“Science Truth” and Fearless Feminism in Lynn Hershman Leeson’s “Civic Radar”

Recently, I woke up with a bump on my pinkie finger. I thought it was an insect bite. After a few days, I realized it was a callous from the way I hold my iPhone, housed in a cumbersome case that holds an extra battery. I no longer notice the weight, but my body has adapted to it.

This banal anecdote is instructive when thinking about Lynn Hershman Leeson’s ongoing retrospective, Civic Radar. Since the early 1960s, Leeson has made work examining the merging of organic forms and technological products, the intractable erosion of privacy, and the ways in which identity can be a malleable condition. For most of Leeson’s career, observers often struggled to see past her work’s media innovations to understand its conceptual underpinnings. Today, the omnipresence and dulled novelty of networked technology allows Leeson’s oeuvre to finally be evaluated in terms of its content. Her practice examines how lives – especially female lives – exist somewhere between fact and fiction. A committed feminist, Leeson embraces raw, ragged emotionality – even as it questions the truths of gendered narratives and the boundaries of the human body.

At Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco – the final stop in Civic Radar’s tour, after the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, and the Museum of Modern Art Oxford – the show has been edited from 700 objects down to a focused set of 230. The exhibition narrative, crafted by curator Lucía Sanromán, positions Leeson as an artist intent on challenging the paradigms of institutional recognition. Civic Radar opens in a white cube antechamber devoted to Infinity Engine (2014–16), Leeson’s recent project exploring bioengineering. A funhouse-like mirrored room leads the way to an environment wallpapered with pictures of genetically-modified organisms, from soybeans to a glow-in-the-dark cat. The austere space mimics a laboratory, showcasing video interviews with genetic scientists, a paper archive of copyright reports of new species, and lab-grown organs. Earlier iterations of Civic Radar included reverse facial-recognition software that analyzed the genetic makeup of visitors, raising ethical queries about scientific complicity in social surveillance.

Throughout her career, Leeson pursued themes plucked from science fiction that would become “science truth” (as she put it in a recent interview). In the early 1960s, she created cyborg drawings and assemblages. Her first new media breakthrough came with her Breathing Machines, which she made after suffering a severe heart condition during her pregnancy in 1965. In these unsettling works, Leeson combined wax casts of her face, modified by dyes, wigs, or glass eyes, with recorded soundtracks dominated by her own labored breathing. Between heavy sighs, Leeson asks a number of probing questions, from the addressee’s name to their sexual experience and views on religion. Self-Portrait as Another Person (1966), in which the wax skin is painted a dark, almost charred shade, ventures from sexual politics into racial masquerade – a rare choice that reads as regressive. A wall text claims that Leeson wanted to show solidarity with the Civil Rights Movement by painting her skin, but this conflation of the struggles between white women and people of color trivializes the lived experience of race. Leeson’s later feminist work focused on strategies of embodiment, leaving aside the idea that race could function as a removable guise.

Yet it was not the racial politics, but rather the sonic component of the Breathing Machines that provoked curators of the era. The Berkeley Art Museum removed her sculptures from a show in the ‘60s, reasoning that “sound did not belong in an art museum.” Censorship catalyzed Leeson’s hunger to create alternative structures for presenting and discussing her ideas. After writing criticism under the names of three fictional critics in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s (Gay Abandon, Herbert Goode, and Prudence Juris), Leeson spearheaded the real-life Floating Museum (1974–78), organizing hundreds of site-specific artist projects in locations ranging from San Quentin Prison to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Along with these museological activities, Leeson arranged performances in unlikely locations. In collaboration with Eleanor Coppola – the wife of film director Francis Ford Coppola – she organized RE: Forming Familiar Environments in 1975. At the Coppolas’ home, members of a sex worker’s union performed, taking baths and interacting with patrons from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The evening followed on the heels of an installation of an anonymous, fictional woman’s personal effects in a run-down San Francisco hotel (Dante Hotel, 1973–74). After observing how viewers could craft a psychological storyline from a series of objects, Leeson created her best-known performance: as her alter-ego Roberta Breitmore.

