In this continuation of a conversation on the Barragan Archive, Daniel Garza-Usabiaga pinpoints questions concerning the policies of patrimonial preservation and copyright. He explores themes related to Jill Magid’s work The Proposal that have remained beyond the scope of public discussion and examines the project in greater detail.
Pamela Ballesteros: Tell me about your visit to the Barragan archive, about the space and its conditions for conservation. Can you say something about the catalogue raisonné?
Daniel Garza-Usabiaga: I got to know the Barragan Foundation as a visitor in April 2015. I’d like to say I’m not the first Mexican to enter what’s been called “the bunker.”1 Various architects, academics, and public officials have also done so, and I think they’d have no problem affirming this. Even though the term evokes an image of an inhospitable place, the space has been set up to keep the archive under ideal conservation conditions. It seems to me that the foundation has the budget to guarantee the safekeeping of this archive for years, and I believe that matters of conservation and restoration are covered by the team of the Vitra Design Museum, an institution that protects the three-dimensional archives and documents of Charles Eames, George Nelson, and Verner Panton, among others. Many of these archives were not acquired but rather donated by these individuals or their families, who surely knew where they were leaving these legacies.
In addition to “the bunker,” there’s a work area with an office and library. I can’t stress enough that what is referred to as “the archive” is actually an active research center. It’s not as if the Barragán archive is in deep storage and every ten years one person enters it for some reason. That’s not how it is; researchers work there daily. The director of the foundation is Federica Zanco, but committed historians and researchers—such as Emilia Terragni, now the editorial director at Phaidon Press, and Ilaria Valente, the director of the architecture faculty at the Polytechnic University of Milan—have worked there, and their work is internationally renowned.
For the project Luis Barragan: The Quiet Revolution, the Barragan Foundation brought together an international team of academics that included Mexican researchers from the Institute of Aesthetic Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), including Louise Noelle; researchers who work at universities abroad, such as Luis Carranza; international academics who specialize in Barragán’s work, such as Keith Eggener; as well as key theoreticians, such as Kenneth Frampton, for an understanding of modern and contemporary architecture. The result of this collaboration was the book of essays that was published in conjunction with the exhibition and that is one of the most serious publications on Barragán. I repeat: although Magid’s fiction has focused on a single figure, the foundation’s director, who is presented as keeping the archive in a prison, the Barragan Foundation is a serious research center with results and products based on outstanding work that is currently active.
Therefore, it’s surprising that an academic like Cuauhtémoc Medina would participate in what seems to be an unfriendly action, an irrational demand for repatriation. In his note, published in the newspaper Excélsior, Medina omitted the collaboration of the Barragan Foundation both with the museum where he works and with the research institute where he is affiliated; instead, he opted to perpetuate the disinformation surrounding the cost of reproduction rights of the Barragán legacy. In the same way, it’s surprising that he used his institutional position to defend an artistic project with a clearly commercial character, especially when he hasn’t used the same platform to express himself on serious political and social matters that have taken place in the country since he assumed his position at the University Museum of Contemporary Art (MUAC).
If there were really a patrimonial interest in Barragán’s work, before requesting the repatriation of an archive through an exchange for a ring, a cordial invitation could have been extended to any of the researchers at the foundation to discuss what’s been done since 1996. They could have talked about, for example, the results of the project Luis Barragan: The Quiet Revolution or of the exhibition projects they’ve collaborated on with various museums around the world, the most recent of which include Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955–1980 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This could have been a reasonable solution, but Magid’s project isn’t about reason. Here it’s worth asking all the institutions that have been involved with this project in recent years, in Mexico and the United States, why they opted for psycho-magic instead of undertaking a dialogue with a research center of professional historians? Why take the choice of systematic disinformation? This activity also applies to the press. For example, in an article for The New Yorker, Alice Gregory emphasized and propagated doubt over why the catalogue raisonné of the architect’s work being prepared by the Barragan Foundation doesn’t exist; this shows her journalistic work is completely biased. If anyone wants to know about the status of this research, they can address the foundation to discuss the development of the project, not invent or spread rumors or sow doubt.
