Interview: Jill Magid on Pulling a Diamond From the Rough in “The Proposal”

The enormity of the work of the late architect Luis Barragán left behind can be seen all throughout his native Mexico where his colorful, spacious buildings constructed during the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s continue to stand tall and intimidate nearly as much with how cutting edge they remain as their height, which is why it is so immediately disarming to hear the voice of fellow artist Jill Magid in “The Proposal” as she pens a letter to Federica Zanco, a representative of the Swiss furniture company Vitra, asking for access to his archives so passionately and intimately, as if to recognize that among the extraordinary things humans are capable of is the ability to create things of such value that it puts them out of reach in any number of ways.

“I don’t actually know how to ask these big questions if it’s not through a human side because otherwise it’s just too big,” Magid told me of what may have seemed like a simple request, just days before “The Proposal” arrives in theaters. “You feel your hands are tied, but if you bring it down to [the level of] this is actually about a human being who was an artist and an architect and other human beings that care about Barragán’s legacy and have different ideas about how to put that into the world, then you start dealing with a set of relationships that are a little more manageable.”

Magid’s correspondence with Federica becomes the soul of “The Proposal,” even if the Vitra rep is only heard from in considerate yet firm denials of her request while working on a project that aims to preserve Barragán’s legacy and make his work more accessible, as much literally as figuratively as she gradually finds out. As a multi-disciplinary artist, Magid is likely all too familiar with taking on often lonely and seemingly Quixotic pursuits in search of something profound, but the result is just that with her first feature when the exchange between the two puts a human face on the gigantic cultural implications of when art becomes a commodity and falls into private ownership.

While Barragán’s buildings continue to serve as prominent testaments to his genius within Mexico, his presence as an architectural giant around the world threatens to be diminished every year his archive remains locked away after being acquired, through an unusual chain of events, by Vitra and although Magid manages to get around that by touring his creations with a camera in tow, even granted a stay at his house and studio in in Tacubaya by UNESCO, which has preserved it as a World Heritage Site, access to his voluminous archives with firsthand blueprints and sketches remain elusive. Still, Magid is able to personalize the film without requiring too many details from either her own life or Barragán’s when her frustrations with preserving his work reflect a deep concern with how easily it can disappear, perhaps retaining its worth in financial currency sitting in a vault, but losing its cultural cache, and shows both a sense of humor and creativity that are distinctly human in how she attempts to resolve the situation as she negotiates with a corporate conglomerate.

With “The Proposal” beginning its theatrical run after premiering last year at the Tribeca Film Festival, Magid spoke about working in a new medium, the challenge of finding herself as a subject of the film as well as its driving force, and making a beautifully humane film about copyright law.

You’ve said this is the final part of your Barragán project – was there always going to be a film at the end or did it naturally manifest as you were working on the other aspects of it?

It grew really out of an opportunity. The truth is I always wanted to make a film because there’s always been a cinematic narrative structure to the larger projects I’ve done and in my past projects, I wrote books about them while making them, so I’ve always felt that making a film was something I’d be interested in doing. [For Barragán], I was in the second half of the proposal stage for it because the first half was more dealing with art installations directly about the copyright question and while I was working on trying to get “The Proposal” to become a reality, Laura Poitras had asked me to write a piece for her Whitney show. When I was working on that, she asked, “What [else] are you working on?” So I started to tell her and she said, “Are you making a film about it?” And I said, “No, I would love to, but it’s not really something I’m set up to do.” And she said, “Well, write up a proposal for me.” I did and very quickly after, I had a commission from Field of Vision to make a film.

Was the copyright question something you were conscious of before this project or did it come to the fore when researching Barragán?

I had been interested in artistic legacy since a project that I did in 2005 called “Auto Portrait Pending” in which I will be a one-karat diamond ring after I die. It’s an art piece, so right now it’s shown as an empty ring setting, and the second stage of the project comes to fruition after my passing, but with that project, what I was really interested in was the relationship between the artist as a human being and the artist’s body of work. So often it’s collapsed into the same thing [where] people will talk about “Oh, I own a De Kooning” or “I have a Picasso” – there’s no real distinguishing between the artist and the product of the artist and that really is clear in terms of its commodification.

“Auto-Portrait Pending” was focused on the artist’s legacy, the body of work and how that becomes physical and commodifiable, so that wasn’t as much [about] copyright, but when I started digging into Barragán, [I began to wonder] well, what does it mean that his archive is bought? That’s physical work, I get that – [like] the drawings were bought, so they own the drawings, right? But then wait a second – if you buy the archive, which is drawings and photographs and models and furniture, how does that affect if someone photographs [Barragán’s] buildings? It was through that question of how that translates into copyright law and boundaries about what you can reproduce and what you can’t that I really deeply delved into copyright law and intellectual property right law.

What was it like negotiating your own presence in the film? Did you originally see yourself as a central part?

That was a really big question – and it wasn’t just me. It was the larger question of how do you show Barragán, who’s not alive, and how he becomes a presence that you feel in the film? And I think you do, [which] is thanks to Jarred’s filmmaking and to Barragán’s own work that just houses that presence, [but at the start] it’s like how do you get it into the film? So there was that question and then you have the question of Federica because she’s a ghostly figure too – it’s more her voice than anything else, and then if I’m driving the story, how do I show me? In the editing, if you had me too little, then you’d get lost in what the story is [because] you need a little bit of chaperone when I am not just telling the story, I’m also producing the story along with the responses back through the layers of all of these different relationships – with the family, with the government, all of those things are building the story, so they need to be represented. A lot of times you see me from behind, except when I’m in the house because I’m living there, [but usually] I’m not in it or it’s larger than me, so everyone has their place.

