Seated in overstuffed leopard-print armchairs, visitors to Lynn Hershman Leeson’s second solo exhibition at the gallery navigate, via remote control, the dumpy virtual living room of Lorna, a middle-aged agoraphobe whose experience of the world is entirely mediated through her television. Clicking on various objects unlocks bits and pieces of a schmaltzy vernacular media culture, such as boozy cowboy ballads, daytime talk shows, televangelical sermons, and amateur music videos. In one of the game’s three possible endings, its lonely heroine commits suicide.
The first interactive videodisk, Lorna, 1979–84, can claim importance in a broader media history beyond twentieth-century art, though Hershman Leeson has likened the piece’s random, nonhierarchical sequencing to “electronic cubism.” Even more fragmented and multiperspectival is Deep Contact, 1984–89, the first artwork to employ interactive touch screens. Viewers are invited to touch the virtual leather-clad physique of a Teutonic hardbody named Marion, whose various parts open onto a labyrinthine sexual fantasy with fifty-seven forking paths. In her 1985 essay “Interactive Technology and Art,” Hershman Leeson espoused optimism about the enfranchising potential of interactive technology. “The art world,” she wrote, “has long functioned on the presumption that viewing art is passive, while only making art is active. Technological change in the form of laser and video art, however, is changing this traditional way of viewing art.”
But Hershman Leeson’s avant-garde technologism is cut with camp, horror, and feminized abjection, undergirding an eerie feeling that interactivity is as much about capture and control as it is about activation and agency. Between the Snowden leaks and a Twitter presidency, the narrative around technology has acquired a dystopian charge, and Hershman Leeson’s work is increasingly recognized for its Cassandra-like premonitions of technological panopticism. Such anxieties explicitly structure her new installation, Venus of the Anthropocene, 2017. A grotesque mannequin torso faces a vanity mirror rigged with a camera and crude facial-recognition software that attempts—with modest success—to identify the viewer’s age, gender, and mood.