Looking for Roberta BreitmoreApril 12, 2011
Roberta Breitmore (1974–78) is a critical work in the oeuvre of artist Lynn Hershman Leeson and is essential to any survey of feminist or performance art. In the piece, Hershman Leeson adopts an alternative persona, that of Breitmore, who possesses her own history, voice, posture, style of dress, personality, neuroses, credit, and driver’s license. Breitmore was a heavily made-up woman with depressive tendencies, who fled a childhood of sexual and physical abuse, attended a couple of sessions of psychoanalysis, looked for a job, and struggled with her weight. Upon her “arrival” in San Francisco in 1974, she took a room at the Dante Hotel, then rented her own apartment and advertised for a roommate. Those who responded and those who interacted with Breitmore became, as Hershman Leeson notes, part of her fiction.1 Frequently, those who encountered the artist as Breitmore did not realize it was a performance, so wholly did she embody this character. And while three other women also played the role during the project's existence, Breitmore's persona was intertwined with Hershman Leeson's psyche.2 As she notes, "Although I denied it at the time and insisted that she was 'her own woman' with defined needs, ambitions and instincts, in retrospect we were linked. ROBERTA represented part of me as surely as we all have within us an underside… To me, she was my own flipped effigy; my physical reverse, my psychological fears."3
As an artist, Hershman Leeson has incorporated a wide range of media into her practice: film, performance, photography, video, installations, and interactive and digital technologies. Her subjects range from establishing identity in a consumerist culture to negotiations between privacy and surveillance, and throughout her career, one sees the persistent restructuring of institutional, social, and interpersonal space. In the Dante Hotel (1973–74), the nine-month project she created with the artist Eleanor Coppola and from which Roberta Breitmore evolved, Hershman Leeson invited the public to imagine the life of a fictitious individual through the personal and utilitarian objects left behind in a hotel room. Similarly, artifacts such as medical and legal documents, photos, letters, and surveillance reports are all that remain of Breitmore, who was “exorcised” in 1978 on the grave of Lucrezia Borgia at the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara, Italy. The Dante Hotel and Roberta Breitmore artifacts function as markers that map out these fictive identities and allow one to imagine or reconstruct the paths these characters may have taken (or did take) through space and time. These early works created openness: information flowed from the body (the imagined body of the Dante Hotel; Hershman Leeson’s actual body) and traveled though architecture, rather than being contained within it. In other words, the body made architecture.
It is notable that the Dante Hotel came about after the UC Berkeley Art Museum cancelled an exhibition by Hershman Leeson because her sculptures included a sound component, which fell outside the realm of what the museum would exhibit at the time. She additionally went on to create the Floating Museum (1974–78), a project in which she commissioned artists to create site-specific and ephemeral works in public spaces. One looks at these projects together and understands that Hershman Leeson has consistently and successfully expanded the possibilities for sites of encounter with art throughout her career. Her work has been both embodied and interactive; she has situated it far outside the institutional realm of the museum, in places that are liminal and virtual. She has gone beyond representing identity to producing identities. But, as the conversation below reveals, that accomplishment has confounded and, to a certain extent, thwarted her representation of herself as an artist.
In his 1983 essay, “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism,” the critic Craig Owens notes that “(i)t is precisely at the legislative frontier between what can be represented and what cannot that the postmodernist operation is being staged—not in order to transcend representation, but in order to expose that system of power that authorizes certain representations while blocking, prohibiting, or invalidating others.”4 Hershman Leeson’s early performative work did not so much expose the museum’s institutional power as it denied and defied it through constitutive frameworks that were more invested in actual presence than in forms of representation. Roberta Breitmore emerged and operated in a space between institutional authority (she had a driver’s license and bank account) and individual agency (she appeared when and how Hershman Leeson determined).
However, since her exorcism, museums have incorporated many of the artistic forms inaugurated or utilized by the feminist art movement, including performance art, installation, and site-specific, sound-based, and ephemeral work. For Hershman Leeson to assert that local institutional validation is necessary for her historical position and financial security as an artist is a tacit acknowledgment of the museum’s power to represent. But is it possible for an artist who operates in the fluid space between the real and the fictive—and constitutes her own subjectivity—to gain validation within this system of representation without losing her power to refuse it?
