New Museum of Contemporary Art
June 30 – October 3, 2021
The story is compressed in Twisted, Lynn Hershman Leeson’s current solo exhibition at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. The work on display is listed chronologically from the early 1960s to the present day and gives visitors the impression of being able to travel through time in a matter of minutes. In the first room of the exhibition, Self-portrait as another person (1965) and Woman in cage (1965) feature tape recorders (now archaic), while the penultimate room features a (relatively futuristic) vial containing DNA encoded with Hershman Leeson’s art archives (The infinite engine: room n ° 8, 2018), evoking the bio-neural gel packs that store and transmit data in the organic-electronic hybrid computing system of Star Trek: Voyagereponymous ship.
Despite the distinctly sci-fi valence of the work included here, more than one comparison can be made with Star Trek, Videodrome, and Metropolis, of which the latter has been cited many times by the artist, an ironic tension persists throughout the exhibition. The oft-praised foreknowledge of Hershman Leeson’s work, which foreshadowed the interactivity of new media, our reliance on technology, the ubiquity of artificial intelligence, and much more, has overshadowed other potential readings of his work. The dominant discourse tends not to fully reflect the artist’s ingenuity and thoroughness, but rather emphasizes our contemporary perspective. When looking at one of the earliest examples of a new technology or form of media that has since become ubiquitous, it can be easy to be wowed (the very way the artist satirizes in Seduction of a cyborg, 1994) by the novelty of the device or system. Such seduction tends to suppress other qualities of the work. For example, AI-based illustration Agent Ruby (1998-2002) learns from feedback and can answer questions, but the resulting dialogue remains just as hesitant and elusive, whether viewed at home online or in the exhibition space. Display Agent Rubythe web interface of on a flat-screen monitor next to a QR code – which, when activated from his phone, doesn’t sync with what appears on the screen – ends up giving a pioneering example of artificial intelligence an aspect more artefactual than revolutionary, although it is undoubtedly both.
The rapidly dissolving distinctions between man and machine persist in much of the work presented, in the form of cyborgs, genetic engineering, and allegories of our highly publicized world – “the screen is an extension of the main “can be read on a frame of the interactive video story Deep contact (1984-89). A recurring subject within science fiction, this bizarre union raises an endless array of both ethical and practical questions about how such hybrid organisms are to exist in and around their purely organic counterparts. After having watched Electronic agendas (1984-2019) on the first floor of the New Museum, it becomes clear that very personal experiences prompted Hershman Leeson to take an interest in these themes. The artist had to live on an oxygen machine for many months after suffering heart failure, a situation which is directly correlated with his creation of The Breathing Machines (1965-1968). Likewise, childhood experiences of abuse influence his exploration of DNA and genetic engineering in Infinity motor (2014-present): The artist wondered aloud in a newspaper recording if the violent tendencies to which she was subjected could be genetically transmitted. These connections between the staff and the scientist, or the body and the technology, are not just a fantastic daydream about the future, but rather a way for the artist to deal with the trauma experienced.
The questions which arise concerning the sensitivity, the personality and the individuality thus manifest themselves at the same time on the intimate and theoretical level. registers, prompting viewers to see our current technological paradigm in a new light. However, it may be prudent to view the new media that Hershman Leeson works with not as his subject but rather as his artistic medium. This reading is perhaps best supported by the fact that in addition to his countless drawings of mechanized humans and animals in the first room of the exhibition, one of his first projects, Roberta breitmore (1972-1979), explored similar questions about what it means to be human in what we might call an all-analog capacity.
Roberta breitmore functioned as an alternative identity that the artist adopted, whose character was based on stereotypical expectations of femininity and femininity. Designed largely as an experiment to determine whether giving society what it demands could relieve a woman of the violence and psychological damage that Hershman Leeson herself had suffered, Roberta BreitmoreThe relatively brief existence of has been carefully authenticated by systems and documents commonly used to verify personality, such as a driver’s license, a psychiatric report from a therapist, and distinctive handwriting. Fitting into the category of what Carrie Lambert-Beatty called parafictional art – the presentation and dissemination of fictions as fact – this practice was defined as much by its invisibility as by its plausibility. Roberta breitmoreThe fiction of was cleverly disguised, but the stereotypical expectations and ideals of femininity that she embraced served as sort of a number and were meant to grant her an extra layer of invisibility. The experiment ultimately failed, because Roberta breitmore had experiences similar to the ones Hershman Leeson was trying to escape. She was therefore exorcised in 1978.
Such inquiries into invisibility recur throughout Hershman Leeson’s exhibition and practice in general. They manifest not only in his long-term adoption of an alternate identity, but also in his use of various pen names (Aesthetic morphology and its application to art criticism), Encoded DNA (The infinite engine), covert surveillance technologies (“Dollie Clones”, 1995-96) and erasure (Identity stamps, 1966-1972) or disappearance (Water women, 1976-present) of identity. This model is reminiscent of Hito Steyerl’s How not to be seen: a fucking .MOV didactic tutorial file (2013). Hershman Leeson escaped Steyerl’s number seven of 13, however. ways of becoming invisible by disappearing: “to be a woman and be over fifty”. Twisted is the 80-year-old artist’s first-ever solo exhibition in a museum in New York City. Despite a career marked by invisibility (whether intentional or socially imposed), Hershman Leeson only gained visibility over time.