“What is it like to become anonymous?”
New York-based artist Jill Magid is obsessed with modern structures of power and surveillance, and with creating a human, personalized face for these often invisible structures. She often creates artworks that result from gaining inside access to secretive state and corporate organizations and analyzing the resulting relationships through metaphors of intimacy and eroticism. The neon sculpture Make Me Anonymous came out of a years-long engagement with the Netherlands’ General Intelligence and Security Service.
Magid is not only an artist but also an acclaimed filmmaker and writer. Her first documentary feature, The Proposal, premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. Museums throughout the world have presented her work, including London’s Tate Modern, New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City. She is the author of four novellas.
In this interview, she describes her knotty relationship with the Dutch spy agency and the way that a neon sculpture can either scream or be invisible.
Your piece is very clearly based on irony, in which the text is asking for a kind of invisibility, but the piece itself visually screams, and, when you’re in person with the neon sculpture it’s based on, even audibly buzzes. How did you arrive at this contradiction?
Make Me Anonymous was inspired by my piece The Spy Project, which grew out of a commission from the Dutch Military Intelligence and Security Service. Global terrorism was on the rise, and the agency was expanding very fast and had to move to a larger building. When any government building is being made with public money, a percentage must go to an artist to make a site-specific work. I was fortunate enough to get that commission.
It took a whole year to convince them, but they gave me full security clearance, and for the next three years I got access to eighteen agents. I proposed to write a book based on interviews with them. A series of rules was developed. I could use only pen and pencil. I couldn’t use the agents’ names, so they were called Vincent I, Vincent II, Miranda I, Miranda II, and so on. I was not allowed to ask them anything about their jobs, only about their personal life. Throughout all my work, my goal is that when I meet with cops, I get to understand how the system they work in functions. What I didn’t realize is, I was talking to spies, and when they don’t want to talk about something, they don’t talk about it!
I wondered, what is it like to have a public persona but an entirely different identity within an institution? What is it like to become anonymous? Along the way I learned quite a lot about how the institution worked, so not only did I write a book but I also created images and sculptures and performances, including a large body of neon pieces, including Make Me Anonymous.
We live in a world where, because of intensive state and corporate surveillance, it’s almost impossible to be truly anonymous. So is the request you make in this work futile, or can one be anonymous in a real way?
After doing the Spy Project, I decided to separate the phrase Make Me Anonymous from the larger vocabulary that resulted and formalize it as a neon sculpture. This was absolutely in response to a new reading of anonymity. In the words “make me anonymous,” you have desire and futility wrapped together, which is what makes that phrase charged. It’s a directive: “do this to me.” There’s an eroticism and a kind of capituation. It has feelings of going forward and stopping. There’s a messed-up velocity to it, a confused delivery.
What are the material properties of this particular sign that relate to its meaning?
What we call “neon” signs can actually be different gases, which have different colors, and different colors of glass. Also, the diameter of the glass is super important. Neon is a dying medium, which I find painful! It’s hard to find glass tubes anymore. But the reason I chose neon was because the agents started to say that I had become dangerous, because I knew so much about so many of them and that I could “burn” them.
One of the things I loved about the agency is the slang, which, in a series of drawings, I chose to eroticize. “Burn” means exposing an agent’s identity. I have descriptions of all these spies, though I couldn’t photograph them or know their names. I wanted a feeling of burning, so at first I used heating wire, like you find in space heaters, but the museum where I was going to show the piece said I couldn’t use that, for obvious reasons. So neon seemed like a good idea.
The producer who actually creates my neon works explained to me that the smaller the diameter of the tube, the brighter the gas glows. So, with the glow from a 7 mm tube, which they don’t even make anymore, you could fill a massive gallery with light. And the sign buzzes in a way that makes it seem dangerous. It looks like filament burning. So the medium grew out of the language: you could “burn” us.
On the other hand, the sculpture this print is based on is clear glass, so that when it’s turned off, you don’t see it at all.
The museum made me put a sign up warning people to be careful because of high voltage. Which is a lie. People kept thinking I heated the room for extra effect. That is phsychological. There was no heat.
After all this interaction and negotiation with the spy agency, what was it like to finally display the resulting work in public venues?
When I finished the first draft of the book, I gave it to my contact at the spy agency to have the censors look at it, because I hope they would participate by taking a few things out. It went all the way to the head of the agency, and I became a national security threat. I got a cease and desist order.
After a debate between my lawyers and the agency, they censored forty percent. For a show at Tate Modern, the head of the agency said I was allowed to show my book one time, under glass, so no one could read it. On the last day, they came with a briefcase and confiscated it, along with some of the drawings for the neons. They confiscated seven of the prints, which used the same language as neon sculptures, but they left the neons. If it’s text on a page, they recognize it as dangerous, but in a sculpture they don’t recognize it. So, back to your first question, one way to avoid censorship is to make it neon.
But whenever they’re shown in a museum, they have to be turned off. The way that I show the censoring is by turning the neon off.