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Guestcurator: Jelle Bouwhuis
Libration Point >
a point between two massive bodies where the gravitational forces between them are essentially in balance.
In October 1999, Jill Magid performed Lobby 7 in the main entrance to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Positioned in front of a suspended, closed circuit TV monitor that is used to transmit informational messages about the events of the day, and wearing baggy cargo pants and an oversized sweater, she used a small hand-held surveillance camera to explore those parts of her body that she could reach through the openings in her clothing. She also was broadcasting the intimate, black-and-white images she created of her own body on the monitor, which she had illegally appropriated for her own use. As the curious gathered to watch, an assistant filmed the event from a balcony above; Magid states that after this event, she was at once “stronger and yet more vulnerable.”
In the spring of 2000, Magid and another female performer did a similar performance at Harvard University’s Science Center; this time the surveillance camera was built into a pair of shoes they took turns wearing. This event was part of Magid’s Monitoring Desire, her thesis project for her Masters of Science degree in Visual Studies from MIT. In the paper she submitted for her degree project, Magid clearly stated what she wished to do with her work in the future:
…I am, as you are, always under surveillance. Consciously or not, we constantly perform for the camera’s eye. …My relationship with the apparatus of capture has become intimate, and through this intimacy, my boundaries more fluid.…The potential of this performative surveillance system in terms of how the body is reconfigured, how representation is altered and effected, how architecture is activated and warped, and how we mediate communication through its screen - has only been initially explored with this performance. I feel prepared to re-enter the conceptual parameters of this performance in order to break them apart. To take their varied aspects and develop them each into new, highly focused, artistic investigations.
Magid has done just what she set out to do. In works such as Evidence Locker, created for the 2004 Liverpool Biennial, Magid again appropriated a closed circuit television system for her own purposes usurping City Watch of Liverpool’s 224 CCTV cameras. She used their operators as a movie crew to help her to make her own film and to provide her a starring role in it.
Evidence Locker takes its place in a long history of artistic wanderings, ranging from those of the 19th-century flaneur to the Surrealists and Situationists. This history also includes the many artists who have taken to the streets since the 1960’s and ‘70s: Yayoi Kusama, Vito Acconci, Adrian Piper, Valie Export, Sophie Calle, and Kimsooja are just a few who come to mind. However, while those artists generally sought interaction with, or reaction from, their fellow pedestrians, in Evidence Locker Magid has eyes only for the “eyes” that are trained on her. Dressed in red to make her easier to spot, all of her attention is focused on seducing the camera to follow her. It is as if the fleeting reactions of strangers cannot offer her the permanent, validating evidence of her own existence that surveillance footage can.
Under the British Data Protection Act, Magid was entitled to see any surveillance film in which she was featured. She turned official “Subject Access Request Forms” into love letters she addressed to “the Observer” - eventually breaking through the wall of technology and bureaucracy to establish real relationships with human beings on the other side. In time, the Observer not only talks Magid safely through a busy city square with her eyes closed, but she rides off with him on the back of a motorcycle.
In Magid’s 2000 thesis paper, she also stated, “I believe there is both a psychological and political value in reconstructing one’s representation with the aid of technological systems.”. In her new works Magid takes inspiration from Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 film L’Avventura, and uses a variety of means to construct images of her absent self. In Antonioni’s groundbreaking film, the protagonist Anna takes a trip with her lover and her good friend, but disappears shortly after the film begins. As the lover and friend search for her, they start an affair and at times seem to have forgotten about Anna. They fail to find either her or the reason for her disappearance, but they cannot escape her influence or their own guilt. Antonioni’s use of narrative was confounding to audiences of the time: he failed to follow up on minor characters, and the plot twists he introduced did little to advance the storyline.
In her new series of work, Magid had forensic portraits made of her based on the intimate descriptions of various witnesses for a work titled Composite. She turned to a Dutch firm called Skullpting to commission Head - a three-dimensional reconstructed bust of her. Head was derived through the use of Cat scans, teeth casts, hair samples, and a painstaking self-analysis on the artist’s part. In Auto Portrait Pending, Magid entered into a contract with a company to have her ashes compressed into a diamond when she dies. As in Antonioni’s film, we follow these odd narratives as others attempt to describe or capture Jill Magid’s physiognomy and identity. In the end, we, and they, fail to locate our protagonist definitively, but we still feel her hovering presence and influence.
