LYNN HERSHMAN LEESON IN NEW YORK, JANUARY 2017. PHOTOS: VICTORIA STEVENS.
Lynn Hershman Leeson’s career involves a lot of firsts. To name but a few, there’s Lorna (1979–1984), the first interactive LaserDisc, in which the viewer manipulates the fate of an agoraphobic woman through a remote control; Deep Contact (1984), the first hypercard touch screen, which beckons you to stroke its display and set a narrative in motion; and Synthia Stock Ticker (2000–2002), an “emotional engine” that syncs with current stocks and alters its female protagonist’s behavior according to market fluctuations. Hershman Leeson is also often framed as a “predictor,” an artist who sees our forthcoming faults, but beyond her role as a technical pioneer in digital art, it’s perhaps more accurate to describe her as an astute reflector. She looks to science, technology, and how it’s affecting us now. She’s also keen to emphasize that it’s not all 1984 and Blade Runner—that is to say, a downhill dystopia—from here.
“The technology itself, it’s neutral, there’s no utopian or dystopian—it’s really up to what we, as a public, do with it,” says Hershman Leeson. “It’s about having faith in the next generation being able to use the media that was created during their lifetime, to speak it—because they speak it better than anybody—to alter the systems that their parents or grandparents caused them to inherit, and reshape them into one of sustenance.”
Interview recently spoke to Hershman Leeson, who splits her time between New York and San Francisco, at Bridget Donahue gallery in New York, where a collection of her works from the ’70s through today is on display in “Lynn Hershman Leeson: Remote Controls.” This Friday, a second career-spanning exhibition on Hershman Leeson will open at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.
HALEY WEISS: I’d like to talk about your most recent work, Venus of the Anthropocene, and how genetics is playing into your practice now. What are you most interested in in terms of genetics?
LYNN HERSHMAN LEESON: Well, I did this film called Strange Culture  that helped to get the charges dropped against an artist, [Steve Kurtz, who was detained by the FBI on suspicion of bioterrorism,] and then I did Woman Art Revolution , which inserted a history [of women in art] that had been denied our culture, and I thought those were really important things to add. And I thought, “What’s going on now that are the issues to deal with?” And I realized that the genome had been programmed for the first time in 1995, and the things that people were doing with genetics were changing our species, changing the whole identity of who we are, of all living things, and to me it seemed like the most crucial thing—that and planetary pollution were the most critical things that we have to deal with, even though neither one was in the presidential issues that were discussed.
So that’s how I started looking, and I went to these various labs since that time, in 2011, documenting what they’re doing, doing interviews, and finding out about it. It will result in the entire Infinity Engine lab of eight rooms being opened in Santa Fe in October, which will deal with ethics, with bioprinting, with the CRISPR, which I’m going to shoot in late March at Harvard—the CRISPR lab.
WEISS: Gene editing is what the CRISPR is used for, right?
HERSHMAN LEESON: Gene editing, exactly, that anybody could do on a flash drive.
WEISS: That’s surreal. A lot of your work is seen as predicting the future, but it feels like you’re just looking at the present.
HERSHMAN LEESON: That’s absolutely true. I think most people live in the past, because current information is discarded or not made available easily. Whatever I make are things that have been current to that time, so it’s really not looking at the future, it’s looking at what’s happening in your lifetime around you. I think it’s more comforting to look in the past because you can understand it better, and there are labels for it often.
WEISS: In terms of looking at the past, a lot of your older works are on display here. Is there anything within your body of work that looking back, you are surprised by the way you formulated it or by something that you made?
HERSHMAN LEESON: I’m surprised by all of it. [laughs] I’m surprised it exists. I look at it and say, “How did we ever do that?” But they all take a long time, between three and five years to do generally. I find people in the Bay Area who are programmers mainly, people I’ve worked with before, and just figure things out. We use the technology not in a commercial-based way, to see how you can make a profit from it, but rather what it can be, which the programmers like because it’s really creative to do that, and not just gearing it towards a product.
WEISS: When you’re working with a programmer, what do you look for in a collaborator? Is it just the technical acumen?
HERSHMAN LEESON: It depends on what I need—whether I need an AI person, whether I need a sound person—but people who are willing to look at the creative potential of what a technology can do. And a sense of humor.
WEISS: You’ve talked about the potential for biological censorship in gene editing, which made me think of this story from 2014, when a Danish zoo put down a giraffe because it didn’t add any more to their gene pool, even though it was perfectly healthy. That seemed emblematic of shifting attitudes toward genetics and what’s of worth. And “biological censorship” implies a danger.
HERSHMAN LEESON: Yes, because generally, at this point, it’s people who can afford to choose, like people who can alter babies they don’t have, so that they have blue eyes and blonde hair—it seems to be more popular than to create black babies, so you shift the natural balance of [racism], or you have different kinds of prejudices that show up through what people want. So yes, I do think it’s really dangerous as to who has access, and what people want and why they want it, and what the aesthetics of choice.
WEISS: You’ve talked about how interactive art allows you to operate differently than other more traditional modes of media. Is that part of your artistic goal, to implicate the participant through interaction?
HERSHMAN LEESON: Yes, and I think they are implicated, but the difference is what [Marcel] Duchamp called “retinal art,” where you just looked at it as opposed to really having a dialogue. So the early interactive works, you thought you were having a dialogue and making a choice, but you didn’t because they were all pre-programmed. But with what’s happening now, with AI and machine learning, and you add social media, is that the viewer can really participate and change the direction of content and context in a way that they never were before. That’s really what interested me in the ’80s, to see what kind of political shift individuals, and particularly individuals who previously had no voices, could manifest in the world. I have great faith in the millennials and in what they understand about social media, and how they’re going to be able to counter fascist forces as they come.