As a note on what a catalogue raisonné can represent: this type of research establishes the foundations for a proper understanding of an archive, guaranteeing the study of it be appropriate not only for present researchers but also for generations in the future. It’s extremely meticulous and exhaustive work (that, personally, I have no inclination to do). There are researchers who spend their entire lives and academic careers in developing a catalogue raisonné. Such a work is not a slapdash publication, like one that has to be sent to the printer because the print budget has been cut, because it has to be produced before a president, secretary, director, or a rector occupying a post is leaving office, or because it’s a corporate or Christmas gift. The media pressure and indignation for the archive’s return strikes me as a contradictory position because many specific patrimonial policies that have been reflected in other fields, such as architecture and public art, are absent from the Barragán case; there haven’t been any effective movements to prevent the deterioration or destruction of his works.
PB: Let’s imagine a situation in which the archive could be returned to Mexico. What would happen as a consequence, given the lack of these responsibilities?
DG-U: Obviously Jill Magid and her collaborators should be asked if they had everything ready to receive the archive, in the event that fantasy had become reality. If this were not the case, it shows the irrationality of the demand. No serious academic or institution caring for an archive or legacy would hand it over if the new conditions for safekeeping it were not at least equivalent to the current ones. Or perhaps the plan was to request it and then, in the event it was returned, decide what to do with it. As we know, this formula has always spelled disaster in this country. Acquiring an archive is not simply a method of exchange, whether with a ring or billions of dollars. It’s having a sufficient budget to guarantee its safekeeping and conservation for years, and having a clear policy of reproduction rights. Acquiring an archive without a minimal guarantee is irresponsible. Given this, the patrimonial concerns that supposedly motivated this project seem to be a simulation, a farce, and a fraud.
If Magid’s project were serious in this regard, it wouldn’t have been restricted to transforming the ashes of Barragán into a diamond and offering this as an item of exchange for the return of the archive to Mexico. It would have taken into account, before doing this, an appropriate space that could provide the conditions for the safeguarding and conservation that the archive currently has in Switzerland, a budget to guarantee its care for a long time—let’s say, the twenty years that it has had to date in the Barragan Foundation—and to present a clear policy of reproduction rights. I mention these three points because their absence is problematic in more than one way. A building conditioned to house the archive is the most obvious; without a physical archive, a documentary archive can’t be safeguarded. Not having a budget to guarantee its long-term conservation would also place its integrity at risk; institutions in the country that acquired archives in economic-boom periods later ceased to have the same income, making conservation impossible and leading to the deterioration of documents. Finally, having a clear policy on the reproduction of images is fundamental, especially in the case of a figure like Barragán, who has had extreme visibility in recent years on a global level.
PB: This third point on reproduction rights policies, which transcend artistic values, is interesting. Barragán’s legacy takes on interest not only in the symbolic realm but also as a brand.
DG-U: That’s exactly what the Barragan Foundation has: a precise policy that leaves no room for doubt or discretion, and its stipulations can be consulted on its website, in partnership with ProLitteris, the internationally prestigious copyright clearance center. The policies stipulate in detail how reproduction rights work. The Barragan Foundation, for example, refuses to accept any commercial agreements—such as the use of Barragán’s work in advertising—and it has remained firm on this position for twenty years. Magid’s proposal, in relation to this, offers nothing. Was the idea behind her proposal that once the archive was in Mexico the reproduction rights of Barragán’s legacy would be free of any restrictions? This would be senseless because a good part of the resources to maintain and preserve the archive would have to come from reproduction rights unless Magid had a patron lined up to finance the archive’s maintenance and operation for life, which is what the architect’s legacy currently has under the protection of the Swiss foundation. Without copyright, there could be no control over the uses of the architect’s legacy. If it was possible to do anything with his ashes, what couldn’t be done with his artistic legacy?
