I Am a Spy Camera: Jill Magid’s Creepy Surveillance Art

Infiltrating spy agencies and meddling in corporate intrigue are all in a day's artwork for Jill Magid

Back in 1999, Jill Magid hijacked the central information monitor in the lobby of MIT, where she was a graduate student. During her half-hour performance, she inserted intimate images of her own body into the impersonal information on the monitor—aiming the wide-angle lens of a tiny wireless surveillance camera under her skirt and into her blouse. “It was obviously quite scary,” she recalls. Titled Lobby 7, it was her first guerilla performance.

Magid, the investigator. RACHEL STYER

Magid, the investigator.


Magid has continued to infiltrate systems of power. At the 2004 Liverpool Biennial, she presented Evidence Locker, which focused on the city’s City Watch program and asked police to track her with surveillance cameras. Then, in 2005, the Dutch Secret Service (AIVD) chose her to make a work for its new building. It took a year for her to receive security clearance to create The Spy Project. She met with each code-named agent, compiling personal information that the agency wasn’t allowed to request, only to have her rough draft confiscated and censored. “It was like I’d become the very kind of spy I was looking for,” she says. The agency allowed her to have an exhibition of the uncensored manuscript, displayed as an unreadable object under glass, after which it would become the property of the Dutch government. It was shown at Tate Modern in 2009-10. “I said, ‘Come and get it.’ And they did, the last day of the exhibition. It was like a dead-drop between spies.”

Another project, Lincoln Ocean Victor Eddy (2007), began when Magid took a New York subway announcement literally and asked policemen to search her; most refused. A Reasonable Man in a Box (2010), shown at the Whitney Museum, resulted from the legal memos about the U.S. water-boarding scandal. Struck by “the gymnastic feats the government went through to legalize something that had been illegal,” Magid projected a gigantic shadow of a scorpion on the wall and borrowed the memo’s unreasonable wording about putting a man with a fear of stinging insects into a box with the arthropod.

An installation view of Magid’s provocative work from the show “The Thicker the Glass (Spy Project),” 2009.DIDIER BARROSO/©JILL MAGID/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND YVON LAMBERT, PARIS

An installation view of Magid’s provocative work from the show “The Thicker the Glass (Spy Project),” 2009.


Magid’s current project, “The Barragán Archives,” is about the split legacy of Mexican Modernist architect Luis Barragán and the implications of corporate ownership of half a legacy. The Swiss company Vitra bought Barragán’s professional archives and those of his photographer, trademarked Barragán’s name, copyrighted the work and the photos, and withheld access to them. The first part of Magid’s project, Woman With Sombrero, performed within her installation at Art in General during Performa 13 last fall, addressed the wife of the Vitra owner who orchestrated this coup. Another part, at the RaebervonStenglin gallery in Zurich (through June 7), traces the shared origins of the Butaque chair. Magid’s description: “It’s a Jill Magid after Josef Albers after Luis Barragán after Clara Porset.”

Finally, there’s Auto Portrait Pending, Magid’s masterwork, begun in 2005 when the artist signed a contract with Lifegem, a company that turns cremated remains into diamonds. The work consists of a preamble, contracts, ring box, and unset gold ring. Upon her death she will be transformed into a one-karat round-cut diamond on permanent display, with the “beneficiary” being the collector or museum that purchases it.

A version of this story originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 112 under the title “Critic’s Pick: Jill Magid.”

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