PRINT Summer 2016


FOR THE PAST fifty years, LYNN HERSHMAN LEESON has explored identity’s fluid mutations, creating a pioneering body of work that has presciently engaged questions of subjectivity in an era of artificial intelligence, surveillance, the cyborg, and genetic engineering. Hershman Leeson sat down with fellow artist JULIANA HUXTABLE, whose own shape-shifting work investigates similar issues in the millennial generation, to discuss the ways in which technology both abets essentialism and creates possibilities for its evasion and subversion.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, Roberta Construction Chart #2 (detail), 1975, dyetransfer print, 24 × 20". From the series “Roberta Breitmore,” 1972–79.

LYNN HERSHMAN LEESON: When I was starting out as an artist, people were just beginning to unwrap their identities, just beginning to reclaim their histories. Since then, it seems to have gone from an unwrapping to an unraveling. I think there’s a different urgency now, as well as new possibilities for incorporating mutations and transgressions that weren’t technologically possible earlier. And your generation was born in the midst of this flux.

JULIANA HUXTABLE: Yes—I was in college right at the moment when the celebration of the posthuman was at its height. At the time, I felt we were naively unaware of the conditions of the technology. There was a moment when it became so obvious that we had given up a lot in exchange for these new online spaces—that there were serious privacy questions, for example, and a real danger of oligarchic control of the Internet. Today we’re still grappling with those issues, and with a perceived failure of participatory politics, at least in America, while identities, or ideas about identity, are unraveling in this radical way. So many notions are just crumbling. Technology can provide ways to engage with these shifts—a potential that I don’t think is fully recognized in the art world, which hasn’t yet acknowledged the importance of technology in art history, either.

LHL: You mentioned oligarchy and the failure of democracy. One of the things I think about is the impact that genetic technology will have on government surveillance programs. What will happen in the future, when it will be possible to track anything forensically through genetic bar coding? We’re constantly revealing our identities through our DNA. Hundreds of thousands of cells are right on this table. They could be tracked forever.

JH: I feel a bit of paranoia sometimes. Technology has gotten to a point where every single trace of yourself is marketable.

LHL: They market genetic information to insurance companies, for instance. Or DNA testing, which becomes a kind of biological censorship of identity.

JH: Yes, or pharmaceutical companies get patents for bizarre medicines that are marketed to consumers based on their race.

LHL: It was after the full sequence of the human genome was published that big pharma started, for the very first time, to market drugs to particular races that they believed—wrongly, as it turned out—were predisposed to certain illnesses. It scared people into buying those drugs.

JH: It was high-blood-pressure medicine, I think. They were saying that African Americans are more genetically prone to dying from heart failure. Sometimes drugs that just aren’t doing so well on the market will be rebranded—the companies say, “OK, well, if we can link this with some sort of genetic patent, then we can remarket it.” But to suggest that high rates of heart disease among African Americans are attributable to their genes—and not to years and years of food deserts—is a way of dodging the ethical questions.

LHL: Right—or, for example, the Pima Indians of Arizona have the highest rate of type 2 diabetes ever recorded. Well, if you’re looking at the molecular genetics, you may conclude that these patterns that you see in the Pima and their DNA would explain their diabetes rates. But when the Pima had a healthy traditional diet, which they did until the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, they had almost no recorded diabetes. Now, again, if you’re working in molecular genetics and you get a grant to study diabetes among the Pima, you’re going to look at their DNA, not their history. And you can use the results of your study to sell them drugs for diabetes.

Today, research shows that if your ancestors went through a trauma, like a famine, that translates as a kind of genetic scar. And that scar from the trauma is passed down to all your progeny. I understand that they can correct this trauma scar in the embryo stage. In a sense, they could erase the trauma before the birth of the baby, so the child does not have to go through life taking corrective drugs to neutralize the damage.

JH: That’s really intense.

LHL: It’s now legal in the UK.

