LYNN HERSHMAN LEESON
By Rachel Small
Photography Mary Manning
Lynn Hershman Leeson once observed of her practice, "Consistently, my most relevant ideas occur on the cusp of some disaster." "Twisted," a survey that unfolds across the second floor of the New Museum, explores the twists and turns of Leeson's winding career, teasing apart its wiring to better understand the scope of her electrifying legacy. Its most potent takeaway may be how, with every step, the artist has wielded cutting-edge, of-the-moment technology to consider, for better or for worse, the broader repercussions for humankind—interrogating human nature from every which way in the process.
As an umbrella term, "multimedia" proves insufficient to describe Leeson’s creative output. It spans innumerable formats—audio-visual-driven installations, immersive performances, participatory environments, interactive digital interfaces, documentary-style montages, as well as feature films, and, more recently, the genome. Her subject matter rings prophetic—pointedly attuned to norms on the brink of upheaval.
The 80-year-old artist has the archive to show for it. Where the art world is concerned, recognition of Leeson’s achievements—proper acknowledgement of which would have significant implications on the predominant narratives shaping contemporary art—is long overdue. It so happens that "Twisted" is, almost unbelievably, her first institutional solo show in New York City.
Leeson has long been fascinated with the cyborg, in the catch-all sense of any part-human, part-machine entity—though also looming large over her practice since its 1985 release is Donna Haraway’s watershed “A Cyborg Manifesto," which posits all cyborgian permutations as potential vehicles by which women and others long marginalized in society can transcend the limits imposed on their autonomy.
Selections at the New Museum hint at the constellation of cyborgian themes across Leeson’s work. Her earliest pieces, from the 1960s, show human forms enveloping (or enveloped by) fantastical, machinic trimmings. Between 1972 and 1978, Leeson periodically lived as Roberta Breitmore, a 31-year-old unemployed divorcée whose signature look included blonde hair, red lipstick, and a miniskirt—trappings of a conventional feminine demeanor. The persona, Leeson explains, became "an archetype of what all women went through at that point in time, which was very negative and restricted.”
In the meantime, settling in the Bay Area would prove fruitful for the Cleveland native, who found in nascent technology a continual source of inspiration. The touch screen—a new invention in the early 1980s—is central to the effectiveness of Deep Contact (1984-1989), a choose-your-own-adventure-style game in which players click across a guide’s digital body to access storylines. Directly arising out of the artist's 1994 essay, “The Dollie Clones” are two toy dolls: Tille, The Telerobotic Doll (1995) and CybeRoberta (1996), both concealing a webcam behind their glassy eyes that sends snapshots to each doll’s respective page. A sprawling, ongoing project begun in 2014, The Infinity Engine, calls attention to gene-editing technologies like CRISPR; as part of this, in 2018, Leeson collaborated with scientists to inscribe her entire archive into a strand of synthetic DNA.
It’s mid-2021 now, and mentally we are still quite un-distanced from when digital projections of the self became de facto substitutes for physical ones. The cyborg looms large indeed.
RACHEL SMALL: Your 2016 monograph, Civic Radar, includes an interview with artist and filmmaker Laura Poitras. At one point you say, "Everything is available as content and subversion." Could you explain what you meant by that?
LYNN HERSHMAN LEESON: I think that if you're aware of what the dangers of something are, you can also find a way to manipulate that against itself.
SMALL: What are some successful examples?
LEESON: The Me Too movement, the Black Lives Matter movement… People are understanding that media is power.
SMALL: In your view, what characterizes a cyborg, versus an avatar, versus an alter ego, versus a bioengineered being?
LEESON: Well, the cyborg turns 60 this year. From the time it was born, it was envisioned to help and change humanity. It was thought that it would free humans to become more creative, and that they could work in partnership with machines. Instead, something went wrong. There's a pandemic of violence. But cyborgs generally are kind of a robot-like machine that can function with technology and human input, that kind of interface.
An avatar is just really a surface photograph—a surface representation of a person that generally can't exist without that person. It's like a decal. It doesn't function autonomously, which cyborgs can.
As far as an alter ego, again, it's kind of a fiction, based on an entity of reality. But again, it doesn't have agency on its own. It's connected to whatever it's altering, you know?
SMALL: The "main" ego…
LEESON: Yes. It's like the shadow side, or the flip side of something.
Bioengineered things, with CRISPR, is a completely new identity [category]. At the biological level, you cross DNA and create something completely new. Since that's only been done fairly recently—maybe in the last 15, 20 years—we don't know about how these things can reproduce, what will happen to them in the future, how they'll function. But it's a manipulated form of life, at the DNA level.
SMALL: Has anyone ever reacted to a piece or your work overall in a way that has stuck out to you—or even made you view your work in a new light?
LEESON: Well, over the last 50 years, people said it wasn't art—so, the fact that when I was told it was art, you know, that was a real strange feeling. When I had the opportunity to then not only show it, but to sell it and place it in museums—that was pretty shocking [both laugh].
SMALL: How did that moment unfold?
