LYNN HERSHMAN LEESON
IN CONVERSATION WITH
“In the ’60s, volatility erupted because marginalized people were beginning to understand the extent of their repression and the fact that they had no power or voice, and at that moment they found ways to take it. It was with the Free Speech movement in Berkeley that created performance demonstrations all over Berkeley and San Francisco. And the women’s movement, the Black Panthers, amongst others. It was an exciting time...
Lynn Hershman Leeson
I am curious to know about how the Breathing Machine series originated.
I began them around 1964, first as sculpture, but then with sound. I had gone into intensive care for about six months with a collapsed heart valve. When you are under oxygen your breath becomes consuming. Afterwards, I found sound was like a drawing and I began using it as such.
What was your environment at the time? When we met, you mentioned the Black Panthers: were you involved in the movement and politically active? What about feminism?
In the ’60s, volatility erupted because marginalized people were beginning to understand the extent of their repression and the fact that they had no power or voice, and at that moment they found ways to take it. It was with the Free Speech movement in Berkeley that created performance demonstrations all over Berkeley and San Francisco. And the women’s movement, the Black Panthers, amongst others. It was an exciting time, a time of revolution and autonomy, a time when people who had been marginalized were finding their voice and their history. We did demonstrations, protested in the streets. These were times when individuals finally took control and used politics to invert the system, so I was very politically engaged in all facets.
I think my own personal political awareness began right then, because I had never really considered, for instance, the fact that women were left out of history. I just assumed there weren’t any that deserved to be in history. And I finally realized that it was not even having your history eradicated but never recorded in the first place, and how important that was. I would say that all the political movement ingested itself into my work and the optimism of individual autonomy, and being able to go beyond an institution too, came from that moment in my life.
Would you consider your works as political?
Yes, absolutely. In those days my works were quite critical of oppression and historical trauma, both personal and collective and concerned with what I did needed to address these issues, otherwise it was irrelevant. The works use me as a black person, a black woman experiencing what they experience, asking questions from their vantage point, giving them and me a voice. That was not done before. It was a critique of the society and the culture of that era.
I had one work of a caged woman [Caged Woman (1965)], a black woman inside a rat’s cage accompanied by the sound of a fire burning, a work I created soon after a church in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed and four children were killed. All of the work, to a point almost everything I did in those days, was in opposition to the racism of the time.
You said these works were not exhibited at the time, as they were not considered as artworks. They were merging new technology with rather traditional techniques, such as the wax masks.
Right, curator Brenda Richardson at the University Art Museum in Berkeley told me they were not art and that art did not use sound. She took the works down and would not allow me to continue the show. Artists and critics never saw them. The first time they were really shown was around 2012. In fact Pamela Lee asked why no one ever wrote about them and I said because no one would show them. I did not get an art review in the Bay area from 1984-2017. I felt that in a way, I was culturally blacklisted by critics and curators who refused to acknowledge my work. It has been an ongoing problem, which is why I am now so grateful that my work is being seen and acknowledged.
Your work seems to have operated with clear ruptures, from the Breathing Machines, to the Roberta Breitmore Series and later with the more interactive installations using new technologies. You also directed feature films and documentaries. What feeds your creative process?
I see them as continuations of the same themes. The Breathing Machines led to The Dante Hotel (1972-1973) and the idea of creating an identity in that trespassed space created the Roberta Breitmore Series, which lasted almost ten years, that led to Lorna (1983), etc. Curiosity and outrage fuel my creative process. The films came to bring a larger audience to what I was doing. But ultimately my work is about exposing perverse systems of authority, from surveillance to oppression to inequality. The works look different but that is the core of the armature of all of them.
The Breathing Machine is now recognized as being a very influential body of works, addressing the relationship between technology and humanity, object and subject. I am curious to know what you think about this late recognition, and especially the interest from museums to collect the works.
I think it is great. They will take better care of them than I can, they will include them in shows and now they are part of history.
What is your relation to technologies?
I am intertwined, like a DNA strand, like an 8 on its side which means infinity.
Were you part of a scene when you were working on the Breathing Machines? Who were the artists you were close to?
I have never been “part of a scene.” I work alone, in isolation. Additionally, I was somewhat blacklisted. For instance, I could not get a review of my work in San Francisco even though I showed regularly from 1984-2017. I was not invited to participate in most art events. I could not get a job till I was over 50. The local museums only collected my work a few years ago, while most others had their work collected and exhibited at the time they made them. So I would say I had no peers, critics, artists. However, I did become friendly with Pierre Restany, Arturo Schwarz, Eleanor Coppola, Peter Weibel, Kristine Stiles and those dialogues were enormously helpful. I also spent many hours at the Cleveland Museum and libraries which I visited daily. Through them I learned about and read many books, and saw films being screened at Eleanor’s house. So my education came really from talking to scholars and European critics and listening to the speeches in Berkeley directly, like those of Malcolm X and Huey Newton.
What is your current field of research?
I am just completing a twelve-year project called The Infinity Engine. It is about how all life has been reshaped by the programming of the genome. I have interviewed about twenty-two scientists and ethicists, pioneers and leaders in the field, and in May opened an eight room installation based on the research (an 8 on its side = infinity and also = a DNA strand). Each room is dedicated to different aspects, from bioprinting to gene editing to the creation (with Novartis) of a Lynn Hershman and Roberta Antibody, to finally taking all the video and files and converting these into DNA itself. It is a perfect resolution to walk through 1500 square feet of exhibition and then see it, through a closed lab door, like Étant Donnés, or the Valise, the microscopic Lynn Hershman DNA and antibody simmered to its essence.
What is your next project?
I would like to finish the trilogy that began with Conceiving Ada (1997) and Teknolust (2002). It was designed to use the same actress so you can see her age. This will be about trans-human species. It won’t be a traditional film, of course. Not sure what form it will take. And I also want to do some drawings and maybe a new book.
All images Courtesy: the artist