Lynn Hershman Leeson

The artist discusses her work with antibodies and DNA

Lynn Hersman Leeson, Lynn Hershman DNA, 2018, archival pigment print, 20 x 36."

As a young artist in Berkeley during the 1960 and ’70s, Lynn Hershman Leeson’s involvement with issues of civil rights, community, and the conditions for defining a public—most notably through the Floating Museum, 1974–78—helped ground her political and social consciousness. The “museum” platform pooled community resources to commission and exhibit site-specific art in public spaces, first in the San Francisco Bay Area and then more widely in the United States, Italy, and France. She has since spent her career collaborating with scientists and technologists to challenge how we construct identity and understand the body’s relation to its environment. Below, the artist discusses how her work with antibodies and DNA as part of Infinity Engine, 2014–, relates to strategies for surviving Covid-19. She also addresses central concerns about water toxicity and the health of our planet through a project with scientists at Harvard University that will be presented in “Lynn Hershman Leeson: Twisted” at the New Museum in New York, dates TBD.

THE PLANET IS GOING THROUGH A CORRECTION. It’s not just America, it’s everywhere. I’ve been thinking about symbiosis and how everything is connected, and how we need to find a way to shelter and protect the future, and the inheritance of young people who will be left with this mess. The only way that we’re going to survive is to defeat the capitalist logic that refuses a broader view of what collaborative and ecologically safe living means—a logic inseparable from the crises exacerbated by the pandemic. The dismantling of racism needs to be part of this mentality of survival. We need to make a commitment to reparation of the earth and respect for other beings.

Right now, I’m working on a collaboration with the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, where they have invented two systems to purify water using more organic or technological means. Taking visual inspiration from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, I’m creating a series of etched Water Women panels, whose bodies will fluoresce when water from the purification systems runs through them. The killing efficiency of bacteria and the level of achieved plastic degradation activity will be visualized live by a change of brightness on the panels. The AquaPulse is portable and uses electricity to purify water at a processing rate of one liter per minute, which is pretty phenomenal. It can convert toxic water into drinking water immediately. The Evolution system is developed out of an ecological approach that uses smart bacteria, or smartly enhanced bacteria microbes, to dissolve the remnants of dangerous particles in water. Smart bacteria evolved naturally to address plastic levels in water, by developing a taste for it and eating it. That’s the beauty of ecology and evolution—nature is designed to protect itself.

Lynn Hersman Leeson, Lynn Hershman DNA, 2018, archival pigment print, 20 x 36."

Dr. Thomas Huber, with whom I made the Lynnhershman and (Rob)erta antibodies, told me that he thought humans were put on the planet to serve as hosts for bacteria. Bacteria are much smarter than humans; there’s much more of them, and they reproduce and evolve faster. Personally, I think we’re just as smart as bacteria, but we’ve been educated in a way that has suppressed many of our instincts and distorted our ability to react. The prioritization of linear growth rather than collaborative survival of all life—and consideration only for the survival of our species rather than an environment as a whole—has been very short-sighted and limiting.

I think of extinction as the elimination of old models that cannot adapt to our changing world. My work involves a shift from digital presence, or electronic presence, into a biological way of thinking. My archives aren’t just stored at Stanford University, but also in my DNA, and in my synthetic DNA and the Lynn Hershman and (Rob) Erta antibodies. People underrate the idea of storing material in DNA. If you store a video on a hard drive, it will have a lifespan of maybe half a century. If you code it into strands of DNA, it will last a million years and is probably just as easily retrievable. While I’ve been thinking about recording my archive in DNA for several years, I was only able to do it in 2018. Importantly, you have to think of antibodies in the broader sense. If you think of artists as antibodies, going into a toxic space of culture and trying to identify the diseased parts and heal it, that’s a life project. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve lived long enough to be able to use DNA to make some sort of haiku of my life. While the vials containing DNA and antibodies in Room #8 are physically small, they represent much of what I’ve ever lived and most of what I’ve thought.

Right now, we are in stage one of the planet’s revenge, or rather repair. For me, we’re at a point where artists have to pay attention and use our methods of intuition to work with specialized experts to create ways that our planet could be healthier and survive. But importantly, lacking scientific expertise can actually be an advantage in that you don’t follow prescribed trajectories of logic, and might be able to see what has been overlooked. Logic can paralyze the heart. You have to go beyond it and remain open to the invention of different methods.