Artist Books / Artist’s Novels (Vol. 7): Jill Magid

Artist Books / Artist’s Novels is an ongoing inquiry by Stephanie La Cava that looks at the intersection between visual art and literature. Each entry is a conversation with an artist or writer whose books defy genre expectations and exist outside of the traditional form.

With shows at the Whitney and Tate Modern, Magid has become known for multimedia conceptual art addressing systems of institutional power and law. Magid’s latest work, The Barragán Archives, began in 2013, and is an extended, multimedia project that examines of the legacy of Mexican architect and Pritzker Prize-winner Luis Barragán (1902–1988). When Barragán died, his archive was split in two; his personal archive, home, and library, were converted into a museum, and the professional half (which includes thousands of drawings and negatives and copyrights) wound up belonging to Federica Zanco, wife of the CEO of the Swiss-furniture company Vitra. The story goes that Zanco’s husband gave her Barragán’s archive in lieu of a wedding ring, and since 1996, it’s been housed below Vitra corporate headquarters in Birsfelden, Switzerland, where it is inaccessible to the public. 

Throughout The Barragán Archives, Magid explores what it means for a corporation to control an artist’s legacy, and to use copyright and intellectual property rights to do so legally. The climactic work of the multi-year project, The Proposal (2014-16), involved Magid turning Barragán’s ashes into a two-carat diamond ring that she offered to Zanco in an attempt to return Barragán’s archive to Mexico and open it for public view. What continues to unfold is a complicated narrative, an evolving story that is being turned into a documentary. 

Magid’s assorted work has an undeniable literary quality to it, and many of her installations includes nonfiction novellas which can be read without any knowledge of the accompanying exhibition. The four titles are Once Cycle of Memory in the City of L (2004); Lincoln Ocean Victor Eddy (2007); Becoming Tarden (2010); and Failed States (2012). These books not only chronicle the larger conceptual projects, but evidence the nuance of different systems of legal language and thought. 

Magid and I met several times at her studio in New York to talk about her expansive body of work. 

—Stephanie LaCava


STEPHANIE LA CAVA: Last year, when this series began, I spoke to David Maroto, an editor of Artist’s Novels: The Book Lovers Publication (who is also at work on his PhD on artist’s novels, the first of its kind). He said, “On the one hand, visual artists have been writing novels since at least the times of William Morris, on the other, there are what I call ‘artist’s novels’, by which I mean not exactly novels written by visual artists but, more specifically, the novel as a medium in the visual arts.” He offered your name as example of someone’s whose work fits his definition. Can you tell me what an artist’s novel means in your own terms?

JILL MAGID: I think the term “artist’s novel” for me has referred to writing which supports an art practice or a more specifically a particular artwork or project. The nonfiction novellas and nonfiction novel I have written play a role in my artwork as objects—which I will return to, but I write the books to exist autonomously.

I would categorize my books as literature, and I hope that is how they would be consumed. The books do not rely on the artwork to be understood, but I need my art practice to write them.

I love books, letters and texts visually as objects, and textually, for their content. The same book I write serves a different purpose when included in an exhibition of mine than when read on its own, outside of it.

SLC: Doesn’t it get confusing considering that your work is often about upending systems, and in doing this you are playing in two very different systems: the art world and the literary world, if we go by the above.

JM: Not really. In my process, I am constantly moving between writing, performing, and producing art objects. These various practices inform one another. What I love about both art and writing are that they can be receptacles for everything. Your question about the system—or systems (because there are many)—of art and literature and the categorization of both rear their heads more when the work is done and I am asked which genre the works fit into.

SLC: When we’ve spoken before you’ve been adamant that the writing be separate from the artwork, in the sense that you prefer to work as a writer and an artist, rather than an artist who writes. 

JM: My adamancy is not about drawing a thick black line between things. If you go to Printed Matter, for example, most of the books there are categorized as “artist’s books”. I go to Printed Matter to find artists making interesting art books, but I go to other kinds of bookstores to buy or discover literature. It’s not a qualitative distinction; it’s just different.

