Fillip 3 — Summer 2006

Through a Mirror, Darkly
Randy Lee Cutler

A pioneer in the exploration of digital media, Lynn Hershman Leeson has produced artworks that disturb the psyche even as they delight the imagination. For more than thirty years, her art practice reveals how the constructions and reconstructions of self correspond with the novelties and upheavals of technological invention. Crossing a range of media and concerning the fabrication of gendered identities, Hershman Leeson has focused her energies on the complicated relations of spectatorship, estrangement, and interactivity.

Hershmanlandia: The Art and Films of Lynn Herschman Leeson, which fills six large rooms at the Henry Art Gallery, was a term first used by critic Pierre Restany to describe the Hershman Leeson’s “strategy of perpetual and infinite personality situations and fragmentation.”1 Curator Robin Held took on this appellation as a means of framing the major components of the artist’s practice. Currently recognized for her technological innovations, including interactive screens and a cinematic process for virtual film sets, the work in this exhibition highlights themes and issues as much as formal and material practices. Her contribution to visual art, gender politics. and digital media is stellar, particularly when so few people seem to know of her work. Held has provided information panels that address the minutiae as well as the artistic impact of Hershman Leeson’s long career. The diaristic elements have influenced the likes of filmmakers Chantal Akerman and Sadie Benning; the technological innovations can be seen in the works of Nell Tenhaaf and Reva Stone (recently exhibited at the Surrey Art Gallery); and the creation of alternate personas are evident in the photographs of Cindy Sherman and Janeita Eyre. Hershmanlandia showcases the artist’s impressive creativity and experimentation as well as providing context for the viewer. And yet, the exhibition manifested some of the typical problems involved with showing media-based practices. A few of the pieces were not operating properly during my visit and I found myself seduced and abandoned by several dormant interfaces. Not surprisingly, the more traditional analogue works, documents of performances, and photographs, were a lively antidote to these sometimes static encounters within the exhibition.

Working with a post-medium approach, Hershman Leeson has directed her prolific energies to a range of materials, including drawings, paintings, photographs, performances, robotics, digital art, videos, films, interactive multimedia installations, and artificial intelligence works. Her ever-present consideration of identity and its inherent instabilities demonstrates a unique investigation of multiple personas, personality disorders, and mythical character constructions. One of her first works, a conceptual based performance called Roberta Breitmore (1974–78), represents a template of sorts for her artistic career. Hershmanlandia begins by presenting Hershman Leeson’s first fictional persona, which comprises “Roberta Breitmore”’s official documents including credit cards, checking account, driver’s license, and correspondence with her psychologist. The exhibit also gives us artifacts like the ash-blond wig Hershman Leeson wore as “Roberta,” the natty albeit worn red suede jacket, and the ambiguous classified ad that was placed in a Bay area newspaper seeking a roommate. The forty-three people who answered the ad became unknowing participants in the work. The images from this project, surreptitiously photographed while “Roberta” met these respondents, are reminiscent of a film from the same period, Looking for Mr Goodbar (1977), a cautionary tale about the dangers of living a double life. Like that film, Roberta Breitmore addresses issues of sexual exploration, personal responsibility, and multiple personas. Hershman Leeson took these themes further when she multiplied herself into three “Roberta” performers who operated in different cities. From the early performance work of Roberta Breitmore to the more recent Teknolust (2002)—shot originally in high-definition video and later converted to 35mm film—that deals with cyber identity and the future of hybrid replicants, one can see the refracted evolution from pseudonyms and aliases to cloning and simulation. Her work, evolving alongside technological innovations and shifting art practices, has mutated into a fragmented and dispersed narrative of human subjectivity and interaction. Each successive work is linked to the previous one, somehow learning from its experiences in order to spawn newer versions of itself, evidence perhaps of a schizo-genetic intelligence.

