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<nettime> interview with Jill Magid
geert on Sat, 30 Oct 2004 16:08:23 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> interview with Jill Magid


Surveillance, Performance, Self-Surveillance
Interview with Jill Magid
By Geert Lovink

Illustrated version on www.networkcultures.org

US-American, Amsterdam-based artist Jill Magid was a 'must see' at the 
2004 Liverpool Biennial (www.biennial.com). Her work fitted in tightly 
with the Biennial's topic of the city and the 'engagement with place'. The 
installation, Evidence Locker, shown at the Tate Gallery and the Fact 
centre for new media and screen culture, is a seductive play with 
Liverpool's CCTV infrastructure. Instead of portraying citizens as victims 
of Big Brother, Magid's works opens up a new field of art and activism in 
which predictable forms of protest against the almighty eyes of power are 
turned into a dandy-like performance. Early 2004 Jill Magid spent 31 days 
in Liverpool=E2=80=94the amount of time CCTV footage is sto= red, unless 
it is used as evidence of a crime. Wearing a red coat she was followed by 
the CCTV cameras, and an intimate relationship between her and 'the 
Observer' developed. The installation consists of a variety of formats, 
from a printed daily/exchange with the Observer to audio files of 
Citywatch employees describing 'suspect' behavior of individuals they 
follow to Jill strolling through the inner city shopping zone. There are 
two outstanding pieces: one in which the Observer is guiding Jill while 
having her eyes closed, through mobile phone contact, jumping from one 
camera to the next. The second one is a short piece, with Jill on the back 
of the Observer's motorbike, blurry pictures, switching quickly from 
camera perspective, until they drive outside of CCTV reach. In the 
following interview, which was done via email and live at Fact on October 
2004, we talked about the Liverpool in relation to Magid's earlier work 
and about the responses to this remarkable piece of urban techno poetry.

=E2=80=9C(=E2=80=A6)I will fill in the gaps, the parts of my diary you ar= 
e missing. Since you can=E2=80=99t follow me inside, I will record the 
inside for yo= u. I will mark the time carefully so you will never lose 
me.

Don=E2=80=99t worry about finding me. I will help you. I will tell you
what I was wearing, where I was, the time of day... If there was
anything distinguishing about my look that day, I will make sure you
know.(=E2=80=A6)=E2=80=9D

---Excerpt taken from the Evidence Locker Prologue (Jill Magid, 2004)


GL: The dominant presumption about surveillance is that it turns all 
civilians into victims. Instead of creating a feeling of security, CCTV 
systems treat each of us into potential suspects. At least, that's the 
common belief. How do you look at this widely shared set of ideas? It's 
funny that also political activists, and artists I have to say, have not 
yet have transcended the surveillance ideology.

JM: I have never looked at surveillance technology from the position of a 
civilian under its gaze. Or rather I should say that when I have done so, 
it has been in response to a question such as this. I was drawn to 
surveillance technology for its potential, as a tool that offered specific 
qualities and capabilities; CCTV systems enabled me to see and capture 
myself (and my body) in a form that I could not experience without its 
employment.=20 Surveillance cameras create stages, or fixed, monitored 
platforms. Under their gaze there is a potential for me to act, and a 
potential to save this act as a recorded event. By watching an area rather 
than an individual, the camera in its static position seems to favor its 
context over the pedestrians passing through it. It seems to say: The city 
is permanent, the civilian ephemeral. In a positive sense, this technology 
offers me a way to place myself, to become visible (and potentially 
permanent) within the city, through a medium bigger than myself. It is 
thus a creative field in which I choose to play. In terms of its political 
position (as maintaining security or, conversely, invading privacy) I see 
these positions as qualities of the technology itself- criteria of the 
tool that simply makes its use, in my way, more loaded. I have also looked 
at CCTV cameras as objects, or visual signs. In my past project, System 
Azure Security Ornamentation, I played with the camera=E2=80=99s political 
ambivalence: between its position as a tool th= at protects public space 
as =E2=80=98watched space=E2=80=99, or as a sign of=
  watched space. As a sign the camera stands more as a reference to the 
body or institution that is watching rather than as a tool with the 
function of securing. I wondered, are the cameras ornamental? And if so, 
do they signify authority?

I approached Police Headquarters in Amsterdam and asked if I could cover 
the surveillance cameras on their fa=C3=A7ade with fake jewels as an art 
project. They rejected my request and the idea of working with an artist. 
I remade myself into a company- System Azure- and again approached them 
with the same question, this time for a fee. After months of negotiations, 
I succeeded in officially covering four of the Headquarters=E2=80=99 
cameras in jewels, in colors with police-assigned meanings. (See 
www.systemazure.com). Even here I do not feel I was taking sides 
politically, I was more interested in the camera as an image that 
triggered questions of meaning, even from those who controlled them.

