Interview: Artist & Director Lynn Hershman Leeson

Lynn Hershman Leeson

[This interview was first published in 1999 in Film Threat; this is the full, unedited version of the text, as it existed before it was cut down for original publication.]

Lynn Hershman Leeson has had a long career as a daring conceptual artist. She’s noted for works concerning identity, surveillance, and technology, and created lauded performance and installation works. One of her most famous creations was the performed alter-ego of “Roberta Breitmore,” a persona adopted between 1974 to 1978 by Leeson and several other women. Leeson created the first interactive laserdisk art, and was the first artist to incorporate a touchscreen into her work. She even used the term “virtual reality” in 1968, long before a computer-simulated physical space was possible.

Later in her career, beginning on the 1990s, she turned to filmmaking, work which has included both narratives and documentaries. I met her upon the release of Conceiving Ada (1997), starring Tilda Swinton as proto-computer-programmer Ada Lovelave, daughter of the infamous Lord Byron. Sitting in San Francisco’s Café Puccini in North Beach, we discussed her new work, the history and future of media technology, and aspects of her over 30-year career as an award-winning visual artist.

Allen White: After a long period of doing interactive exhibits and multimedia, and pushing the limits of video, why do film now?

Lynn Hershman Leeson: Well, you know, I thought it was really radical. All the work I was doing with multimedia, that the film was so much greater…that was one of the reasons: I didn’t know how to do one. And two, I wanted to reach a bigger audience. And these like other pieces I did, no matter how many awards they won, and no matter how good they were, I couldn’t show them. They were marginalized, or put in the corners of museums, or even in festivals they were only shown one time, and so I thought that if I wanted to get them seen more, I would have to compromise in some way by using 35mm. It’s been a good lesson, actually.

AW: When you work in a medium like film do you miss that level of interactivity that you had available to you with different media?

LHL: I don’t feel that particularly with this film we’ve lost anything because it’s so weird. I mean the way we shot it was interactive, the actors were interactive, the backgrounds were interactive, and so I feel that those things helped us come through with this.

AW: The film is kind of a “who’s who” of Bay Area futurist thought; you’ve got Tim Leary, John Perry Barlow –- who when I saw onscreen, I laughed, because having him play the cryptographer is a great in-joke -– you’ve got the Residents. How did the San Francisco technological revolution and these visionaries affect your work, and this film?

LHL: R.U. Sirius is sitting at Leary’s feet, too. I wanted to encrypt the film just like Ada encrypted the veil. And there were so many people that I knew from here that I felt could have a layered existence; they could be metaphorically characters as well as bring to that character all the things they had done that were similar in their lives. I wanted to use as much computer-engineered thought as possible, and so the Residents composed and created their work via computer, and the backgrounds were all done digitally, so it just seemed to make sense to use these local digerati.

AW: Did you feel that it was a real collaboration working with musicians like the Residents, for example?

LHL: Oh, definitely. Film, and projects of this sort are definitely collaborative. I mean, nobody can do it alone.

AW: It’s a massive undertaking. I remember reading that when you first heard about Ada, you were interested in doing a film. Did you hear about her through Bruce Sterling’s and William Gibson’s The Difference Engine?

LHL: No, I actually was doing an interview with somebody when I was doing a documentary on the history of the telephone, and that’s when I first heard about her. And I wasn’t sure with Sterling’s book whether she was a real person rather than a fictional character. At that time there was very little information. There were just a couple of small books that had been recently written. Now there’s more from the Internet, like in her forums, kind of filling and fleshing out those things. Just doing the research, the more I found out about her, the more interested I was.

AW: Did you ever consider the Internet as an artistic medium for your own projects?

LHL: Sure. I do. Have you looked at the film at At (the site) there’s a telerobotic doll, and you look through her eyes; this little doll has cameras for eyes. On the Internet you see what she sees, and turn her head, and see anything in the room. That’s something at home; there are more extensive ones at a German museum where you can create an avatar and watch them in a mirror, and the museum itself is a kind of collision between the typical and the virtual visitors.

AW: The idea of the camera project brings up this whole thing about these little cameras that people mount on top of their computers, and it’s almost like there’s this entire new level of voyeurism available to the Web, the JenniCam being the most notorious example. Where do you think that’s leading? What’s going to happen with this?

