Dreaming is Risky Business: An Interview With Renowned New Media Artist Lynn Hershman Leeson

Lynn Hershman Leeson is a widely celebrated modern artist whose contributions to visual culture are multifaceted and revolutionary, amounting ultimately in one of the most versatile artistic careers of the past 40 years.

As a central figure in the feminist art movement and “the most influential woman working in new media today,” her inventive multimedia approach, comprised of a wide range of photography, performance, internet/computer art, and film, have proven to be a unique and transformative approach in the struggle for equal representation for women in the arts and society at large.

Hershman Leeson directed three feature films starring Tilda Swinton — Conceiving Ada, Teknolust, and Strange Culture — that have been shown at the Sundance Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival, and the Berlin International Film Festival, among other prestigious venues worldwide. Teknolust was awarded the Alfred P. Slone Foundation Feature Film Prize in Science and Technology. Additionally, Hershman Leeson was the first woman to receive a tribute and retrospective at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1994.

Her most recent film, !WAR: Women, Art, Revolution, has received widespread critical acclaim for its retelling of the feminist art movement through interviews with respected artists and critics such as Miriam Schapiro, Judy Chicago, the Guerrilla Girls, Hannah Wilke, and Marcia Tucker. Featuring an original score by Carrie Brownstein of the band Sleater-Kinney and the IFC comedy Portlandia, !WAR is an incredible compilation of images and stories that fundamentally rewrite an essential history that has innumerable ramifications for today’s increasingly polarized political and artistic climates. Her work is in the collections of many renowned institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Canada, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Walker Center, and Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie, in Karlsruhe, Germany. 

Her work will be shown in an upcoming exhibition at the MOMA, entitled 19 New Acquisitions, as well as at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The latter show, The Agent Ruby Flies, will focus on Hershman Leeson’s commissioned web project for the museum. A touring retrospective organized by the Henry Gallery opened in 2005 with an accompanying monograph from the University of California Press, Secret Agents, Private I: The Art and Films of Lynn Hershman Leeson. Hershman Leeson is also a Professor Emeritus at the University of California Davis and an A.D. White Professor at Large at Cornell University.

I interviewed Hershman Leeson last month to talk to her about internet communities, feminism, and the role of culture in achieving equality.

Will Simmons (WS): In the introduction to your 1996 anthology Clicking In: Hot Links to a Digital Culture, you state, “Presumptions about communities, identity, property, physicality, art, science, and values are being digitally rewritten. A symbiotic relationship to technology exists. It defines culture as culture defines it.”

Nearly 20 years later, this assertion, with its simultaneously hopeful and cautionary vision, could not be timelier. What are the ramifications of the complete integration of personal identity, be it gender, sexuality, race, etc., with a technology-saturated culture, especially for those of us who grew up in the Digital Age?

Lynn Hershman Leeson (LHL): I think the ramifications are a bit heinous in this era of lost and unrecoverable privacy, despite searches for deep selves and the splaying of information due to hive like-mindedness and a hybridity of existence that denies individual eccentricities.

I am tending to agree with Jaron Lanier in his book You Are Not a Gadget.  More profound are the evolutionary biological shifts that are happening because of the ability to now program DNA.

WS: Your wide-ranging body of work is marked by a commitment to video and performance as privileged media of exploring issues of identity.  As you consider the trajectory of your career and the history of feminism and the arts, what has been the enduring impact of these specific media? What advice might you offer young advocates for social change who hope to create transformative works of art through new media and the internet?

LHL: I think that what is critically important is that people have a driving vision. The media will follow. Every medium has one [a driving vision] that speaks to its community, whether it be social sculpture or wax casting. So concentrate on what and why change is necessary and the most effective way to achieve that. All else will follow.

WS: Your 2011 film !WAR: !Women, Art, Revolution follows the history of  the feminist art movement from its inception without glossing over the fracturing and insecurity that left many wondering if their years of work had come to naught. What would you say to those who are pessimistic about the efficacy of feminism, especially those who have forsaken activism for fear that society is simply unchangeable?

LHL: Anyone pessimistic didn’t live through or note the enormous change that we created. Change is implicit with growth and creativity, and as the film points out, never give up and keep your sense of humor. Great shifts are occurring invisibly but constantly.

WS: You have said that “dreaming is a risky business,” a fact that is manifest in the hours of footage you utilized to create !WAR. It is clear that you and your contemporaries faced countless deterrents to your vision for equality. What is your dream for 2013? What risks do we face in accomplishing it, and how can they be overcome?

LHL: My dream for 2013? To keep my health and energy and add to the creative metasticization of culture(s) through a few projects I am working on which point out an evolutionary shift. I do not see risks ever. I only see opportunities and the implications of not taking them, and the need for courage and vision as a radical and important part of the medium’s composition.

All images are under copyright and reproduced with permission of Lynn Hershman Leeson.

William Simmons would like to thank Lynn Hershman Leeson for her warmth and generosity. He can be reached at wsimmons@college.harvard.edu or followed on Twitter. His other pieces on women in the arts include Laurie Simmons’ “Jimmy the Camera”Guerrilla Girls: Not Ready to Make Nice and An Interview with Judy Chicago

Image 1 - Lynn Hershman Leeson. Roberta’s Construction Chart #2. 1976. Chromogenic color print, printed 2003, 22 15/16 x 29 5/8" (58.3 x 75.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Modern Women’s Fund. © 2013 Lynn Hershman Leeson. Courtesy Lynn Hershman Leeson.

Image 2 - Film still, Teknolust. Courtesy Lynn Hershman Leeson.

Image 3 - !WAR Poster. Courtesy Lynn Hershman Leeson.

Image 4 - Lynn Hershman Leeson. Courtesy Lynn Hershman Leeson.

Image 5 - Shutter (1990). Gelatin silver print. 20" x 24". Courtesy Lynn Hershman Leeson.