GL: In your writings for the Liverpool Evidence Locker project you're 
talking about the city of L. Everyone will understand you mean Liverpool. 
Why have you chosen to use an abbreviation? Liverpool is not an average 
city. It's quite an extreme and exceptional case, in terms of its history, 
decline and attempts to revitalize urban life. What's special about the 
Liverpool surveillance culture?

JM: Using =E2=80=98L=E2=80=99 was not really meant to mask the city=E2=80= 
=99s identity; it was rather a way to place this identity as secondary, or 
less important. This question reminds me of the first in that both CCTV 
and Liverpool have their own histories and connotations that are so loaded 
with preconceived images and critiques that those suppositions come before 
the story I want to put forth. When I speak of CCTV or surveillance in 
relation to this piece, or those previous, I try to use analogous terms 
that are slightly less recognizable: such as spelling it out as =E2=80=9C= 
closed circuit video=E2=80=9D, or in the book =E2=80=9Cthe camera=E2=80=9D 
or =E2= =80=9Cyou=E2=80=9D to replace those watching through them. I want 
to get beyond presumptions of the system, or the city, so that the 
qualities or details that get less attention-=E2=80=93that, for me, truly 
make them up- can be for-fronted.=20 What is special about 
Liverpool=E2=80=99s system is the criteria it is ru= n by-the 31 day 
period of holding footage, the laws of the Data Protection Act 1998 (a 
British act), and the fact of it being so new (the system on this scale is 
one year old). Some activists based in Liverpool remark that the cameras 
are symbols of hygienic space, in which =E2=80=9Cunwante= ds=E2=80=9D are 
targeted and removed; or as marketing signs to businesses and consumers 
that the city is now watched and thus safer. While I may agree with these 
ideas, the debates around them run parallel to my own questions and 
desires. I was more concerned with the size of the system and how the 
presence of so many cameras turned the city into a movie set with 242 
cameramen.

GL: For Evidence Locker you have chosen to take up the role as the 
red-dressed heroine, the seductive female dandy that strolls through 
anonymous metropolitan areas. In this way the story of urban surveillance 
systems so to say steps back and becomes an instrument in YOUR story. What 
does this reversal of functions means to you, compared to the viewers of 
the installation?

JM:The desire to bring abstract concepts or technologies toward myself in 
order to understand them intimately is a constant within my work. 
Liverpool=E2=80=99s CCTV system is extensive, based on complicated legal 
structures and anonymous as public video surveillance. To come to know it, 
I needed to use it, to add myself into its equation. I recognized the 
system=E2=80=99s potential to extend beyond its prescribed intentions= . 
For me, this potential was romantic: I could be embedded into the 
city=E2=80=99= s memory for seven years; the city could be my stage; I 
could perform and be watched. If what I created was not my story, but 
someone else=E2=80=99= s or that of an invented character, I would not 
have been able to feel it in the same way. Only by being watched, and 
influencing how I was watched, could I touch the system and become 
vulnerable to it.=20

I designed the two installations, Evidence Locker at Tate and Retrieval 
Room at FACT, in a way to bring the viewer along my journey, along a loose 
narrative path. At Tate you enter a controlled space, like that of the 
secret CCTV station, and at FACT you =E2=80=98remember=E2=80=99 the e= 
xperience through retrieved footage and my letters.

The viewer approaches the work as a =E2=80=98third party witness=E2=80=99= 
: He or she watches me being watched. I imagine some viewers identify with 
the controller and some identify with me. I am an individual of the public 
under view, one who has been singled out. Some people find this position 
scary and others find it desirable. I found it to be the latter.=20

GL: Late 2002, during the WorldInformation.org festival in Amsterdam you 
have already done a work that involved police security cameras. Was it 
really different to work with the Amsterdam police department?

JM: It was very different, but this difference reflects my approach. With 
System Azure, I transformed myself from an artist to a businessperson in 
order to be seen by the police. My intention, in either case, remained the 
same; this transformation was necessary for them to hear me. I was curious 
to explore how those in authority related to their cameras- as ornaments 
or as serious tools of security. Once we established the cameras ability 
to act as architectural ornament for the police building, the negotiating 
space and the project itself became more theatrical. The deeper we got 
into the patterns and colors of the fake jewels, the farther we moved from 
the camera=E2=80=99s so-called int= ended function. It was this slippage 
that intrigued me; I questioned the representation of power verses the 
activity of power.=20

Working with the Liverpool police was more collaborative. I did not 
clearly state my position in terms of career, rather my interest in using 
the system. The work was not about representation, but about function. I 
wanted to expand the function of the system- a function that was latent 
within it- and I needed them to work with me.=20

