An Immodest Proposal: Artist Jill Magid on Luis Barragán and Her First Feature Film

Barragan vs Barragán. The former: copyrighted by the Vitra Foundation in Switzerland, overseen by Federica Zanco. The latter: the way that Mexico’s most acclaimed architect—Luis Barragán—spelled his name till his death in 1988. That the accent mark makes such a difference is at the crux of The Proposal, conceptual artist Jill Magid’s debut feature and documentary about her attempts to access the architect’s professional archive.

Part suspense film, part eccentric romance, The Proposal chronicles Magid’s written correspondence with Federica Zanco, culminating in a brazen proposition to move the Barragán archive back to Mexico—a “proposal” as inventive and unorthodox as the architect himself.   

Magid and I spoke on the phone following the debut of The Proposal at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. Her film opens in New York Friday, May 24th, at the IFC Center.

What fueled your fascination with Barragán specifically?

It’s always been a multilayered interest. First I went to see his house in Mexico City, and was immediately so moved. My first desire was to want to sleep there and write. Within the first five minutes of being there, it was like, “How could you not make art in this house”? It breathes this poetry that Barragán is known to talk about wanting his spaces to create. At the same time, within the history of my practice, it’s not like I usually make a work about an architect or artist that I’m moved by. So I moved it aside, but then very quickly learned of his contested legacy and how the personal archive was in the house, but the professional archive was overseas. I found out about the problems that related to these different owners and the proprietary nature of legacy. It was the combination of my love of Barragán’s work and the inaccessibility of it, and the relations of power in control over his legacy—all these things together started to appear to me as a zone of creative interest.

And, you know, sometimes it feels like a project finds you. When I first saw his work and had the disappointment of finding out I couldn’t access it, I eventually felt fortunate. When I heard the story, I realized it contained all the issues I’ve dealt with for twenty years—access, power, control, how artistic legacy is conveyed or manipulated. It was all there in this beautiful set of circumstances that highlighted some of the most pressing questions of our time. How do you buy the rights to these things that seem intangible, but are totally purchasable?

Cinematographically, your film zeroes in on the architecture in a gorgeous way. I was reminded of Antonioni.

He’s my hero! The fact that you would say that is the best possible thing you could say to me [laughs]. Many years ago, in 2005, I actually made an art piece for my show in Amsterdam at the Stedelijk Museum Bureau, and it was based on the film L’Avventura by Antonioni.

So it’s fair to say he was an influence in terms of how he approaches framing, space, and the planes of the film?

Influences are such a funny thing—you’re building them up your whole life. When the cinematographer [Jared Altermann] and I first met, I said, “I do not want to make a behind-the-scenes BBC-style documentary.” Godard, Pasolini, Antonioni—these are the filmmakers I’ve been drawn to. I never wanted to map out how to film the architecture in the same way, but I wanted to make it slow and meditative in the vein of those filmmakers.

I noticed that the footage of the very contemporary architecture of Vitra Foundation—the Swiss home of the Barragán professional archive—seems static, the camera movement less fluid, as though mimicking the power structure and impenetrability of that corporate entity.

Yes. We thought a lot about the differences between the texture of Mexico, the texture of Switzerland, and the feeling of New York. It’s very slight, but in post-production we discussed the color of the light when depicting these places, how to film them. Because Federica was writing these letters as a specter or ghost—her voice only animated by the letters on the page—the Vitra building became a stand-in for her. The architecture and environment of Switzerland is so dramatically different than the Barragán buildings. But it is interesting how the Vitra building almost becomes Federica’s voice, synonymous with her.

Barragán is said to be the most literary of architects, and in a way your film takes on a literary quality because the letters are so central to the narrative. It reminded me of 19th century epistolary novels that transpire between two people.

At first I just intuitively felt it. You can’t take a tour of Casa Barragán, and not feel the literary quality of his light working. It feels like you’re walking through a book when you’re walking through his house. He structured the light and the shadows like a comma, exclamation, point, the space between paragraphs. Maybe it’s corny, but it really felt like that. I love the quote from Rosario on how Barragán designed his work based on stories. Not only novels, but when he had clients, he would write the story of the family and design the space from that. These were the qualities of his work and his mind, as I understood it, that were lost in the scholarly way the Vitra archives are approached. I think the work that Federica is doing is very important, but there’s another sensual, literary quality that is also really important—to not only point out, but to express in the feeling of the film.

Did you include all the letters between the two of you?

Not all of them, but I really chose the ones that pushed the narrative along. There were other tangential letters that I made shows around—like about authenticity and reproduction and Josef Albers. When Hannah and I were editing, some of the tangents became too complicated. The most important thing was to make a film that honored Barragán’s work and his legacy, and to keep the voice of the film inside the body of artwork, and not on the outside. It’s really a performance film. I feel proud that the only letters included were the ones that were necessary.

Writing is also at the heart of my practice. I’ve written four books for other projects, and they have a diaristic, searching sense to them. I write it as I’m going along. I think you get the same searching quality in The Proposal though the medium of film is vastly different than a book—which I had to learn about.

A feature film is so different than an art film or a book—how did you go about it?

