The Performative Bodies of Lynn Hershman Leeson: A Conversation

Laura Gemini, Researcher, University of Urbino Carlo Bo
Federica Timeto, Ph.D., University of Urbino Carlo Bo


Introduction

Observing the relationship between feminism and new media from a sociological perspective means taking the process of co-determination, which relates these two social phenomena, into consideration. While the first belongs to the order of the political and the cultural, the second refers both to the technological apparatuses of society intended as the system of communication, and to the media environment that also characterizes the collective imaginary [1], with the production and diffusion of its symbolic representations. [2] We consider feminism as a specific form of observation, a way of seeing the world and its social relations that finds an effective means of communication in the logic and languages of new media. Generally speaking, in the context of world society [3], as the society that encompasses all possible communications, the relationships between partial social systems which differentiate among themselves in functional terms needs to be taken  into account. In what follows, we relate the system of media with the social system of the arts, within which our conversation with Lynn Hershman – one of the most renowned feminist artists working with new media today – takes place. Drawing on these premises, we consider the system of the arts as a place to observe society [4], an environment for reflexivity that articulates its themes in new forms and languages through continuous experimentation. [5]  Lynn Hershman’s work is exemplary as it foregrounds two correlations in particular, that between gender and technology on the one hand, which share a processual and unfinished openness [6], and that between art and technology on the other, in which media affordances always make reality  possible in other ways, disclosing the virtual component of the world. [7] Moreover, our hypothesis also draws on the epistemological homology we retrace between the performative framework and performance as artistic genre. On a theoretical level, the employment of a post-representational idiom that performatively redefines both our cognitive and bodily experience, relates to the practice of performance as a communicative medium based on the embodied relationships among its participants. [8]

Paralleling the political events of the late sixties, performance was initially used as a way to react to the yet-prevailing formalist tendencies of mainstream art and to reaffirm the importance of the body in context. More broadly, however, the notion of the performative points to the layered practices of meaning at work in the open-ended process of art making, in which “meaning comes to be understood as a negotiated domain, in flux and contingent on social and personal investments and contexts.” [9] Moreover, differently from many uses of performance and body art as a way to express the self through the body’s reclaimed political visibility, many feminist artists have performed their bodies to deconstruct the metaphysics of presence at its roots, inaugurating a completely different “representational economy” based on differences. [10] Feminist artists like Lynn Hershman – or Martha Rosler, Adrian Piper, and Eleanor Antin, to name but a few – when playing with their biological and artificial modifications, have used their body never as a premise but always as a processual construction, the result of a set of practices that are not the subject, but nonetheless make the effect of the subject.

Lorna, 1983–84, installation view, Lynn Hershman, mixed media, © Lynn Hershman. (Used with permission.)

Lorna, 1983–84, installation view, Lynn Hershman, mixed media, © Lynn Hershman. (Used with permission.)

Lynn Hershman’s multimedia work dates back to the mid-seventies. Her first avatar, Roberta Breitmore (1975-1983), a viral multiple whose artificial life is nonetheless constituted by real experiences (she attends psychiatrist sessions, writes a diary, rents a hotel room and eventually commits ritual suicide), which infect the artist’s life, finds a digital counterpart in Lorna (1979-83), a pioneering interactive videodisc featuring a woman “trapped” in a television box, with which Hershman redefines the screen as a porous membrane. It then continues with the three self-replicating automatons of her feature film Teknolust (2002), among which one, Ruby, also lives on the Internet in a site mirroring her portal in the film. Meanwhile, Hershman’s use of the net also finds an interesting terrain of experimentation in Life Squared (, 2007), a work of digital archiving in Second Life in which she also recombines two of her most renowned works, Roberta and The Dante Hotel (1973–74).