GL: In Amsterdam your artistic strategy consisted of the 'beautification' 
of public security cameras: ornamentation of something that is essentially 
ugly and suspect. Did you try to make the cameras visible? Was the idea as 
simple as that? I found it interesting that you did this in the red light 
district.=20

JM: While the final product-the jeweled camera- is simple, the story 
behind it is layered. This is true for a surveillance camera even before 
it is ornamented. Surveillance cameras are painted beige as to not stand 
out too much, yet- as with the police cameras I used, they are often large 
and prominently placed. The police themselves, remarking on the 
tools=E2=80=99 inherent contradiction, explained how the perception of th= 
e cameras depended on who was looking: invisible to the innocent civilian 
yet a deterrent to the criminal. To be hidden and to simultaneously act as 
a signifier is quite an ambiguous position!=20

Attached to the police headquarters the cameras announce their power: the 
power to look down on those walking by, from nine different positions. In 
this way the camera is both an ornament and a tool of power. A security 
camera on a police station is like a gargoyle on a castle.=20

It was the police that offered the colors, and the meaning attached to 
them. According to the authorities, the color red, meaning liefdevol or 
=E2=80=98full of love=E2=80=99, represents =E2=80=98police love=E2=80=99.=
  What is that and what does it mean? Love for whom and in what form? My 
proposal to ornament police cameras in the red light district in red 
jewels simply put that question out there. In this area of Amsterdam, red 
is the sign for prostitution; the color signifies the place of consumption 
and the kind of services rendered. To use red on the police cameras adds 
this meaning of the color with that of the police. What happens to their 
meaning then? Asking the police to cover their cameras in red jewels (and 
red hearts) is also a way of asking them to claim responsibility for their 
cameras (as opposed to the shops and pimps that leave them beige).

GL: You mentioned that there are those who are exhibitionists, and those 
who are not.=20

JM: Some viewers who saw my work reacted to me in a kind of horrified way, 
saying how scary they found my =E2=80=98watched=E2=80=99 position to=
  be. Others told me they wished it had been them. One man said to me that 
he wanted to be =E2=80=98the girl in the red coat on the back of the 
motorcycle=E2=80= =99, in reference to my video entitled Final Tour. I 
have also been told that there seems to be a large group of young women 
who are drawn to the work as a kind of escapist fantasy. I did experience 
this to be true when I returned for our talk at FACT. I am not surprised 
by the two opposing reactions, as many of my projects in which I have 
placed myself before the camera have elicited similar contradictory 
responses.=20 I did a project at MIT called Lobby 7 in which I hijacked 
the lobby=E2=80= =99s informational monitor to broadcast my own 
transmission. This transmission was a real time exploration of my body 
beneath my clothes via a pinhole surveillance camera that I held in my 
hand. While the experience of exposing myself in this lobby was 
terrifying, it was also exhilarating. I created a new relationship with my 
body, as well as to the lobby and the people in it, via this technology. 
It left me stronger and yet more vulnerable. I don't assume that everyone 
wants to feel this, or would feel this way from the same performance. We 
all choose the kind of relationships we like, and the roles we like to 
play.=20

GL: How would you describe the audience responses to the piece? It 
certainly raises a lot of questions, in particular about your role as a 
performer and artist.

JM: During the performance I was not aware of the audience response; I did 
not take my eyes from the monitor. I watched myself while the audience 
appeared and aggregated in the lobby behind me. You might call them 
witnesses. I could hear comments of those people who watched closely 
behind me, and others as they passed.=20

I could hear one couple close by for at least half the piece; they 
discussed the composition of my body on the monitor and how my skin 
related to the surrounding architecture. Two men, looking like professors, 
passed and one asked the other =E2=80=9Cwhat is on the monito= r?=E2=80=9D 
his response: =E2=80=9CI think its one of those videos about a baby being 
bor= n.=E2=80=9D I was told seven police officers came in and asked people 
who put the sex tape in the system. These reactions say a lot about how 
images of the (female) body, in general as well as in the academic 
environment of MIT, can be perceived, as well as the assumptions that come 
with those perceptions.=20

In the days after the performance, at least five women came to me and said 
she wished it had been her. Other women I did not recognize gave me nods, 
smiles, or angry looks around campus. Both men and women seemed to look at 
me longer.=20

In the documentation video (I had people hiding in the above balconies 
filming) it was clear that the image was not readily legible; the viewer 
would look at the monitor confused and then his/her face would betray 
recognition. Some looked around to find who was doing this, but many just 
stared at the screen. Viewers often changed the way they stood: pulling 
baseball caps lower, or crossing their arms before their chests. Others 
put their hands in their pockets.