Jill Magid - Libration Point
In Michelangelo Antonioni’s film L’Avventura (The Adventure) a group of upper-class Italian couples take a boat tour of the Aeolian islands. The pleasure cruisers include the main protagonists: the couple Anna and Sandro and Anna’s friend Claudia. During a tour of a desolate island, and merely 25 minutes into the action, Anna vanishes. Sandro and Claudia spend the rest of the film driving through Italy as they (supposedly) search for her. In the process, the Anna-Sandro relationship is reborn with Claudia and Sandro, who in the end deceives her, just as he deceived Anna with her.
Some aspects of Antonioni’s simultaneously praised and denounced experiment can be used as a comparison to Jill Magid’s exhibition ‘Libration Point’. The central object is a person who isn’t there, or isn’t there anymore, but seems desperate to return to the script again. There are facial reconstructions (two and three dimensional), and evidential documents about her existence. There is a reference to her future in the form of a contract with the Lifegem company for manufacturing a diamond from her remains after her death. There is a film in which we hear her voice and observe a scene described by an animated camera, from which she is absent. There is no embodied protagonist: she balances somewhere between being and non-being, it is, so to say, at a libration point.
One of the most disturbing elements in L’Avventura is the complete shift from convincing suspense story into a love affair. From this it is rather the audience that keeps longing for Anna’s story when the narrative decisively takes another direction. In the end there’s the feeling of having missed something. Expectations are roused so strongly that during the first minutes of the second part of the movie, when there is no longer any mention of Anna, the viewer actually identifies the camera with her. Only gradually she disappears from the viewer’s mind as well.
There are expectations and even some suspense at play in ‘Jill Magid - Libration point’, but since a clear narrative is missing we are, as in L’Avventura, forced to consider the systematic behind this set up. First we have to take the use of systems of observation and control in some of Magid’s earlier work into account. In Lobby 7, the artist, while standing in the main lobby of MIT, uses a small camera device to explore her body underneath her clothes, the results of which were to be seen live on the central information monitor in the same lobby. All attention was directed to the rather abstract images on the screen whereas none of the viewers seemed to connect them to the strange body movements of the artist standing in front of it. This idea was developed further during the work for commission by the Liverpool Biennial 04. Here Magid directed the city’s ubiquitous CCTV system of camera surveillance to make cinematic scenes of her own strolls through town. If we could say that in early performance art the focus was on the gendered and politicized body, here it shifted towards the politicized and gendered systems of control of public space in a very elegant move. Paradoxically enough, the results remind one of the nostalgic qualities of Nouvelle Vague or, for that matter, Antonioni’s movies. (Gambier Night, a work made of previously unused footage from the Liverpool project, rather recalls a thriller).
In the film piece Camera One Wester Park, she, as a subject, is missing altogether. This forces us to look at its construction. There’s camera movement: it moves from an ‘objective’ position, like a surveillance camera, to a ‘subjective’ one, when it lowers to the ground and becomes embodied. Likewise the voice-over indicates a viewer who is both objective, as the one who controls the camera, and subjective, as part of the suggested scene of a couple making love. And yet every one of them is missing. The only scene we actually see is the location where this was filmed.
