This Life

Since the late 1960s Lynn Hershman Leeson has employed multiple personalities to explore ideas surrounding identity

DEEP CONTACT (1984-9), interactive video still

DEEP CONTACT (1984-9), interactive video still

In 1969 Lynn Hershman Leeson sculpted a mask of her face entitled Self Portrait as Another Person. Since then she has consistently performed herself through physical, legal, institutional and digital means as other, most particularly in the guise of ‘Roberta Breitmore’. This character has assumed many forms: from the early to mid-1970s by the artist performing live and documented photographically as a neurotic young woman, and from the 1980s onwards in the guise of various robotic and digital avatars, the most recent of which guides the visitor through Hershman Leeson’s online archive.

Hershman Leeson has recently noted: ‘According to a national [US] database, there are several people in the United States named Lynn Hershman. For example, Lynn Hershman was born November 14, 1949, in Connecticut and died February 19, 1976. Lynn Hershman also lives in Rancho Palos Verdes, California; Manteca, California; and Phoenix, Arizona. I am none of the above.’1 It might be said that the artist’s project has been in part aimed at unhinging our tendency (in the art world and beyond) to think we know who an artist/individual is and what kind of expression is properly connected to her through the shorthand of her name.

Enacting a perpetual process of virtual becoming, Hershman stages the self as both simulacral and embodied. LH←→RB: they exist as the interrelated sides of one Möbius strip of selfhood.

Here’s how it works.

Walking into the first room of the Whitworth Art Gallery exhibition ‘Autonomous Agents: The Art and Films of Lynn Hershman Leeson’ in Manchester late last year, I am struck by a seemingly anachronistic jumble of what I can only think of as anaesthetic visuals and objects – anaesthetic because they seem completely disconnected from the formal or theoretical conceits of dominant art-world systems of value.2 The strange array of images, objects, documents and screens doesn’t cohere in any formal or aesthetic way – we attempt to make sense of it all through a set of conceptual frameworks, all leading back to LH←→RB.

And yet, crucially, we find that we cannot achieve some final version of ‘LH’. Precisely because LH’s practice calls on the body/mind complex without making use of the sensual lures of aesthetic forms (which can be radical but also often work in the services of the market), we find ourselves thinking the work (the LH←→RB matrix) through our bodies (perhaps we are the arrows in the liminal gap between the LH and the RB).

In this way it is jarring (beautifully so) to encounter in the opening room of the exhibition a large Victorian vitrine filled with letters, a diary and photographs, and walls chock-a-block with photographs, drawings and diagrams, and, at the other end of the adjacent gallery, what appears to be a small robotic doll with large glasses and blonde hair sitting in a vitrine (CybeRoberta, 1995–8). The uncanny big-eyed doll head swivels my way, making my skin crawl.

Even more unsettling, I discover a few days later that I was not only being observed but also simultaneously webcast live on LH’s website via the gaze of CybeRoberta (the footage from her camera eyes is available archivally and as live feed via webcam). I have been in more than one place at a time, and the past telescopes into the present as I watch myself being watched. Uncannily, both LH←→RB and I are scattered across psychological and material spaces – but this makes me more, not less, aware of myself here in front of the computer engaging with my own past bodily image, which haunts me in the present.

These two apparent extremes – the webcast of CybeRoberta’s spying vision on LH’s website and the display of RB’s musty material artefacts in the securely off-line and still vaguely Victorian spaces of the Whitworth – frame the range of LH’s accomplishment and define the importance of her work as it has metamorphosed since the early 1970s. The exhibition ‘Autonomous Agents’ highlights the way in which the artist has incessantly explored the construction of the subject of the ‘artist’, itself a microcosm of the way in which all subjects are enacted in relation to institutions and other subjects via networks of exchange.

We now identify these networks as linked to Internet cultures and virtual worlds such as Second Life, but in the 1970s, when LH initiated the RB project, they were largely understood in relation to systems of the circulation of capital and information such as the bank account, postal service and telephone. The first gallery of the exhibition thus includes a wide array of objects and images from the 1970s collectively narrating RB in relation to these systems, including a wall-mounted case with RB’s rather worn and threadbare clothing; a video monitor showing a grainy film of LH grooming and transforming herself into RB; numerous ‘construction charts’ documenting the changes from one to the other; a psychoanalyst’s notes on RB’s neurotic behaviour; RB’s dental X-Rays; an advertisement RB placed in a San Francisco newspaper in 1975 (‘WOMAN, Cauc. seeks bright companion to share rent & interests’); correspondence from the various men who answered her advertisement and surveillance-style photographs of her meeting one of them on a public bench; RB’s diary; photographs of RB ‘surrogates’; and a vast array of documentation substantiating RB’s legal ‘existence’, from a driver’s licence to a chequebook in her name.

The other galleries at the Whitworth are filled with LH’s subsequent range of works: the ‘cyborg series’ of digital photographs, video works, films and more of LH’s interactive robotic/Internet works. These loops are activated in diverse works from her highly influential Electronic Diaries (1986–68), in which she uses the intimacy of video to narrate her life story, simultaneously drawing us in and repelling us through the intense emotional charge of the televisual confession, and DEEP CONTACT (1984–89), which invites participants to press parts of the body of a female ‘guide’ via a Microtouch monitor, to Room of One’s Own (1990–93), forcing the viewer to engage physically and psychologically in a photographic web of surveillance, and Synthia Stock Ticker (2000–03), an interactive work linked to the live vicissitudes of stock market trading.