LHL: Well, I trust that human beings will find some way to subvert it all. One of the side effects is that younger people won’t know what privacy is in the true sense, in that all their information is already out there, before they’re being born. And agency access, and this whole idea of voyeurism and self-censorship and surveillance, are just things that are becoming more of our language to deal with. I think we’ll still find ways to hide, we’ll still find encryption, and ways to be elusive. But that’s just the nature of the way the technology’s moving. And on the other hand, it’s creating different sets of boundaries, and bringing communities together, and other ways of accessing information and relationships. There’s that double-edge to it.

AW: Your film as well seems to comment on the digitalizing of existence, because the wonderful and, I guess, the dangerous thing about digital media is that, essentially, it reduces all existence to a mathematical code, and then you can infinitely manipulate it. And that also suggests a manipulation of life through that as well.

LHL: Exactly. I think life is being manipulated. The DNA code is being manipulated and copied, and I think that’s a real serious problem; more serious even than cameras present for us.

AW: It’s our next moral issue. People keep saying over and over we haven’t dealt with the morality of the technology we’ve got, much less what’s coming down the road ten years from now.

LHL: Yeah, the biotechnology, absolutely.

AW: Like cloning Dolly the sheep. That was debated endlessly, and it wasn’t even really resolved.

LHL: Well that’s was the (Internet camera) dolls are called – “The Dolly Clones.” And the next film I’m doing is about just this issue. It’s the original story of Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein” but told from the point of view of the woman and the creature. Things that James Whale felt weren’t important about the story, and it’s the whole ethics about what it’s like to be born in the world with no memory and no history, and alien and exiled –- if your life was that — which I think are issues that we are not considering enough.

AW: That’s part of what Blade Runner (1982) was about. It’s a very important theme in (the film), the issue of memory, and the issue of history. Because the replicants, the artificial people, they have no history, they have no memory, and in fact one of them collects photographs in order to give himself a memory, or the sense of having memory. There’s a lot of parallels between that and Frankenstein. Then again, that also discusses the morality of manufacturing people. When we have the power of a god, do we then also have the responsibility? But the film says we don’t have the responsibility even though we have the power. It’s a big and unruly issue. Starting with your 1972 piece “Dante Hotel,” in which you use a real hotel room as a conceptual environmental artwork, you seem to have begun this fascination with artificial environments. What’s your interest, specifically, in the artificial environment?

LHL: See, I think they’re real. (laughs)

AW: (laughs) Well, then explain that. What does that mean to you? Real in what sense?

LHL: I think we immerse ourselves in technology, the environment we live in and the immediate landscape, this is supposed to become, really, our basis for reality. I moved my work out of a museum, because they felt that sound wasn’t art at that time -– (my work) had sound — so I went out and found a hotel room. Which in a way was artificial, but was more to the point of what I wanted to do with the exhibitions than the museum would, it was much truer to the point. So I think that Internet environments are another kind of linked environment; it gives us more of a sense of where we really are at this point in time, as far as being able to tell the truth, as far as being able to communicate clearly, so I think that there’s maybe less masking in these ways.

AW: On the Internet there’s less masking? There’s a great quote (of yours) actually: “Identity is the first thing you create when you log on to a computer service. In doing so, you also define your audience, space, and territory. In the architecture of networks, geography, time, and identity are constantly shifting and anatomy can be reconstituted. In fact, a body is not even necessary.” That I got off of your Website. But what that reminded me of specifically was the really popular idea of assuming an identity on chat, or assuming an identity in one of the many graphic interface multi-user dimensions (MUDs), where you can literally put on a new face. That is an entire layer of masking ability we didn’t have before. Essentially, the Internet is a great opportunity to be totally anonymous, in this artificial environment, or this real environment, as you would have it. I understand your use of the word “real,” in that we give it as much of our attention as any other kind of environment, and that we give it the same level of importance. But how does this tie in with what you were just saying, in about it being more real, or being less…it kind of contradicts what you just said.

LHL: Not really, because I think that these kind of avatars, which is what the piece in Germany does, it makes you freer to tell the truth. Ultimately, what we do, the choices we make or communicate, the words we use, are like our fingerprints. And these all lead back to us. Again, they’re like our DNA, or our blood sample, so you can’t really escape who you are. But if these various types of meta-identities allow us to be clearer, then that’s the thing.

AW: And some might argue that they allow us to be different facets of our true selves that we can’t explore in daily life.

LHL: Yeah, because there are so many restrictions, so you might kind of push the metaphor in this invisible way.

AW: This ties into another quote, which you wrote in 1968: “When real objects are artificially inserted into environments, they simultaneously become simulated symbols that function as virtual reality.” What I wanted to know, if you can think back to 1968, how did your definition of “virtual reality” at that time differ or overlap with the modern use of the term?

