Art, Technology & the Modern Era: An Interview with Lynn Hershman Leeson
“I do not see risks ever,” said Lynn Hershman Leeson. “I only see opportunities and the implications of not taking them, and the need for courage and vision.” Over the last four decades, artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson has been internationally acclaimed for her boundary-less art and films. Among the most significant media artists in contemporary times, Hershman Leeson is broadly recognized for her pioneering projects exploring the relationship between humans and technology, identity, surveillance, and the use of media as empowerment against censorship and repression. Hershman Leeson is presently solo exhibiting VertiGhost, as well as participating in the group exhibitions: Being Modern: MoMA in Paris; AFFECT ME: Social Media Images in Art; Electronic Superhighway; SITE Santa Fe; Future Shock; and Art in the Age of the Internet. ArtDependence spoke with Hershman Leeson about the history of her art, new ideas in her current work and her broader, prevailing societal concerns.
ArtDependence Magazine: Over the course of your career, your expression has evolved from performance and conceptual art into photography, video, film, performance, installation, interactive and net-based media art. How has a multidisciplinary approach allowed you to fully express your ideas?
Lynn Hershman Leeson: I think we are in an age of mutation and hybridity. For me, working across disciplines and using many to defy or define an idea is a deeper way of understanding all aspects of a concept.
AD: As a woman working at the intersection of technology and the arts, have your personal experiences contributed to the gender equality inquiries of your projects?
LHL: Gender equality and freedom are key elements in a liberated society, and I always knew it was necessary to fight for these.
AD: Your earlier works like Roberta Breitmore (1973–78) and Lorna (1983–84), reflect on notions of privacy, authenticity and even more so, identity. How do you feel these projects foreshadowed the social concerns we have four decades later around these same ideas, particularly with the backdrop of technological advancement?
LHL: They totally foreshadowed things happening now. Steven Soderberg is doing a piece now exactly like Roberta and people are saying he is a genius to think interactively, but back then in 1972, the ideas were being invented. There was nothing prescient because the technology already existed, I am not ahead of my time. The Bay area is my backdrop and software is invented here. You can feel the effects.
AD: Until your Civic Radar retrospective at ZKM in 2014-15, your recognition and success as an artist had taken more than four decades of ongoing art work and efforts to achieve. How do you reconcile the vast acclaim you have found in recent years with the considerable, enduring efforts you made to find that achievement?
LHL: I was not recognized for many reasons: living on the west coast, being a woman, not showing in New York, not having a champion, not being taken seriously. Suddenly an old friend from the 1970's gave me a show and did my first book, and I met Bridget Donahue, and everything changed. However, being left alone gave me tremendous freedom to do exactly what I wanted because there was no financial consideration back then. That changed but my ethic and approach is embedded.
AD: Your latest film, Tania Libre, is a documentary about artist Tania Bruguera and the aftermath of her recent experience in Cuba, where her passport confiscated and she faced near-constant surveillance. You have said: “Artists, and in particular women artists, suffer so much censorship in culture. It seemed like this was something I could help with.” Is the ultimate aim of your work to bring awareness and attention to social issues?
LHL: It was true in this case and in !Women Art Revolution, but in Strange Culture, it was about Steve Kurtz. I have a strong sense of justice and use my art to underscore an awareness of censorship and dangers of culture.
AD: Of your many films and thousands of projects in the art space, a lifetime of work, much of which has still not yet been seen or shown, which would you consider your most important piece? What makes is it so notably influential in your view?
LHL: The Dante Hotel because it was the first time I broke with traditional systems and did something authentically original. It was the first site-specific piece I know of and the term had not been invented. It led to Roberta, the critics, the floating museum, all works that took place outside of official institutions. It also led to Lorna and other technological forms.
AD: Which themes are most important to the subject matter on which you are currently working?
LHL: Surveillance, biological surveillance and genetic mutation. Genetic engineering and molecular biology threaten the loss of species cultural and individual identity in our current era.