It was really challenging for a while. With this book I’d written—Lincoln Ocean Victor Eddy—a director tried to option it at one point. But he said, “You have to adapt the book for screen.” And I was like, “What do you mean? It’s perfect for a film as it is!” And I obviously didn’t understand, to the point where I had to let it go and the film didn’t happen.  This time around, the filming part had its own challenges because the artwork and the letters drive the narrative forward, but I never really knew what was going to happen. In 2015, when Laura Poitras first commissioned the film and Jared came with me on the first shoot, I had to get used to both doing my work and directing a camera. That was the first strange thing. But then Jared and I found a very fluid way of working. He’s an amazing cinematographer, and he was able to discern what to film when I was working on what I was working on.

There seems a really personal touch to what is shown of you onscreen. The camera seems to deliberately avoid featuring you in the frame in a conspicuous way—in terms of your face and expressions. You’re a kind of mystery figure even though you’re not, as there’s more attention to your actions and movement. It seems like the film was making the architecture the protagonist instead of you.

When I’m walking a lot, the camera follows me. I’m leading you through the story and producing the story. There’s the status of the situation without me, but then there’s me riling the leaves up that have become stale on the ground. I certainly didn’t want it to be a character study of me. You might pick up something about my process along the way, but I’m more a tool that goes into an existing series of systems and brings you through it. I want to leave room for the viewer—to see the situation and make his or her own decisions.

Attention is so often drawn to how female artists physically appear—versus what they make and what they do. I really appreciated your film’s move away from that. The one scene that reminds us of what you look like is when the Barragán family is approving of your “proposal”. Did they get on board pretty quickly?

The family was, is, and continues to be unbelievably supportive. There are two reasons why I did not go even deeper into my relationship with his family. First I got the commission to make the film after I’d already had multiple meetings with the family. And then there’s always the practical constraints of what you can film and what you can’t film. When I had the idea for the proposal, I met Hugo Barragán Hermosillo, his nephew, for whom the film is dedicated. He was one of the heads of the family, and when Barragán died, his ashes were transferred to him. When I had the idea, I was told I had to speak to Hugo. Immediately he said, “I think it’s beautiful, I love the idea.” He also knew that there was no certainty that it would change the status of the archive. But he totally got the poetics of it.

There’s also a kind of courtship between you and Federica throughout the film. Even proposing with a ring is so gendered, flipping the power dynamic, since you were the one proposing.

Yes, I loved that. Federica is a kind of protagonist in the film. A lot of the systems of power that I’ve entered in the past were controlled completely by men. Like with the police surveillance realm of Liverpool, there wasn’t one woman in the entire building. And the cops I worked with in Lincoln Victor Ocean Eddy—all were men. So it was really interesting when the gatekeeper of the Barragán archive, the person I’m writing, is this powerful, smart woman. I feel absolutely that the proposal was gendered in a different way because we are both women, but it’s also above that because it’s about the position of power—and of power being assumed. It’s not just about gender. It’s more complicated by other circumstances.

Federica clearly also represents Vitra and corporate interests. You play a sort of interloper. There is at once something very egalitarian about the meeting between the two of you toward the end of the film, as you are both powerful women, but also something disconcerting between the type of power you have: the difference between creative power and corporate power. Your physiognomy was also really interesting to me. She’s so much bigger than you, physically, and yet you are the one “proposing”. Are you still in touch with her?  

Before the film came out at Tribeca, I did write her a letter explaining my approach. She and everyone following knew there was going to be a film. When it was first commissioned, we thought it would be a short, but it developed into a feature over time. I wrote to tell her that it was coming out, and how much I appreciated her engagement with me—and that, while we might not see eye-to-eye on everything, I respect her opinions and thoughts. I’m thankful that through our similarities and differences, we could not only have a dialogue with one another, but could make these questions open to debate. As far as where we go from there, I don’t know.

Was there any footage you couldn’t show because of copyright restrictions?

We tried to be very careful. We consulted the lawyers on what we could and could not do. My work has always been about navigation. I actually enjoy boundaries like that, because I find that these boundaries force me to be really creative. If I can’t show this, then what can I show? The laws around what you can and cannot show, and how, and for how long, they’re a little bit murky. You always want the lawyer to say, “You can say this, but you cannot say that.” But instead it’s more like, “You can kind of say this….”. So it’s always tentative. I opted not to show Federica’s face because I did not feel it was necessary. And because I felt our interaction would be more appreciated without it.

As someone who used to work in rights and reproduction for an art museum, I find this a truly fascinating project—on both a philosophical and reflective level.

It’s great that you can come at it from that perspective. A woman came up to me last night after the film was shown, an archivist, and she said, “Thank you so much for making this film.” She has also confronted the issues of closed archives. I think it’s a new field—there are all these artist estate conferences now. And they’ve said, “Whether you agree that an archive should be run in this way or that, it’s worth thinking about more.” There are all these people who write books, but can’t show the images. And that’s a shame.

But your film also isn’t heavy handed about systems of global power at the macro level.

Yeah. I don’t want to be the judge. Instead, I want to give a map of the existing relationships between European and Latin American power relations. I also wanted to be very careful in the film that I was not saying that my perspective is right, and that I’m the one who needs to tell the story. It’s actually the opposite. I am one person entering into this. I recognize I’m an American, I recognize I’m an outsider. In some ways I’m an insider in that I’m an artist and feel close to Barragán as an artist. But it’s a space that I see a lot of artists, poets, doctors, carpenters, stepping into and making their own work. There’s no proprietary position that I want to hold. That, again, goes back to how the film shows so much of the back of my head, of stepping aside to honor Barragán’s work. You have to give that space for everyone else—to agree, disagree, or have a different idea altogether.

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