Maybe it’s about communities. I want my books to exist in the literary world, not only in the art world. I am interested in having a dialogue with other writers, and the readers of those writers. Someone who is reading a book of mine might not have visited my exhibitions related to it, but can still have a full, literary experience with that book. This would be a completely different experience from stepping into the show, not having read the book. One form is not illustrative of the other.

SLC: Tell me about One Cycle of Memory in the City of L.

JM: This novella is part of to the multimedia project Evidence Locker (2004), which also includes four video works, and a sound piece. It could be categorized as conceptual prose or creative nonfiction. To write it, I subverted a series of Subject Access Request Forms, the required legal document that must be submitted to the police in order to access CCTV footage. I used these documents as writing platforms. I wrote these forms like diary entries, describing my experience of the city, always locating myself within it. By law, the police had to read my letters and search me on their system. In this way they created my Evidence Locker, including 14 hours of official police footage.

I often use official documents or bureaucratic forms within my work like this. I find their structure and language style leaves a lot of room for poetry and my own interpretation.  I addressed the letters Dear Officer. When I referred to a camera or a policeman I called him or it interchangeably “You”, collapsing man and machine. The project transformed the system from a police-run CCTV operating system with multiple policemen into a single “You” with an all-seeing eye over the city, watching and recording my movements within it.

Evidence Locker was first shown at the Tate Liverpool and at an institution called FACT as part of the 2004 Liverpool Biennial. As part of the installation at FACT, I wanted to include a reading room for the novella. The reading room was the first space you walked into. There were five large leather office chairs—the sort that the CCTV operators use, and hanging over them were those kind of silver lights used in police investigations. Beside the chairs were low file cabinets and on top of them was the novella.  As the book is made up of letters I wrote to the police, I liked that viewers were invited to take the position they occupied when reading it.

When I proposed this reading room to the curators, they were skeptical and even resistant. They said no one reads in an art exhibition. I pushed them and they finally agreed to do it.

 From Evidence Locker,  2004. Courtesy Jill Magid

What was amazing—and honestly surprising for me as well as the curators—people totally sat there and read. Reading took on a performative quality. That said, I would agree that, in general, people don’t sit and read books in an art installation. A space within the installation has to be created for that to happen. Or it can happen outside the gallery.

Books are the most democratic things. There’s this possibility that the act of sitting in a chair and reading as a performative act invites other viewers walking into the installation to do the same, or even to just look at the reading room and the readers in it as an image.

That same book can also circulate in the literary world—without the installations. One Cycle of Memory in the City of L is a story of obsession, with an all-seeing “You” (the Police CCTV operators) and a me, the object that’s being watched. I become a subject with my own agency by engaging the operators in a dialogue.

I referred to Liverpool as the city of “L” (I can’t tell you how many people have assumed its London) because it’s not explicit. It’s not that I am fictionalizing Liverpool, it’s that I am slowing down its reception, because things or places you think you know, you might not know—yet. In the same way, I never say, “CCTV”, “camera” or “police.” I describe the thing without identifying it.


SLC: Let’s talk about a writer who comes to mind regarding your work, Alain Robbe-Grillet.

In Lincoln Ocean Victor Eddy, the novella about your five months of underground meetings with a New York city police officer, you write:

He looks at me, confused. I pull out the book in my camera case and begin a passage by Alain Robbe-Grillet: “On the polished wood of the table, the dust has marked the places occupied for awhile—for a few hours, several days, minutes, weeks—by small objects subsequently removed whose outlines are still distinct for some time, a circle, a square, a rectangle, other less simple shapes, some partly overlapping, already blurred or half obliterated by a rag.” I look up at him.
He can’t follow.
OK, I will read it again.
I followed but I don’t get it. It’s boring.
That is the kind of detail I want to know. That much detail.