WEISS: It’s great to hear that you’re positive about how people are able to use social media and these technologies. I think it’s easy to view everything as dystopian, because things are changing so fast and the capabilities do seem a little terrifying when it comes to matters like gene editing.
HERSHMAN LEESON: But, you know, there’s no limit as to who can do it, and the ethics haven’t [caught up]—and there’s no FDA, anybody can get a CRISPR and can start editing life forms in their kitchen. That’s what’s really dangerous, is people doing it without knowing what’s going to happen, or not having a structure that oversees what gets done.
WEISS: Do you think there’s a greater capacity for empathy in the kind of works you create, when one perceives that they have control, for example on Lorna where you can go through these different interactions with the piece?
HERSHMAN LEESON: I think that there is, that there will be, for sure, an empathic voice that’s broader than ourselves.
WEISS: Back in the ’80s, were you influenced by science fiction writing? I think of Neuromancer by William Gibson—I wonder if that was something that interested you.
HERSHMAN LEESON: Yeah, the writing did, but science always interested me, and science, real science, was more science fiction than science fiction. My family are all scientists except for me—my mother was a biologist, my daughter is a doctor—so they’re all embedded in the sciences; that became my point of magic.
WEISS: Did you ever consider going into science yourself?
HERSHMAN LEESON: My undergraduate degree is in biology.
WEISS: So when did you incorporate that into your art? I saw an interview where you said that you basically hadn’t done anything other than art-making.
HERSHMAN LEESON: Yes, that’s all I ever did, but I was always interested in the sciences, so then it affected the art, but a lot of people couldn’t understand that I would do that or why I would do that. But it just seems that they were interrelated.
WEISS: What’s something you learned recently from a scientist or programmer that you think people would be surprised to know?
HERSHMAN LEESON: There’s something called epigenetics, which are the patterns above genetics, and it’s a year ago now that I interviewed somebody at Oxford and he was telling me about trauma and how trauma transfers through generations, and how they’re able to correct trauma in unborn babies and embryos prior to their birth. They can see it and correct it before they’re born so they don’t have a lifetime of chemicals to shift it. I thought that was really interesting.
WEISS: Trauma—especially in your dollhouse and video installation Home Front, in the form of domestic violence—reappears throughout your work. So is that capability, of editing out or correcting trauma, appealing?
HERSHMAN LEESON: I think we have to learn how to do it, and not accept trauma that has been given to us for some reason, that we either inherited or is in our genes or is in an accident that happened in our lifetime, and use that in a way that it can be reconverted through creative restructuring—to not accept trauma as the end. We all experience trauma, and that’s only halfway to what we can do with it before prevailing in a creative way.
WEISS: And that relates to the film you worked on most recently, Tania Bruguera: A State of Vulnerability, and psycho-traumatology. She’s someone who was detained by a doctor?
HERSHMAN LEESON: She was imprisoned for eight months, and she thought she had PTSD. So we found the man who identified PTSD, [Dr. Frank Ochberg,] who named it, and he was in his eighties living in Michigan and still practicing. That’s how we found him and went to him.
WEISS: So is this a documentary? Is it fictionalized?
HERSHMAN LEESON: It’s not fictionalized at all. The switch is, is a documentary or is it a performance? And where does performance begin and where does anything else begin? And is all of life a performance?
WEISS: I suppose it is; everything is situational. That relates back to when you created the Roberta Breitmore series, where you had an alter ego. When is it fiction and when is it reality?
HERSHMAN LEESON: And the diaries—things that are real—people think I fictionalized.
WEISS: One of the potential end points for Lorna is that she might commit suicide, right?
HERSHMAN LEESON: There are three choices: she could stay where she was, she could move to Los Angeles, or she could commit suicide. You can switch [the result] at any time, you can listen to different soundtracks—you could look at a screen with one soundtrack and [it would] make you think one thing is happening as opposed to the other soundtrack, or you see that it’s misinterpreted based on what you heard. … I think you just get lost in it, and then all of a sudden these things happen.
WEISS: What’s the process like to create a work like that? Do you have to flowchart everything out?
HERSHMAN LEESON: We had a flowchart of where we were going to put everything, and what we were going to shoot, and we shot these 30-second to one minute clips that were put together. And, you know, in the beginning when we did it, there hadn’t been any precedent, so the term “user,” that little arrow at the bottom of how you instruct people to use it—nobody understood what interactivity was or how you navigate this.
WEISS: People are so tech savvy now. How they react must be different.
HERSHMAN LEESON: Yes, it’s like an antique. [laughs]
WEISS: Has writing been a part of your practice? Obviously it is in your films, but what about writing narratives in relation to these works?
HERSHMAN LEESON: I have to write, I had to, because nobody understood anything I was doing. I had to put these little pamphlets together to explain what [the works] were, and why I did them, and what the references were, and how they related for instance to cubism. I saw these [interactive works] as extensions of cubism, because you’re looking at something from all sides.
“LYNN HERSHMAN LEESON: REMOTE CONTROLS” IS ON VIEW AT BRIDGET DONAHUE IN NEW YORK THROUGH MARCH 12, 2017. “LYNN HERSHMAN LEESON: CIVIC RADAR” OPENS AT YERBA BUENA CENTER FOR THE ARTS IN SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA ON FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 10, 2017. FOR MORE ON LYNN HERSHMAN LEESON, VISIT HER WEBSITE.