The US artist Lynn Hershman Leeson, known for her performance art and film-making, talks about her latest show, Civic Radar, making films with Tilda Swinton, and her fears about bio-engineering
by LILLY WEI
Lilly Wei: Although the show is presented thematically rather than chronologically, let’s start with the earliest works. Would you talk about Breathing Machines a little? You seem to have an interest in masks and the construction of a multiplicity of identities from the beginning, exploring the social and political roles of women and minorities.
Lynn Hershman Leeson: I was in Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement in 1964 and the Civil Rights Act was signed that same year; these were issues that very much concerned us. For Breathing Machines, I made wax casts of my face, and partially painted them black as a sign of equality and to counter racism.
LW: It was for a show at the Berkeley University Art Museum in 1966, wasn’t it? And the self-portraits had wigs and sound.
LHL: The museum was afraid it would have its funding cut if it didn’t start to show women, so it offered me and two other female artists token exhibitions. I was asked to show drawings, but the Breathing Machines had sound that was an extension of the sculpture. It seemed to me that the sound was like a drawing, but the show was taken down. Berkeley said that sound was not art and not appropriate for a museum.
LW: In The Dante Hotel, you had two life-sized female dolls in bed together, one head painted black, the other white, their faces again a cast of yours, with breathing sounds from an audiotape to make them seem alive. Was it a continuation of the Breathing Machines?
LHL: Yes, after my show was taken down, I finally understood what the free speech movement was about. Who needs a museum, I thought. So [the documentary film-maker and artist] Eleanor [Coppola], and I decided to rent rooms in a hotel. People could get the keys and come up whenever they wanted. She set up a room where someone lived for a week, and mine was supposed to be there forever, where everything in it was from the neighbourhood. People came and went, and they were very careful: they weren’t destructive; they didn’t take things.
LW: Were the figures supposed to be you?
LHL: They were based on what I interpreted as the fleshing out of the ephemera of who one is.
LW: It has been called the first site-specific artwork.
LHL: I think it was the first time that an alternative space was used; the term “site-specific” didn’t even exist then. But it was successful and a lot of people came. It was a natural evolution for women to find places that they could call their own. And everyone was reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own then.
LW: You then did a version of it in New York, in three very different kinds of hotels: the Chelsea Hotel, the YWCA and the Plaza.
LHL: It expanded into a sociological situation that became almost a portrait of the rooms.
LW: And this led to Roberta Breitmore, whom you said was made from “negative space”?
LHL: Roberta evolved directly from The Dante Hotel. In fact, in her background narrative, when she arrived in town on a Greyhound bus, she went to the Dante Hotel and stayed there until she found a room. The Dante Hotel was an environment, but what if you had the trappings, the discards that defined a person, the negative space, and, from that, you actually made a person who went out to live in real space and time, who was part of reality, but also separate from it, and track what it was like to live as her at that time?
LW: How did that work exactly?
LHL: Originally, I wanted someone else to do it, but no one wanted to so I had to. I created Construction Charts that detailed the transformation – what she should do, how she should wear her hair, makeup and clothes, how she should walk – and I became that. She had to work, so she got a job, and I went to work as Roberta, and I met people socially as her, did things that she arranged.
LW: You were quite thorough. You gave Roberta her own apartment, credit cards, a bank account, a driver’s licence, a therapist, and placed ads in her name in a newspaper seeking male companionship. And you didn’t tell anyone about it all that time?
LHL: No, I didn’t. I thought I would do it for a week or so, but the longer I was Roberta, the more I needed to prove she existed. If I had tried it 10 years later, it would have been fraud. But it was pre-internet, no one tracked those things then. Other people were doing identity works and role reversals, but they were doing it more for a camera. They didn’t live it; they never put themselves at risk.
LW: When you created this persona, how much was her, how much was you?
LHL: I actually did coursework in psychology in order to make her different from me, so my personality wouldn’t seep into hers. I wanted her to be her own person: her reactions were not mine. She wasn’t the opposite of me, but she also wasn’t me.
LW: Lorna was next in your series of women, conceived in reaction to Roberta.
LHL: Roberta was in the world so I decided to invent a protagonist who never went out of the house. I wrote to the people who were making the first videodiscs and they helped. It was a perfect way to do this project since it combined videotape with viewer intervention. Roberta was compressed into her opposite through this technology.
LW: If the author cedes authorial responsibility to the audience, is the narrative compromised, is it less satisfying?
LHL: In the case of Lorna, there were multiple endings, but there was a structure, so the choices were limited. The audience could choose its own ending, but it couldn’t write its own ending. I wanted the viewer to choose the sequence, the remote becoming a tool of empowerment; with it, you could make decisions for another person, one you were living through.
LW: Do you believe performances can be, or should be reproduced?
LHL: No, to me performance comes out of a context, the political issues and attitudes of the time, so if you re-enact something that wasn’t designed to do that, it becomes subverted, and lacks the energy of the original.
LW: Would you talk about how you began to make films?
LHL: I taught myself how to make films in the 80s. When I showed videos, the museum always put me in a back room. I thought the films that Eleanor and others were making didn’t look too hard to do, so I decided to make films. What did I know? I had learned about Ada Lovelace and thought the only person to play her was Tilda Swinton. I called her agent who asked for my budget, and when I told her, she said no. But, by chance, I met a friend of Tilda’s, who told me she was looking for interesting projects. The friend told her about my film, she called her agent, who called me and said, all right but only for five days. So we made Conceiving Ada  in five days, inventing a way to make virtual sets using a blue box, which is in the show and you can see how it’s done; it was a little miracle.
LW: You also cast her in Teknolust (2002) as Rosetta Stone. I thought the film was incredibly funny, although most men might not be amused to find themselves reduced to genetic material. But it was also about searching for love – even replicants need love – and curiously touching. Swinton was wonderful as the bio-geneticist who surreptitiously created three clones of herself, all three also played by her.
LHL: In science, they generally require three positive results to prove the validity of an experiment, so thinking of that, I had Rosetta make three copies of herself. The themes are the themes that I’ve always been interested in: identity, gender construction, sexual self-determination, the exchange between reality and virtual reality, mutations, surveillance, the lack of privacy, and how technology impacts individuals and culture.
LW: And when do you start Matilda, the third film in this trilogy with Swinton?
LHL: I’d like to begin this summer. Tilda will be playing a talking cat, a mutant with a human gene that lives in a biotech lab.
LW: And then?
LHL: I can’t tell you that – but she glows.
LW: Your newest project in the exhibition is the Infinity Engine, would you talk about that?
LHL: We just designed it a few months ago, with the help of biophysicist Josiah Zayner, a research fellow at NASA. The museum had to be declared a genetics laboratory in order for us to have transgenic material on display. Now that I’ve seen it, I will be able to make the final version for Oxford, where it goes in May. I’ve started to interview prize-winning scientists about the ethical and moral consequences of what we’re doing with bio-printing, extending limbs, stimulating our DNA from other life forms. One issue that concerns me is when a mutated life form is created, it is patented and that life form and its progeny are owned. What are the implications of that? How bio-engineering will affect human evolution in a planet that is increasingly uninhabitable is the most serious question of our times. We are completely shifting the structure of life and we have no idea what that will mean two or three generations later.