Without these kinds of stipulations the archive is a blank check, open to improper management of patrimony, discretional matters, and other legal vices. Again, this is a particularly delicate matter in relation to Barragán who, as mentioned, is now a global figure; this situation is quite different from that of 1996 when the archive was acquired by the Swiss foundation. The recent advertising campaigns of Nine West or Louis Vuitton, produced at Barragán’s Cuadra San Cristóbal, show interest in his work—architecture as an ideal setting to sell merchandise—that is antithetical to the principles of a research center. The legal process undertaken by the Barragan Foundation, through the copyright organization ADAGP (affiliated with ProLitteris) against Louis Vuitton, for example, shows a clear policy and decisive action for the proper management of the architect’s patrimonial legacy in order to prevent its idle commercialization. This position is a keystone of any respectable foundation. It brings to mind, for example, the Fondation Le Corbusier; when have any of the buildings by that architect served as a backdrop for publicity for any merchandise? Never. It’s that simple; here, decisions of a discretionary nature cannot exist.
Interest in Barragán on the part of companies such as Louis Vuitton betrays an act in which one cannot claim naiveté. Basically this archive can be highly profitable. Given this, the absence of a clear policy on reproduction rights and the image of the architect and his legacy would be highly problematic and foretells disaster, especially in a country that’s internationally known as corrupt. This lack of a legal framework represents a contradiction in relation to the patrimonial interests that supposedly disturb Magid and, furthermore, that allow her entire project to generate a series of misunderstandings. Who, according to the artist, would be the beneficiary of the income of the Barragán archive? Her gallery? A specific institution? It would be worth hearing what she has to say about this.
The absence of these factors—a building, a budget, a reproduction-rights policy—shows that the artist’s project in relation to her interest in patrimonial matters is a fraud. I might be completely wrong. If this is the case, it would be fantastic for Jill Magid to offer a guided tour of the facilities of the upcoming Barragán Foundation in Mexico, accompanied by her collaborators, to show us the systems for the preservation of the documents, explain a bit about the trust fund supporting it, its research program, how the budget would be spent, and so forth.
PB: The leading role of the ring in Magid’s project placed the work of the Barragan Foundation as an academic institution in public doubt, in addition to pointing out and harshly condemning the work of one individual, its director, with regard to the control of the archive and its rights. However, the ring is an object within a larger body of work that you also reviewed in Switzerland. How do the other parts of The Proposal work?
DG-U: Even though the engagement ring is a sort of culminating piece in the project, there were other pieces exhibited in the Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen (June 4–August 21, 2016), including a mat made of flowers similar to the one on display in Magid’s exhibition Ex-Voto at Labor, in Mexico City, as well as a projected video of the exhumation of the ashes. In the video, one can see how the crypt was opened, the ashes were taken, and then a little silver horse corresponding to the weight of the removed material was deposited. The artist’s strategy resorted to the play of equivalences that has become commonplace and cliché in some contemporary-art projects, in which weights, names, identities, and so forth, are exchanged. The allusion to the dead, especially to a Mexican, through the offering of flowers and to Barragán with a horse is an irritating simplification. After that, various documents were displayed in glass cases in another room, and the last space contained the ring along with the letter that the artist wrote to Zanco, detailing her exchange proposal. Access between these two settings replicates one of the doors in the architect’s private home, the height of which is said to correspond to Barragán’s height—information that is both inane and untrue. I am unaware of the architect’s height—it’s an irrelevant fact for any historian—but it’s illogical that an architect would design a doorway that would require stooping to pass through it.
Some of Magid’s pieces demonstrate problematic issues in her project, production process, and the arguments that sustain it. The video, for example, serves to demonstrate how this project, and its defenders, imagine consensus. One is the presumed support of the family. But Barragán did not form a family: he didn’t marry or procreate. His parents and siblings are dead. Those who survive are the descendants of his family. Although this fact is obvious, it seems to require clarification. I’m unaware of the number of descendants in the Barragán Morfín family, but they must add up to several dozens. In the video images and storyline, it seems that the family is summed up in one person: a nephew, Hugo Barragán, an elderly man who is visibly ill. Although a large number of Barragán’s other descendants have publicly condemned what occurred with the architect’s ashes, the defenders and ideologues of this project continue to maintain the fantasy of this family. With the same intensity, they defend another imagined consensus that justifies and upholds Magid’s work: that the Mexican nation demands the archive of its sole recipient of the Pritzker prize. Lies have to be repeated as many times as possible until they become true. This process is particularly easy in a country whose media culture is apparently not concerned with critically reviewing and analyzing its sources.