JH: There’s this impulse to reduce everything to a set of genes—to say that these genes produce these phenotypes, which collectively represent an identity. There’s this push toward a biological, hormonal, physical idea of what identity is. In some ways, I think that constitutes a certain liberation from older forms of racial or gender essentialism, because it makes things a bit more flexible. But it’s also scary. If you’re dealing with questions of transracial or transgender identity, you’re in murky territory. I think we’re still in the midst of a difficult conversation about how the physical matrix points that represent certain identities intersect with conditioning, experience, culture—all these other factors.

LHL: Do you think we need to find that out, or that we’ll need to know that in the future?

JH: I don’t think we will. It seems more like a matter of trying to find the gray zone. This is the liminal space in which these claims can be staked. But even though I don’t think that there is necessarily an answer, I do think it’s necessary to have that conversation, to consider questions of representation, and to explore their ethical implications. You’ve been doing that throughout your career, asking questions that no one else was asking about identity and the ethics and politics of its construction. The series “Roberta Breitmore” [1972–79], for example, was such an incredibly prescient project: this fictional character or avatar who leaves trails of documentation and ephemera, this character who accumulates a file of photos, tapes, psychiatric reports. . . . What were your thought processes when you were creating that work?

LHL: At the time, I collected data about how you identify something as reality. The information was nonhierarchical. I rented a place to live for Roberta, got her a job, a driver’s license, a bank account, and collected the ephemera that accrued, from checks to surveillance photos. As she went about her daily life, Roberta was “played” either by me or, later, by one of several actors who were multiples of the fiction. The accumulated materials were meant to be seen as yet another layer of witnessing, as what would remain after the “reality” of the fictional character no longer existed, after her corporeal body, or bodies, disappeared. It was a different era from yours, but if you’re aware of the traces that you leave, the essence of the traces can still be subverted. You play with ideas of a false trail in your work, too.

JH: For me, there hasn’t ever really been a separation between IRL and URL. I was an Internet baby. Both of my parents worked in tech, so I had access to a computer before I had anything else. I think the idea of an online profile, with all of the possibilities for fiction that come with that, was an inherent part of how I saw myself.

I used technology as a way to seek out a counterculture, a music culture, a mail-order culture where I could gain these markers and this identity. I felt I’d found an alternate community. Maybe at one point I was thinking, “I’m stuck in my hometown at this terrible high school that I really don’t like. Everyone hates me, and I hate them.” That’s the IRL. Then there’s the other space, which to me was more real. I spent more time there, and all of my energy, all of my labor, went into that world. So while my work deals with my self as a fictional character, that fictional character is inseparable from my “real” self.

LHL: Is fiction even possible under these circumstances? There’s a parallel to the genetic traces we leave everywhere we go: You always leave a data footprint, a digital fingerprint that with today’s technologies can be traced and interpreted in unexpected ways.

JH: The trail of documentation is mutable. I have such a long history of feeling like, “OK, this is what I have on my birth certificate,” and then having a crisis where my body was not matching up with what my doctors presumed. Then there was this moment where they said, “Oh, aha, you have extra chromosomes. That’s why this is happening.” From that point, I chose to intervene via hormones. So even the trail of documentation is already so back and forth. I don’t know what I would point to as the ground for what’s real. Is it the chromosomes? Is it the psychologists’ reports?

LHL: It’s never one thing. It’s all these different influences that create the mutation and the blurring. Any two people have at least three to six million points of difference in their DNA, so how can we expect absolutes? The spaces in between difference are what is fascinating. Did you start out with a fictional identity on the Net?

JH: I started off using an abbreviation of my first name—J. It was tied to who I was, almost like branding—it loosely implied a relationship to this real entity, but it existed on its own. Then it just moved on from there. At one point, blogs were free territory, and that’s where you could create different personae. Like you could have whatever name you wanted for your Blogspot. You could have multiple profiles, and you didn’t have to prove your identity.

And at the same time, the Internet represented, for me, the ultimate library. I found this world online of queer history and precolonial black history—Encyclopedia Africana, for instance. You mentioned the connections between identity and history—these sites illuminated those connections for me. I felt like I had found my library. This was before Wikipedia became a monolith, a reference monopoly. When that happened, a lot of alternative reference works and information sources disappeared. What I didn’t realize was that this archive was totally ephemeral.

