Surveying Lynn Hershman Leeson’s long and relentlessly innovative career, it would be tempting to ascribe to the artist some uncanny power of technological foresight. This would be justified not merely by her adoption of new media inventions at the cusp of their emergence—from interactive video to artificial intelligence to genetic engineering—but also by her understanding of the psychosocial effects accompanying each one. In her video Seduction of a Cyborg (1994), for instance, Hershman Leeson depicts a woman entranced by an infinite flow of digital images that ultimately replace her capacity for offline experience. This is a portrait of addiction, both emotional and physical. As the narrator describes, “Her body: a battlefield of degraded privacy, loneliness, and terror.” Hershman Leeson succinctly captured the dystopian potential of a digitally mediated world that was only beginning to emerge.

Yet reducing Hershman Leeson to an oracle of the future would be to miss the way her art prompts us to look backwards as well as forwards, scrambling conventional narratives of technological development. Among her early works was Roberta Breitmore, a category-defying project born in the early 1970s that appears, at first, to be distant from issues of technology. The work entailed the creation of an artificial persona, a distinctive but fabricated character with blonde hair and an anxious demeanor. Hershman Leeson and other performers took turns inhabiting Roberta’s constructed identity as she went about her life in San Francisco. The character had proof of her own existence: a driver’s license, a credit score, and even psychiatric records. The bureaucratic structures meant to verify real personhood, Hershman Leeson showed, could be used to simply create it out of nothing. The implication was paradoxical: that each of us is, in some sense, constructed by the very mechanisms meant to verify who we already are. “Roberta was at once artificial and real,” Heshman Leeson concluded.1

What appeared at the time as a bizarre, even pathological, act has since become a mundane experience for every Internet user who plays, posts, and chats using invented pseudonyms and identities. Yet Hershman Leeson shows that this is hardly a novel phenomenon: the construction of new identities is part of all human culture. This longer history is evoked by the artist’s persistent interest in both digital and physical masks. In Breathing Machine (1965), a wax replica of a human face gazes out at us—and rhythmically breathes as if it’s alive. Like our digital avatars, masks and other disguises have a disturbing tendency to attain their own autonomy, to slip dangerously between the realms of fiction and fact.

In The Complete Electronic Diaries (1984–96)—the artist’s most personal work—Hershman Leeson tells her own story as a victim of violent abuse, and recounts her lifelong attempts to heal an identity shattered by trauma. She treats the camera as a silent, impartial confidant, capable of providing a solace that no human could: “By talking into a video camera,” Hershman Leeson says in the work, “I began to reconstruct myself.” The tools used to create new versions of ourselves—from masks to cameras to Internet avatars—might also be part of a feminist project of repair and reclamation. Our technologies, the artist recognizes, have always been catalysts for the fears that haunt us as well as the hopes that sustain us. As Hershman Leeson muses in her video diaries, “Life is the ultimate editing process.”

Mitchell Herrmann, MRC Fellow, Department of Media and Performance, 2024

  1. Lynn Hershman, Paranoid Mirror, ed. Helen Abbott and Mary Ribesky (Seattle, WA: Seattle Art Museum, 1995), 13.

Wikipedia entry
Introduction
Lynn Hershman Leeson (née Lynn Lester Hershman; born 1941) is a multimedia American artist and filmmaker. Her work combines art with social commentary, particularly on the relationship between people and technology. Leeson is a pioneer in new media, and her work with technology and in media-based practices helped legitimize digital art forms. Her interests include feminism, race, surveillance, and artificial intelligence and identity theft through algorithms and data tracking. She has been referred to as a "new media pioneer" for the prescient incorporation of new science and technologies in her work. She is based in San Francisco, California.
Wikidata
Q6709060
Information from Wikipedia, made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License
Getty record
Nationality
American
Gender
Female
Roles
Artist, Digital Artist, Computer Artist, Cinematographer, Art Critic, Installation Artist, Multimedia Artist, Performance Artist, Photographer, Sculptor, Video Artist
Names
Lynn Hershman, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Lynn Hershman-Leeson, Lynn Hershman Lesson, Lynn Lester Hershman
Ulan
500073057
Information from Getty’s Union List of Artist Names ® (ULAN), made available under the ODC Attribution License

Works

45 works online

Exhibitions

Publications

  • Signals: How Video Transformed the World Exhibition catalogue, Paperback, 188 pages
  • Being Modern: Building the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art Exhibition catalogue, Hardcover, 288 pages
  • Photography at MoMA: 1960 to Now Hardcover, 368 pages
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