Reflections in a Cyborg: Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Civic Radar

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Reflections in a Cyborg: Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Civic Radar

By Genevieve Quick April 20, 2017

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.


As a collective humanity we make technologies into which we implicitly and explicitly embed our ideologies. Cybernetic organisms (or cyborgs) not only simulate our appearance and capabilities but reflect the underlying ideologies of who we are, and what we hope for, or fear. As artist Lynn Hershman Leeson used her seminal character Roberta Breitmore to imaginatively explore the personae of an alias, her work with female cyborgs and Artificial Intelligence (AI) also probes the ways we mirror ourselves. The prolific artist's decade-long explorations in technology and gender are displayed in her rousing solo exhibition at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Civic Radar. Hershman Leeson's female cyborgs and AI projects explore seduction, the performance of gender, and the tantalizing idea of creating new life-forms and reproducing ourselves, touching on the utopic and dystopic scenarios inherent in both. As the artist's speculations mine the gender dynamic of female cyborgs, she invites viewers to take leaps of imagination when considering the believability, cognition, and emotional potential of cyborgs, while exploring how they reflect our identities, anxieties, and aspirations.

In Phantom Limbs (1985–ongoing), a series of black-and-white photo collages, the artist hybridizes her body with cameras, screens, mirrors, binoculars, and more—technologies and objects for looking, recording, and display. Through titling this body of work Phantom Limbs, the artist speaks of a spectral body, where an amputation patient may feel pain or sensation in the area of loss. Through being neurologically-rooted, this concept reveals the mind's capacity to override the body. As a media artist, Hershman Leeson has an intimate relationship with visual apparatuses, which through habitual use may be an extension of her own body such that their absence may cause trauma. With the loss or concealment of her head in the works, the central location for our being and identity, the artist also critiques the ways that images replace the individuality of women in mass media, in this case presented as cyborgs.  

Lynn Hershman Leeson. Phantom Limb Series, 1985–ongoing; installation view, Lynn Hershman Leeson: Civic Radar, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, 2017. Courtesy Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Photo: Charlie Villyard.

Shutter #17 (1986) portrays Hershman Leeson’s head replaced with a camera and the artist's face appears in the viewfinder and lens: the artist is taking a picture of herself taking a picture of herself. Kneeling in a "little black dress" that rides high on her thighs she is dressed seductively. Her hands are posed in front of her body like a femininely-associated cat, or “pussy,” carrying a double entendre and where domesticity has tamed female sexuality and the feline predatory instinct. As Hershman Leeson performs normative gender roles, she is literally in, of, and behind the camera authoring a cascading series of self-portraits.

In contrast, Cyborg Series (1994–2006) presents a deeply menacing set of highly manipulated images. The work Identity Cyborg (1996) features a color reversal image of woman's face. Large graphically overlaid numbers suggest a cyborg's model or serial number. Like a social security number, Hershman Leeson evokes the ways that numbers can be used to track and surveil us, reducing our individuality to data. Additionally, simple graphic lines overlay her lips to suture them closed, indicating the violation of being silenced. Cyborg 9 (1999) presents a crosshair layered over a woman's eye, weaponizing her vision while at the same time suggesting her vision being the target. Adding to this duality, in the heavily blurred image her hand is outstretched in a way that beckons help while at the same time pantomimes a gun. The play of vision and visibility suggest both the predatory and vulnerable nature of today's or future technologies.

Lynn Hershman Leeson. Cyborg Series, 1994–2006; installation view, Lynn Hershman Leeson: Civic Radar, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, 2017. Courtesy Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Photo: Charlie Villyard.

Hershman Leeson's feature-length film Teknolust (2002), screened in the theater as part of a companion series to the exhibition, humorously chronicles a scientist named Rosetta Stone who secretly produces three cyborgs: Ruby, Olive, and Marine. Stone and all of the cyborgs are played by actress Tilda Swinton.  Hershman Leeson uses character development and costume to individuate each while Swinton's distinctive face eerily and comedically reference each other throughout the film. With the scientist's name, Hershman Leeson references the rosetta stone (196 BCE), an ancient Egyptian stele inscribed with a decree in three languages: Ancient Egyptian, Demotic, and Ancient Greek. Based on our understanding of Ancient Greek and Demotic, researchers were able to identify patterns in Egyptian hieroglyphics to decipher the lost language—and now a popular language learning software exists in its honor.  Like the archaeological artifact, Hershman Leeson's character Rosetta Stone exists in three cyborg variations where human biology and software interface to potentially unlock the mysterious patterns of self.