More recently, after Teknolust, the second chapter of a trilogy that also includes Conceiving Ada (1997) and the work in progress Killer App (2012– ), Hershman’s work has focused on biotechnologies and genetic engineering, in particular. Just like in the case of her initial performances, in which the spectator becomes an active participant who is asked to fill in the blanks that the performer leaves open for further interpretation or re-enactement, so the laboratory becomes a privileged locus in which to reflect upon the construction of truth always as a partial and relational phenomenon. According to a performative, counter-representational understanding of art practice, “the relationship between the artist, objects, materials and processes is no longer one of mastery and all elements are co-responsible for the emergence of art.” [11]

In the conversation that follows – which we conducted with Hershman on two occasions, one via mail and the other via Skype from her house in San Francisco, in early February of this year – our intention has been to put forth the ways that Hershman employs performativity not only at a formal or narrative level, but as a framework for reconceiving the entanglements of the organic and the digital as well as the relationship between art and life, while at the same time observing the virtual both in the digital environment and in the actualizable possibilities of communication and the arts.

LG & FT: You have recently affirmed that your work is based on a process that you don’t want to cover up, but keep visible. [12] The editing part becomes as important as the final product, or maybe even more so, since, as happens in our life, any change in this continual editing process leads, as you say, to a “splaying of possibilities.” Could you tell us more about this and how this relates to your idea of performativity?

LH: I believe in process and time and not in hiding those elements in everything I do. Performativity for me is precisely this enacting of time, and I consider time and process as being more critical than anything else. The process of creation has a beginning and an end, but also a continuum. I don’t think that anything is ever finished, I think you can put an end to something, but until then you’re performing various versions of an idea. All my projects generally require much time, often one or even more decades. Although I stop when I reach a resolution, so to speak, the edges of all previous versions are something that remain visible, so the history of the artwork becomes as essential as its present. Consider Roberta: I don’t think Roberta was an alter ego of mine, she was a study of a particular point in time, a creation that would create an identity for a complete context, what it was like to be a single woman in a particular moment, which was a different investigation than just creating an alter ego that would grow up, because she was really her own person.

 

 Construction Chart from Roberta Breitmore Chronicles, 1975, Lynn Hershman, C print, © Lynn Hershman. (Used with permission.)


Construction Chart from Roberta Breitmore Chronicles, 1975, Lynn Hershman, C print, © Lynn Hershman. (Used with permission.)

LG & FT: Your work may be considered pioneering both from a cross-media perspective – since it mixes different media – and from a transmedia one, given that the same idea traverses different media platforms: let us look at the re-enactments and ‘transformations’ of Roberta or even the Dollie Clones (1995–98) and the three self-replicating automatons of Teknolust (2002) – particularly the several platforms where Agent Ruby communicates. You seem to use transmedia storytelling as yet another way to highlight the continuities in your work, the way the analog and the virtual performances are linked, the way your characters merge into each other in time . . .

LH: Definitely. It’s really almost a double-helix DNA between virtuality and reality, the presence and the questioning of the boundaries of presence. The core for me is the zone where things overlap: this is where it really gets interesting, and also dealing with the same ideas through different means, so that one leads into another and there is no real separation between them.

 

Teknolust, 2002, Lynn Hershman, movie still, © Lynn Hershman. (Used with permission.)

Teknolust, 2002, Lynn Hershman, movie still, © Lynn Hershman. (Used with permission.)

 

Agent Ruby Mood Swing Diagram, 2002, Lynn Hershman, © Lynn Hershman. (Used with permission.)

Agent Ruby Mood Swing Diagram, 2002, Lynn Hershman, © Lynn Hershman. (Used with permission.)

LG & FT: The massive diffusion and employment of digital technologies today on the one hand increases the production of user-generated content, and on the other seems to relate the user and the artist in a different experience, which sometimes also leads to the co-creation of the artwork. How does all this affect the idea of interactivity, in your opinion? What are the limits and potentials of such contemporary environments in this respect, like social media for example?