The Roberta Breitmore series acts as a spatial and conceptual hinge between the ‘70s work and that of the last 30 years. From 1973 to 1978, Leeson spent hours each week performing as the fictional Breitmore, eventually enlisting several female “lookalikes.” Breitmore, an insecure, blond-wigged character who Leeson describes as “an archetypal ego of a collective culture,” participated in Weight Watchers, EST, and psychotherapy. Leeson’s series of collaged Construction Charts (1975), diagrammed not only Breitmore’s cosmetic transformation through makeup (contour, blue eyeshadow, red lipstick), but also provided a somatic roadmap of the gestures that Leeson would use to express Breitmore’s traumatized, schizoid personality. Most importantly, Leeson crafted her character’s traceable civic identity, with a driver’s license, checking account, and credit card. In the retrospective, handsome vitrines display these artifacts, along with therapist’s reports and clothing. Taken together, these traces add up to a wrenching portrait of the 1970s single white female: an endangered figure who, despite the rhetoric of Women’s Liberation, was pursued by male predators, monitored by government agencies, and pressured to conform to beauty ideals. To conclude the project, Leeson and the Breitmore lookalikes “exorcized” Breitmore at the tomb of famed incest victim Lucrezia Borgia.

As Leeson pursued new venues for staging female trauma, she began the explorations of interactive technology that have come to dominate discussions about her work. Deep Contact (1984), Leeson’s pioneering touchscreen-based video artwork, invites the viewer to follow a stiffy-coiffed blonde named Marion. “Touch me,” the character pleads, when no one interacts with the touchscreen. In various chapters, Marion runs panicked through a surreal forest, or discusses the pressures of escaping the Iron Curtain through modeling. Leeson herself appears in the work, interjecting prescient thoughts on feminism and the distancing effects of screens. During the same era, Leeson taped a series of video diaries (Electronic Diaries (1986–90)), in which she faces the camera alone and discusses everything from binge eating to incest and brain tumors. Leeson perfects the video confessional years before its ubiquity, while purposefully confusing the diaristic with the stereotypical. Much like the aspirational quality of contemporary reality TV culture and social media, we don’t know how much of the Electronic Diaries is fact or fiction. Seen today, it’s hard to miss how cleverly Leeson anticipated the eroding distinction between these poles.

In more recent years, Leeson channeled her obsession with media’s evolving influence through filmmaking and ever-more-daring experiments in artificial intelligence. While her documentaries on under-recognized artistic movements and figures attest to a continued engagement with feminist principles, plots for movies like Teknolust (2002) – in which Tilda Swinton portrays a genetic scientist – grew out of Leeson’s enduring interest in cyborgs and AI.

Emerging from these dual trains of thought – feminism and science fiction – were two bots, Agent Ruby (1999–2002) and DiNA (2004). Agent Ruby, named after Swinton’s character in Teknolust, answers typewritten questions, while DiNA responds to speech. Both have a wry sense of humor, well documented in thousands of printed pages of archived conversations on topics from sexuality to politics. Defying lasting critical interpretation, they learn as people interact with them in the exhibition space. They’re not yet convincing as conscious, intelligent beings but they have been programmed with slightly flirtatious personalities to keep visitors interested. “Do I have to tell you everything?” they respond coyly, when the subject matter gets too personal or complex.

The majority of Leeson’s sprawling oeuvre has never been exhibited until now. Seen all at once, Civic Radar proves the insufficiency of the ready story of her technological innovation. It’s true that occasionally she reached so far ahead of her time as to be aesthetically incomprehensible. But she paired her forward thinking with an emotional depth and commitment to unearthing the taboos of female experience. The strength of Leeson’s practice comes from its fearlessness in the face of risk – from her earliest self-destructing Suicide Machines sculptures (1962–68) to her forays into cutting-edge media techniques and scientific research. At age 75, the later part of Leeson’s artistic story is more hopeful than the tragicomedy of her various heroines. It also presents a challenge to my generation of cultural producers, to use the networked technology at our disposal to more feminist, collaborative ends. To notice the weight of new callouses, and how they developed.

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