SAN FRANCISCO — Lynn Hershman Leeson revels in the role of artist as innovator and trickster, though it’s not always clear whom she is tricking. The five decades of her creative practice, represented in Lynn Hershman Leeson: Civic Radar at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in San Francisco, reveal an artist unafraid to pull stunts that surprise and unsettle, whether it’s by introducing cutting-edge technologies to the art world, or living out performances that feel like a practical joke.
Hershman Leeson is best known for her works about gender’s intersection with technology; she often combines performance, conceptual art, new media, installation, and video. Her performed alter ego may be the most widely known work: From 1973–1978, she periodically changed her appearance to live as Roberta Breitmore, who had real credit cards, an apartment, and a psychiatrist, all of which Hershman Leeson documented through photography and writing. Later, she created “CybeRoberta” (1996), featuring a doll replica of the fictional Breitmore with a webcam in its eye and a livestream that transmitted what the doll saw to a website (this was all well before Snapchat and Facebook Live existed).
Her 1983 artwork “Lorna” was the first to employ an interactive, disc-based video component: the installation features a rudimentary video game, manipulated through a remote control, of an agoraphobic white woman’s solemn life. Another work exploring new media, “America’s Finest” (1993–1994), viscerally evokes the violence of surveillance through a rifle-turned-camera that simultaneously loops graphic imagery of war alongside footage of the viewer’s body in the crosshairs.
In addition to these works, the retrospective includes Hershman Leeson’s lesser-known works that reveal an artist’s mission to blur the lines between art and reality. However, the results are mixed.
In an early project, Hershman Leeson invented art critic pseudonyms and published reviews under their names that included positive references to her own work. “The Art Criticism of Gay Abandon, Herbert Goode and Prudence Juris” (1968–1973) became her Master’s thesis at San Francisco State University — and press to show gallerists. Where Hershman Leeson’s work falls on the spectrum between brilliant conceptual art and ethically questionable, because self-serving, is part of the charm.
Another series mocks reality with jarring, and also ethically questionable, results: “Fire Works” (1978–1980) is a moving-image tromp l’oeil of buildings aflame. Hershman Leeson projected filmed footage of flames onto the windows of a building, where she also installed fog machines and actors faked escape. The effect was once so convincing that unwitting firefighters were called. Hershman Leeson’s trickery here trips into recklessness, the video-installation equivalent of yelling “fire” in a crowded room or, as it were, in the urban environments of San Francisco and Portland, Oregon.
The series, Breathing Machines, shows an early attempt of Hershman Leeson incorporating herself into her work (before Breitmore) as she experimented with new technologies. Wax molds of the artist’s face, flattened and distorted, are paired with motion-activated recordings of her voice. In 1966, these “Breathing Machines” were removed from a UC Berkeley Art Museum exhibition, since the use of sound was considered inappropriate as art. The two most prominent faces in Civic Radar are painted, one charcoal, the other translucent sienna. In an attempt to provide context, the label text says: “As a political gesture, [Hershman Leeson] partly painted the masks black to express her solidarity with the civil rights movement,” and moves on to discuss the controversy the works caused — due to the novelty of using sound in an art gallery.
What the text does not mention as alarming is that a white artist’s variation of blackface, even on a wax replica, is no show of racial solidarity. Instead, the work reveals an ignorance of issues surrounding the racial appropriation of blackness by whites — a type of privileged identity tourism, evoking no less than the history of blackface minstrel shows.
These two wax molds, or “Breathing Machines,” in no other way open up conversations of racial difference. The tape recorder spouts what might be interesting questions about intimacy (“How old are you?” “What was your first sexual experience?”), but they are seemingly unrelated to the visual appropriation of blackness. Frustratingly, the curators, too, ignored the topic they chose to display. And, as writer Jevohn Newsome recently commented, there seems to be a startling lack of published critical dialogue around this art series’ relationship to race. While this might seem like a minor work in a larger retrospective, this grain of salt can’t be ignored. It’s a glaring missed opportunity to discuss race alongside conversations of artistic innovation in new media.
Civic Radar concludes with the artist’s most recent work, which seems to shift away from questions of identity entirely, though it continues her exploration of technology. “The Infinity Engine” (2014–2017), an immersive installation highlighting the current state of bioengineering, outlines the scientific quest for immortality. It feels like something straight out of a science fiction film: The room is lined with wallpaper depicting genetically modified biological matter, each with a label detailing its research motivation; nearby, a tank houses glowing fish, “the first GM organism sold as a pet.” Viewers can read legal documents related to bioengineering, and watch video interviews with scientists, technologists, and sociologists on the topic. In this installation, Hershman Leeson, as innovator herself, steps back to display technological innovation on its own, with little meddling on her part. The work asks (without offering a clear opinion): How far will the pursuit of innovation go? Coming from Hershman Leeson, who enjoys exploring the boundaries of new technology with her art (and with varying successes and lessons learned), the unanswered question makes the viewer wonder if there should be a limit.