LH: I think that the artistic use of social networking is virtually untapped. There are no limits and I think it can be a keen element in the co-creation of artworks. Experiences like Rawwar [the online archive which was the web counterpart of the installation made by Hershman at the New Frontier Space during the 2011 Sundance Festival in Toronto, where her War documentary on the history of feminist art premiered], where everyone can contribute an art piece, depend on it in fact, and I think that while we move into the future this will be more of an integrative and essential part of the development of works. In the seventies and eighties there was a fear for participation, a fear in media, of talking back, and I think that such fear was overcome as technology became more pervasive, more valuable and acceptable. At the same time, however, this has gone a little bit over the edge now, because I think that the access to technology and the use of the hive mind is kind of repressing individuality, experimentation and risk-taking. I’ve just been reading Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget, and he talks a lot about the need for non-complicit gestures in the world. However, when you’re dealing with a large range of users, particularly in social media, it tends towards a mean, a mid-medium, rather than pointing to something more extreme, whereas it is when something is more extreme, that it makes me feel as an individual. But in this way it also takes more time to be recognized, to have your users and to reach your audience.

LG & FT: Although employing a variety of media, both your analog and your digital works appear to rest on a very similar notion of the interface. In fact, the participant in your artwork is very often brought to reflect on the mediating value of the interface as an active field of negotiation between the space of the viewer and the space of the work. In works like Paranoid Mirror (1995–96), but also Room of One’s Own (1990–93), or even Camera Obscura (1998), this dynamic very often takes place through the viewers’ gaze going back onto itself, so that while looking at the work, the viewers become aware of the power of their gaze at the same time. How do you address the viewers’ gaze and the participant’s role in your artworks?

LH: The participation and functioning of a work is dependent on the way viewers see things. The eyes of the viewer often work as an activating interface, hence in works like Room of one’s own, for instance, how or what one sees also activates a particular way of looking or seeing. I do not have a particular notion of the interface in advance, though. It’s like when you are making a painting: you change it, switch it around, turn it upside down, and that is the process as a quest for something that works in some way. But I think one should have the user in mind when creating an artwork, particularly now, when dealing with live issues and live feedback. It is always important that when you do something, this can be adjusted after people see it, if for example they don’t use it the way you interpreted that they would. There can be an element of surprise, a certain reaction or something that people don’t understand, and I always try to do what will allow a user to participate in my work easily. I think that performance art has always been interactive because it could not be what it was without an audience. Generally speaking, by the way, as artists like Duchamp so clearly highlighted, the idea of looking as a participatory gesture has always been a component of art making. This was surely less direct before, whereas I think that with the recent technological developments immersion and participation, as ways of completing the work, become paramount.

Roberta in The Dante Hotel, L², Lynn Hershman, digital print, © Lynn Hershman. (Used with permission.)

Roberta in The Dante Hotel, L², Lynn Hershman, digital print, © Lynn Hershman. (Used with permission.)

LG & FT: A very interesting aspect of your work deals with the experimentation in Second Life (SL), where you have created Life Squared (, 2007). On some occasions, you have highlighted the fact that SL has been a poorly attended and niche environment. This is a notable limit for an environment that could have great potential for performativity, but in which a traditional representational imaginary has for the most part prevailed.

LH: There is always potential in these environments for performance. When I entered SL, it was still an experimental pre-release platform. I found it very exciting. Later, it became a site for exploration of commercialism, sales and pornography.  My experience, however, was limited to a small time frame. The University of Stanford acquired my archives in 2003, and I wanted to create a digital way of seeing them, so we thought that using SL could be an interesting way to migrate some of the ideas of my archive into a sort of game, something that people could see online, and participate in. We selected and put just two parts of the actual archive online, Roberta and The Dante Hotel. We were curious to see how and what people would visit, how they would see it, their reactions. Even if it is a very minimal view of those experiences, it is also a different way of seeing them. In a sense it was also like a collage of two earlier works, since Roberta was inside the hotel as an avatar too, so that you could meet her and learn about her experiences.

LG & FT: In SL, the fact that the users must create their avatar and profile to enter make them act ‘inside’ this environment as performers. In SL they observe their avatar doing something or interacting with other avatars. As in other online worlds, the boundaries between the performer and the spectator blur.