Patricia Maloney: I’m interested in speaking with you about your early performances and how they might intersect with the idea of women operating from marginalized positions to create their own sense of empowerment and identity.
I’ll start with a quote from a 2005 interview that is included in the !Women Art Revolution [!W.A.R.] archives, as I think it touches on much of what I’d like to talk with you about:
It is easier to ignore the work than to place it…
In that conversation, you are speaking specifically about the critical reception of your work, and the lack of effort on the part of art historians to contextualize the interactive work Lorna (1983–84), but it seems that was the position from which so many women artists were operating, particularly at the starting point of !W.A.R., in 1968.5 They were grappling with their frustrations of being overlooked. What were your frustrations at that moment, and how did they lead, for example, to Roberta Breitmore?
Lynn Hershman Leeson: It was difficult to get your work shown, or to be taken seriously, or to be heard. The Roberta Breitmore project came out of the fact that I had a work at the museum at Berkeley with sound, and they said sound and media don’t belong in a museum. So they closed the show, and I thought, “Well, who needs a museum?” Eleanor Coppola and I put some work in hotel rooms.6 That was 1972. My project went on for almost a year. The work was constructed with the ephemera of somebody who might have lived in that room. It was all the negative space of that person: the books she’d read, the glasses she’d wear. Going through the room was essentially like an architectural flow chart of time. And then I thought, what would it be like to release this person into the world? That’s how she was born, really, out of rejection.
PM: Essentially, the rejection from one space creates an investigation into other spaces.
LHL: Absolutely true. It was the 1960s, so people didn’t need an authority to tell you where art belonged, or what art was, so why not have it accessible to people just to come and look at?
PM: But how did people access that work? Was it viewable by subsequent hotel guests, or did you arrange for people to see the rooms? Did you have openings?
LHL: I put an ad in an art journal, and then people wrote about it. It became very successful. You could just sign in at the desk and take the key.
PM: But how did that become this alternative persona? To go from visitors seeing evidence of a life lived in this space to creating an alternative persona?
LHL: I first had to fill out the skeleton and the structure of who she was: where she came from, what her education was, what her traumas were, how much money she would have, how she would survive, and what she would do. There was a whole backstory to her character, and it all built from that idea: what would she do with these circumstances?
She came to San Francisco, stayed at the Dante Hotel for a couple of nights, put an ad in the paper for a roommate, put an ad out for a job, and just went forward. Originally, I didn’t want to [play her], but no one quite understood it, so I had to do it.
PM: Eventually there were three other people who played her, as well, though, right?
LHL: There were three, but not until 1977, and she started around 1972.7
PM: First, with the Dante Hotel, you have the personal paraphernalia that is left in the hotel room, and then, with Roberta Breitmore, you create entryways into this life, by marking this person in various respects, such as the want ads. Her identity came into being via the evidence you laid around her.
LHL: It was all through evidence.
PM: How did you arrive at who she was? I think it was very interesting that she had these depressive tendencies. She went to see a psychiatrist and bordered on being suicidal. Why did she have those attributes?
LHL: She was sexually and physically abused as a child. That is why she left home, to start her new life. She didn’t have a full college education; she had only had a year of college. All of that impacted her. In fact, I started to get a PhD in psychology to work up her traumas and her background.
PM: So her actions evolved from this psychological profile?
PM: How entwined did you become in who she was?
LHL: I needed to keep her separate. She had her own language, her own voice, her own gestures; she was very different than I was physically. So I tried to make her objectified, an archetype of stereotypes.
PM: And she touches on various zeitgeists of the era, right? She joins Weight Watchers and struggles with gaining weight. But what was the purpose in putting her forward as an archetype? Was it about separating her from you, or about highlighting certain perceptions of women that dominated the broader cultural consciousness?
LHL: I saw her as a mirror of culture. If you are going to take a profile of the context you live in, then she was a composite of all those stereotypes that people had at that time.
PM: To what extent did people encounter her as a real person?
LHL: She was not an artwork to most people.
PM: So they weren’t reading her as an archetype or set of stereotypes?
LHL: People she met became part of who she was—in how they treated her and became part of her history. They affected her behavior.
PM: Looking back on that work, how did it fit into what women at the time were trying to project in terms of their identities, or how they tried to create voices for themselves?
