A growing number of artists are using their work to investigate myriad injustices—the damaging effects of copyright law on an artist’s legacy, for instance, or the persistent presence of military aircraft overhead. They do so in hopes of getting viewers to question the way things are and to think critically about narratives that are all too easily taken for granted. Jill Magid, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, and Crystal Z Campbell do so by drawing attention to pieces of evidence hiding in plain sight or, as Campbell poignantly calls them, “public secrets.” These artists carefully look at and listen to various clues, then turn them into artworks meant to question dominant assumptions, or reframe things we thought we knew. This is an important skill to hone in the Information Age, when we take in more data than we can process, and rely increasingly on media to make sense of it all. Our perceptive abilities can atrophy as a result, turning us into passive consumers. These artists’ investigative approaches raise all sorts of formal challenges and ethical dilemmas, which they discuss below.
EMILY WATLINGTON How did you land on art as a tool for telling truthful stories?
JILL MAGID I’m more interested in probing the ethical implications of facts than in representing facts themselves—though a true story lends a particular kind of authority to a point. In my work, I’m interested in understanding and posing questions to systems of power; usually, the work is indexical to that system, whether it’s a surveillance system or copyright law. By exploring these systems in ways that are different from traditional research, I can try to peel away or subvert some of the meanings implicit in how they work. I don’t tell stories so much as I produce them.
LAWRENCE ABU HAMDAN Clearly, we’re living amid a crisis of storytelling. The conventional ways in which stories are being told seem not to land effectively. So I think it’s necessary to experiment with forms as we speak to issues, hopefully allowing them to be better felt and understood. For me, it’s not really a question of whether I’m using art or not—it’s about experimenting with the ways we listen.
Also, I don’t think art is a place where you add a layer of aesthetic practice to the telling of stories or the relaying of issues. Stories told in the news are aestheticized and adhere to certain conventions. I don’t see art as an exceptional space in that regard. But it is useful for showing that there are other ways to mobilize aesthetics and make things sensible. It’s not that “truth” isn’t in art and is in the news. Neither history books nor news stories are inherently objective. I see my work as being more about claim-making than about storytelling.
MAGID I agree that certain forms of aestheticization happen in all these mediums, not just art. The aesthetics are the politics, they’re same thing.
CRYSTAL Z CAMPBELL But art doesn’t have discipline-centered ethical guidelines or codes of conduct that affect the kind of work that is done or how you work with other people. These exist in other fields. I find this interesting, but it’s also a problem. Though I don’t think an artist should necessarily feel beholden to truth-telling or factual accuracy. Instead, I frame my work as being interested in the perception of different narratives, and in using strategies of art to propose alternative narratives around particular histories.
WATLINGTON For each of you, “artistic research” seems like a way to draw attention to topics that are suppressed by various institutions, systems, or political entities.
MAGID I don’t know about you guys, but I get “Oh, so you’re a research artist” a lot. And I find myself thinking, Well, maybe—but Robert Ryman researched variations of the color white his entire life.
ABU HAMDAN That’s forensic right there!
WATLINGTON If “research” doesn’t quite resonate, what about “investigate” or “uncover”?
ABU HAMDAN Yeah; most of my long-term projects exist in multiple forms: they aren’t shown just in exhibitions but are also part of investigations and human rights reports. When broader political and cultural reflections emerge through investigations, that’s typically what ends up in the galleries. To Jill’s point, what’s most interesting and rewarding is when some piece of knowledge you put into the world has an effect on something else. For example, I did a project, “Air Pressure” , on Israeli planes violating Lebanese airspace, which included a website: airpressure.info. Some of those tools are now being used in Ukraine to identify certain kinds of aircraft. When I made the work, I had a certain audience in mind and a vision for how the work would resonate. But it created its own network and began to inform other kinds of looking that I hadn’t anticipated, in arenas that have nothing to do with art. Revealing or exposing is often part of my advocacy work, but I don’t necessarily associate that with the way my work circulates as art. Over time, I’ve stopped calling myself an artist, really. I just can’t be bothered.
WATLINGTON Crystal, I get the feeling that your approach is less about uncovering and more about recovering, since you often work with historical sources.
CAMPBELL If something is a secret, that means somebody knows it. So I’m often asking, How do we get access to it? I’m fascinated by information that is known, sometimes by many people, but not necessarily spoken about. When it comes to archives, I think about material that is “under-loved”—maybe it has been neglected, or even not believed. I hope my work can create a space for acknowledgment.
A huge chunk of my recent practice revolves around the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. Even though I grew up in Oklahoma, I was not taught the history of that tragedy in public school, or even in college. I found out about it through another artist when I was living in New York, so I want to acknowledge the role that artists play in relaying histories that are maybe not shared in the institutions that are supposed to educate us. I ran a workshop at a senior living facility in Tulsa, where an elderly man responded to a book I brought in, Riot in Greenwood: The Total Destruction of Black Wall Street (2003) by Eddie Faye Gates. It contains testimonies by survivors of the massacre, and the man found his aunt listed among them. He hadn’t been aware that she was there. I found it so intriguing that her nephew had no idea that this history was part of his lineage.
