New YorkNew Museum Of Contemporary Art
June 30 – October 3, 2021
History is compressed in Twisted, Lynn Hershman Leeson’s current solo exhibition at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. The work on view is chronologically arranged from the early ’60s to the present day and makes visitors feel as though they can travel back and forth in time in a matter of minutes. In the first room of the exhibition, Self Portrait as Another Person (1965) and Caged Woman (1965) feature (now archaic) tape recorders, while the second to last room presents a (relatively futuristic) vial holding DNA encoded with Hershman Leeson’s artistic archive (The Infinity Engine: Room #8, 2018), bringing to mind the bio-neural gel packs that store and transmit data in the hybrid organic-electronic computer system of Star Trek: Voyager’s eponymous vessel.
Despite the distinctly sci-fi valence of the work included here—more than one comparison can be made to Star Trek, Videodrome, and Metropolis, the latter of which has been repeatedly cited by the artist—an ironic tension persists throughout the exhibition. The oft-lauded prescience of Hershman Leeson’s oeuvre, which foreshadowed the interactivity of new media, our dependence on technology, the omnipresence of artificial intelligence, and much more, has come to overshadow other potential readings of her work. The prevailing discourse tends to not fully reflect the artist’s ingenuity and rigor, but instead foregrounds our contemporary perspective. When viewing one of the first instances of a new technology or form of media that has since become ubiquitous, it can be easy to be seduced (in the very manner that the artist satirizes in Seduction of a Cyborg, 1994) by the novelty of the device or system. Such a seduction tends to suppress other qualities of the work. For example, the AI-based artwork Agent Ruby (1998–2002) does learn from input and can answer questions, but the resulting dialogue remains equally halting and evasive, regardless of whether she’s accessed at home online or in the exhibition space. Displaying Agent Ruby’s web interface on a flat screen monitor next to a QR code—which when activated from one’s phone doesn’t sync up with what appears on the screen—ends up making a pioneering example of artificial intelligence look more artifactual than revolutionary, though she is without question both.
Rapidly dissolving distinctions between human and machine persist throughout much of the work on view, in the form of cyborgs, genetic engineering, and allegories for our highly mediated world—“the screen is an extension of the hand” can be read on one frame of the interactive video narrative Deep Contact (1984–89). A recurrent subject within sci-fi, this uncanny union raises an infinite array of both ethical and practical questions regarding how such hybrid organisms are to exist in and around their purely organic counterparts. After watching The Electronic Diaries (1984–2019) on the New Museum’s first floor, it becomes clear that very personal experiences prompted Hershman Leeson’s interest in these themes. The artist had to live on an oxygen machine for many months after she experienced heart failure, a situation that directly correlates with her creation of the “Breathing Machines” (1965–68). Similarly, experiences of abuse as a child inflect her exploration of DNA and genetic engineering in Infinity Engine (2014–present): the artist wondered aloud in one diary recording whether the violent tendencies she was subjected to could be genetically transmitted. These connections between the personal and the scientific, or the body and technology, are not merely fantastical musing about the future, but rather a means for the artist to process lived traumas.
Questions that arise regarding sentience, personhood, and individuality thus manifest on both intimate and theoretical registers, prompting viewers to see our present technological paradigm in a new light. However, it may be prudent to view the new media with which Hershman Leeson works not as her subject but rather as her artistic medium. This reading is perhaps best supported by the fact that—in addition to her innumerable drawings of mechanized humans and animals in the exhibition’s first room—one of her earlier projects, Roberta Breitmore (1972–79), explored similar questions about what it means to be human in what we might call a fully analog capacity.
Roberta Breitmore functioned as an alternate identity that the artist adopted, whose character was based on stereotyped expectations of womanhood and femininity. Conceived largely as an experiment to determine whether giving society what it demands could relieve a woman of the violence and psychological harm that Hershman Leeson herself had experienced, Roberta Breitmore’s relatively brief existence was thoroughly authenticated by the systems and documents commonly used to verify personhood, such as a driver’s license, a psychiatric report from a therapist, and distinctive handwriting. Falling under the category of what Carrie Lambert-Beatty has termed parafictional art—the presentation and dissemination of fictions as facts—this practice was defined just as much by its invisibility as its plausibility. Roberta Breitmore's fictitiousness was expertly disguised, but the stereotyped expectations and ideals of femininity that she adopted served as a kind of cipher and were meant to grant her an added layer of invisibility. The experiment ultimately failed, since Roberta Breitmore had experiences similar to those Hershman Leeson was attempting to escape. She was consequently exorcised in 1978.
Such investigations of invisibility recur throughout the exhibition and Hershman Leeson’s practice in general. They manifest not only in her long-term adoption of an alternate identity, but also in her use of various pen names (Aesthetic Morphology and Its Application to Art Criticism), encoded DNA (The Infinity Engine), covert surveillance technologies (“Dollie Clones,” 1995–96), and the erasure (Identity Face Stamps, 1966–72) or disappearance (Water Women, 1976–Present) of identity. This pattern brings to mind Hito Steyerl’s How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013). Hershman Leeson has, however, evaded number seven of Steyerl’s 13 ways to become invisible by disappearing: “being female and over fifty.” Twisted is the 80-year-old artist’s first ever solo museum exhibition in New York City—despite a career marked by invisibility (whether purposeful or socially enforced), Hershman Leeson has only gained visibility with time.