In a 2007 work, Lincoln Ocean Victor Eddy, Jill Magid enacted a performative infiltration into a remote world by cultivating an ambiguous, clandestine relationship based on her fascination with a New York police officer: She persuaded him to train her as a cop, shadowing him on the night shift. Magid's 2010 Reasonable Man in a Box - a project developed for the Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Gallery on the Whitney Museum of American Art's first floor - composed of a large-scale video projection featuring the shadow of a scorpion and a wall text with manipulated excerpts from the now infamous Bybee memo (aka the "torture memo"), likewise seeks to perform a critical operation on power, this time in relation to the Bush administration's imperious version of presidential authority that facilitated the "war on terror."
Magid uses the memo - designed to provide legal justification for the administration's blurring of the lines between interrogation and torture - to enact an allegory that foregrounds the text's own absurd legal (and linguistic) contradictions, focusing specifically on an excerpt that responded to the CIA's request to place insects in a confinement box as a technique to interrogate a high-level Al Qaeda operative with a purported fear of bugs. Upon entering the gallery, we initially encounter the question what is a reasonable man in a box? in enlarged handwritten script. This query leads us to the opposite wall (to the immediate left of the entryway), where Magid has silk-screened a collage of the aforementioned passage. Crafting a kind of concrete poetry, she disassembles and reassembles the text, making strategic use of the black-band redactions by which the document's censors rendered an illogical legal argument all the more absurd. Magid's deconstruction of the nonsensical legal argument concludes with the assertion that "the insect's placement in the box would not constitute a threat of severe physical pain or suffering to a reasonable person in [the operative's] position."
Devised to circumvent torture statutes (i.e., to reframe torture as nontorture), the language is unnervingly oxymoronic, implosively tautological - qualities that Magid amplifies by using a typographic style that suggests a breakdown of the signifying chain and rational legal discourse. However, one of the results of Magid's intervention is the recognition that the original Bybee memo doesn't really need any reconfiguring for us to grasp its dangerously arbitrary relationship to morality, ethics, humanity, reason, and, fundamentally, the law: It's a self-indicting document. And so whether Magid's textual de- and reconstruction does much to expose the text's nutty legalistic convolutions and contradictions is a bit doubtful. One imagines that Magid deployed the question "What is a reasonable man in a box?" to prick our consciousnesses into realizing the ludicrousness of it all, but most reasonable people already came to this conclusion long ago.
The video projection, occupying the gallery's far right wall, commences with a silhouette of a scorpion being placed into our field of vision by a pair of tweezers. The specimen scuttles about as if performing a kind of insect shadow theater, although little menace is generated by the scaling-up of the image. One surmises that the video is meant to evoke the psychological terror of sharing a confinement box with a live scorpion, and that by positioning us within a darkened gallery space, the artist casts us as the reasonable victims of the brand of torture masked as interrogation that the Bybee memo endorses. Ironically, though, the video comes across as the more didactic element here, converting into literal visual representation that which the memo - either Magid's version or the original itself - so chillingly and perversely evokes through legalese; plus, it is hard to feel like an enemy combatant at the Whitney. While Magid's project was a useful reminder of the former administration's pernicious effort to circumvent international law (we're left imagining that intelligence agencies may still be conducting interrogations at the margins of legality), one wonders whether it would have been more fecund and trenchant if the artist had also alluded to the conditions of power that arise within the context of the museum when it serves as a stage for art that seeks to engender political praxis.