LHL: It isn’t, because you can access it.

JH: I mean in the sense that I can’t find a lot of the sites now. Maybe they’re in a Google archive somewhere.

LHL: Somebody could find them. It’s a different form of archaeological digging. It’s cumbersome, but I think they can be excavated. Nothing disappears. That’s what I’ve learned. You can’t really erase anything. Disappearance is a fiction.

JH: Maybe the question of access, then, is: Who has the resources to actually get the erased histories? If the infrastructure for accessing that data doesn’t enable the necessary type of search, it’s almost as if it’s not there. When I couldn’t find the sites that I remembered, I felt like I had been wronged.

Juliana Huxtable, There Are Certain Facts That Cannot Be Disputed, 2015. Performance view, Roy and Niuta Titus Theater, Museum of Modern Art, New York, November 14, 2015. Juliana Huxtable. Photo: Julieta Cervantes. © The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

LHL: Your performances at MoMA [There Are Certain Facts That Cannot Be Disputed, 2015] were engaging this lost archive directly.

JH: That project started, in a lot of ways, with mourning these sites. The performance traced this longing to participate in history or to have a personal relationship with history, and I was also looking at how technology might facilitate that. When you go to the Met and you see a painting, there’s a feeling you get—a moment of being in that pictorial space, like, “This is history.” I’m engaging with that desire to experience a moment of identification, even if it’s just visual, just a moment of connection with an image. In one section of the piece, I was trying to create this romantic, dramatic processional for a lost era of technology and these lost sites. I wanted to evoke the idea that there were these great cities that disappeared, like the virtual cities that were lost when GeoCities shut down—like Atlantis.

I was also looking at new hybrids of fantasy and history—video games where you can play a character in the Revolutionary War, fan fiction, cosplay. The work was celebrating those avatars, and the ways in which technology opens up these possibilities of inhabiting other personae and other histories. When I saw your show at Bridget Donahue [New York, 2015], I was in the middle of working on this project. I thought, “Oh, God, this is great. There’s so much here to process and think through”—for example, CybeRoberta [1995–96], the doll with webcams for eyes. There’s so much to consider in terms of how technology affects vision, perception, proprioception.

LHL: You become it—you become a virtual cyborg, just by looking through her eyes and tracking what she sees on the website. Even if they are in a room with her, viewers are captured by her eye cam and lodged in her gut, so to speak—they are cannibalized by this telerobotic doll, pulled into a symbiotic human-machine networked interaction that is live yet archived. The symbiosis is completed through absorption.

JH: I was with a friend when we saw your show, and we pulled the feed up on our phones. The site was living and it was active, but it had a certain texture, so that you knew it had been created in the 1990s. Looking at it was like looking at a page from an old book. That was really interesting, and it was one of the things I really liked about the piece—this interplay between two different eras, two aesthetics. It made me think about GeoCities and all of that.

LHL: I really like to preserve the glitches of a time, the underbelly of an era. That is more revealing than a cosmetic surface. The mistakes in coding are like scars that you learn from. Even when I migrate a piece to a different technology, I keep the scars intact.The site you saw reflects and replicates the state of the technology at the time it was made—I’m not going to upgrade it to make it faster or more beautiful and then say, “It was done in 1995.” That would make it counterfeit, which is what I am trying to avoid.

JH: That’s great. I love that approach.

LHL: One of the things I also realized is that Internet breeding machines are live and refuse to die. For instance, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art acquired Agent Ruby—she’s now one of the most visited works in their collection. Ruby is a Web bot that began in 1998, as the expanded-cinema part of my film Teknolust, and surfaced live with the film in 2002. The media curator at the museum, Rudolf Frieling, and some of his staff found a gargantuan archive on the project’s server—which was Ruby responding to users who chatted with her for over twelve years, from all parts of the globe, about everything from politics to their dreams. In some years the conversation was about 9/11, or Bush or Obama or surveillance. But it was also about love and relationships, which I find is at the heart of all these AI bots. When SFMoMA exhibited it, Rudolf compiled eight books of conversations derived from the chats on subjects ranging from “what it means to be human” to “the economy” and “feminism.” Ruby’s interactions are a mirror of the times in which she was accessed, a living history of dreams and fears.