The best reaction I got was from a professor of mine named Ed Levine. He 
told me that after he had seen the performance, he could never look at the 
Lobby 7 monitor again without seeing the image of my body on the 
screen.=20

GL: At MIT you studied with Krzysztof Wodiczko. Is it through him that got 
involved in this type of performance?

JM: Not directly. Krzysztofwas part of a team of professors, amongst which 
was Dennis Adams, Julia Escher, Ed Levine, and later Joan Jonas. I chose 
to go to MIT because I had no longer been satisfied with my studio-based 
work. I lived in New York and felt a need to engage with the city 
directly. I was making models of architecture that I wanted to build 
within the city, which would exist as pockets of silent or intimate space. 
The professors asked me if I had experienced these spaces I imagined, and 
suggested that until I was offered the millions of dollars it would take 
to build them, I should find a way to test my designs. I scaled the models 
down to wearable objects and clothing. The only way to test them was to 
use them, out in the urban environment. I guess you could call this the 
beginning of my performances.

GL: Out of the rich Liverpool material you have been trying to extract a 
film script. Are you really thinking about feature film? Would you use the 
original footage from the security cameras? Would it be fiction or 
something in-between, like a hyper real fictionalized documentary?

JM: The original idea was to use the police footage I have and to adapt 
the Subject Access Request forms (the letters) I wrote into a script. I 
hoped to make it a feature length film with a narrative structure closer 
to fiction than documentary. Since the beginning of the project I wanted 
to treat the system as a film crew making cinema. Beginning this process 
of adapting the footage into a feature in LA this summer taught me a lot; 
the approach I used to make the videos for the art installation did not 
easily translate to a cinema space, and I am still considering how this 
can be done. There is surely a Hollywood story here; the question is how 
to do it. I am also curious to see if someone within the film industry 
takes this challenge on. I love the idea of police surveillance footage 
inspiring a Hollywood film- of the project making a full circle. I 
surprisingly found that what I was faced with- adapting the footage for a 
feature- was closer to the process reality TV editors face rather that of 
film directors.

GL: What's the purpose for you of making narratives? This seems to be an 
important drive of you in your artworks.

JM: I don=E2=80=99t often feel in control of the narratives that happen i= 
n my work. When a narrative does happen, I am usually riding along with 
it, to a place I am unsure of until I am there. I also would not say that 
narrative is consistent within my work. The work I do with mirrors is more 
of an action. With the mirror tools and videos, I cut small mirrors to fit 
the shape of my hand or to fit the object I want to catch or hold within 
them. For example, if I want to hold a skyscraper, I cut a small mirror 
the size of a pen. In it, I catch the Empire State Building. Through the 
video lens, I drag it across the skyline.=20

The narrative of Evidence Locker grew from a process, or a series of 
actions. My intention upon arriving to Liverpool was to use the CCTV 
system as a film crew, to act as the protagonist, and to be saved to the 
evidence locker forever-or at least seven years. I planned to use the 
Subject Access Request Forms as my diary in the city. I don=E2=80=99t thi= 
nk most of us imagine our diaries as a story, but of course it reads as a 
kind of narrative. The (love) story grew from out from the relationship 
that the controllers and I formed through the camera, especially with one 
of them.=20

As for the general occurrence of narrative, I would refer again to my 
desire to bring abstract concepts closer to me. A way to do this is to 
re-write or reconstruct myself into them. This process is a kind of 
storytelling to myself. It is this story I present.

GL: Could you tell us more about the difference you make between private 
and public spaces?

JM: To describe private space, I often speak of bubbles. Inside the bubble 
is private, outside is public. The boundaries are subtle, possibly 
invisible. The inside is softer, quieter, and time runs more slowly. Like 
Foucault=E2=80=99s notion of heterotopias, this bubble is a = mirror of 
its surroundings. In the mirror I see where I am not. A bubble can appear 
inside of other spaces, while everything outside its boundaries continues 
on as it was. In my example above, I use a small mirror to hold the Empire 
State Building in my hand. For me, I have used the mirror to create a 
bubble for the tower and myself. Inside I can hold it.=20

GL: What is self-surveillance in your opinion? Is it self-examination or 
rather an urge to control your own image and reach a stage of super 
self-awareness? Do you think that the presence of so many cameras means 
that we are 'internalizing' technology? Is it really 'invading' our bodies 
and minds or do see ways to ignore it?

JM: Self-surveillance is a way of seeing myself, via technology, in a way 
I could not otherwise. In self-surveillance I use a system or a technology 
as my mirror. The type of reflection I face is specific to the tool I am 
using. Who I appear to be in that reflection is unfamiliar. The process of 
coming to recognize myself as I appear there is what I call my work.

--

URL of the Liverpool Biennial project: www.evidencelocker.net Security 
Ornamentation website: www.systemazure.com







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