One of the biggest challenges for me [was actually] staying in the house because when I proposed to sleep in Barragán’s house to observe his architecture, spend time with it, and to write about it incessantly, the film didn’t exist yet, so I was doing this very intimate experiment of embedding myself into this space to be able to absorb it [intimately]. Then all of a sudden, now it’s on camera. So I had to learn, which I’m sure actors [have done] a million years before me, how to ignore that and just be present. But I wasn’t acting – I was really doing that. [laughs] It was about becoming so comfortable with Jarred, the cinematographer, and knowing and trusting him that he was seeing this in a way that I felt good about that I could then say, “Okay, well, I’m just going to sit down and write right now and you go do what you’re doing and then we come back together.” I was extremely fortunate to work with Jarred because we never really argued anything, and it was very organic in that way and grew out of our mutual understanding.

Did you have a sense of what the shape of it would be from the start?

I had an amazing editor that I worked with side by side for six months, Hannah Buck, and the structure was challenging to make actually because I knew the feeling I wanted to permeate the film, which is this meditative rumination. I wanted Barragán’s work to unfold in the film and not start off with a kind of historical presentation of him and Jarred, the cinematographer, and I were on the same page from day one on that. But the only thing I knew was how to be an artist, so the film followed the structure of the making of the work. It’s a documentary that’s happening in real time, so a lot of it we couldn’t know before what was going to happen. I invited Federica to see the show and I was going to propose there, but everything was changing as the film and the artwork was unfolding.

Of course, the back-and-forth with Federica provides a natural backbone – did it come naturally?

It’s hard to say natural structure [since] it is constructed. Each of those letters were ones that I worked on for a long time, thinking about what was the right wording to convey what I’m asking or thinking or how to respond to her really thoughtful responses. It’s a very vulnerable place to step into because I don’t know how it’s going to unfold. I waited for Federica’s letters in anticipation. I was really always so impressed by her responses and emotionally affected by them and thinking through these questions about Barragán’s work and access and control through those relationships, I was constantly reunderstanding and renegotiating my relationship to Barragán and his work and my relationship to his archive, so everything was moving constantly, and it felt like a revelation to myself. I don’t think I could present that to an audience if I myself had not gone through it and I did feel the epistolary structure should be the backbone of the film because [access to] all of the artworks and all of the installations and the movements that transpired grew out of that kind of back-and-forth relationship and how it evolved.

What was it like about getting the right voice for Federica?

It was funny because Carin Kuoni, who does Federica’s voice, was at first a stand-in. Federica’s Italian, so I thought “Okay, I have to get an Italian actor to play the voice,” and when Hannah and I were doing edits of the film, I was reading [both] my letters and Federica’s letters. As you can imagine, that got quite confusing, so Hannah was like, “I think we need someone to start reading Federica’s letters.” Carin is the director of the Vera List Center for Art and Politics, which is an institution that gave my first fellowship in making this project to research it, and she’s this incredible, elegant, poised, intelligent woman from Switzerland, so I thought her voice would be great as a stand-in. But when I started interviewing [others for the role] and taking tapes of a wide variety of really great actors, I just kept coming back to Karen’s voice. It just embodied the sound, the way I thought it should be, so we kept her.

In general, was bringing this all together in a film an exciting formal challenge?

So exciting and so challenging. [laughs] The filming of it was challenging in those deeply conceptual questions of “Who am I? Am I making the work? Am I in the work?” that I ended up solving by following the work and making the work and trusting that process. But then we had all this beautiful footage that Jarred shot and then it came time to make the film that at first was intended to be a short, so I kept saying to Laura, “Now that I got permission to sleep in the house, I really think we should film that” [or] “this is happening. I think we should film that.” So it just kept growing and let’s just say there were a lot of tears shed of like, “Am I just totally in over my head? Can I give the footage back?” [laughs] But once I finally found Hannah, just like me and Jarred, it started jelling and instead of it being something to fight against, like “How am I going to do this?” it became “What is the most beautiful way to communicate this?” That’s when it started getting fun. Of course, it was always challenging, but I really loved the process of it.

You’ve been living with Barragán for some time. What’s it like to close this chapter and put this into the world?

It’s like an existential crisis. [laughs] But that’s the nature of the work I do that I believe that to understand or grapple with these questions of this nature and life and death, mortality and legacy and Barragán’s work as a man and as an architect, I dug so deeply in and immersed myself that to climb out of that is a very big process. I’m completely changed after it and the projects previous have been that way too – that my understanding of things changes and empathy towards all of it grows deeper. It’s not a clear story of good and evil. Not at all. I think everyone involved thinks they’re doing the right thing, so that’s something that I take with me, but I have to for the next thing create a whole new vocabulary around me because Barragán and the work I made around Barragán is its own world.

“The Proposal” opens on May 24th in New York at the IFC Center and May 31st in Los Angeles at the Monica Film Center. A full schedule of theaters and dates is here.