LH: An audience needs to be ready to give up what they believe is their proper ‘way of seeing.’ This is what leads to the blurring of boundaries which is a potential of environments such as SL. The digital reenactment of The Dante Hotel in was also about exploring the issues of trespassing and surveillance. As an avatar you could explore the actual replication of the space that was originally visited, and with the trail left you could get into the different rooms, find a robot that you would follow, unlock the doors, read some letters, see video-documentation, look at the floor plans, and other similar things.

LG & FT: In most of your work, going from photography (the Phantom Limb series, 1988), to video (Seduction of a cyborg, 1994) and film (Teknolust, 2002), to the digitally interactive and net art pieces (from Lorna to DiNA, 2004– ) you constantly foreground the material and symbolic co-implications of gender and technology, in a way that echoes the cyborg imagery of feminism, and how this redefines the human-machine relationship. [13] Talking about the use of the body in your works [14], you have described a sort of path from the pre-digital non-body of earlier works to the post-digital anti-body of more recent works. However, there seems to be continuity between them. How do you conceive this technology/embodiment relationship?

Seduction, from the Phantom Limb series, 1988, Lynn Hershman, gelatin silver print, © Lynn Hershman. (Used with permission.)

Seduction, from the Phantom Limb series, 1988, Lynn Hershman, gelatin silver print, © Lynn Hershman. (Used with permission.)

LH: A lot of the work I do involves cyborgian gestures in which technology actually infiltrates the body and takes a real place and form inside of it. Technology is alive, and therefore always shifting, hybrid and undefinable.  The more alive it is, the more difficult to capture or embody it is, and that is what is fascinatingly intriguing about it. I would say that technology is everything that performs your body. Consider Phantom Limb, which is about the effects of capture and the shifts of identity. I think that digital technology is apt to create some sort of revelation about the culture that we live in and the identity that we form based on that, which is built out of technology, biology and the concerns of our time.

LG & FT: As in a scientific lab, you adopt an operational logic, given that you conceive the testing moment as being part of the work itself. Everything is subject to interpretation and needs verifying, which means that truth is always performed and that an active implication of the subject in the field of the object always exists. In Strange Culture (2007), for example, the story of the artist and member of Critical Art Ensemble, Steve Kurtz, accused of bioterrorism for keeping a bacteria kit at home, becomes an example of how different regimes of truth work according to different networks of power. This also echoes the appeal to an ecological approach to the arts and the sciences whose implications are definitely political.

LH: I don’t think you can make significant art unless there is a political gesture in it. There is an implicit co-responsibility and a political imperative in all works that are important and need to be activated by a public. Truth is pliable and manipulatable, as you see in Strange Culture, or even in WAR (2011) and most of my interactive works.  My new project, Killer App (2012– ) – which is in its very early stages at the moment –, is really about our evolution as a species, depending on our ability to program our DNA, and what we need to do in order to survive in the future, as we mutate into something else. Politics plays a part in what gets funded, what gets seen, and in science as well, where does the planning come from, what are the motivations? These things are all tied together. When you’re dealing with a culture that has the ability to erase parts of the memory, or patent genes, or own the DNA of some species, that’s really political: do they have the right to do that, what are the ethics of this? What is implicit in the loss of privacy that these processes imply? I am currently working on a photo series on contemporary slavery broadly intended, enslaved culture, the slavery of debt, economic concerns, the slavery of media and the image, which obviously also derives from the economy, and the way young people are targeted and become the victims, the new slaves.

Conclusion

We believe that both inside the feminist approach to the arts and the technological dimension of new media, the performative framework is the most suitable to analyze the system of contemporary art and, through it, to observe the society we live in and its global complexity. The processual dimension of contemporary art, that the media both guarantees and highlights, recalls issues that have been largely dealt with during the twentieth century, and are still paramount today. Actually, inside a performative interpretative framework, we can retrace the sense of the relationship between art and life and the weight of the user as producer of meanings and contents as well. Hershman’s words shed an interesting light on the potentialities of social networks, on what has not yet been explored, and that also requires handling with care. It is in this perspective that, in conclusion, an ecological approach to the arts seems desirable, one which also affirms itself as a political gesture of shared responsibility.