Teknolust indicates that Stone survived a virus that killed all of her family members and thus has no genetic variants of her around. This loss easily translates to her desire to create iterations of herself and produce her own family by creating three cyborgs who address this confused genealogy when they refer to Stone as both their sister and mother. While technologies and genealogies use the term "generations" to speak of their chronologies, neither has a term to speak to the hybridity of being of both ancestors and offspring. Additionally, in having a female scientist who reproduces herself, Hershman Leeson challenges the distinction between the masculine association of production, in this case scientific, and the feminine reproduction of bearing children. As we inherit social and genetic traits, families are mirrors of who we are and, sometimes, hope not to be. In creating a cyborg family, Stone creates variations on a theme of herself to understand who she is.

As with other works, Teknolust divides the artist’s worlds between screens and the lived world and then merges them. Ruby, Olive, and Marine each have different personalities with color coordinated attire—respectively in red, green, and blue, which is the color spectrum for monitors, or RGB. Half human and half technology, the cyborgs live somewhere between screen life and embodied space. The cyborgs interact with Stone through screens, one of which is embedded in her microwave—and because of Stone's secretive project, live cloistered away in a minimalist apartment housed with a live video feed. Ruby, the films protagonist, maintains a screen life through a popular web-portal but also ventures out into the world to pick up men to attain the sperm needed for the cyborg's life sustaining tea. When Ruby chokes down a "scrumptious protein" donut in one of her ventures into the real world, her body's struggle with the experience that she's learned so much about, presumably online. Screens act as mirrors of self and society; we, like Ruby, exist somewhere in between our screen-based presence and the lived world.

Lynn Hershman Leeson. Agent Ruby, 1999–2002; installation view, Lynn Hershman Leeson: Civic Radar, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, 2017. Courtesy Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Photo: Charlie Villyard.

Almost comically dressed in frumpy clothes and glasses, Stone is the cognitive, but rather asexual, powerhouse of the group—it is noted that she is a virgin. In contrast, Ruby is the seductress with many sexual partners who performs gender when men ogle her even when she flatly repeats lines from femme fatale film characters. As Stone and Ruby present socially and filmically opposing characters, Hershman Leeson spoofs the anxiety over female sexuality, which normative gender roles divide women between saint and harlot, and mind and body. Ruby rouses suspicion when over thirty men have come down with a mysterious virus spread by sexual contact and related to a network virus. As the men inexplicably develop numbers on their foreheads, they are inspected by doctors, questioned about their sexual activities, and quarantined. Hershman Leeson takes the perceived danger of female sexuality and viruses, biological and data-based, to an absurdist level where both reflect our angst about contagion.

Ruby's character extends beyond the narrative of Teknolust and into the gallery in the interactive piece DiNA (2004), where Ruby is presented as a large CGI projection activated by motion sensors. Ruby prompts viewers with questions like, "Pardon me, have we met before?" A small LCD screen attached a podium tabulates viewers' responses as text, indicating the number of times it has been asked questions and reflects her growing body of knowledge. When Ruby misunderstands colloquial phrases, mis-recognizes words, and continues a conversation with non sequiturs, viewers encounter the complexities of language and expectations for AI. In moving beyond the scripted film, Ruby becomes more active and "alive" in the gallery, where she is able to interact and grow. Machine learning and the leap of believability is predicated on growth acquired by mirroring us.

