Lynn Hershman Leeson

"I've always been good at science."
Interview by Jacky Connolly
Portrait by Fidelis Fuchs

Lynn Hershman Leeson is an artist, filmmaker and media pioneer whose practice spans more than four decades. Her early work is almost prophetically relevant to our current condition; prevalent themes include the interfacing of humans and machines, our orientation towards technology, surveillance, genetic engineering, and virtual reality. Recently, Lynn's vast body of work has received a wave of overdue recognition with a retrospective of her work at ZKM Center for Media and Art in Germany and Origin of the Species, the inaugural exhibition at Bridget Donahue. Unwilling to accept the parameters set within the art, film and science industries Hershman's work continues today to push these boundaries as can be seen in her recent installation The Infinity Engine, and its soon-to-be released feature film counterpart.

I've been watching all of your feature films this past week, which has been great. Women Art Revolution! was really unbelievable. I just wanted to thank you for doing that because it's really important. I've taken a course on women artists before and still it missed so many of the women you featured in the film.
So many people were overlooked like Marcia Tucker, for instance. No one recorded these important women. I thought somebody should shoot them and it turned out nobody else did.
It's just an amazing contribution. I was glad that you included yourself in it also. I was really blown away by that part in your documentary when you took all your work to the museum and they wouldn’t take it.
I'm really glad in retrospect that they didn't take it because now I can sell it. Because I had so few collectors my whole life my retrospective was easier to accomplish.

Official trailer for !Women Art Revolution, 2011

How did you get interested in art? Was there an “aha” moment?
From my earliest memories, I was always making things. I never had a choice of whether I was going to be an artist- I can't do anything that functions so it's what I do. The “aha” moment of whether I was an artist or not was probably after they closed my show at the University Art Museum in Berkeley and said media wasn’t art. That was why I set up the hotel room, to show I didn’t need anyone to define what was or was or was not art.
The Dante Hotel?
Yeah. I consider that my first artwork. The idea of taking that risk and just doing it on my own was the first decisive moment.
I was wondering how you initially were compelled to create Roberta Breitmore.
When I did the hotel rooms I started to put things in the room from an imaginary person might live there. Then I thought, “what if you liberated the imaginary person.” At first I wanted to do that with an actor but nobody would do it, so I had to. I never thought it was going to last as long as it did.
It was a 4 year project, right?
Longer. Conceptually it started with outlines in 1972 and ended after the exorcism in 1979. I needed to have all that time to make her real, have her reflect that reality. And what is the point that fiction starts and reality ends? What is believable and what's the blur?

Phantom Limb #2, 1986

When did you first become interested in making work about technology?
I think I was in high school and I tried to Xerox something. I was Xeroxing a drawing to get a record of it and the paper crumpled up. I really liked it and I kept trying to reuse the Xerox machine to have it make these weird images.
How did you find out about Interactive Laser Discs?
I read about the National Gallery doing something where you could look at art in different ways with this technology. I got in touch with people from the company that was doing the first laser disc.It was called Video Disk Publishing and they agreed to help me with Lorna. At the time, nobody knew about laser discs.
It must have been a really early technology.
Yes. There were no icons or anything about how you move forward and how you move back and so we had to invent all that. We had to invent the terms of how you played it.
A lot of your work it represents a woman in the interior.
Escaping.
Sometimes they escape, like in Teknolust the characters escape their interior confinement. It's funny, when I was watching Teknolust, Ruby would sometimes remind me of Roberta.
Originally, when we were working on Teknolust, she looked like Roberta, but Tilda didn't want to wear any makeup so we had to switch the look to three different interpretations.

LORNA, 1983

How did you transition from art to film?
I was in a carpool with Eleanor Coppola because our kids are the same age and they used to have screenings at their home all the time. It just didn't look to me like it was that hard to do so I literally just picked up the camera and started. I took a Super 8 class at the local community college. Then I started just doing it on my own. If I had gone to film school, I would have felt a lot of restrictions about what you're supposed to do. When I was at Sundance with Strange Culture, I was told that I broke the fourth wall. I had to ask somebody what that was.
Making a movie is a really daunting and involved process compared to video art.
It was harder than it looked!When you're a video artist you're marginalized. I thought if I did a feature film more people would see it. That was kind of the impetus for doing it.
How did you meet Tilda Swinton?
When I wrote Conceiving Ada, I thought the only person to really do it is Tilda Swinton but I didn't know her. When I called her agent and told him my budget he said she couldn't do it. Serendipitously I was in Berlin showing The Electronic Diaries and happened to accidentally sit next to someone who said they were Tilda's best friend in Berlin. She said that Tilda was looking for interesting projects so she told Tilda and Tilda called me. Her agent said she could do it for five days only, so we did .
I learned about Ada Lovelace in a library science course at school. A lot of people don't know her story.
With the internet she became better known. When I found out about her in the early '90s, nobody knew about her either.

