What is technology, but another tool for shaping our identities? Lynn Hershman Leeson has been exploring the relationship between humans and technology for over fifty years, starting in a time before technology looked anything like it does today. Her multi-disciplinary approach remains pioneering, and if Hershman Leeson is a so-called ‘digital artist’, it is done with much subtlety. That’s also why it works: the digital element is here to enhance the idea, not an end in itself.
The retrospective at Modern Art Oxford shows a distinct thread running through Hershman Leeson’s work, from today’s interactive pieces all the way back to her earliest drawings. The show runs chronologically, easing you in with paintings of wired figures and their shadows, the first dated to 1962. ‘The Breathing Machine’ makes subtle noises in response to people passing, a mechanism which was groundbreaking at the time and eerie still today. It feels like there’s someone here with me, and it’s possible that this someone is my own shadow: I’m the one who’s creating this presence.
The ‘Roberta Breitmore’ archives stretch from 1973 to 1979, when Hershman Leeson created this fascinating alter ego, going great lengths to give this artificial character a complex inner life. From the photos, Roberta seems somewhat put on, with exaggerated make-up and what is obviously a wig - she’s a shadow that’s not quite right. “I saw her as a mirror of culture” Hershman Leeson has said, but Roberta arguably became her own person. There are letters confirming her rental agreement, and Roberta’s notes to friends. Roberta left traces like a real person, but in retrospect, how can we tell what was real and what’s just shadow?
All the while, the nearby ‘Breathing Machine’ continues to make sounds. The idea of surveillance and monitoring takes on a more obvious shape in the Dante Hotel project, although the photographs from 1973 makes you wonder why we’re so muted in our outrage about surveillance today. We know we’re being monitored to a greater extent than ever before, in the street as well as in electronic communication. But for better or worse, it’s possible that privacy as a value in and of itself is fading.
Hershman Leeson’s early works take on new meaning as the visitor encounters ‘Agent Ruby’. Just like Hershman Leeson created Roberta Breitmore, we each have the opportunity to construct a digital persona in the manner of our choosing. Agent Ruby is a creature of artificial intelligence, and she invites you to talk to her via a keyboard. “Is the internet real life?” I ask, and she answers: “If it is, I’d be surprised.” We chat a little - she’s clever, and intriguingly philosophical. Sometimes she turns the question back at you, and I’m surprised how quickly I start to feel that Ruby is interested in me.
The third section of the show contains a film curated by Modern Art Oxford, in which Hershman Leeson has interviewed Oxford-based scientists and researchers about genetic technology. ‘The Infinity Engine’ is presented in an immersive space with photographs and paperwork pertaining to genetic discoveries. The scientifically grown ear in the picture - is it more or less real than Agent Ruby or Roberta? The microbiologist in the film is talking about evolution: “Biology can be very scary,” he says, explaining how we must take responsibility for what we create.
‘The Infinity Engine’ is ambitious in its attempt to explore a complex issues such as genetics, but less approachable than the rest of the show and it takes a minute for a link to the previous works to suggest itself. But maybe anything can be a mirror of ourselves, from synthetic biology and Agent Ruby, all the way back to Roberta and the wired shadows in the earliest paintings. We create these representations and they can be whatever we make them, good or ugly. I get up from my seat after the film, and for a moment I can’t find the exit from the laboratory-like room. All I can see are the slightly warped walls, mirroring back to me numerous versions of my own twisted image.