An exhibition asks hard questions of the relationship between humans and machines
Ruby is a fast learner, but perhaps not a natural conversationalist (Image: Agent Ruby (detail graphic), 1996-2002. Courtesy of the artist and Paule Anglim Gallery, San Francisco, Bridget Donahue Gallery, New York and Waldburger Wouters, Brussels)
Halfway through an exhibition of Lynn Hershman Leeson’s work atin the UK, I stopped to talk to , a text-based web agent whose “consciousness” is shaped by and reflective of encounters and adventures that she has with her users. She is supposed to become more intelligent as she speaks to you. If this is the case, then I can only blame myself for our stalled interaction.
“What is your favourite novel?” I asked her.
“I don’t have a favourite novel. My favourite food is pattern.”
“What is your favourite book?”
“The best book I read recently is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Have you read it?”
“Yes. Do you like Philip K. Dick in general?”
“I don’t know if I like Philip K. Dick in general. I like to cuddle.”
Later, Ruby told me: “Did you know that you can download your own chat robot and create your own robot personality?”
Why would I do that? I wondered.
For 50 years, the US artist and film-maker Lynn Hershman Leeson has been creating sculptures, installations, films and online experiments – but has never really garnered the acclaim her work deserves. She has kept her themes phenomenally consistent, while exploiting fleeting technologies – from tape recorders to videotape, early computers and the internet. Leeson is transfixed by the relationship between humans and machines, and by the dilemmas of mass surveillance and privacy.
Lynn Hershman Leeson’s work is on display at Modern Art Oxford (Image: Courtesy of the artist and Paule Anglim Gallery, San Francisco, Bridget Donahue Gallery, New York and Waldburger Wouters, Brussels. Photo: Andy Stagg © Modern Art Oxford, 2015)
The Oxford exhibition begins with uncanny sculptures from the 1960s – wax heads and body parts arrayed neatly behind glass – and culminates in an installation about biotechnology. Leeson’s point is that technologies are fetishised, then superseded.
Her work dates in unpredictable ways. The Photoshopped body art of her 1990s Cyborgs series looks clunky now, while the much earlier Roberta Breitmore archive (1974-1978) remains compelling and topical. Leeson– acquiring proofs of “legitimate” identity, including a driver’s license, a credit card, and letters from a psychiatrist. At various points, Leeson “became” Roberta Breitmore through the use of wigs and role-play, and Roberta would turn up at artistic events looking deeply unimpressed.
Today we can, in theory, adopt multiple personas on the internet; at the same time, we are policed by biometric procedures and cyber-surveillance, and are constantly required to prove our “true” identities. It is a theme that Leeson has pursued in her documentary films. Strange Culture (2007) dramatises the case of Steve Kurtz, who wasafter his wife, Hope Kurtz, died of congenital heart failure in 2004.
At the time of Hope Kurtz’s death, the couple were collaborating on an exhibition about genetically modified agriculture for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams. The police in Buffalo, New York, detained Steve for 22 hours without charge while federal agents raided his house and took away computers, manuscripts, art materials, and the body of Hope. The ensuing four-year criminal investigation ended with the dismissal of all charges in 2008.
In Leeson’s latest installation, Infinity Engine (2015), scientists and artists on film prophesy about the future of biotechnology. Andrew Hessel of design company Autodesk Research in San Francisco says we might one day create “fully grown shells” – meaning new bodies – and “transfer our memories” as our old bodies fail. Such a process could thus help us to cheat death, or at least postpone it. At what point do such adjustments convey us into a realm beyond the human?
Roberta Breitmore was Lynn Hershman Leeson’s alter ego (Image: Roberta Construction Chart #2, 1975. Courtesy of the artist and Paule Anglim Gallery, San Francisco, Bridget Donahue Gallery, New York and Waldburger Wouters, Brussels)
Another part of Infinity Engine is made over into a transgenic Noah’s ark, decorated with photographs of creatures and crops that have been summoned into existence in the past two decades by cloning or genetic modification. Leeson poses searching questions. Why are we engaged in such works? What are we hoping for? What might this phenomenal rate of scientific development mean for those of us who are not genetic scientists, politicians or CEOs of multinational companies?
With her ironic, beautiful and at times disturbing Infinity Engine, Leeson incites us to think for ourselves. Year by year, her art is becoming more hard-hitting and original – an extraordinary achievement for an artist who has been working for five decades.
runs at Modern Art Oxford Until 9 August
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