‘It Depends on How They Use It’: Filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson Reflects on a Career Spent Probing Our Relationship to Technology

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the "San Francisco Bay Area" episode of "Art in the Twenty-First Century," Season 9. © Art21, Inc. 2018.

Artist Lynn Hershman Leeson grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household in Cleveland, Ohio, and when she was accepted to graduate school at Berkeley, she jumped at the chance to head West. In an exclusive interview with Art21 as part of its 2018 “San Francisco Bay Area” series, Hershman Leeson said that being exposed to a new culture in “the era of hippies and Allen Ginsberg” inspired her to pursue art even without the traditional endorsement of a museum or gallery.

Over the next four decades, Hershman Leeson created a wide range of relentlessly inventive work that probes issues like consumerism, the impact of technology, and the promise of virtual worlds. Her work is currently on view in New York as part of a group exhibition at The Shed in Hudson Yards that brings together five artists who critique technology and the ethical dangers it can pose.

The Art21 video provides an overview of some of the artist’s most poignant works and explains the genesis of her fictional alter ego, Roberta Breitmore. After moving to California, Hershman Leeson began making installation works in hotel rooms along with fellow artist Eleanor Coppola, using mannequins, wax sculptures, and found materials to populate her imagined worlds.

At a certain point, she says, it dawned on her that her character “could be liberated, live in real time and space.” Before long, Hershman Leeson was dressing up as Roberta, wearing different wigs and makeup, testing out ideas of femininity and individuation. “It was a way of creating art in the world that went beyond the walls that existed,” she tells Art21.

Still from Lynn Hershman Leeson, “The Electronic Diaries, 1984–2019.” Courtesy of The Shed.

After nine years working with Roberta, the artist began to incorporate new technologies into her work, like the interactive laser disc that gave rise to “Lorna,” an agoraphobic woman whose actions are determined by an interface controlled by users.

“There is not a central answer to whether technology is utopian or dystopian,” she told Art21. “It depends on humans and how they use it.” Like a prototypical version of The Sims, viewers were given information about Lorna’s inner thoughts, fears, and dreams, and were able to manipulate her environments accordingly.

Long before the rest of the world was enticed by the potential of Artificial Intelligence and reckoning with the underlying power dynamics that disproportionately affect women, Hershman Leeson was making art that slyly commented on these issues, presenting the outcomes in funny, and often troubling artworks.

In her long-running series “The Electronic Diaries,” Leeson continued to probe the ideas she addressed with Roberta and Lorna, this time using herself as the subject of confessional, first-person videos exploring identity, gender, politics, and technology. These works, along with a new commission, are on view now at the Shed.


Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s Art in the Twenty-First Century series, below. Lynn Hershman Leeson’s work is included in the “Manual Override” show at the Shed, on view through January 12, 2020. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series like New York Close Up and Extended Play and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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