JM: After a performance I did in Brazil in 2003, another artist came up to me and said, “You write like Robbe-Grillet.” Before that I had never heard of him.

What I love and feel so drawn to in Robbe-Grillet’s work, is his extreme level of detail. His writing is the equivalent of drawing. He makes appear on the page the objects he is describing as a realist artist draws or paints it. In the excerpt you quoted of L.O.V.E I was reading a passage by Robbe-Grillet to the cop who was training me about his job: policing the subways at night in post 9-11 New York. I think he was telling me about train duty—where you ride one train line, back and forth, all night long. He described it as “nice.” I told him that nice does not tell me anything. I wanted to show him the level of description I wanted from him, and used Robbe-Grillet to do so.

SLC: You don’t really describe places in spatial terms.

JM: That’s kind of true. I describe the atmosphere or climate of the space. There’s a sense of mystery and anonymousness in the work that perhaps too much locating would dissolve. Using L in One Cycle of Memory in the City of L is an example.  In Lincoln Ocean Victor Eddy, the cop and I are in a kind of bubble within the city. I describe that bubble. The city is also a main character of the book—the third character really, but it is revealed more so through our movements and interactions within it.

The cop and I employ existing codes to communicate. When I cannot work a shift with him, I leave him letters and notes in police radiotelephony (different from military radiotelephony). That’s where the title comes from, I signed each letter Lincoln Ocean Victor Eddy, (LOVE.)

SLC: I think of Georges Perec when considering a kind of experimental word play.

JM: Perec created his own system of constraint by dropping an E. That logic, which I love, is different than my own. I use existing systems, but subvert them into something else. Radiotelephony is designed to clarify things, like license plates. I use it as an intimate secret code.  I wrote those notes for him, but any NYC cop would understand them. This is a system that is legible to the entire police force of New York. In the book, the radiotelephony code becomes legible to the reader when the cop teaches it to me. As I am trying to understand the policing of the subway system in post 9-11 NY, the reader learns about it through my experience.

While you could say I feel very close to Robbe-Grillet—although I don’t set the scene in the same way that he does—I am observing the relationships I am forming or identifying very keenly and writing about them, but I absolutely don’t analyze them. I don’t like writing that fills in for the viewer how to feel or interpret things. I’m, in fact, offended by it. You could say Jerzy Kosinski is the ultimate extreme of that, bare of interpretation. He leaves out the why, only the what.

SLC: There is that argument about how “effective” or “successful” a novelist can be without trafficking in emotion-led plot. Grillet is one, Beckett another…

JM: I think they work so well and would disagree that they are emotionless. I get that, but the lack of emotional description leaves room for the reader’s emotion. In the novels I have read by them, there’s an extreme materialization of space and a meticulous level of observation, and I feel an intimacy in those ways of seeing. It’s a love story with objects.


SLC: For Failed States, you were on a trip to do research about snipers when you bear witness to a shooting, a coincidence that kicks off the beginning of your training to become an embedded journalist. How would you explain the installation versus the book?

JM: Of the four books I have written, this is the one that most diverges from any of the installations of the same project. The focus of the book is really different than the focus of the show. The show Failed States, as well as the artworks within it mainly focus on the drama —or lack of drama—of the shooter, Fausto Cardenas, and my relationship to him as his witness. Fausto Cardenas had gone into the Texas State Capitol to try to speak to a senator. When he was denied the opportunity, he left the senator’s office, walked out onto the front steps of the State Capitol, took out a gun and shot six bullets into the sky. He was arrested for terrorism. As a witness, I was taken by the absurdity of his action, and that he had chosen to act when he had not been able to speak. I compare Fausto to Goethe’s Faust, hooking onto the theatrics of the Fausto’s actions and how the character Faust had also chosen actions over words. I employed the form of the closet drama—a drama for the mind—to create the artworks. The show becomes a kind of closet drama, narratively unfolding through space with stage directors in vinyl on the gallery walls.