MAGID I like what Crystal said: “If there’s a secret, that means somebody knows it.” I’m really interested in systems of power, and it often feels like there’s a secret inside these systems, because they function in ways that are almost invisible. Often, they’re so overwhelming that it’s hard to pinpoint the authority or control. But they are designed to function in a certain way so as to retain power. What I like about using the space of art is that it offers a way to slow down these systems and look at them in a different way.
When I was working on my project about the legacy of Mexican architect Luis Barragán, people often said to me, “If you want to know why the archive is being held by a corporation, or why it’s not being made accessible, why don’t you just ask? Why do you have to make all this work?” But I find that if you ask the same questions in the same way, you will get the same answers. There’s a way to ask questions through different forms that make you trip, and feeling imbalanced can help you look at something that seems sturdy and realize that maybe it’s not. There are all these narratives that seem set in stone that we should be questioning.
With the Barragán project, I wanted to understand how a corporation could buy a set of material objects and papers, and then own all the reproduction rights, not only to the objects in that archive but also everything else. A straightforward example is a series of photographs of Barragán’s buildings taken by Armando Salas Portugal. Vitra, a Swiss furniture company, bought the rights to the negatives. I wanted to show those pictures, which meant I had to pay Vitra. But I found a loophole in the law: since I couldn’t reproduce the photographs, I went to my framer with books that had already printed the photographs and gone through the copyright process. I said, “Frame the photograph in the book—but pretend the book isn’t there.” We drilled right through the books to frame the image, and then the remainder of the books fell outside the frame. The form materializes the constraint of the copyright law. That’s what I mean when I say the aesthetics are the politics.
ABU HAMDAN I’m most interested in questioning those things that we assume we already know, more than I am in revealing “new” things. With “Air Pressure,” it wasn’t that no discourse existed. That’s also true of my project Once Removed , about the Lebanese Civil War. But we needed new frameworks. We often hear that various histories are suppressed, but it’s more that history has completely multiplied. It’s often noise, not silence, that we’re dealing with, and there is no consensus.
Everybody in Lebanon hears those planes in the sky every day. It’s not news. We’ve learned to live with them. The work I did with “Air Pressure” was to uncover the scale and make it sensible, which then added a kind of discursive value that entered the news. The numbers started to produce their own event, but that event was as straining as it was rewarding. The project revealed something, but it didn’t get us any closer to understanding why the situation was so ignorable. Records show more than eight years of Israeli flight time in the Lebanese sky over the last 15 years, and I’m not talking about passenger jets—I mean fighter jets and drones. The most shocking thing is that this is no longer shocking!
In the news, in parliament, in the UN—in all these places where Politics with a capital “P” happen—you hear that Israel is violating Lebanese airspace. But the violation of sovereignty is the least of my concerns. That the Lebanese government claims that air as their own is in some ways a minor aspect of what is actually happening—it’s the ambient violence. In an animation on airpressure.info, you see planes flying over Lebanon, but as their flight lines intersect, you start to understand them as forming a kind of air pressure, as a force turning the air violent.
CAMPBELL Your point about the ambience reminds me of a work of Jill’s I saw in the Netherlands when I was at the Rijksakademie. She bedazzled the security cameras in the city, making this state surveillance system hyper-visible. The rhinestones also associated it with a certain essentialized idea of femininity, asking what it means to soften this invisible state surveillance.
I moved to the Netherlands for that residency just as I was getting priced out of New York City. Around that time, I made a film called Go-Rilla Means War . I was thinking about different neighborhoods, and had just done a project on Ridgewood. When I moved to that neighborhood, a friend mentioned that it used to be part of Brooklyn. I began researching this in archives of the local paper, and found that after the blackout of 1977, a lot of residents asked to be part of Queens, to avoid Brooklyn’s lowering property values. In those newspapers, I found a lot of discussion about keeping your yard and driveway clean, framing cleanliness as valuable and worthy. Around that time, I found a 35mm film on the floor of the Slave Theater, which was on Fulton Street in Bed-Stuy. The theater was being squatted at the time, and the film had been exposed to all the elements of a New York floor, including rats.
For many years, I tried to get the film digitized, but it was repeatedly rejected because it was too damaged; it was diagnosed with vinegar syndrome. Six years later, I wound up scanning 20,000 frames manually over six months. As I was digitizing the film, it flaked off in my hands. It cracked and tore, and I would have to reconstitute the material as I scanned it. I was thinking about the uptick in gentrification in Bed-Stuy, and the eventual destruction of the Slave Theater itself, which was a very pivotal site for Black civil rights in Brooklyn.
I started to see the film [which was shot in Bed-Stuy but left unfinished and without a soundtrack] as a relic of this gentrification. Digging around in the archive and online, I found a lot about scandals that involved people trying to sell that property illegally, which happened a few times before the theater was destroyed. But in the public record of the regional archives, there was only one mention of the theater’s program, despite its rich history. I often think about these kinds of voids in archival repositories, and what happens to cultural materials and stories that are unfinished or under-loved. Where do they find a home?
