Lynn Hershman Leeson has built a revolutionary body of work.

Essential SF: Lynn Hershman Leeson

Stephanie Rosenbaum August 23, 2011

Lynn Hershman Leeson catalogues revolutions past and pushes the art and technology envelope well into the future.

Editor's note: After engaging audiences in hotspot film festivals all over the world, including Toronto, Sundance, San Francisco and Berlin, Lynn Hershman Leeson’s 40-years-in-the-making documentary about the radical cultural transformation brought about by the Feminist Art Movement receives its Bay Area opening this weekend at the Lumiere and Shattuck. Select opening weekend showings will feature Q&As with Hershman Leeson, producer Kyle Stephan and other special guests. Here, we republish the November, 2011 interview with Leeson when she received the San Francisco Film Society's Essential SF honor during that year's Cinema by the Bay festival.

Who creates history? How do you address omission?   

For longtime Bay Area artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson, answering those questions started some 40 years ago, when she began documenting the nascent women’s art movement happening around her.  “Of course, at the time, none of us knew we were creating the feminist art revolution,” said Hershman Leeson over a recent lunch in San Francisco.

The result? The documentary film !Women Art Revolution (W.A.R.)  which premiered to sold-out houses (and standing ovations) at the Toronto International Film Festival, and is slated to show early next year at big-name domestic and international festivals followed by a run at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in March.

The film captures the challenges, humiliations, and triumphs of women artists struggling to make their work, and get it seen, in an art world that overwhelmingly favored the work of artists who were white and male. Using the political agitation of the ’60s and ’70s—the Vietnam War, the Black Panthers, the shootings at Kent State, the invasion of Cambodia, even protests against the Miss America pageant—as a backdrop, the film explores how these women were inspired to speak out and make art that was unabashedly personal and political, transforming their own experiences, and often their own bodies, into vivid, viscerally affecting artworks. Backing the film is original music by Sleater Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein, interspersed with songs by The Gossip, Tribe 8, Sleater Kinney, and (who else?) performance-art pioneer Laurie Anderson.

Four editors came and went on the project, before Hershman Leeson finally finished the editing herself. “I felt I just had to get it done,” she said, pointing out that with hundreds of hours of raw material to choose from, it would take three months just to watch all the raw footage once.

Now, though, all that raw footage has an online home in Stanford University’s digital library, which acquired the W.A.R. archive in 2008.

For Hershman Leeson, the 83-minute film is just a calling card for the digital archive, an  invaluable sprawl documenting hundreds of hours of interviews and conversations with women artists, art historians and curators about feminist art from the 1960s to the present. She hopes to have the entire archive live in time for the film’s run at MoMA in March 2011, making once-hidden women’s history instantly accessible to anyone all over the world.

Hershman Leeson doesn’t want the project to stop there, however. There’s also a companion project, Raw/War, a partnership with YouTube which she hopes will set a standard for the instant archiving of experimental video, film, performance and documentaries, while creating a community of artists posting and commenting on their own and fellow artists’ work.

What made her feel it was time to turn the footage into a film? Hershman Leeson points out that to her, the film has a happy ending, showing young women artists like Camille Utterback not only gaining recognition (Utterback received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 2009) but learning from the rich legacy of the feminist art movement. Just as important, if not more, is the growing visibility and influence of women curators in major museums around the world, as well as the escalating philanthropic power of women dedicated to promoting women in the visual arts. There’s the Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, for example, where The Dinner Party, Judy Chicago’s massive, once-controversial installation, is now on permanent display.

For Hershman Leeson, the stories told in W.A.R. mimic her own development as an artist. Now, her work is part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Walker Gallery in Minneapolis, the University Art Museum in Berkeley and the Hess Collection, and she’s received dozens of awards and grants, including one from the National Endowment for the Arts, for the completion of W.A.R. But back in the 1960s, she says, “There were all these surreptitious identities that we had to assume to do the work, to acquire power.”

Unable to get her initial drawings, paintings, and sculptures shown in Bay Area galleries, she began writing criticism for Artweek and other journals, under three assumed names. Each critic wrote in an individual style, and had opinions that frequently clashed with others. What they had in common, though, was a surprising willingness to give thoughtful consideration to the work of a mostly-unknown artist named Lynn Hershman—reviews she then used to get included in gallery shows. It was a sly trick, using the legitimizing stamp of the reviewer to promote her own work, while calling into question the power of criticism itself to bestow or withhold artistic legitimacy.