LH’s life work reiterates a range of media and modes of embodiment to open LH←→RB to the possibility of being enacted by others. ‘Autonomous Agents’ includes photographs of a number of RB surrogates, with the same wig and outfit LH donned, navigating social spaces including those attending the ‘Roberta Breitmore Lookalike Contest’ at the De Young Museum in San Francisco in 1978. And in films such as Teknolust (2002) LH abandons herself to the various characters played brilliantly by Tilda Swinton – including the homely scientist ‘Dr Rosetta Stone’ and her three gorgeous multicoloured clones or ‘self-replicating automata’, Ruby, Olive and Marine.3 Across bodies, themselves ranging from flesh to pure virtuality, LH’s practice is open to an exchange that increasingly takes place across digital flows of information. The artist has never stood still in relation to technological and philosophical developments: sponsored by the international (and one hopes ironically named) ‘Presence Project’, she is currently involved in archiving the entire RB project on Second Life.4 This project, entitled Life to the Second Power: Animating the Archive (2006–ongoing), extends into cyberspace LH’s 1970s’ expression of herself as RB – pointing to the links but also the differences between pre-cybernetic (legal, sartorial, photographic etc.) and digital structures of defining, performing and constructing the self.

The avatars on Second Life can fly, but they are otherwise profoundly bounded by all-too-human constraints. Stereotyped in Second Life according to racial and gender clichés such as the clearly white-skinned and ‘middle-class boy and girl next door’ available to non-paying participants on the website, avatars are constrained by old-fashioned and dangerous beliefs. Second Life reifies, albeit in apparently new form, the tendency to fix those we engage with as, for example, either male or female, as black or white or brown, working still from the assumption that we know what all these labels mean.

Life to the Second Power (LSP) enacts a more sophisticated set of possibilities for Second Life, however. This is not surprising, given the ways in which LH has consistently and joyously perverted conventions attached to particular media, discourses and institutions, including the art market and identity politics. In order to access the LH archive, avatars visiting LSP navigate the hallway from the artist’s mid-1970s’ Dante Hotel project, in which LH rented out a room in a San Francisco hotel and staged it as an ongoing site for visitors, including, supposedly, RB herself. The disposition of the Dante Hotel corridor in LSP – a pastiche of photographs of the hotel – allows me (as my own stock avatar, Az Kirax, based on a vaguely ‘Goth’ female figure) to feel like ‘I’ am moving weightlessly down the hallway, with ‘my’ synaesthetic sense of embodiment reduced to a blurry field of vision that unrolls as a tunnel before ‘my’ moving form.

Traversing the virtual version of the Dante Hotel (a weird amalgamation of analogue photographic imagery and crude digital 3-D modelling graphics), I am forced to acknowledge that my relationship to the history of LH’s practice is both highly mediated and embodied: the hotel/archive is accessed via the corporeal form of the avatar, as guided by fingers on computer keys. In skimming through the hallway as Az Kirax, I feel disoriented, my body tugging at me in virtual form – even as my relationship to the past (to art’s histories, and to the history of LH’s work in particular) is both anchored to material bodies and things and fundamentally ephemeral.

Life to the Second Power is a portal tethered to a non-linear but still historical past, through the otherwise banal and commodified spaces of Second Life. Unlike most of Second Life, however, LSP encourages us to engage with the website as a critical space of cultural production and reception, where specific pasts can be evoked (albeit always incompletely) via present and embodied, if virtual, engagements. Whether or not LSP functions as an archive to amplify our sense of understanding of the extraordinarily complex range of this artist’s ground-breaking work across performance, photographic, cinematic, digital and web-based media is another question.

LH’s brilliant perversity is at work in LSP in this forcing together of embodiment and virtuality. Hershman Leeson has long laboured to show us that the two are not mutually exclusive: robotic, digital and networked engagements are not by any means only cognitive and inherently disembodied but, on the contrary, inevitably involve bodily processes. At the same time, the work itself has body. This is its politics.

We live in an age of virtuality, a time in which, as Guy Debord ominously foresaw in the late 1960s, ‘life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.’5 And yet this is also an age haunted by the stubborn refusal of the body to disappear – an age haunted by bodies bleeding and bruised through the effects of physical violence, an age obsessed with removing the signs of ageing, avoiding bad health or otherwise defeating the body’s incontrovertible mortality (a mortality based on our heavy materiality, which we can never, no matter how hard we try, dominate or erase).

In such an age nothing could be more important than a practice like that of LH←→RB, an ongoing range of works that acknowledge and enact the spectacularized virtuality of our ‘real’ in and through the body.

Lynn Hershman Leeson’s new film Strange Culture (2007) is released on DVD by Docurama New Video.

1 Cited in Meredith Tromble (ed.), The Art and Films of Lynn Hershman Leeson, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2005, p.13
2 The exhibition at the Whitworth, curated by Mary Griffiths in consultation with LH, was a revised and expanded version of a retrospective originally mounted at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle.
3 See Jackie Stacey’s inspired article on Teknolust, ‘Transductive Cinema: Leading Across the In-Between’, to be published in her forthcoming book The Cinematic Life of the Gene, Duke University Press, Durham, NC.
4 On the ‘Presence Project’ see http://presence.stanford.edu:3455/Collaboratory/Home
5 See Guy Debord, ‘The Culmination of Separation’, section 1, The Society of the Spectacle, 1967, trans. Ken Knabb

 
Issue 117

First published in Issue 117

September 2008

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