There’s an interesting turn at play in Magid’s work up to now. Pieces as Lobby 7 suggest the feministic atmosphere at the time she studied at the MIT department of visual studies where she graduated in 2000. Especially the influence Laura Mulvey’s groundbreaking 1975 essay ‘Visual pleasure and narrative cinema’ can be felt, in which the author analyses the psychological, if not scopophilic structures that typecast women in mainstream film as raw, passive material for the male gaze. Although the article has since attracted a lot of counter reactions and criticism, its main argument that most films are structured around eroticizing women to build up the viewer’s desires, can hardly be denied anymore. Lobby 7 takes advantage of this insight: it ‘monitors’ the desire and puts the artist in the role of both its director and revealer. The work can be seen in an already long lasting tradition in which women artists use there nudity to gain power over the (presupposed) male gaze from, say, Yoko Ono up to Elke Krystufek. Mona Hatoum’s Corps Etrangér (1994), a video installation with medical surveillance images of the artist’s body interior, should be specifically mentioned here. Magid’s work shows the gradual decrease of the relevance of political gender differentiation that functioned so well for a lot of art, especially in the 70s and 80s. In the Liverpool piece the disarmament of it is in full swing. Here Magid directed a whole institute that we usually associate with the formality of the police and therefore political paternity and secrecy - which defines the panoptical state of today’s society - to make evocative fiction in which she herself is starring. By using and revealing a system we usually ignore, she subordinated it to her own gaze. Not many people have had the guts and the opportunity to direct some 250 cameras, and the men behind them, more or less at once, to make a fancy registration of themselves. By the passive subject controlling it, the same technology is applied to challenge its presumed visual superiority.
In the Bureau Amsterdam exhibition comparable systems are applied: institutional ‘devices’ of intelligence we usually neglect in our daily lives. Although it proved to be impossible to make use of the Amsterdam CCTV department (any advance to them was in vain) or the Dutch Forensic Institute (NFI) due to current state of political fears in the Netherlands and within its administrative departments alike, there have been a number of their employees or would-be employees involved. A number of forensic artists made composite drawings based on descriptions provided by people who have been close with Magid. One manufactured a three dimensional facial reconstruction from a forensic report by the artist and secondary physical evidence: an ecstatic head loosely inspired by Salvador Dali’s famous Freudian photo collage The Phenomenon of Ecstasy of 1933. A crime scene investigator was commissioned to document the location of the crime as it is fictionalized in the film. Instead of using them to distill harsh, undeniable proofs or as ‘research material’ for predictable Hollywood narratives, the works deny all expectations and desires through the absence of a physical body upon whom we can project them. What we are looking at is not what we are looking for. The embodied subject has been taken out of visual realm and instead is hovering over the works, directing them, not being in them - neither as raw material for a narrative nor as manufacturer of the objects….
Camera One Wester Park addresses the viewer in a comparable, abstract way. At a certain point the viewer takes a position that might be best described as an Avatar in a computer game who has stranded in a virtually designed world, waiting for comrades to come out and play. This feeling is triggered by the alternating objective and subjective camera movements and the rather abstract footage in the form of, for instance, the grid pattern of the square in front of the old gas factory or the patch of unadorned grass at the slope of a railroad track. The voice-over doesn’t help in doing away with this feeling. It is starkly descriptive and recalls a neutral observer, while the content suggests a person who is dramatically involved in the scenes described. The second scene was initially shot with actors, only to repeat exactly the same camera positions without them. When the monotonous voice-over concludes with ‘nothing moves’ it contradicts the one thing we have been watching: camera movements.
‘Libration Point’ uses its absent subjects as means to question the very systems expected to define them. It is the missing subject that reveals what we, as viewers, desire or require. Consider the absent diamond in Auto Portrait Pending, installed at the entrance of the exhibition. Magid has signed an agreement with a company that produces diamonds from the ashes of human remains to become a 1-carat diamond upon her death. What we see is an attractive, yet empty, gold ring setting and a series of contracts. The success of a company that promises to make love concrete (‘because love lives on’) is another token of Western society's reliance on proof and material evidence -- of a person, an incident, an existence. It is as if memory and imagination are lesser qualities, not to be trusted, proving nothing. Magid is asking us to look not at the function or success-rate of these systems, but rather at our belief in them. We take this statement from the Forensic Art and Illustration handbook (p. 525): “It is the integrity of the witness presenting the image that must be demonstrated. Physical items themselves are not evidence. The testimony of a witness is evidence and the image is an exhibit of that testimony. An image, all by itself, is totally unacceptable.”
December 14, 2005
Seminar on feminist art discourse and contemporary art practice at the occasion of this exhibition, in the ‘SMCS on 11’ series of events at Stedelijk Museum CS, Oosterdokskade 5. Participants: Joke Hermsen, Jill Magid, Katy Deepwell and others.
December 15, 2005
Screening of Michelangerlo Antonioni’s L’Avventura in SMCS on 11.
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