Lynn Hershman Leeson. Seduction of a Cyborg. 1994. Standard-definition video (color, sound), 7 min. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Modern Women’s Fund. © 2023 Lynn Hershman Leeson

Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Seduction of a Cyborg screened here July 19–August 2, 2023. The video is no longer available for streaming. Join us for the next Hyundai Card Video Views, screening on August 23.

How does one become a cyborg? What does it look and feel like to be part human and part computer? Today, these questions are no longer just for the realm of science fiction.

Since the 1960s, artist Lynn Hershman Leeson has been experimenting with new technologies and the potential of cyborgs, engaging with the urgent issues of gender, privacy, surveillance, and censorship. She considers the cyborg as a quintessential reflection of human beings in a modern technological society. Her prescient body of work—ranging from early wax-cast sculptures, video, and film to an artificial intelligence (AI) robot and an installation of a genetics lab—has received international acclaim for its trailblazing examination of technology-driven social issues. Hershman Leeson’s enduring interest in cyborgs has appeared in X-Ray Woman (1966), the Phantom Limb series (1985–87), and Teknolust (2002), among many other works. Most recently, her video Logic Paralyzes the Heart (2022) was included in last year’s Venice Biennale, culminating the evolution of cyborgs since the term’s emergence in 1960.

In Hershman Leeson’s short video Seduction of a Cyborg (1994), technology is illustrated as an infectious disease that destroys a woman’s immune system. A blind protagonist agrees to receive physical treatment to restore her eyesight through a computer’s electronic transmission. During the process, the protagonist is seduced into a computer-simulated world and gradually becomes addicted to its algorithm. Ultimately, her addiction leads to the manipulation and breakdown of her body.

Almost 30 years later, in a moment of rampant expansion in biotechnology and AI, this work is ever more resonant.
–Eana Kim, Marica and Jan Vilcek Fellow, Department of Painting and Sculpture

Eana Kim: For more than five decades, cyborgs have been a recurring theme throughout your practice. How did you become interested in cyborgs, and how did the narrative of this work come together?

Lynn Hershman Leeson: My interest in cyborgs strangely came when I was in eighth grade. I would often go to the Cleveland Museum of Art and copy things. Once I copied a Leonardo drawing, and thought it was really great. I wanted to preserve it, because I had done it, like Leonardo often did, on material that could not be preserved. I used newsprint. Xerox machines had just come out. They were huge, like half the size of a room. I was able to get permission to make the drawing copy. And after I put it in, there was this churning sound inside. The drawing didn’t come out. I finally had to open the machine and see this thing inside that I pulled out, this rip-torn mess with all this ink all over it. I was devastated, my beautiful drawing had been destroyed. But then when I looked closer, I thought it was better. I realized at that moment, when I was very young, that we have to make a partnership with technology. We needed to work together. That wasn’t directly cyborgs, but it was the first time I felt the importance of working with technology.

Later, I got an opportunity to go to the south of France and work with a new system, which was called high-definition video. That hadn’t existed before. I was very fortunate to go there because they had a lab set up. I saw that with high-definition, it didn’t degrade the way other forms of videos did. While I was there, I only had a week to do something. So, I wrote the narrative. 1994 was when the Internet was becoming prevalent for the first time, and people were spending much more time on their computers. I think that that’s what inspired this project.

Why particularly this theme of seduction and cyborgs?

At that time, the Internet just seemed to be taking over our lives. We were spending more and more time with it and on it. And remember, that was not long after computers became available. I was reading stories like R.U.R, Karel Čapek’s 1921 play about the first robot. I think that all of those things influenced it.

A number of your works explore the relationship between technology and the body, the technological and the biological, and the interface between humans and machines. This work particularly depicts technology as an infectious disease. Were you aiming to depict a dystopian or utopian future in terms of technology?

I think what I was trying to do was depict what we were getting into. And that we should get into it with the knowledge that use this technology comes with a cost. You know, it wasn’t just us as the receiver of all of the information and images and possibilities of the Internet coming to us, but also the fact that we were sacrificing things in order to have that. Our addiction would mean that there was less time for other kinds of things. I had done a series called Phantom Limbs before this, which was really about capture, the capture of women’s bodies by cameras which were very visible. Surveillance was taking place because all we had to do was look around and see where the cameras were. But I don’t think that women particularly knew at that time how much their bodies were being affected by being captured, and then used in so many ways in advertising, and really being exploited.

So, with Phantom Limbs, directly putting machines on women’s bodies, I thought would enable them to understand what was going on with this whole interaction of the process. With Seduction of a Cyborg, the algorithms are invisible. So we’re sacrificing something, but we’re gaining more, and that’s the choice.