Furthering Ruby’s interaction beyond the film is the work Agent Ruby (1999–2002), installed in the gallery and online as a stand-alone website.1 In both cases users are considered "Seekers" in Ruby's "edream portal" and participants are told that they can ask her anything, that she can teach you to dream, and that they can "put Ruby on your Palm." Participants are prompted to type questions into blank fields and Ruby uses live web-searches and her own database to compose responses. The gallery presentation includes binders of questions that previous users have asked presented alongside Ruby's responses. This corpus provides a sense of history, a catalog of those who have come before and queried Ruby, which continues to grow. The work not only represents Ruby's current knowledge base but also nods to who we are as a collective body of humanity and the reciprocal relationship where technologies and people learn from each other.

Lynn Hershman Leeson. DiNA, 2004; installation view, Lynn Hershman Leeson: Civic Radar, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, 2017. Courtesy Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Photo: Charlie Villyard.

Agent Ruby and DiNA complement each other, but are much enriched after seeing Teknolust, which provides the foundation for these two character-based works. Agent Ruby conjures its historical and technological ancestor ELIZA (1964–66), developed by Joseph Weizenbaumin at MIT's Artificial Intelligent Laboratory. ELIZA allowed users to type questions into a computer as if they undergoing a psychotherapy session, where "the talking cure" allows patients to come to their own conclusions by talking through them. Based on this psychotherapeutic model and as a primitive form of AI, ELIZA's responses were simplistic. In the book Life on the Screen (1995) Sherry Turkle explains that users became accustomed to these rote responses, but still enjoyed using it to voice their concerns. In the "ELIZA effect," users of smart computer programs project their own hopes onto them and render them more intelligent than they are, which is most dramatically displayed in children. As an "edream portal," Agent Ruby follows ELIZA's use of technology for psychotherapeutic means where dream analysis can be a window to the subconscious. As Ruby becomes smarter and has moved beyond the film, into the gallery and online, Hershman Leeson nudges viewers to believe in her narrative beyond its fiction, possibly being as real as Roberta Breitmore. ELIZA and Ruby are a mirror, a bridge between human and machine, but also a dive into our subconscious and a leap of imagination.

Even while employing actors in her work, her character Roberta Breitmore and the use of herself in other projects suggests that Hershman Leeson’s female characters are stand-ins for herself, a form of self-portraiture. With many different media and contexts, characters, like Breitmore and Ruby, collapse the distinctions between their fictional narratives and the lived world and could be considered part of a larger project of women alias. When Hershman Leeson began this work decades ago, she was much younger and most of her cyborgs appear as young women. But now, many years later, I am left searching for the older equivalent in her recent works. In mainstream culture, youth is equated with seduction and we are attempting to harness technology to suspend aging, considered a determent to life and health. Creating a female cyborg of advanced age, one clearly postmenopausal, could potentially upend society's correlation between gender and age in regard to re/productivity, sexuality, and relevancy. As older technologies are quickly considered obsolete, our technological preoccupations with novelty mirrors our privileging of biological youth. As an artist dedicated to making alternative realities and challenging normative structures, would it not be provocative to create seductive cyborgs that embody the wisdom and experience of age? Indeed Swinton, known for her gender-bending roles and androgynous beauty, makes for a stereotypically ideal cyborg. But her character still appears very youthful, especially when simplified with CGI.

The works in Civic Radar collectively bounce off each other to provide a fuller picture than the sum of its parts. Themes are richly layered throughout the exhibition, sometimes taking the form of mischievous fun and other times eliciting violence and menace. In many works looking becomes a form of desire where technologies of representation create a cascading series of infinite regresses. While the physical and digital are frequently used in opposition, the linguistic use of biological terms in technology—where software and the body are spoken about in terms of generations and viruses—underlie conceptual relationships of sequence and variation, both desirable and detrimental. Akin to how children role-play with dolls, Hershman Leeson’s construction of female cyborgs opens up the place of play where viewers are prompted to take leaps of imagination by either engaging with the narrative or considering the possibilities for future technologies and society at large. The artist’s commanding and long career has challenged normative gender roles through her cyborgs for many years and is due its respect. As Hershman Leeson has forged a path in an uncharted field, it is my hope that artists will further challenge normative structures in the future as the world becomes increasingly global and less tied to gender, sexual, racial, and age-based binaries. Where could Ruby go next?

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