The room that exhibits documents issued both in Switzerland and Mexico also serves to address another problematic scenario. The exhibition value of objects—from art to merchandise—is based, to a large extent, on the disappearance of its production process; in other words, there’s no place for the history of objects in an exhibition space or the display case of a shop. In this sense, the gallery presented a strong equivalency between legal and contractual documents prepared both in Mexico—for the exhumation—and in Switzerland—for the production of the diamond—as if the two cases were the same or as if they represented the same thing. According to data from Transparency International, for example, Mexico fulfills 44 percent of the measures intended to control corruption whereas Switzerland fulfills 96 percent. Carrying out legal procedures in Mexico, as we know, can last one to a thousand days depending on the power, money, or influence that one has. Given this local context, and considering that Magid is an artist interested in systems of power and legal processes, I think it would be a good time to ask for clarity on the process of financing, especially if the money came from institutions or research centers abroad, for the execution of this project that involved rather unconventional procedures. I believe this sort of information is really what should interest us and not the repatriation of an archive from Switzerland to Mexico.
PB: On this last point, the project has been given value for attesting to these power systems, but does that give it a radical character?
DG-U: I’m unaware of the aim of Magid’s project. I imagine that will be seen in the exhibition that she’s going to present at the San Francisco Art Institute (September 9–December 10, 2016); for now one can only speculate. It’s hard for me to believe that a serious research center, here or abroad, would represent a power system that has to be defeated no matter what cost (historically this only occurred at very critical times in countries where the disinformation and ignorance of all the media prevailed and was fostered) especially if one takes into account that the Barragan Foundation is like any other institute with a similar calling—that is to say, one that safeguards and researches archives of local or international artists or architects. If a research center of this type can be seen as a power system, then there are dozens all over the world, many of them in the United States. In this scenario, the question that should be formulated is: why was Barragán chosen as the subject, beyond an infantile story of an engagement between individuals?
I’m also unaware if Magid’s project had an unexpected setback and if the film that’s going to be premiered was intended to document and study a local power system that allowed and achieved results that seem implausible or impossible to most people, such as the transformation of Barragán’s ashes into a ring, or the recent appearances and disappearances in Mexico of corpses by magical or spiritual means, such as Francisca Zetina (“La Paca”) in 1997 or a little girl named Paulette in 2010. Unlike these last two cases, the power system that The Proposal would allude to would involve not only public officials but also gallery owners, curators, and museum directors both in Mexico and abroad. If this were the content of the documentary, I would indeed be interested in seeing it. But I don’t think that this is the objective of Magid’s project.
Apart from the aim that Jill Magid’s project might have, I think that the means that have been used to achieve it—whether the repatriation of an archive, a revealing film, or a piece of contemporary art—haven’t been appropriate. I don’t think the art milieu should be considered free of ethical implications. The fiction that supports the artist’s fairy tale—the story of a magic ring through which an archive will be returned—only matters to an minuscule percentage of people in this country. It also conveys obscurantism, a great lack of transparency, a highly particular misogyny exercised by men as well as by many women, a keen anti-intellectual stance, little sensitivity, and a lot of triviality, in addition to misinformation and lies. I don’t see anything radical in all of this—quite the contrary. Jill Magid’s The Proposal, in addition to being a complete fraud in its patrimonial intentions, is based on and contains a regressive and reactionary proposal disguised as a fairy tale.
1. The German term for the so-called bunker is Luftschutzraum, a room that was legally required by Swiss law to be built in any construction (houses, schools, businesses, factories) in the postwar period and that is generally used as a storage space.
Daniel Garza-Usabiaga received a master’s degree and doctorate in art history from the University of Essex, England. He did his postdoctoral studies at the Institute of Aesthetic Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). He was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City and the head curator at the Chopo University Museum. Today he is the artistic director of Zona Maco and also works as an independent curator.