The book is less abstract, and expands upon my choice to continually witness Fausto through a parallel narrative. While I continued to be Fausto’s witness by attending all his hearings, I was also training to be another kind of witness: an embedded reporter with the US Military in Afghanistan. The book moves between these two kinds of witnessing, and my struggle between them. The narrative of Fausto, which is greatly one of silence, void and poetry, in the book is opposed to the narrative of the rigid, didactic training of a military embed.

One sculpture I made that did capture both narratives is also called Failed States. This work is an armored car—my family station wagon from 1993. It’s totally pimped out with glowing phrases in the rearview mirror and side mirrors and a sound piece on the car radio made with six translations a passage from Faust—the passage where Faust relinquishes words for deeds.

SLC: And what about Becoming Tarden? The project started with a site specific commission from the Dutch Intelligence Agency—AIVD.

JM: The opportunity to work with the AIVD came as an open call when I was living in Holland. The AIVD was doubling in size due to the growth in global terrorism and needed to move to a larger building to accommodate the change. By Dutch law it had to commission an artist to make an artwork for the new building. I thankfully got the commission. I decided I wanted to understand what it was like to work inside of an intelligence agency, what it felt like to be a spy and have two lives: a private secret life and a public life; and what it was like to lose some of my autonomy to a larger institution, what it felt like to keep a secret.

I proposed for the agency to hire me as the Consultant for Personal Data. As this consultant I’d interview their agents and write a book about finding the human face of their “faceless” institution. For a whole year they said, “No.” I kept coming back and proposing the concept in slightly different ways. Finally they said, “Yes.”

I think it was persistence. I also know that the head of the agency’s commissioning committee—who was also the Head of Counterintelligence—was very supportive of me. In a climactic moment of the book, I ask him what he wanted from me. He tells me he is using me to see what the institution looks like through my eyes. He opened a lot of doors for me in a way that I didn’t even realize.

At the time, I was reading Jerzy Kosinski’s Cockpit. Tarden is the name of an agent in the book that is so deep under cover even the other agents don’t know he’s an agent. Hence the title of my novel, Becoming Tarden. The whole thing crashes and burns at the end.

SLC: What ends up happening with your relationship to the Director of the AIVD?

I gave the AIVD the rough draft of the book after the opening of the show at Stroom in The Hague that officially ended my commission. When I flew back to deinstall the show- which had neon sculptures, prints, photographs and drawings, I got a call from the Agency that I was a national security threat and my computer would be confiscated and I had to cease and desist from the book.

I had a face-off with the Director of the AIVD and their lawyers. The director conceded that I could show the book as “sculpture”—an object under glass, in a one-time only exhibition after which time it would be permanently confiscated by the Dutch government. It’s funny- or ironic- in a way, as this is what I have been saying. The book can be both a sculpture and a literary work.

Soon after, I got an invitation from the Tate Modern to do a solo show and decided to use the museum as dead drop. The uncensored book was installed under glass with the body of the book removed and placed along side it. Next to this was a love letter I wrote to the Director of the AIVD.

On the last day of the performance, the Dutch government came in to the museum and confiscated the body of the book. They were forced to perform the confiscation within the museum, which becomes a part of the work.

 The AIVD confiscates Becoming Tarden from the Tate Modern. January 2010.
The AIVD confiscates Becoming Tarden from the Tate Modern. January 2010.



SLC: Tell me more about the writing process for The Barragán Archives. I’m interested in the work that comes after. You are now working on a documentary (commissioned by Laura Poitras who is also its Executive Producer) about the project, as well as another nonfiction novella?

JM: I composed letters—original and appropriated, contracts, and a guidebook to Casa Barragán, published recently by The White Review. I write throughout the project, as a way of sketching out or processing my experience. I generally write immediately after an event. I try to do it as quickly as possible so my observations are extremely detailed and raw. The writings are often written in a kind of exhaustion or delirium, I try very hard not to censor myself, to be as honest and vulnerable as possible, as one would in a diary. As a child I used to write my diaries backwards in cursive. No one else could understand them. I think it trained me to be bold and admit feelings that I might feel otherwise scared to write down.