Refraction, looping, and feedback are some of the more fascinating aspects of Hershman Leeson’s long career regardless of the material form. Retrospectively, the leitmotifs of any artist’s work can illustrate the sustained attention to a dominant theme. Here, the recurrences are doubly haunting as they incorporate new technologies into a multitude of platforms. For example, the construction of identity as performed in Roberta Breitmore is revisited in Agent Ruby (1998–2002), an artificially intelligent web agent with the capacity to develop her memory and knowledge base by interacting with users ( The work has morphed into the interactive installation Agent Ruby 2 (2002–3), an animated avatar that utilizes voice recognition software capable of verbally responding to the gallery visitor’s inquiries. Agent Ruby’s Mood Swing Diagram (2002), hung on the opposite wall to Agent Ruby 2, illustrates a range of facial expressions that are supposedly available to her. Ruby is also one of the main characters that inhabit the computer-generated environment within the occasionally entertaining feature film Teknolust. In each of her constructed identities, Hershman Leeson takes either interactivity or mutating identities deeper into the matrix, adding yet another layer to the decentering of multiple and gendered subjectivity.

I have two distinct memories of my trip to the Hershmanlandia exhibition. The first is the eerie feeling that “Agent Ruby” is now a part of me, or visa versa. After repeated encounters with the AI installation, Ruby came to recognize either my voice or the syntax of our communication. Although I fully realize the strangeness of this statement, I remember those conversations and Ruby’s attendant mood swings fondly. The second is an early photograph that embodies many of the themes in Hershman Leeson body of work. Over several months in 1976, the artist produced 25 Windows: A Portrait of Bonwit Teller, a series of works that investigated the department store window as a cultural portrait of New York City. Of course, Joseph Cornell, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg all worked in the display department of Bonwit Teller. But more than to compose an image of consumer desire, Hershman Leeson’s intention was to create an alternative way in which to integrate art with life. In Window 11: Six-Phase Catastrophe Theory we see a female mannequin whose hand penetrates the window’s boundary between inside and outside, literally reaching out from the virtual realm of the display into the street littered with shards of broken glass. The artist’s apparent desire for contact evident in this image has continued to characterize her artistic practice, exploding the convenient and simplistic binaries of private and public, self and other in order to integrate art with life. Hershman Leeson’s use of increasingly complex technologies parallel and reflect the ways in which human communication has grown subsequently more confounding through technology and over time. She persists in representing the permeable membranes of subjectivity and identity formation.

While the spectral nature of technologies such as film and photography has come to inhabit Hershman Leeson’s artwork, feelings of alienation haunt all of her fractured storylines and split personalities. Hidden beneath the images, objects, and interfaces, there is a palpable sense of both loneliness and a desire for personal freedom. Most of her installation works demonstrate this tension through a sustained attention to the fragmentation of identity and surveillance issues. Perhaps this sense of isolation explains her evolving fascination with touch, interactivity, and communication—not to mention her desire for the viewer’s active participation. Oddly, the works seem to seek social intercourse even as they loop back on themselves and their hermetically sealed environments. Only after visiting the show, and with this sensation of melancholy persisting, did I learn that Hershman Leeson is a survivor of child sexual abuse. Perhaps this explains why disassociation is a significant aspect of her aesthetic and conceptual sensibility. In her video series The Electric Diaries (1984–95) she explains what the process of splitting and fragmenting in the psyche entails not only for women but its role in her work. The artist’s video image in The Electric Diaries, variously multiplied and repeated across the screen, seems to visually echoes an internal sense of estrangement.

Both the exhibition proposal included on the Henry Art Gallery website2 and the diverse content of Hershman Leeson’s own site3 offer a glimpse of the breadth, complexity, and interactive nature of the artist’s varied practices. To further complement the retrospective, the Henry Art Gallery presented a comprehensive film and video program that included screenings of The Electric Diaries, Conceiving Ada (1997), and Teknolust. While the recent films possess strong concepts and impressive technological innovation, they are weak on dramatic tension. In light of the Hershman Leeson’s body of work, perhaps the actors’ alienated performances were directed for an intentionally ambiguous effect, but this is unclear. Hershmanlandia: The Art and Films of Lynn Hershman Leeson is an informative if discordant experience of the artist’s diverse practice providing insight into her dispersed investigation of identity construction, spectatorship, and interactivity.

  1. Pierre Restany, “Hershmanlandia: Prière de toucher, Please Touch,” in Chimera monographie: Lynn Hershamn (Hérimoncourt, France: Centre International de Création Vidéo, 1992), 32.
  2. See
  3. See


About the Author

Randy Lee Cutler is an educator, writer, artist, and performer. Her research investigates relationships between mediated culture, critical theory, and embodied knowledge. She is Associate Professor and Head of Critical + Cultural Studies at Emily Carr Institute, where she teaches cultural studies, art history, and media theory.

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