References

1. Edgar Morin, L’esprit du temps 1. Nevrose (Paris: Éditions Grasset & Frasquelle, 1962); Alberto Abruzzese, L’intelligenza del mondo. Fondamenti di storia e teoria dell’immaginario (Roma: Meltemi, 2001).

2. Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, trans. Joseph Ward Swain (London: Allen & Unwin, 1915).

3. Niklas Luhmann, “Globalisation or World Society. How to Conceive of Modern Society?,” International Review of Sociology 7, no. 1: 67–79.

4. Laura Gemini, L’incertezza creativa. I percorsi sociali e comunicativi delle performance artistiche (Milano: FrancoAngeli, 2003).

5. Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens & Scott Lash, Reflexive Modernization (Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 1994); Giovanni Boccia Artieri, Stati di connessione. Pubblici, cittadini e consumatori nella (Social) Network Society (Milano: FrancoAngeli, 2012).

6. Wendy Faulkner, “The Technology Question in Feminism. A View from Feminist Technology Studies,” Women’s Studies International Forum 24, no. 1 (2001), 79–95.

7. Pierre Lévy, Becoming Virtual, trans. Robert Bononno (New York: Plenum Press, 1998).

8. Nigel Thrift, Non-Representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect (London: Routledge, 2008); Laura Gemini, In viaggio. Immaginario, comunicazione e pratiche del turismo contemporaneo (Milano: FrancoAngeli, 2008).

9. Amelia Jones and Andrew Stephenson, “Introduction,” in Performing the Body Performing the Text, eds. Amelia Jones and Andrew Stephenson (London: Routledge, 1999), 2.

10. Peggy Phelan, Unmarked. The Politics of Performance (London: Routledge, 1993), 3; Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London: Routledge, 1990).

11. Barbara Bolt, Art Beyond Representation: The Performative Power of the Image (London: Tauris, 2004), 8.

12. Lynn Hershman Leeson, in conversation with Gabriella Giannachi, Leonardo 43, no. 3 (2010), 232–33.

13. Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991).

14. Lynn Hershman, “Romancing the Anti-Body. Lust and Longing in Cyberspace,” on the Telematic Connections website, 2001, accessed January 10, 2013, http://telematic.walkerart.org/telereal/hershman_hershman2.html

Bios

Laura Gemini is researcher in Cultural and Communicative Processes of the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Urbino Carlo Bo and member of LaRiCa (Research Laboratory in Advanced Communication), where she teaches languages and forms of theater and performing arts and theories and practices of the imaginary. Her main research interests deal with the field of the performance as cultural and artistic process in relationship with the media and technological languages. Among her publications: L’incertezza creativa. I percorsi sociali e comunicativi delle performance artistiche (Milano, 2003); In viaggio. Immaginario, comunicazione e pratiche del turismo contemporaneo (Milano, 2008); Stati di creatività diffusa: i social network e la deriva evolutiva della comunicazione artistica, in L. Mazzoli (ed.), (Torino 2009); Visual Networking. Appunti sulla dimensione visuale dei media sociali, in G. Boccia Artieri (ed.), (Milano 2012). Her blog is: incertezzacreativa.wordpress.com. Twitter: @Lulla.

Federica Timeto is Ph.D. in Aesthetics of New Media at the University of Plymouth, UK, and is currently completing her Ph.D. in Sociology at the University of Urbino Carlo Bo. Her scholarship encompasses studies of aesthetics, feminist art, science and technology studies, visual and cultural studies, new media. In 2008, she edited Culture della differenza (Utet Università), a reader on the intersection of feminism, visuality and postcolonial issues. She has written extensively both in Italian and in international academic peer-reviewed journals, such as Feminist Media Studies, Poiesis & Praxis, and Studi Culturali.  Email address: ftimeto@gmail.com, http://urbinoc.academia.edu/FedericaTimeto