SLC: Because of the ongoing debate about the work, do you feel the writing will be even more essential for the viewer to consume to understand your intentions and very specific viewpoint?

JM: That is an interesting question, as I do think the writing is essential—in this project, as in all my projects. Through my work, I pose questions. Often these questions are about the law, and systems and institutions of control—how they function, and how we can live in relation to them. It is important that those questions are clear. My writing appears in many forms throughout the project. Each form expresses my intentions, or my questions, in different ways. Some are more searching, others more direct. For instance, there is the series of letters spanning three years between myself and the Director of Barragán Foundation at Vitra. I treat these letters as artworks, both in content and in form. In the first letter of this series, I explain that I want to explore Barragán’s archive at Vitra to make a project about his legacy at Art Basel Parcours. Months later, I wrote again, with the same request, but this time for a show at Art in General in New York, in which I asked for Zanco’s collaboration. Both requests were denied. The letters became more intimate as the narrative unfolded, and after Randy Kennedy wrote a feature on the project in The New York Times in which both Zanco and I were interviewed. There are also a series of contracts I wrote and signed, for instance with the Barragán family, in which describe I describe The Proposal and its terms. I love contracts because they formalize an understanding, a collaboration, a pact. These letters and documents are materials of the work. When questions arise about the work, I direct people back to them. The information is there.

SLC: Where does fiction specifically play into your practice, if it does at all?

JM: I often debate its relation to my work. It is a misrepresentation to call my works fiction; the work loses something when categorized this way. My work is an engagement with these systems, that plays out in real time. I write directly what I experience during these engagements, from the first-person perspective, which is of course subjective. It is true that I create these situations: I asked to be trained by a cop in Lincoln Ocean Victor Eddy; I treated the Liverpool CCTV system as a lover by having a dialogue with it; I had the idea to turn Barragán’s remains into a diamond to question the corporate control of his body of work. But I do not create the government, corporate, or legal systems I step into. More of my recent projects have been followed by the press, which removes a burden of proof. The press becomes a kind of storyteller. In any case, I realize that the stories are somewhat unbelievable, but the fact that they do actually unfold in reality and leave evidence, that they play out in the “real” world, is important to the work. I am the protagonist of the story, but I am not in full control of it.

The work is about potential. Systems of power and control that appear closed are entered, and engaged in a dialogue; This dialogue functions outside of what is generally considered common sense. It is this bending, this entering into another kind of logic within a preexisting system that feels like fiction.

SLC: Can you explain then, the notion of a nonfiction novel or nonfiction novella?

JM: I am referring to their length. Becoming Tarden was the first book long enough to call a nonfiction novel. My lawyers in the States said I could have fought the AIVD and won to stop the redaction (in the end, the Dutch government redacted 40%), but I decided not to. The irony was that I was commissioned to find the face of the intelligence agency and then it censored the very face I gave them. There is a beauty in that.

I stay within the law to highlight to the absurdity of it. The law has been my most consistent collaborator.

I think the genre that feels closest to me is what Normal Mailer termed the nonfiction novel. I also feel akin to Ryszard Kapuscinski’s work. He is more of a journalist, but his process of embedding himself within a political situation to write about it feels familiar to me. His books read like literature, but they are nonfiction.

I wish I could write solely from imagination, but then I would not have a story to write. I need to produce the story in the real world, live it out, push it forward, watch it unfold, again and again, until it ends or I end it.

I used to work for the poet Fred Seidel. He had a huge influence on me. I worked for him when he wrote Going Fast, we used to go look at motorcycles together.

We had a great and intense relationship. I was hired to do research for his poetry and I did, but we would also just sit in his living room and talk for hours.

While telling him a story I would say, “You know what I mean?”

And he’d say “No. I don’t know what you mean.” And then he’d push me to explain what I meant in great and honest detail.

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