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Marinus de Ruiter
Watching the Detectives Watching
Visual artist Jill Magid delicately subverts images of public surveillance.
Usually when the police get involved in the art world it means something bad has happened, like the robbery of Edvard Munch’s The Scream or the physical attacks on paintings by Picasso, Malevich and Newman in the Stedelijk Museum. But visual artist Jill Magid challenged that expectation when she brought in a crime scene investigator from the Leiden police department for her recent art video Camera One Wester Park. The authorities collaborated in the making of the artwork, something Magid has pulled off before with success.
‘The video is a fictional scene about an adulterous moment between a couple,’ says Magid about Camera One Wester Park . ‘It’s not a crime; it’s a deceit or betrayal. But I had the investigator treat the scene as it happened in the park as a crime scene. He found where the actors had been and documented everything. Maybe there was hair in the grass or a cigarette; all of it was included in his investigation’.
The resulting 11-minute piece of cinema, shot in the Westerpark area, is part of Magid’s solo exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam opening this weekend. The video is presented along with the findings of the crime scene investigator, including a book-sized report, drawings, photographs and plastic evidence bags. The other related works in the show are created with the help of forensic artists.
Camera One Wester Park has the feel of a movie, but at the same time twists cinematic conventions, having no visible characters. ‘We filmed the whole thing with actors first but then reconstructed the event in their absence, using only the camera and a voiceover’, says Magid. ‘It was about controlling the angle of the camera to create a story.’
The New York artist currently residing in Amsterdam has gradually built up a fascination for the workings of the camera, especially following her experiences with the projects System Azure (2002) in Amsterdam and Evidence Locker (2004) in Liverpool, which involved the appropriation of surveillance camera systems. ‘I became interested in how the surveillance camera as an object shows power’, says Magid. ‘With System Azure I was exploring what happens when you take a camera that’s attached to police power and representation and you highlight it and make it a pretty thing’.
For this project Magid transformed cameras outside Amsterdam police headquarters into kitschy, shiny objects by decorating them with colourful rhinestones. It taught her how to approach an institution of authority like the police. ‘At first I went in there as an artist and they were totally resistant’, she says. ‘Then I realised that I had to make myself visible to them and speak their language.’ Magid reinvented herself as the head of System Azure Security Ornamentation, a design company specialised in ‘public relations’ instead of ‘art’. It worked.
Although the images of the permanent ‘glam-cams’ sparked positive responses in the international art community, reactions of the city’s residents were more difficult to measure. ‘Most artists who work in public space will tell you this,’ says Magid. ‘It’s one of the most exciting things to do, because once you do it […] it’s eaten up by the people around you. On the other hand it’s almost a lonely feeling, because you don’t know what you’re speaking to in the end.
‘It was important for me to have a dialogue with the police, to get permission and to get paid,’ says Magid about System Azure. ‘Even though it was a minimal amount of money, it does make them responsible. And that became very interesting, to see what happens when the system gets involved. The Liverpool project was the extreme of that, here [the authorities] were quite actively involved’. The Liverpool project she’s referring to followed from her participation in the 2004 Liverpool Biennial art festival. Magid had proposed a project on the massive surveillance camera system in the city, which is one of Britain’s largest CCTV (Closed Circuit Television) networks. Her project Evidence Locker gathers together all the footage the surveillance system recorded of Magid walking around in the city during the month she spent there.
Usually CCTV footage is erased after 31 days, unless there is a request from the subject or a police investigation; in that case it is kept in an evidence locker for another seven years. By requesting all of the footage that she appears on, Magid basically acquired her own personal evidence locker. She made it easy for the operators to pick her out, since she always wore a red coat and boots during her walks.
During her month of wandering around in the city the artist built up a relationship with the CCTV operators. They communicated by telephone and the work evolved through this interaction. One day the operators followed her while she was riding on the back of a motorcycle and another time they guided her through a crowded street while she had her eyes closed. And when Magid became the victim of a bona fide crime--she was mugged--the operators found it easy to catch the suspects. However, after she decided not to press charges, her relationship with the operators was strained.
After this month of surveillance camera adventures, Magid gained access to the evidence locker and edited several short video pieces from the footage, each with its own character. Gambier Night, which can be seen in her Amsterdam show, has an aura of mystery. Control Room, is a tense, eerie work showing Magid being followed around. Final Tour documents her motorcycle ride, which comes across as a romantic escapist fantasy. Trust is a humorous recount of the artist being guided with her eyes closed. The footage of the mugging turned out to be unsuitable for a video; it now appears on the Evidence Locker website only. The website also exhibits the daily request forms that Magid wrote to the police, in love letter style.
The Liverpool project raised interest in Magid’s work. At the moment her work is being shown in the Chicago exhibition Balance and Power, curated by video art expert Michael Rush. Magid also has two other solo exhibitions running in the Netherlands, one in Eindhoven and one in Groningen at the Tschumi Pavilion--a completely transparent building designed by Swiss architect Bernhard Tschumi which allows viewing from outside the structure.
One explanation for the success of Magid’s work is its broad appeal. ‘Responses I got to Evidence Locker were all over the map,’ she says. ‘Some people found it scary, some thought it was empowering and others saw it as romantic.’ She explains that she wanted to move people’s associations ‘away from this heavy authority fear factor to a much more intimate use of a surveillance system.’
This is probably the most important reason for all the positive responses to the work: because we know we are being watched all the time and we can’t do much about it; we like to see how someone manages to disturb this system of power in such an endearing way.
Jill Magid, Libration Point ( includes Camera One Wester Park and Gambier Night), Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam, Rozenstraat 59 (Tues-Sun 11:00-17:00), Sunday 13 November until Saturday 31 December. Opening Saturday at 17:00.
Jill Magid, Gambier Night, Tschumi Pavilion, Hereplein, Groningen (after sunset), until 27 November. Jill Magid, Evidence Locker, TUE, Den Dolech 2, Eindhoven (Mon-Fri 11:00-18:00, Sun 14:00-17:00), until 2 December.
For more information see www.jillmagid.net
Printed in November Issue 2005