Talking to Jill Magid, Director of the Most Shocking Architecture Documentary, Ever

In "The Proposal," the artist goes to audacious ends in pursuit of access to Luis Barragán's archives.

Image Courtesy Oscilloscope.

Honestly, it’s a shame that many publications are offering full descriptions of the dizzyingly inventive ends artist Jill Magid goes to in her directorial debut, The Proposal. With all the attention paid to preventing dragon-filled TV shows and superhero flicks from being spoiled, you’d think critics would have spared at least a little care for one of the more narratively surprising documentaries in recent years. Hell, we feel bad even showing you the trailer.

Suffice to say, Magid practices in The Proposal what she has offscreen for much of her career. As with her multidisciplinary interrogations of the surveillance state (Article 12, Evidence Locker, Authority to Remove, etc.) and other systems of power, the conceptual artist pitches herself body and soul into the middle of an ongoing problematic exchange, playing with the odd collisions and newly found data she discovers as she crawls deeper down the rabbit hole.

In The Proposal, it’s intellectual ownership, corporality, love, art, and obsession that are up for her unique and often very confrontational treatment. Here, she fights for access to the archives of famed Mexican architect Luis Barragán, which are currently bound up in a very peculiar type of private ownership. Not to reveal too much, but as she grows closer to Barragán’s work—lovingly captured by her camera—and her quest to free his archives, we see what we have seen elsewhere in her works: the blossoming of a strange kind of physical and personal intimacy and the roots of obsession and love. Eventually, Magid’s attachment inspires a truly audacious, even shocking, solution—a high-concept surprise that makes for a wonderfully wild night at the theater.

We talked to Magid about The Proposal, her relationship to architecture, and why it’s only now that she has begun her feature-film career. Don’t worry: no spoilers ahead.

This film is as much about your relation to the spaces Barragán created as your relation to the creator himself and his archive. It’s a very aware exploration on how architecture touches minds. Can you trace your own early awareness of space and your earliest experiences with Barragán’s spaces?

Barragán’s architecture affected me viscerally. The experience of walking for the first time through his house and studio, now a museum and UNESCO World Heritage Site, inspired a strong desire in me to remain there, for days at a time, and write. Writing for me is a way to experience a space more deeply: I write myself into a space by observing it very closely. Barragán’s work is no doubt photographic—and I mean that literally—more than simply photogenic. He designed his work with photographs of it in mind. But it was, firstly for me, the way his house made me feel as I was moving through it. Inspired, meditative, quiet, conscious. I wanted the film to not only communicate what Barragán’s work looked like (and the legal challenges one faces when attempting to reproduce it), but to offer a sense of what it feels like to be in it.

I’m not sure when my own sensitivities to space began, although I assume like most people, from the beginning. But in college I was drawing my own architectural environments and buildings based on organic materials, like leaves or bunches of grapes. I’d draw them hyper-realistically, and then extend the veins for instance up out of the leaves into a series of arches. When I moved to NYC after college, I was trying to make these designs as bubbles—quiet, intimate sanctuaries—rising up off the abandoned or crumbling piers on the West Side. I have yet to realize those designs, but I continue to seek places out that contain that feeling. The glassed-in patio in the lobby of the Bowery Hotel is one of them.   

Image Courtesy Oscilloscope.

So much of our interaction with architecture isn’t mindful, isn’t aware. Would you say your film, on top of everything else it is and does, addresses or could even inspire a change in that for the viewer?

I think it is both mindful and aware. It is firstly an awareness that comes through the body and through experience. Beneath and intertwined with the questions of property, copyright, access, and corporate control around Barragán’s legacy is a growing awareness emanating from a slow and careful immersion into Barragán’s work. We did not have a big crew on set. It was very intimate—just Jarred Alterman, my cinematographer, and me. I think you can feel that in the film, a kind of direct relationship with the architecture, and through the architecture perhaps with the man who created it.

You’ve created ongoing intimate relationships with systems or structures in many of your works and displayed your process of diving in through many mediums, but this is the first time you’ve adopted the more familiar documentary film format to do so. Why this project and why this subject?

I’ve long recognized the cinematic potential of my work. My project Lincoln Ocean Victor Eddy (2007) in which I was secretly trained for five months by a NYC cop in post 9/11 NY was once optioned as a film, but I did not like the way the script had been adapted from my book, so I pulled out. I was very fortunate that Laura Poitras, my executive producer, became aware of my work The Barragán Archives while I was in the early stages of planning The Proposal (the artwork at the center of the film, and part of the latter stages of the project.) When I told her the idea for the artwork and that I was awaiting approval for the next step of making it from the Mexican congress, she said “Are you filming this?” When I said no, she asked me to write a proposal. Soon after she and her company Field of Vision gave me the means to begin filming.

In a sense, The Proposal ends on what could be seen as a cinematic cliffhanger. If the narrative changes, is creating a sequel something you’d be interested in?

My work is about asking questions, a process which can be exciting as well as complicated or uncomfortable. Sitting with questions, and struggling with them for a while is a good thing. The questions around copyright, about what it means when legacy such as Barragán’s becomes thought of and treated in terms of (private) property and how we, as a society, might deal with that are important to ask. I want those questions to persist, and for all of us in this time of late capitalism to debate them. Both the film and the artwork enable that.

“The Proposal” is currently screening at New York’s IFC Center and in Los Angeles at the Monica Film Center and at the Pasadena Playhouse 7 (showtimes here).

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