LHL: I’ve done a lot of things and coined a lot of words before they’ve become popular in the culture. And in ‘68 I was talking about the hotel rooms, and about creating something on a meta-level — like using John Perry Barlow as the cryptographer in the film. Things could have various multiple dimensions, so they exist as themselves, and in that way they kind of can simulate themselves in that sense of “virtual,” meaning “like it,” or “simulation of” or “simulacrum” of that thing, without being that thing. So it wasn’t dealing with the technology of virtual reality because it hadn’t been invented, but these had conceptual things from which virtual reality came.

AW: What was your impression when computerized virtual reality came along? How did you react to that? Was it what you expected?

LHL: Sure, but I felt that it didn’t go far enough. I think that there was a lot of hype over it that wasn’t backed up with a real accomplishment that probably was going to change our planet in a positive way. I think that now virtual simulation, particularly medical and architecture, have a profound affect.

AW: It takes a while, I guess, for it to catch up to people’s needs or expectations.

LHL: Or for the superficial things to drop off, and the underlining themes to come forth.

AW: The Web has been like that. I remember when it first started people said, “there’s nothing out there.” Now it’s changing. It’s becoming more useful. Thematically, I noticed some strong similarities between Conceiving Ada and Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993). You’ve got extraordinary female outsiders in societies that suppress individuality in women; they are both willful and constrained by Victorian mores; they both find their voices via talent and sexuality; and they are both named “Ada.”

LHL: I didn’t realize that that was the name of that character. How interesting. But I want to use Holly Hunter in my next film as (Mary) Shelly.

AW: You can pitch her on that.

LHL: She already agreed.

AW: That’s excellent. That’s fantastic. Has Campion’s work influenced you at all?

LHL: When you start to look at women’s films that have survived, and been seen, women who talk about their own truths no matter what era, then you’re dealing with these issues, because women traditionally have been repressed in every age. The Victorian age is a perfect metaphor because of the corsets, constraints, and lacings. But it’s always been there, and it’s real hard to find films with intelligent, successful women who aren’t victims. And I think people resent when you put them in, too. And that’s why they get the feel that they do.

AW: It seems like it’s changing slightly. I mean, we have characters like Xena on television now, which, although it’s not necessarily fine art, it’s certainly struck a resonant chord in some people. Because it seems like that’s a role model that’s been missing in their lives.

LHL: Definitely. Definitely. I think that younger women are really fluent with the Internet, and are going to be successful in creating new models, and maybe through the Internet, models of women who can be heroic figures in various arts.

AW: Does Emmy Coer (the computer genius who contacts Ada in Conceiving Ada) represent you? Like you in the film, she’s bringing Ada back to life. And that’s essentially what you’re doing with Conceiving Ada. You’re resurrecting her in a sense, because she had been basically forgotten, and now she’s being remembered in light of our technology. So Does Emmy Coer represent you in that sense?

LHL: It’s like what you said of masking and things can carry parts of who we are. I’m sure there are parts of Emmy that I can relate to, but there are also parts of Ada I can relate to. There are particular points of one or the other. She was actually based on an actual female artificial life researcher who worked at MIT who was pregnant.

AW: That would be yet another level of meta-information. (laughs) I was very curious when I read about Roberta Breitmore, (your) simulated persona. Could you tell me about her?

LHL: She was also a virtual person. When I was doing these hotel rooms I created an identity for somebody that didn’t exist by putting the articles of life around her. The books she read, the glasses she wore, the checks she wrote, and all that was missing was that being. So I wanted to liberate that being from the hotel room. So I created this kind of fictional character that lived as a performance for ten years. And she would go out and have her life literally fleshed out by real experience. People she met became part of her fiction, and she became part of their reality. One adventure built on another, and she turned into a profile or portrait of many people during that era.

AW: You wrote: “Roberta’s adventures became models of victimization. To counter this phenomenon, multiples were created. Sadly, even the four different characters who assumed her identity continued to have negative experiences.” What was happening?

LHL: Well, I guess she was a blonde in a mini-skirt. (laughs) You know, there were some women that made dates, some of the multiples made dates with men that they met as Roberta, and met them later, and they didn’t want anything to do with them. Without the wig and makeup and the whole thing, so who knows?

AW: That reminds me of the work of Orlan. Not only did she adopt an assumed persona, but she stayed the assumed persona. Her whole life is the art. In fact, she initially compared herself to a readymade, to a Duchamp readymade. She said that, “I am the readymade,” in this case. Is that influential as well?

