Lynn Hershman Leeson on Cyberfeminism, Genetics, and Retooling Technology for the Benefit of Humankind

Tess Thackara
May 19, 2016 1:59PM

“It’s actually extremely gratifying,” Lynn Hershman Leeson told me over the phone recently from her studio in San Francisco, “that after all this time, there’s acknowledgment that I’m not crazy.”

Portrait of Lynn Hershman Leeson by Lisa Blatt. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The 74-year-old artist is one of a couple dozen women who, over the past three years, have received a surge of long-overdue attention across the art world. Though she has been recognized on the West Coast as a feminist and new media pioneer for at least 10 years, and had a sprinkling of shows on the East Coast in the ’80s and ’90s, it has taken some 30 years for the art establishment to wake up to the extraordinary prescience of her work, which since the 1970s has anticipated our intimate relationship to technology, the prevalence of virtual identities, and the expansion of the surveillance state—and which is now placing a lens over developments in genetic research.

This newfound recognition is thanks, in part, to two exhibitions held in 2015: a solo at Bridget Donahue, in New York, and a retrospective at ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany—where she installed a genetics lab complete with live, glowing genetically modified fish, an “Ethics Room” housing files of court cases on gene patenting, and a gallery in which visitors could call up one of over 20 scientists to hear about their research. Now, Leeson’s 383-page monograph, Civic Radar, the culmination of her life’s work so far and a companion to the show at ZKM, will be released in the U.S. next week.


“What was so frustrating earlier,” she says, “was that I could see these things happening, but no one else could. In a sense, culture caught up with the work.” That work took form in 1970s San Francisco, when the UC Berkeley Art Museum rejected an exhibition Leeson proposed on the grounds that it included sound, which they didn’t consider a legitimate art form at the time. Barred entry to the art establishment, Leeson took her practice to the public. To San Francisco’s Dante Hotel, in fact, where she booked a room and installed the world of her fictional character Roberta Breitmore, one that possessed both personal effects and paraphernalia used to identify individuals in the modern world: clothes, wigs, an analyst, a driver’s license, and bank accounts.

Leeson performed the role of the awkward, self-conscious Breitmore herself for two years as part of the four-year-long ephemeral artwork Roberta Breitmore (1974-8), donning a wig and glasses, attending part-time temp jobs, psychoanalysis sessions, or going shopping, before employing others to take shifts as the character. Visitors could check into Dante Hotel to view her artifacts (a credit card, letters from her psychiatrist), or they might catch a glimpse of her out in San Francisco perched on a bench or on her way to an appointment. Candid, paparazzi-style photos of her, with her head cast down, were captured by a photographer that she hired. All of this looked ahead, of course, to our mediated experience of identity and the voyeuristic deployment of technologies. Breitmore has become inseparable from the artist’s own narrative, and is the stuff of San Francisco lore, perhaps in part due to the artist’s incredible commitment to the piece.

Roberta's Multiples Looking at Roberta's Construction Chart Seen From Behind, 1978
Anglim Gilbert Gallery

“It seems to me that if you’re going to be spending time doing work,” she says, “you should be addressing things that nobody else could do, even if it meant being isolated for what I assumed would be my entire life.” That included creating the numerous taxonomies of female bodies and faces that she made during those early days, reflecting her interest in examining female identities as constructed archetypes; the production of Lorna (1979-82), one of art’s earliest interactive works, in which one could explore the digital life of a female character, using a remote control to navigate around the rooms of her apartment and peruse her belongings; and two artificial intelligence-fantasy films starring Tilda Swinton, Conceiving Ada and Teknolust. Her cyborg Agent Ruby, commissioned by SFMOMA in 2001-2002, is now one of the museum’s prized digital projects, and features, along with more of her work, in the inaugural display in the renovated museum.

The art world isn’t just busy shoehorning Leeson’s historical work into the canon, however. The documentary film she’s currently making about the dissident artist Tania Bruguera (“It’s about giving people a voice in taking action toward their own power, which is really what feminism is about,” she says) has been receiving attention, as has her current, ongoing project, the genetics lab titled The Infinity Engine that she showed at ZKM last year, devoted to interrogating human evolution and the ethics of genetic manipulation. What does she perceive as the greatest risks of those manipulations? “Losing our authenticity,” Leeson says. “Creating species whose progeny will have unforeseen limitations, and rampant misuse—the unchecked creation of living cyborgian creatures as slaves. Who can do this, and why?”

This outlook might seem as dark as an episode of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian TV series, “Black Mirror,” but Leeson sees her work as grounded in a more utopian perspective. What unites her practice across feminist critique, virtual identities, and genetics is a commitment to personal freedom and a sense of urgency around subverting abuses of technological power in order to put technology to work for the good. “I believe that it is not technology that creates the outcome, but the ethics and awareness of individuals who have the choice of how to use the technologies,” she explains. “I believe technological advancements coupled with understanding of the implications of planetary connectivity could not only sustain our future, but enhance our evolution.”

As technology continues to infiltrate every layer of society and to shape human identities, one hopes that her words are a harbinger of what’s to come. In the meantime, her work serves as a vital reminder of the incursions into our freedom that technology will bring if it goes unchecked.

Tess Thackara