulnerable I become. I would say the same is true for the institutions I engage.

You've said, "Permission is a material and changes the work's consistency." Other "materials" that you use in this sense include copyright law, loopholes, secrets, and authority. What do these materials allow you to do?
I am looking for ways to make the system, and the law, visible. Using myself as a tool to enter the system, I then become, in a sense, a protagonist of it. In making my work, I take the law and the rules of a system literally, sometimes to the point of absurdity.

What are the advantages of a performance-based practice for approaching your subjects?
I make work from my lived experience within a system or an institution. I am not a storyteller, but a story producer. [By] entering the system and becoming recognized, [I] affect the system, even temporarily.


Your extended multimedia project The Barragán Archives explores questions of authorship and ownership, and what it means for a corporation to own an artist's legacy. Tell me how this project originated and where it led you.
With The Barragán Archives, I entered into a new territory of privatized power. At the core of the project is the question of artistic legacy: how it is constructed, manipulated, accessed, and owned. I was introduced to Mexican architect Luis Barragán's work and the controversy over his contested legacy in Mexico—his house, which is now a museum and UNESCO World Heritage site, is across the street from my gallery LABOR. Barragán is certainly not the only example of a contested, privatized legacy, but he is a beautiful one. The narrative around his archives, split between Mexico and Switzerland, intrigues me as a gothic love story with a copyright and intellectual property rights subplot. Exhibitions of the ongoing project—objects, installations, and performances—reflect the legal parameters of the country in which they are shown.

"I Can Burn Your Face," 2009. Part of "The Spy Project."

This idea of the love story comes up a lot in your work—the relationships that you set up with institutions are often represented as romantic narratives, love letters. Why?
I think when you deeply explore something—including a system of authority—for an extended period of time, it is difficult not to find multiple instances of beauty, poetry, intimacy, and even love within it.


Are you conscious of your own archive, and your own legacy, as an individual and as an artist?
Yes. The first work I made that dealt with legacy was about my own. For the work Auto Portrait Pending (2005), I signed a contract with a company to become a diamond when I die. Upon my death, the diamond will be created from the carbon of my cremated remains. It will have a round cut, weigh one carat, and be set in a gold ring with a solitaire setting. Until the diamond′s creation, the empty ring and a series of contracts constitute the artwork.

What was that project like personally?
When I made Auto Portrait Pending, I was exploring my legacy and my body as art. I had to consider my family, the future of the work, and its eventual collector (who will, when I die, receive the stone to set). Making Auto Portrait Pending was—and continues to be—a deeply confronting and inspiring process.

Do you view your own life as an artwork in the making?
I have a performance-based practice, but I don't perform exactly the way I live. In that sense, my life and work are different, although they overlap. The work itself assumes a form and makes demands. What the life of a project requires can sometimes be uncomfortable for me, or push me to risk something, including my personal safety, which I would not risk otherwise.

In what became The Spy Project, you entered an agreement with the Dutch secret service (AIVD) in 2005 to make an artwork for their new headquarters, based on interviews with agency employees. AIVD agents confiscated several works from your first exhibition of the project and heavily redacted your report. AIVD then subsequently entered the Tate Modern to permanently confiscate the uncensored manuscript. Was that censorship a part of the artwork for you, or did it feel like a violation?
It was first a violation, and I then made it part of the work. The irony of The Spy Project was that the Dutch secret service hired me to find its human face, and when I did and presented it, they confiscated what I'd made. The censored book became a work, and its installation—and eventual confiscation—became a performance. I did this by installing the manuscript as a dead drop [a method in espionage used to pass items or information between two individuals that does not requiring them to meet directly] at the Tate Modern. To permanently remove the work, the secret service was forced to arrive, during museum hours, to take it. Documentation of the confiscation is also part of the work.

What are you working on now?
It's a secret, but not for long.