Artist Lynn Hershman Leeson began divulging her personal traumas and anxieties on video in 1984, one year after the release of what is widely considered the first commercial camcorder and nearly a decade before MTV’s The Real World popularized the reality TV confessional. In intimate recordings interspersed with news clips, she discussed instances of childhood abuse, a brain tumor diagnosis, and more, her face occasionally self-replicating and splintering off into smaller screens, suggesting a mediated self both formed and deformed by its own iterative archiving. The artist’s most epic project, The Electronic Diaries (1984-2019), occupied Hershman Leeson for decades, capturing a changing person, in a changing world, recorded on changing technology. Increasingly, the Diaries incorporated her conversations with leading scientists and bioethicists about recent developments in technology, namely genetic engineering, that might open avenues for new kinds of personhood.
What is a self, anyway? How is it constructed or accumulated? To what extent can we edit, augment, replicate, extend, or even vacate it, and what might happen if we did? These questions animate some of the most exciting work — including the excerpted Diaries — in the octogenarian’s first New York museum solo show, Lynn Hershman Leeson: Twisted at the New Museum. The survey, which occupies the second floor of the museum and — somewhat disjointedly — one of its ground level galleries, is criminally belated. A foremother to young new media artists working today, Hershman Leeson has blazed a trail for more than five decades, engaging materially and conceptually with cutting-edge technologies ranging from interactive video to artificial intelligence to genetic modification.
Every superhero needs an origin story, I suppose, and Twisted places great emphasis on Hershman Leeson’s. The show opens with scores of the artist’s early drawings and collages from the 1960s and ‘70s. These rarely displayed drawings open a window onto her artistic development, though they also occupy substantial real estate in the modestly sized survey. (I deeply felt the absence, for example, of the historically significant “Lorna” (1983-4), one of the first artworks ever to use interactive laserdisc technology, and the recent “Shadow Stalker” (2018-2021), which deals with data mining and pressing algorithmic problems, including predictive policing.)
Many of the drawings are cyborgian in theme, using a combination of diagrammatic drawing and transparent or translucent materials — tracing paper, Plexiglas, thinned watercolor — to explore our imagined inner machinery, exposing bodies filled with gears. These figures are by and large gendered female, a feature that would hold true about work made throughout the artist’s career. From AI bots to water purification systems, much of Hershman Leeson’s oeuvre has simultaneously paid homage to the radical creative power of the female body and alluded to the thorny widespread feminization of “service” bots. Around the time that she made the drawings, Hershman Leeson was pregnant and living with cardiomyopathy; an oxygen tent helped her breathe. Her early Breathing Machine sculptures (1965-68), which are interspersed with the drawings, feature bewigged, flattened faces — cast in wax from the artist’s own visage — that unsettlingly breathe, laugh, or talk from where they are housed under Plexiglas, or in one case, inside a small cage. In 1972, one of the sculptures, “Self Portrait as Another Person” (1969), was removed from an exhibition at the University of Berkeley because it featured sound, which drew the ire of a curator.
Hershman Leeson has expressed that Roberta Breitmore, her private performance as another person from about 1973 to 1978, grew out of this curatorial erasure and the institutional myopia that it signaled. Every element of Breitmore, from her feminine clothing and hallmark blonde wig to her entrenched neuroses and persistent loneliness, was carefully selected and embodied by the artist. In Twisted, prints of Breitmore’s face, segmented as if she were a diagram of choice beef cuts, demonstrate how the avatar was “constructed” with heavy makeup. Breitmore was seemingly fictional, until she wasn’t: she registered for a driver’s license, opened a bank account, and rented an apartment. As Breitmore interacted with more people — speaking with a therapist, interviewing potential roommates, and eventually spawning additional Breitmores — the project propagated itself, going viral avant la lettre. Masses of ephemera in vitrines point to Breitmore’s solidification as she accrued, alone and collaboratively, proof of identity: a checkbook, a diary excerpt, a psychiatrist’s note, even dental X-rays.
Though Breitmore was ritually “exorcized” in Italy in 1978, she is chillingly reanimated in miniature in “CyberRoberta” (1996), a telerobotic doll of the avatar. Part of the Dollie Clone Series (1995-1998), begun before Dolly the sheep was successfully cloned in 1996, “CyberRoberta” is displayed alongside a 1995 doll based on Hershman Leeson herself. The dolls have webcams in their eyes — the first commercial webcam had just been released in 1994 — that observe gallery-goers and generate a live feed of surveillance images on a dedicated website. By clicking an online “eye-con,” viewers have the option to swivel the dolls’ heads, directing their watchful gaze elsewhere. “Tillie’s eyes can extend YOUR Vision!” the website proclaims, suggesting that we are now not only cyborgs but also collaborators in the surveillance scheme. Have we been empowered or disempowered? Are we playing or being played? The frequent wisdom of Hershman Leeson’s work stems from the fact that she lets us come to our own conclusions, leaving space for the enormous complexity that accompanies contemporary personhood and the mesh of networks — only some of which are technological — through which we perform, explore, and exert it.
Several galleries are given over to The Infinity Engine (2014-2018), a busy multimedia installation modeled on a genetics lab, featuring an aquarium of genetically modified fish, GMO-themed wallpaper, and bio-printed ear scaffolding. In video interviews, some major figures in the field — nearly all white men — explain and extol the possibilities of bioengineering. Collaborator, marauder, vigilante, informant: our artist interloper wears many hats. Behind the peepshow window of a locked lab door, two vials from 2018 form a bio-conceptual self-portrait. One holds a custom-made “LYNNHERSHMAN” antibody, while the other contains the artist’s vast archive — including the Diaries and years of genetics research — encoded in DNA, which I learn can reliably store data for millennia. I’m glad that so much of her will be sticking around; the art world is better for it.
Lynn Hershman Leeson: Twisted continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 3. The exhibition was curated by Margot Norton.