She learned to be resourceful, to find new ways to create and show work beyond the typical gallery-and-museum circuit, skills that would become particularly useful in her later career as an independent filmmaker. In 1973, she and Eleanor Coppola rented SRO rooms in the scruffy Dante Hotel and created adjacent installations. Anyone curious to see the work could ask for the keys at the front desk and visit, any time of the day or night. Then there was Roberta Breitman, a character that Hershman Leeson created and documented from 1974-1978. Presaging both Cindy Sherman’s personal re-inventions and the elaborate fiction of faux-memorist J.T. Leroy, Hershman Leeson not only photographed herself (and friends) inhabiting the character, but created the paper trail of an alternative life, complete with driver’s license, credit rating (better than her own, she noted), and diary.

And while the Bay Area’s art scene didn’t have the heat and hustle of New York City or even Los Angeles, it turned out to be the perfect place for an artist drawn to technology. “I started as a sculptor and painter,” she noted, “but you know, there’s 2,000 years of history there. You wonder how you can stand out. And I realized that technology had no history in the arts. You had the ability to use technology in a way that was pro-active, that had a positive future rather than a dystopian one.”  

Increasingly, technology began to inform and shape her work. She manipulated photographs and created site-specific, computer-driven interactive installations in venues throughout the world. Her inventive, often fractured creations dug into the nature of desire, of identity, of self-presentation and what women could (or shouldn’t) say or do. Commissioned to make a series of over 50 videos for German television, she learned her craft and started planning for her first feature film, Conceiving Ada (1997), a drama based on the life story of Ada Lovelace, a 19th-century English math prodigy whose work would contribute to the invention of computer code.

Funds, naturally, were slim. But Hershman Leeson had decades of DIY chutzpah behind her. Instead of re-creating stuffy period interiors, she sent her crew out to shoot slides of Victorian-styled bed and breakfasts in San Francisco. She then projected them around Tilda Swinton, the actress playing Ada, wrapping her in a weightless, virtual set of light and color.

Conceiving Ada was followed in 2002 by Teknolust, part two of a projected trilogy.  It was a snapshot of millennial San Francisco, shot in super-saturated, color-drenched high-definition video to give a deliberately manga-ish gloss. In it, the awkward but brilliant genetic researcher Rosetta Stone (played by Swinton), taps into her own genetic code to create a trio of glamorous half-human, half-software clones (Swinton, again, times three) who live in (mostly) cloistered, color-coded splendor, tended by Stone through a computer screen installed in her microwave. The film is stuffed with winks, nods, and homages to dozens of classic old movies, beginning with a striking opening shot of Swinton reflected in a triptych of mirrors, like Dietrich in Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai.

For those in the know, it’s fun to watch Bay Area scenesters pop up throughout her films. Look! It’s Josh Kornbluth in a club bathroom, getting the quickie of his life with Swinton decked out in blood-red lipstick and Bettie Page wig! There’s Paula West, singing onstage in a smoky cabaret. And of course, our own local superstar, the Golden Gate Bridge, rising crimson out of a swirl of fog. No Vancouver stand-in here; instead, Hershman Leeson shoots the city she knows, filming on the roof of her own apartment building, in her office at the San Francisco Art Institute and in neighboring streets. Over the years, she’s built up a kind of repertory company of actors and crew. These—including actors Karen Black, J. D. Ryan, John O’Keefe, Josh Kornbluth and Swinton, plus her longtime director of photography, Hiro Narita—are her collaborators, “as much the creators” of her work as she is.

Hershman Leeson hadn’t planned to make the docudrama Strange Culture (2007), about the artist Steve Kurtz, a member of Critical Art Ensemble, who was wrongly accused of bio-terrorism in 2004 by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security as a result of his work around genetically modified foods. But when she heard that Kurtz, whose work she knew, was facing up to 20 years in prison on unfounded charges, she felt compelled to get his story heard.

The film layers standard documentary-procedure talking heads (lawyers, activists, art historians, Kurtz’s friends and fellow artists) with actors’ re-enactments of crucial scenes in the narrative. Intrigued by the actors’ off-camera discussions of Kurtz’s predicament as a representation of the erosion of personal, constitutional and artistic freedom in the post 9/11 era, she added them to the film, too, along with candid conversations with Kurtz himself. (And it worked: in 2008, the charges against Kurtz were finally dropped.)  

Now that the years-long editing work on !Women Art Revolution is finally completed, Hershman Leeson is looking forward to getting to work on the final film in her trilogy, Killer App, about the first “machine sapien.” She has other artworks planned, too, in collaboration with the team of computer programmers that have helped her shape so many of her works. “The Bay Area has such tremendous talent in technology,” she says. Any time she has to install a work outside of California, she notes, she takes her programmers with her. “They’re just so much better here than anywhere else.”

All of her projects come from original software, which usually takes three to five years to create. “By the time we’re done, the software is usually out there on the shelf. But then it’s like getting a pre-made dinner--where’s the fun in that? We’ve never found anything we couldn’t do.”

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