Still from Conceiving Ada, 1997

It's interesting that even in commercial uses, AI robots are often women.
That was one of the problems ofHer. She was a secretary. Also I had problems with Her because I gave Spike Jonze my script for Teknolust and I asked him to be in it. We spoke a lot about my programmer who fell in love with Ruby. Then he worked this same idea into Her without crediting me whatsoever. Maybe he forgot where the idea cam from, I don’t know…
The way you depict the relationship between women and technology is so radically different from other popular tropes. Teknolust has a totally different character to it.
These works are sort of inverted. At the time they were made everyone hated them. Teknolust was booed at Sundance. I had a contract with a distributor who wouldn't release it. Now with time, people have begun to appreciate it and other things I’ve done…
I love when Tilda, as scientist Rosetta Stone is surveilling her own clones through a screen in her microwave. Looking in on them trapped in this cyber-harem in the basement, watching a loop ofHollywood film clips of traditional Hollywood femininity for"inspiration".
She's going to play a cat in the next film.
Is that The Infinity Engine?
I don't know if that' going to be the name of the film, but it's the name of the whole project. She plays a glowing green cat, named Tilda that is used for AIDS research. I just added another cat, Quincy and she falls in love with him.
An animated cat?
No, it's going to be a real cat.

Still from Teknolust, 2002

Women that work with information technology or computers often work as librarians. They become human interfaces to do sort of simple tasks that AI isn't sophisticated enough for. This reminds me of the website you created for Agent Ruby. Did you come up with the idea for Agent Ruby before making the film, as sort of a vehicle for that artwork?
Exactly. I mean, you can imagine how hard it was to get Teknolust, this crazy movie about three clones, made, but at that time nobody was thinking about AI robots and the Internet. There were 18programmers from all over the world trying to figure out how to do it because it was 1998. We found people from all over the world who would contribute parts of it because it was an interesting project.
Wow.
I mean, that's what all these projects are. A group of people who are interested in doing something that extends technology. It wasn't really done for commercial purposes, just to push as far as we can with the technology itself. Carnegie Mellon spent multimillions doing AI projects and none of them do as much as Ruby and DiNA, which we did out of nothing except goodwill. I'd be surprised if the whole cost more than $20,000. People gave us software and donated open source so we could do it.
Yeah,you really couldn’t say Siri is as good as Ruby.
Siri’s not as good and she is 12 years younger. DiNA now has voice recognition and talks to you and remembers things and searches in a different way.

Agent Ruby, 1998-2002

The documentation of The Infinity Engine installation is unlike any art exhibition I've ever seen. Could you talk a little about it?
The installation is a reproduction of a genetics lab. We had to register The ZKM Museum as a genetics lab, so we could get the Glo Fish in there, In the installation you travel through different rooms. There's a room with the Glo Fish that has the wallpaper of all the life-forms made through GMO since 2006. Then there's a room that has a lot of the court cases, patenting, who owns what, supreme court cases. Another room has 130 interviews with amazing scientists from around the world,about the future of genetics and humanity. Then there’s a face scanning room: it scans your face and then reverse engineers facial recognition to find out your origins; where you were from genetically.
How did you get that?
Dr. Josiah P. Zayner from Nasa did it. Then the work creates a composite of users called Cyrus. Eventually you will be able to send in a selfie to add to the composites, and all the people’s composites will be in the movie.
The face scanning thing is so heavy. I came in from an international flight and now to go through customs, they scan your face.
Originally I wanted to do something that used people's actual DNA but it was too complicated and expensive with swabs or hair samples. Getting Glo Fish in Germany was already a problem... SO we invented this way to do it through the facial recognition. I think it's going to be the future.

Roberta Breitmore in Second Life, 2006

That’s so chilling that so much information about you could be found without your consent. How did you get interested in GMO’s?
My whole family are scientists. My mother was a biologist, my father was a pharmacist. My brother and daughter are doctors. I was the only throwback. But I was always interested. I was always good at science.
So you're influenced through that connection?
I think so. I think science is like magic but I'm not afraid of it.
Its important for artists to pay attention to science right now.
That's why ZKM was the perfect place to show my work. There really is no museum in America, or even the world that would consider this art or show this kind of work. ZKM is radical in that it deals with art and science and technology.
Did you have much formal education in science?
I studied biology at Case Western Reserve University. I took a lot of art classes at the Art Institute too.
You used to teach, right? Do you still?
I'm doing a class at the Art Institute in San Francisco. It puts me in touch with younger people. In the Bay area you just breathe new technology so you know about things before they're public. People talk about it, like they talk about scripts in LA. It's an advantage.
What's your favorite thing to show or screen or talk about to students?
I usually show Metropolis, or Beauty and the Beast.

From Sex Magazine #10 Spring 2015
Labelled Art