LHL: Duchamp was very influential for me. And I looked at the rooms as readymades, and the objects as readymades.

AW: I was going to say that the hotel room was specifically in a sense a readymade, although you altered and added to the space, the room itself acted as the readymade, and the environment was readymade.

LHL: And the all the articles I collected to put in the room were readymade. It was just a matter of putting them all together to create that atmosphere. I think with Orlan, it’s amazing what she’s going under in public to be an artist. But you know, surgery’s cheap in France. (laughs)

AW: (laughs) On a theoretical and aesthetic level, I have a great admiration for what she does, but on an actual visceral level, it kind of bothers me, because it seems to be going a step too far.

LHL: It’s self-mutilation. Where does it stop? There has to be another way if you want to say those things, I think.

AW: What is the next step for you as an artist? Where do you want to go? You said you wanted to make the Mary Shelly film, but how is that film going to differ from Conceiving Ada.

LHL: It’s going to be better. I’m happy what we did with Ada. We shot it in six days, did you know that?

AW: No. Really?

LHL: We only had Tilda Swinton for six days, so I figured we’d go for it.

AW: Especially because a lot of it was blue-boxed (shot in a blue room so that the computer-generated sets could be added later), I imagine that helped.

LHL: Although, we hadn’t tested it, so I didn’t know you could move the camera, and I hadn’t thought about figuring out ways to make it more animated without moving the camera. It was not an easy project when were no machines that could accommodate film and video at once, so we had to do it by hand, frame-by-frame. So I think that in the next one without that (difficult) process, now that the machines exist, I would have time to really perfect, to go deeper into not just virtual sets, but virtual cameras, and kinds of other particular software, specifically designed for characters, to give it a deeper texture. Looking forward, I’m still doing Internet interactive telerobotic pieces. My next one will be in June on another German museum, because nobody in the United States seems to appreciate me. (laughs) And with streaming live video on the Internet. And at the same time hopefully I’ll be able to have the opportunity to make other pieces. I can’t predict too far in the future because everything changes too fast.

AW: Do you see film, video and computers all fusing in the future and becoming one medium?

LHL: Yeah. See, I don’t think it matters. I think the real essence is conceptual, and what it is you’re going to say. Now, it makes perfect sense to tell Ada’s story through a digital medium, and have her walk around in digital period piece in Ireland. But it wouldn’t have made sense if I was going to do a film about Jake LaMotta. And it makes sense for Frankenstein, because that’s the birth of electricity, and natural birth…and women with corsets on. So that also makes sense. But it’ll really have to do with what it is you’re saying, and what it is you’re trying to do.

AW: To sum it up, what do you see as your overarching theme as an artist?

LHL: I like to take marginalized people and ideas that have been eradicated almost to nonexistence, and elevate then, you know, like Duchamp’s found objects. They can be visible and more empowered through this visibility, interacting with Republicans and having to understand what their political options are and what can be accepted into mainstream thought. I’m famous for trying to inject that whenever I can. Changing people’s perceptions of the omnipotent thought that’s been (a) weight.

AW: Why do you think that Europeans are more receptive to your gallery and interactive pieces?

LHL: And my film was funded (by them), and probably the next one will be funded. I think that Europeans really believe in culture in a way that Americans don’t. They allow for things to gestate, they allow for artists to fail. Culture and art-making is part of their daily need. Here, it’s just a commodifying thing that is removed from society. There is absolutely no funding for the arts in the United States, for independent art. It’s disappointing. So the only place to go is Europe or Japan.

AW: That’s ironic for an American artist who wants to work in a mass medium like film, because it’s almost that commercial and cultural pop-culture demands are built into it. Most of the funding was European?

LHL: Almost all of it.

AW: That makes total sense, unfortunately. And it doesn’t bode well for filmmakers that want to push boundaries.

LHL: No. They don’t like you to be original. Everybody says they’re looking for some authentic, original work. They don’t want it. They get this authentic, original work, and how do they market it? It’s never been done before. They really want something that is a spin-off of something that’s successful. My hope is to do one of these that is successful, and then have the creativeness to continue to do them.

AW: When they say “original,” they mean, “high concept.” It’s completely different.

LHL: No, they mean “stolen concept.”

AW: It’s like, “We could market Conceiving Ada if there were more bikini volleyball scenes in it.

LHL: They called it “the cyber-Orlando.” It’s absurd.