Speaking of the invisible algorithm, how do you envision the future relationship between the body and technology in this age of artificial intelligence, ChatGPT, and biotechnology?

Well, I think that there are many possibilities to use technology. I mean, certainly, with the invention of CRISPR, the DNA cutting tool where we could regenerate organs; bioprinting, where we can print out our own organs, without a fear of rejection. And interestingly enough, I did a project called The Infinity Engine. Recently, I was looking at what these same scientists were doing who invented CRISPR. And they’re all looking at life extension, and new inventions to make aging a disease.

Technology is neutral. We invent these things, and as humans we give it meaning. So, if humans are utopian, then the technology will be also. And if humans are greedy, and need things, and use it in a negative way, then it’s dystopian, but technology itself depends on what its partner is.

Lynn Hershman Leeson. Seduction of a Cyborg. 1994

Lynn Hershman Leeson. Seduction of a Cyborg. 1994

Seduction of a Cyborg

Seduction of a Cyborg

Across your practice, you’ve been primarily focused on female subjects and gender-related topics. Can you tell us more about the female protagonists in relation to the theme of seduction?

I think that basically it’s a concept of exploitation. And in most depictions, from Metropolis forward, it’s the female as the one who’s responsible, or who gets blamed.

How does Seduction of a Cyborg also relate to or establish a link to a later work, Teknolust (2002)?

When you look back, you could see the connections, but when you’re making it, it’s more subconscious. When I made Teknolust, I wanted to have a way of making expanded cinema so that you weren’t just watching a screen, but you could interact with it directly. And that’s when I created Agent Ruby in 1997, which was an early version of AI, made 12 years before Siri, and it still exists very vibrantly on the San Francisco Museum of Art website, where it’s the most watched work in their collection, actually. And it’s smarter and funnier than Siri; it has a sense of humor. With most of the GPT-3s, they don’t have a sense of humor, they only know one joke.

Agent Ruby is so advanced for that time, even before Siri or ChatGPT. It’s so impressive. How did you create such an algorithm?

You know, it was really hard. I didn’t know how to do it. And I put a call out on the Internet. It seemed to me that if I could think of this, that we must find a way to do it. I found 18 programmers from around the world, and everybody worked together to do it. And somehow, by some miracle, we did! And it was almost simultaneous to a man named Richard Wallace, who was actually making the first artificial intelligence markup language at the time. He lived near me, but I didn’t know about it.

You’ve worked in a wide range of mediums, and have actively engaged in the newest technology of the time. What does the medium of video mean for you, and why did you choose video for this particular work?

When I made this piece, I was just trying to learn about how to communicate in a broader way. Because you make paintings and drawings, and they have a very specific audience, but I wanted to reach more people. And in particular, with video, I felt you could manipulate time, and you had choices of color. And you could do far more than you could with traditional media. And you’d also have the choice of expanding your audience. That’s what attracted me to it more than film. I tried first to work in film, and it was too rigid and too restricting.

I like to do things in an improvised way. Even if I have a structure of what I’m going to make, I leave it open to change. When I’m making it and think of something, we try it, and often it works, because you’re just inspired in the moment and you have good engineers that know how to do these things. So it’s a combination of bringing images that I think might work, and trying things out, and trying them in various different ways. I never know in advance what it’s going to be.

Seduction of a Cyborg was the beginning of a whole series I just finished last week, and it went from Seduction of a Cyborg to Shadow Stalker, which was about how invisible algorithms steal people’s identity, to Logic Paralyzes the Heart, which was in Venice last year, which is about a 61-year-old cyborg who’s having a nervous breakdown because of the problems she’s caused with humans. I just did a final of this quartet that was written and performed by ChatGPT-3. So, the final one has actually gone full-circle: the AI controls the narrative. It’s listening to technology, and what it can do that you can’t, and using that.

What was the reception of this work when it was originally released in 1994?

Well, I have to say that most of my work has not had a very positive reception! Even Teknolust was booed in 2001 when it first showed at Sundance; people left the theater and said it was unwatchable. However, decades later the work becomes appreciated, mainly by your generation. At the time I make things, I don’t expect a good reception, because generally it takes a while for people to see what I’m doing. I think it’s because I take ideas to the present, and most people live in the past, and if you show new ideas that are, they can’t see it right away. It generally takes time.

This interview was conducted on the occasion of the work’s recent installation in Signals: How Video Transformed the World, March 5–July 8, 2023.