WATLINGTON You used the term “under-loved,” and it seems as if meticulously scanning each individual frame was an act of care for this neglected material.
MAGID The film on the floor is a very material example. That’s why I brought up the idea of indexicality, which I’m more drawn to than “truth.” If I use a piece of architecture or get access to certain footage, it’s because there’s something in that material that bears traces of some of the questions I’m asking. “Art” is a catchall word that sometimes feels just as problematic and fraught as “truth,” but I do think our practices involve using various materials that can speak about something that’s always there, but that you might not see.
Crystal brought up my bedazzled surveillance cameras [System Azure Security Ornamentation, 2002], which are a perfect example of an open secret. I saw these giant beige cameras everywhere in Amsterdam, but when I asked people about surveillance, they’d often reply, “What cameras?” I highlighted them, but it’s not as if they had been hidden. Similarly, with my project “Evidence Locker” , I developed a relationship with the Liverpool police department and made a video using surveillance footage they recorded. Everyone asked me, “How did you get access to this footage?” I said, “I just filled out the request form!” It’s about pulling the threads that are there, and being open to what happens when you find things you might not expect attached to that thread. Within the art space, you get a certain freedom to chase those threads even when they get caught on all these other things.
ABU HAMDAN Pulling and following a thread can be a quite effective method because it involves looking for relations. This isn’t necessarily as welcome in other fields. I often work with sound because it’s inherently relational. I want to zoom out and apply a sort of sonic logic to, say, history writing or historiography.
MAGID Crystal, the film you mention was sort of “abstracted” by the forces of nature, but then you went in and further manipulated it. Your use of color and layering becomes, I think, a way to help you see the material better, and prevents it from being dismissed. I read it as a method of making the subject visible, even if it’s already there.
CAMPBELL That’s certainly something I was thinking about with Flight , which involves found archival footage recorded by Solomon Sir Jones. He was an entrepreneur and a preacher, one generation out of slavery. He had the foresight to use a camera to document Black communities in Oklahoma and elsewhere in the 1920s. When I was researching Tulsa, it was hard to find images of what the Greenwood community looked like beyond the massacre. Gradually, public interest in the 1921 Tulsa race massacre picked up, especially on the heels of HBO’s 2019 Watchmen series [which is set in contemporary Tulsa] and some high-profile historical articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post. But before then, images of the community having banal everyday experiences were very hard to find. I became very drawn to what Joneswas trying to convey in his film and how much he wanted to show us self-determination among Black community members who were constantly being targeted by acts of violence, especially during the Red Summer of 1919. The most commonly shared images of Black histories show destruction and rubble and death. Even in the present, we’re constantly being bombarded with Black death. That’s why it was important for me to shift the color register for Flight; I made Jones’s black-and-white footage red and green because there’s a theory that our rods and cones can’t easily hold those two colors at the same time. I wanted to think not only about what is there that we’ve overlooked, or that has been willfully kept from public vision, but also perceptually, about the images that we can’t hold.
ABU HAMDAN Crystal brought up an important point about ethics at the beginning. As soon as you deal with material that is of moral concern, you get people thinking that critique is just defining an ethical problem. They might point to a power dynamic, and that’s where the critique stops. I find this troubling—I think sometimes precisely what we need is to experiment with the ethics of the image. With my work, in some cases I know that if I simply do the “right thing” by a witness—if, say, I give them the camera and all the time they need to say everything they want to say—this will not get them the adequate hearing that they need. They might be heard as just a person who had a terrible experience. I don’t want to just capture the sum total of bad experiences; I want the project to have an effect. Sometimes, this requires a kind of ventriloquism, or establishing a particular framework for a witness’s account, so that you can hear the power it actually has. This comes down to framing. It’s like when Angela Merkel announced she was “letting” refugees in. Really, Merkel didn’t have a fucking choice! Those people were coming in whether she liked it or not, through critical mass and a pure force of will. The political agency of the migrants passed many people by. It’s this opportunity to frame things differently that attracts me to operating in the art space.
MAGID That resonates with my experience working on “The Proposal” , a multipart project that more or less culminated in making a diamond out of Luis Barragán’s ashes. That gesture sparked an ethical debate, as it should have! My work had been asking that same question—what does it mean for a corporation to own an artist’s body of work—for three years, but it wasn’t until I made a piece that was so ethically complicated that people started actually talking about the issue. Critics would write nice reviews, but I wasn’t getting a lot of “Wait a second, how does this Swiss furniture company control this Mexican architect’s legacy?” Once I made the ring, there was a two-hour debate on live television in Mexico. I think that sometimes the work needs to ask a question in a really hard way, so that you’re forced to deal with it. There’s an ethics in those gestures too. But it’s less about right or wrong and more about drawing attention to something happening in the world.