LHL: My sense was that women didn’t have any history; that they were just becoming aware that they weren’t in any books, that they had never been taken seriously. A lot of the work produced at this time was to create a history, a context of who they were and how they fit into the world.
PM: So like Roberta, everything was being created from that moment forward.
LHL: Of course, there were other people, such as Claude Cahun, who had played with identity, but I don’t think they were dealing with the historical loss that women were feeling at that particular moment.
PM: To what extent did women try to insert themselves into the dominant history vs. demand that a new history be generated?
LHL: I think women were and are still trying to insert themselves into an existing history.
PM: How did you make the break between yourself and Roberta?
LHL: I had to be vigilant and conscious of the difference. Of course, the makeup and the costume helped. Ultimately, Roberta was as objectified as a sculpture or a wax object. She was a piece.
PM: So it was about putting on her persona.
LHL: Embodying it.
PM: Even if no one else was embodying fictive identities to the extent you were at the time, performance was very much a medium that female artists were embracing at that time, and that is a significant thread that runs through your film, !Women Art Revolution. Could you talk about why performance was such a viable option for women in the late ’60s and through the ’70s?
LHL: Because it could be done anywhere; it didn’t need to be shown in a museum or gallery. It was a completely autonomous way of communicating.
PM: Whose work were you looking at during the time that you created Roberta Breitmore?
LHL: Eleanor Antin and Suzanne Lacy, the people I showed at the Floating Museum.
PM: Will you talk about the Floating Museum?
LHL: Like the Dante Hotel, the Floating Museum existed because museums were closed to the work of most people. I created a museum without walls, so people could show their work anyplace, whether it was in hotel rooms or staircases. They used the city as a recyclable resource, as backgrounds for pieces that took place in environments that were site-specific. I think the Dante Hotel was one of the first site-specific works. I wanted to expand that experience for other people.
PM: To what extent was the museum a framework that you were responding to? To have your work seen in an institutional context as opposed to just trying to have your work seen?
LHL: I think that I wanted to be taken seriously, but I realized I wouldn’t be. And I am still not.
PM: You don’t think you are?
LHL: No. My work is not well-represented in the collections of the local institutions, despite the length of my career and the broad scope of my work.8
PM: But you are the chair of the film department at the San Francisco Art Institute and you are considered a seminal West Coast artist.
LHL: Those are two different things. You can be seminal and have important influence, but still not be taken seriously. I continue to meet with incredible struggles to produce my work. Every time I create a film or do anything, I have to start from scratch.
When people start to take you seriously, they collect you and your work is taken care of beyond your own efforts.
PM: Do you think that is because of how you work, embracing bleeding-edge technologies?
LHL: That is true, but on the other hand, I have a trail of forty-five years of work that is proof, and important work that should be collected and cared for.
PM: Do you have any thoughts on why you are not taken seriously?
LHL: Being female, living here in the Bay Area.
PM: Which brings me back to my opening statement—your statement: the work being easier to ignore than to place.
LHL: It’s true. When you are doing truly innovative work, nobody understands it. There is no language; it doesn’t fit into any categories. I remember being rejected from the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] because there was no category that Lorna fit into, and no one understood what interactive work was; it was the first one. And rather than trying to understand it, they ignored it for twenty-five years.
PM: There are contradictions in your work that I find very interesting. For example, Roberta Breitmore is an embodied performance, but as a character, she is very isolated. Taken a step further, Lorna is not an embodied character, and while she is equally isolated, it is the first interactive work of art. The audience controls her decisions and her actions. You make this shift into work that is virtual and technologically driven; it is not tangible, but we as the audience are able to connect with her.
LHL: Well, just as I embodied Roberta, anyone could embody Lorna. It was the bridge between the self and the virtual, and what one chooses. Transferring the self into the action.
PM: I wanted to discuss with you the sense of urgency for the work that you were doing, and the work your female colleagues were doing in the ’70s. What was that urgency toward?
LHL: It was about freedom of expression; it was about equal rights and civil liberties. It was about making change in the world.
PM: How did work that was performative, time-based, and fleeting—in which the impulse was to see it rather than to document it—carry this urgency? Was there any thought of creating the assurances that this work was going to carry forward what it needed to, in terms of equal rights and civil liberties?
LHL: Well, I always knew that it was important to document things, to have records of what went on. You can’t expect the change to be immediate, so you put it in the world and keep going.