At Aanant & Zoo you can currently visit How to Disappear, a selection of works by Lynn Hershman Leeson created over the past forty years. It's a compact little exhibition featuring some twenty-seven works of various media including video and photography. It cuts out a great overview of an amazing career on the cutting edge while offering a taster of the planned retrospective at the ZKM, Karlsruhe, this coming December.
Some of the earliest works are the Suicide Pieces (1963-1968), photographic prints of death mask-like wax casts of the artist’s face. Heavily made up and wigged, the masks were set alight as ritualistic inquiry into the erosion and erasure of identity, disappearance, and invisibility—themes that echo throughout the artist’s career and are central to the show.
In the late 60s, a variant of such a mask that included motion sensor triggered playback of a recorded voice was rejected by a museum in Berkeley—she was informed at the time that art should not make sound—so the artist looked beyond the gallery and the limitations of the established art space. She instead created a site-specific work in a low-budget hotel room, thus marking the birth of Roberta Breitmore.
Roberta became an artist’s alternative identity, a simulacrum, a virtual individual. With a blonde wig, too much make-up, and body language casting shapes of introversion and low self-esteem, she bussed into town with $1800, some luggage, and hopes of finding happiness and security. Visitors could pick up the keys at the hotel’s front desk and visit Roberta’s room twenty-four hours a day where they could observe the cultural clutter and artefacts that marked the world around her.
Lynn Hershman Leeson, Roberta at Psychiatrist Office Contact, 1977, Digital archival print, 40.6 x 50.8 cm; Courtesy of the artist and Aanant & Zoo, Berlin
Hershman Leeson describes Roberta's existence as being outlined by negative space: a silhouette defined only in the fabric of surrounding material. As she extended her domain she created evidence, paper trails, and lipstick traces in the networks, systems, and databases of the day. Her activities included blind dating through the small ads and applying for bank accounts and a driver’s license. At Aanant & Zoo you can see evidence of these encounters including a psychiatrist’s evaluation and a transcript of a lonely heart meet up with a local dude who offers tips on the surrounding environment and culture.
These experiments in artificial identity pre-empted the virtual self or avatar, social network user accounts, and personalities replaced and defined by spending habits. They would continue into the following decades when further pursuit of a more open, dynamic, expanded art through new media led to the creation of the first artist’s interactive video disc. In another breakthrough piece Roberta was succeeded by Lorna (1979-84), a virtual agoraphobic who lives her life through the television screen. Disc users experienced the work as an interactive game (the Art Video Game was another LHL first) with a narrative offering a choice of endings navigated via a virtual remote control, Lorna's singular means of affecting change in her isolated environment.
Lynn Hershman Leeson, Seduction of a Cyborg, 1996, Video/DVD, no edition, signed, 7min.; Courtesy of the artist and Aanant & Zoo, Berlin
The paradox of screen technology's promise to liberate the individual through open access, to place all users on an egalitarian level playing field—countered by its penchant for domination and erosion of the individual—is a recurrent theme, and explored in the video Seduction of a Cyborg (1994). The work follows the fictionalized experience of a blind woman who is given the power of sight through direct interface with a computer network. The result is a cautionary tale that demonstrates Hershman Leeson’s desire to utilize and test the capability of technology without unconditionally trusting it.
The rich, video-toasted graphics used in Seduction of a Cyborg to represent the fusion of human being and information superhighway are very much of their day. Swirling graphic sprites and lines of data pour out of the beer crate sized VDU into the wide, amazed eyes of the operator, who in turn, absorbs imagery of the ubiquitous computer-generated spinning globe, plus other cultural artefacts and motifs.
The moment signifies the genesis of the blind protagonist’s downfall; her corruption and contamination by media and the destruction of her privacy and persona are soon to follow. However, the exact type of imagery used in this sequence was, at the time, being used everywhere to promote the sheer exhilaration of futurist magic carpet rides through cyberspace and the limitless potential of the World Wide Web. Hershman Leeson not only saw the potential of this new media ahead of the curve, she was foreshadowing some of its future anxieties long before most other users and commentators could see anything other than utopian ecstasy via the net.
Also on view is the new work The Ballad of L.T. Leroy (2014), a new video documenting the true story of Jeremiah "Terminator" LeRoy, an author’s nom-de-plume and alter ego whose warm acceptance by the literati and Hollywood was matched with fury and spite when the truth was discovered and they felt the joke was on them. Leroy's work was, in fact, that of Laura Albert but far from a joke; the author had been using an alter ego as a kind of creative therapy in a strange series of events that could easily have been imagined as a Hershman Leeson fiction.
Hershman Leeson has employed new processes and pushed boundaries within the accepted norms of the art world time and time again. But unlike so many other avant gardists she has rejected the status of media guru and the invitation to mystify her ability to predict and shape emerging genres, themes, and environments. On the contrary, she has and continues to use her vantage point to strive for open access and create a space where all are seen, all voices heard. At the same time, she often critiques the new media with which she has, through pioneering diligence, achieved expert status and could so easily use to further her own interests and art career. Here, the broader picture is kept always in focus.
(Image on top: Lynn Hershman Leeson, Seduction, 1985, Gelatin silver print on archival paper, edition 6/8 + 2 AP, 56 x 76 cm; Courtesy of the artist and Aanant & Zoo, Berlin)