Jill Magid’s "Failed States"

Eva Díaz

June 15, 2012
Honor Fraser, Los Angeles
June 2–July 7, 2012

The artist Jill Magid went to Texas, and boy did she have a coinkidink coincidence in true Southwestern style. By which I mean it involved guns. After being invited to create a project for Arthouse in Austin, she became interested in Vanity Fair’s profile of a sniper who had done “work” in Iraq for the U.S. military. She traveled to the area to research snipers, becoming particularly intrigued when she learned about Charles Whitman, an ex-Marine who went on a shooting rampage in 1966, taking some 48 casualties, 16 of whom died, from the 28th floor of the University of Texas, Austin, clock tower.

On her first visit to the area on January 21, 2010, Magid was approaching the clock tower and instead decided to check out the adjacent State Capitol. As she entered the building, she saw a scrum of Texas Rangers tackling a young man to the ground. Fausto Cardenas, a 24-year old from Houston, had moments earlier fired six rounds from a small caliber handgun into the sky from the south steps of the Capitol. As news crews arrived on the scene, Magid was interviewed on camera, suddenly foisted into the role of a bystander to this enigmatic crime. Fate had conspired to make her research trip into an eyewitness account of an unfolding news story. In her previous work, Magid has inserted herself into events of topical nature, for example, traveling around Liverpool in a bright red coat and later requesting surveillance footage of herself taken from the 242 CCTV cameras of the “Citywatch” program, the most comprehensive in the UK. In the case of Fausto Cardenas, however, the events literally came barreling into her. Another coinkidink: the first reporter who interviewed her after the Cardenas shooting happened to be good friends with “CT,” the former Associated Press journalist based in Austin that she’d contacted to put her in touch with the Iraq war sniper, the initial source of her curiosity about guns in Texas.

In the 129-page first-person narrative, Failed States, that Magid wrote to accompany her eponymous exhibition at Honor Fraser in Los Angeles, she writes, “I feel like I willed the shooting to happen, and yet I am dissatisfied it was so unspectacular, even while feeling thankful. What had I hoped would happen?” The conflicted relationship between fact, history, and direct experience became a focus of her life over the next two years as she tried to metabolize the psychic effects of the coincidence of her eyewitnessing. Magid developed a trainee relationship with the former Iraq- and Afghanistan-embedded CT whom she met later on the day of the shooting. Over months of repeated trips to Austin, CT convinced Magid to undertake military training to become an embedded journalist. Magid timed her visits to train with CT coincident with proceedings related to Cardenas’s legal saga. Her commitment to the case earned her the stamp of “obsessive” in one local news broadcast.

The centerpiece of the Honor Fraser show, as in the Arthouse version, is Magid’s own 1993 black Mercedes station wagon, which she converted into an armored vehicle. Mercedes are a popular car to armor in Iraq and Afghanistan, Magid learned from CT, and she just so happened to own one. The LA exhibition expands upon elements of the Austin iteration (in which the armored car was parked the spot Cardenas had chosen in front of the Capitol on January 21), structuring each room like an act in a drama, scenes beginning and ending around Magid’s presence in Austin and accounts of Cardenas’s action and its motivations. A ten-minute video loop of news coverage of the shooting and Magid’s related TV appearances begin the story. The coincidence of the similarity of Fausto Cardenas’s name to the character “Faust” gives the theatrical conceit traction as Magid has organized her exhibition around Goethe’s 1808 play. Excerpts from the play on the distinction between word, thought, and deed are overlaid as a palimpsest in one framed work on paper, while the armored car contains an audio broadcast of Magid and an actor reading this section of the work. Magid found the connection to Faust particularly haunting as Cardenas never spoke beyond rudimentary acknowledgements of court procedures, and never explained his mysterious action. In Cardenas’s case, the deed truly preceded the word.

A scene in a middle gallery consists of live video feed of the State Capitol, which happens to be filmed from CT’s downtown Austin office window. Six spent rounds of a handgun Magid shot off during her training with CT inserted into a hole in the wall bridge the space of the projection and the final room, which contains a plea Magid wrote attempting to reach Cardenas through a brother CT tracked down. Cardenas never responded to Magid’s letter.

Visitors to the State Capitol must now pass through metal detectors, and Magid no longer drives her 1993 Mercedes station wagon. Coinkidink? Magid eventually nixed CT’s vision of “code red” lifestyle overseas as incompatible with her marriage and raising her young child in New York. Her sense of the personal comingled with a public and spectacular Texan gun culture that is truly sui generis. In the end, her drama impelled a story of happenstances motivated by real-life decisions, some explained, some forever mute.

Violence, USA, Mass Media & Entertainment, Law & Justice

Eva Díaz has taught at the Pratt Institute in New York since 2009. Her book The Experimenters: Chance and Design at Black Mountain College was released in 2015 by the University of Chicago Press. She is currently at work on a new book titled After Spaceship Earth, analyzing the influence of R. Buckminster Fuller in contemporary art. Her writing has appeared in magazines and journals such as The Art Bulletin, Artforum, Art Journal, Art in America, Cabinet, The Exhibitionist, Frieze, Grey Room, Harvard Design Magazine, and October.

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June 15, 2012

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