San Francisco

Lynn Hershman Leeson: Civic Radar at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

A confrontation greets us at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ current exhibition, Lynn Hershman Leeson: Civic Radar. Immediately upon entering the space, a perceptual split between the virtual and the real is presented by Hershman Leeson’s The Infinity Engine (2014–2017), a row of distorted mirrors that subsumes and reflects our own appearance, as well as a video installation projected on adjacent walls behind us. Through the lens of the first-person camera, two mural-size screens draw us into opposite entrances of the same bioengineering laboratory; our eye follows the backs of technicians in white coats through long empty hallways and bustling experimental testing areas. Caught between deciphering our own spectral images—appearing unexpectedly and somewhat phenomenologically in both the filmic space and the gallery space—we encounter a major through-line of Hershman Leeson’s work: the experience of self as “other” through technological interface.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, The Infinity Engine, 2014-2017, Multi-media installation, Dimensions variable, Image source: the ZKM Center for Art and Media.

Lynn Hershman Leeson. The Infinity Engine, 2014-2017; multimedia installation; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the ZKM Center for Art and Media.

The retrospective spans work from 1963 to 2017 and showcases Hershman Leeson’s investigations of identity construction and the relationship between humans and machines through a variety of media, including interactive sculpture, photography, performance, film, collage, and installation. The exhibition confirms that the San Francisco native is undoubtedly a pioneer in the field of digital art, yet historically under-recognized in the United States, and the Bay Area in particular, despite being able to boast a significant number of technological firsts. Hershman Leeson was the first artist to make an interactive work on videodisc (Lorna, 1983–84), the first to use a touch screen as a responsive interface (Deep Contact, 1984–1989), one of the firsts to create artworks that exist on the internet (Agent Ruby, 2002) and to use artificial-intelligence software to communicate with viewers (Dina, 2003).[1] According to the artist, even in the mid-’60s her interest was in enabling viewers to engage, “talk back, to have a conversation, with the technology.”[2] There is much to marvel at in Hershman Leeson’s early use of interactive technology, but we should also consider: What kind of questions do Hershman Leeson’s works prompt us to ask in a contemporary context? Do they continue to disrupt normative social structures and systems of oppression, or do they now simply point to them?

Self Portrait as Another Person (1965) stands out from Hershman Leeson’s early Breathing Machine series (1963–1972); in it, a disembodied head hovers over an antiquated tape recorder in a compartmentalized acrylic cube. Positioned slightly below eye level, the face is cast from that of the Caucasian artist’s, but using a dark, greenish-brown wax as “a political gesture…to express her solidarity with the Civil Rights Movement.”[3] The mouth is closed, coated with red lipstick, and the eyes are shut, listless like a death mask. As we approach the object, our bodies trigger a motion sensor and a recording of the artist’s voice speaks: “What was your first sexual encounter? I’d like to know you better. Are you in love with anybody? Can you trust me? You seem so young. You seem so innocent.” Here, we are forced to consider the work’s racialized implications and eroticized inquires as they bump up against our own individual positionalities.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, Roberta Breitmore series, 1973–78 and CyberRoberta, 1986. Installation view of Lynn Hershman Leeson: Civic Radar, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 2017. Photo by John Foster Cartwright. Courtesy of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco.

Lynn Hershman Leeson. Roberta Breitmore series, 1973–78, and CyberRoberta, 1986; installation view, Lynn Hershman Leeson: Civic Radar, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 2017. Courtesy of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco. Photo: John Foster Cartwright.

Framed much like that of a modern-day selfie, Hershman Leeson’s face becomes replaced with another alter ego in the Roberta Breitmore Series (1974–1978). In the long-term photography, performance, and video work, Breitmore wears a perky blonde wig, heavy makeup, and a geo-print sweater dress inspired by the likes of Mary Tyler Moore. CyberRoberta (1986) is a doll version of the Breitmore character, who watches as we wander the exhibition space around her. With a video camera installed in her left eye and a webcam in her right, the doll simultaneously records and projects our movements, which are live-streamed onto a small monitor nearby.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, Seduction of a Cyborg, 1994, Video, color, sound, Run time: 7:17 min. Screenshot taken by the writer.

Lynn Hershman Leeson. Seduction of a Cyborg, 1994; color video; 7:17. Screenshot taken by the writer.

In Deep Contact (1984–1989) an early version of a touch screen is presented in a kiosk before a larger video monitor where Marion, a blonde, leather-clad sex kitten, knocks on the glass of the monitor. She invites us to touch parts of her body to determine our path through the video’s narrative, like readers navigating through a “choose your own adventure” book. When we select the path of “The Zen Master,” a digital rendering of fortune cookies dances across the touch screen before we see Marion twirl though a garden, sensually and dimly lit, in soft focus. Here, Orientalism and eroticism seem to go hand in hand. In another work, Seduction of a Cyborg (1994), we follow a young white woman (bearing close resemblance to CyberRoberta) as she undergoes a series of medical procedures to become one with internet technology. As she touches her computer screen, the artist’s voice narrates. A flurry of images showing scenes of impoverishment in Africa flip across the screen, giving the young women “immense pleasure.” She stares and smiles as 3D topographical renderings of the Earth spin before her, and a poppy ’90s song sings the chorus, “It’s so easy to be in a cage.” The film ends as she dies, her eyes locked onto the surface of the monitor as she cries digital tears that contain images of suffering black faces, including those of Rodney King’s.

In CyberRoberta, it is Hershman Leeson’s intent for viewers to “become not only voyeurs but also virtual cyborgs,” as the doll’s pink cherubic face, framed by shiny blonde locks, becomes “a mask for multiple expressions of identity capable only through global connectivity.”[4] In viewing this work alongside pieces like Deep Contact and Seduction of a Cyborg, we are left wondering what the consequences really are (and were) for positioning CyberRobertas face as a universal mask in an arena of intersectionality. Throughout the exhibition, the hoped-for subversion and disruption of heteronormative structures and tropes are hardly found; the face of “global connectivity” that is offered up reinforces a world vision unchallenged by the wake of postcolonial feminism, merely broadcast through a present-day lens.

Lynn Hershman Leeson: Civic Radar is on view through May 21, 2017.

[1] Hershman Leeson, Lynn, “The Raw Data Diet, All Consuming Bodies and the Shape of Things to Come,” Leonardo (MIT Press), vol. 38, no. 3 (2005), 208–212.

[2] From YBCA program booklet.

[3] From exhibition wall text.