In 1968 the artist Lynn Hershman Leeson (then known as Lynn Hershman) began publishing art criticism under the guise of three invented personas: Gay Abandon, Herbert Goode, and Prudence Juris. Each “critic” had his or her own style, aesthetic preferences, and venues, ranging from local San Francisco weeklies to prestigious art magazines like Studio International; all, however, appreciated the work of Lynn Hershman, who in turn used these favorable press mentions to appeal to Bay Area galleries.
At a talk last month between Hershman Leeson and Artforum editor-in-chief Michelle Kuo hosted by Light Industry to celebrate the forthcoming release of Civic Radar, the first comprehensive monograph about the artist’s work, she described her motivations simply, noting that she couldn’t get critics or dealers to pay attention to her work and decided to take matters into her own hands. But to those familiar with Hershman Leeson’s career, this early project, ultimately submitted as her master’s thesis to San Francisco State University, hints at one of the dominant themes in her work over the past five decades: the notion that identity is as much a bureaucratic category as a psychical one, determined through bits of paperwork and institutional markers—ID cards, bank accounts, receipts, bylines. Though Hershman Leeson began her career in an era when smartphones and Wi-Fi seemed like a futuristic fantasy, her work anticipates a world in which social interactions are mediated by devices and everyday life performed for public consumption online.
Civic Radar, which follows a retrospective of the same title held at ZKM in Karlsruhe last year, provides a well-illustrated overview of Hershman Leeson’s work. A catalogue of the artist’s projects from the 1960s onward is presented roughly chronologically, punctuated by scholarly essays, interviews, and a selection of her writings from the 1980s to the present. The contributors include Pamela Lee, Peggy Phelan, Kristine Stiles, Hou Hanrou, and Laura Poitras. There’s also a “Letter to Lynn” from Tilda Swinton, who starred in Hershman Leeson’s films Conceiving Ada (1997), Teknolust (2002), and Strange Culture (2007).
For many readers, Civic Radar will be the first opportunity to encounter the entire arc of Hershman Leeson’s career and get a sense of the breadth of her work. Though the exhibition traveled to several venues, none were in the United States. As the artist notes in one of the book’s interviews, about 70 percent of the works included in the ZKM retrospective had never been previously exhibited. “People told me it wasn’t art,” she says.
The opening essay, by the book’s editor, media theorist and ZKM chairman Peter Weibel, begins with a provocation. “Among the central terms of quests and questions of twentieth-century art and society are those of representation, identity and gender,” Weibel writes. “By way of a logical syllogism, one can infer that an artist who is dealing with these central problems in twentieth-century art is a central artist of the twentieth century.” In the straightforward equation he draws between substance and centrality, Weibel hints at a question that Hershman Leeson, like many other feminist artists of her generation, has confronted repeatedly throughout her career: what are the conditions that allow an artist to be visible?
Because Hershman Leeson’s work has continually pushed the limits of institutionally sanctioned forms, mediums, and subjects, she has often had to create a context for it herself. In 1972, invited to exhibit at the Berkeley Art Museum, she installed several of her Breathing Machines of the mid ’60s—wax sculptures of female heads outfitted with recordings of the artist breathing and talking that were triggered by hidden motion sensors—alongside more conventional drawings. When the artist returned a few days later, she found that the museum’s curators had removed the machines. In turn, she created a site-specific installation in a room at a run-down hotel in San Francisco, Dante Hotel (1973–74), featuring life-size wax figures in bed accompanied by the sounds of breathing. She advertised the installation, open 24 hours a day, in local newspapers, allowing visitors to adopt the role of voyeurs in an uncanny mise-en-scène of a sleeping couple’s disheveled hotel room.
For what is probably her best-known work, Hershman Leeson invented the persona of “Roberta Breitmore,” (1973–78) described by the artist as “a simulated person who interacts with real life in real time.” Roberta had her own wardrobe, makeup preferences, and hairstyle, giving her a visual identity distinct from the artist’s own, and, eventually, an independent legal identity as well: Roberta opened bank accounts and credit cards, signed a lease, obtained dental records and even a temporary California driver’s license. She also saw a psychiatrist, joined Weight Watchers, and ran classified ads in local papers, with the artist assigning a photographer to surreptitiously document her encounters with Roberta’s would-be roommates and companions. Eventually, Hershman Leeson turned over responsibility for performing Roberta in the world to others, hiring a series of Roberta “clones.”
In 1978 Roberta was “exorcised” by Hershman Leeson at the crypt of Lucrezia Borgia in Ferrara, Italy, formally ending the project. After this came Lorna (1984), considered the first interactive video installation (on LaserDisc), which allowed viewers to manipulate the titular character, a 40-year-old agoraphobe whose contact with the outside world is mediated entirely by the telephone and TV screen. One potential ending allowed viewer-participants to instruct her to commit suicide.
The embrace of cutting-edge technologies has been a hallmark of Hershman Leeson’s work: she began creating Internet-based projects in the mid-’90s, including CybeRoberta (1996), a robotic doll version of Roberta Breitmore whose eyes were replaced with webcams. She has also made several genre-defying feature-length films, described by B. Ruby Rich in one of the book’s essays as “count[ing] simultaneously as science fiction and documentary—life fictions, fictional lives, docudramas, drama-docs.” Among these was Conceiving Ada (1997), about a contemporary computer scientist who time-travels to communicate with Ada Lovelace, the 19th-century mathematician who wrote the first computer program. Another, Teknolust (2002), is about a geneticist, Rosetta Stone, who clones herself by downloading her DNA onto a computer. Later films pushed the conventions of documentary: Strange Culture (2007) is about the ordeal of Critical Art Ensemble member Steve Kurtz, who was investigated for bioterrorism, combining dramatic reenactments, news footage, interviews, and animation, while !Women Art Revolution (2010) is a personal history of the feminist art movement of the 1970s based on decades worth of archival footage. The turn to film was partly motivated, once again, by frustration with her limited reception within the art world (“My early videos would be shown in the corners of museums,” she once said. “I wanted to reach a broader audience.”)
As her writings make clear, her interest is less in tech-for-tech’s sake than the possibilities suggested by interactivity, seen, by the artist, in politicized terms. In a prescient essay from 1985 reproduced in Civic Radar, “Interactive Technology and Art,” she writes that interactive technology “represents the antithesis of communication as we have known it,” challenging the idea of media as a one-way transfer of information from producer to passive consumer and potentially opening up new channels of political participation.
It is telling that Hershman Leeson’s work is now receiving belated recognition, as the themes that she has been addressing since the 1960s—surveillance, data, social performance, bioethics—have become particularly urgent. However, in her most recent projects, she continues to chart new territory. She is currently at work on a multi-part project, Infinity Engine (2014–), rooted in her extensive research into genetically modified organisms and DNA sequencing. For the ZKM exhibition, she created an installation replicating a cutting-edge genetics lab, including an interactive “capture room,” developed in collaboration with molecular biologist Josiah Zayner, which employed facial-recognition software in an attempt to deduce information about the subject’s genetic makeup from an analysis of external traits. The project points to the various possible implications of this kind of genetic research: on the one hand, medical breakthroughs that allow us to transcend the limitations of the human body; on the other, the new frontier of governmental and corporate surveillance. “I’ve consistently worked on projects where the roles of the observer and the observed are interchanged, and the user becomes both the victim or the aggressor,” Hershman Leeson remarks in an interview with Poitras. “The viewed or the voyeur. They can see both sides, the dark and the light.”