LEESON: I had an exhibition “Civic Radar,” in 2014 at ZKM that Peter Weibel curated. At first, it was going to be a little show in the back. Then, the more he saw the work, the bigger the show got, until it finally became the whole museum. There were 800 works in it, most never seen. When people saw the show, they realized how many works were done decades before other people who got the credit—and also, who stole my ideas! [laughs] That was the very first time people could see that altogether—see the works for the very first time, and see how influential the work was.
SMALL: The touch-screen piece Deep Contact, which you created in 1984, taps into the idea of this helpful, interactive robot, tends toward being female.
LEESON: It started with [Fritz Lang’s 1927 film] Metropolis, and the robot, the evil one, being female. So, that's the legacy. It’s just the idea of technology and humans together and the fact that the dangers of technology—and how it can hurt you—is blamed on a female. [both laugh] I think that that was an influential trope of our subconscious: to associate women with the evilness of the technology that was to come.
SMALL: The most recent project in the New Museum show is Twisted Gravity . The installation unveils four sculptures that incorporate the Acqua Pulse system, a novel technology you developed with scientists at Harvard University.
LEESON: It deals with eradicating plastic from water. As toxins get eradicated from water and the plastic dissolves, you can see the toxicity go through a female body made with water drops etched onto plastic. It tracks the cleansing of the planet through women.
SMALL: How does that tie into the "Water Women" as a transparent, water droplet-covered female body, which first appeared in your work in the 1970s?
LEESON: During [the original performance of] Roberta, I made a woman out of plastic. It was about transcendence and how our bodies are all water, and evolution, and evaporation. That was the first one. I just kept using that over the years in different ways.
SMALL: What is the conceptual arc that connects Roberta’s various appearances across different works or series you’ve done?
LEESON: Well, she is an antibody. She comments on culture without being real. I see her as much as an antibody as the antibody [the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis] made. But she reveals the toxins of culture, like prejudice, censorship, limitation of women's rights—all the problems that women were having in the '70s when she was living, or when she was most active. So, you know, that same idea, then again, goes with the CybeRoberta, where it was the Roberta image, but it becomes a tele-robotic doll that looks around and captures your image. And so, the idea, again, of society's repression, is key—that you could see, even in films like Strange Culture , or Women Art Revolution , or The Electronic Diaries [1984-2019]. It's all about how you find a voice within a society that tries to silence you.
SMALL: I am curious about how antibodies as a motif have played into your practice.
LEESON: I was thinking about antibodies for a long time, particularly in the '90s, and how [real, physical] bodies opposed bodies that weren't real. They weren't really fiction—they were like "anti-bodies" that didn't exist.
When I was invited to do something in Basel I thought, "Oh, this is the world headquarters of pharmaceuticals." I wanted to do something and my daughter is a cancer researcher. So I asked her "What's going on?" and she said, "Antibodies."
I think that artists are the antibodies of culture. Artists generally go to the toxicities of their culture, and do work that's about that. In a sense, it puts a light on it, or cures it, or brings attention to it.
Actually having an antibody [created in partnership with Novartis] for Roberta and one for me—that was kind of the metaphor for all of it. Then, putting the entire project into DNA was like the haiku of my life. So, you look at these two things—they’re this big [Leeson gestures to indicate the vials’ small scale] and they’re invisible—and that’s the culmination of all your thinking, of everything you've done.
SMALL: Thinking about the conversations you had with scientists for The Infinity Engine, how did that experience compare to being in dialogue with people embedded in the art world?
LEESON: I think the best scientists are like artists, and they're inventors. And I majored in biology, so I could understand them. And that's what surprised them, is that I knew what they were talking about. Often with the art world, I don't know what they're talking about [laughs]. But I understood the scientists.
SMALL: What would you say the scientists you’ve been working with gained from working with you?
LEESON: I think they gained a lot. Novartis said they hit the jackpot with my project, because they weren't ever able to do what the Roberta antibody could do. I suggest things that are so off the wall that they would never think of them, because they're totally not logical.
SMALL: Your mind works that way.
LEESON: I’ve had such a weird life. I was lucky, in a way, that I don't fit in. I was taken out of school in the fourth grade and put into this special class, where part of it was that you went to college at that age. So, I never had peers my age. Because I was so weirdly brought up, I don't think in terms of the structures that many people have to fit into, because I don't fit into anything.
SMALL: In the last five years or so, what sort of patterns have you sensed in culture that are new?
LEESON: I think that there's something that's gone wrong with culture. There's a pandemic of violence and racism. And it's because of artificial intelligence and the internet. I also think that humans are struggling to find a root system, and I think that the internet and A.I. is a way for them to eventually do that. But so far, the overwhelming violence of culture has taken over. [With] all of these killings, all over.
SMALL: Toward the end of your documentary Women Art Revolution , which chronicles the work and the influence of the feminist art movement, you say, "What questions are asked in determining histories? Perhaps more importantly, what questions aren’t asked?" What question hasn’t been asked of you?
LEESON: What would you say to your young self?
SMALL: Could you answer it?
LEESON: Love more. Live more. Keep your sense of humor. Don’t worry. And don’t throw anything away.
Published: July 20, 2021