JH: That’s so insane—to discover that the archive had been growing all that time.

LHL: It never occurred to me in 2002 that these pieces don’t die, that they’re out there somewhere breathing through the pulse of the Net.

JH: If you can find them. Now that Google has become almost synonymous with searching, I feel they have a responsibility to do something with the archive to make it more accessible. I don’t think Google caches images—I think they only save the HTML and the text of the websites. I found one of the sites that I was looking for, for my performance, but all of the images had disappeared.

LHL: I love what you did in the performance with the images and scanning—projecting the laser across your body as if it were the scanner bed, and using the sounds of scanning as well.

JH: That was a way of performing the idea that I wasn’t actually there. This was in the wake of the New Museum Triennial [2015], where I’d shown self-portraits and Frank Benson’s sculpture of me had been on view [Juliana, 2015]. There was a lot of media attention, and there seemed to be this desire to access my body, as if my body and the sculpture were a one-to-one representation. I was grossed out by that, and by a certain understanding of my performance, especially in the case of people who maybe weren’t familiar with my work. They might have expected an aggressive presence of the body, so I liked the idea of using the performance and technology as a way to create these screens, or distractions from the idea that it’s a real, raw person in front of you.

LHL: When you mentioned that the role of technology wasn’t really acknowledged in art history, what were you thinking about specifically?

JH: There’s a gap between art history and how art actually deals with questions of technology, and with the progression of technology itself. There are just large moments that are unaccounted for. I find a lot of the writing about the potential of the Net really frustrating, partly because there doesn’t seem to be that sense of historical knowledge. The whole post-Internet discourse skipped over a lot of the issues that you and I were talking about initially. Instead, everyone focused on formal and technical aspects of the work. The conversation felt really limited, and it accelerated very quickly, to the point where technology became almost passé. When I would tell people, “Oh, I’m dealing with . . .” the second I would say, “the Internet,” it was like, “Oh.” I was like, “What do you mean? What are you rolling your eyes at?”

LHL: That’s why what you’re doing is so important. I think it takes your generation, with your early access to the Internet, to be able to see the ongoing relevance and importance of these technologies that are emerging with you, and to know the language of the Internet in a different way. For most people I know, it’s a second language, but your generation has grown up on it.

JH: Right, it’s the very first language. But a lot of artists around my age have been distancing themselves from questions of technology, even though it’s so important. I know you’ve actually developed many of your own technologies.

LHL: Oh, yes. I had to, because they didn’t exist, so I had to make them. I didn’t want to. It’s a lot of trouble and it was hard and always took years and a lot of frustration, but it was the only way to create what I was seeing in my head. In most cases, it took five years, and in some it took eight years to produce the work. My collaborators and I had the great joy of being able to figure it out ourselves—though of course, by the time we’d finish, we would invariably be able to buy whatever it was we were making off a shelf. We hunted the codes and programs and hardware down by instinct and faith and belief that it would be possible to accomplish a touch screen, or other kinds of interaction. In the field of artificial intelligence, for example: DiNA, which I finished in 2004. Siri was released in 2011, but still has not caught up to DiNA’s wit and comprehension, in my opinion.

JH: Have you ever been approached by companies about commercial applications?

LHL: Well, when we did DiNA, there was a company that gave us a free software package worth $40,000. We would show them all the things DiNA was capable of, things they were not thinking about, because they were only thinking of commercial applications, and we were thinking about stretching the metaphors. When I think back on it, it is possible that the research we were doing and feeding to the software company was actually used to create Siri, but there’s no way to prove that. And thanks to the software, we were able to make DiNA and Agent Ruby, which is what we wanted to do, so it’s an even trade. Other than that instance, no, no companies have approached me, because what I do is relatively useless in the real world. I don’t see these projects as a commercial application for anything that people might need, except maybe for joyful interactions, which are important but have not been monetized yet.

JH: You were interested in genetic engineering before a lot of people were aware of it.

LHL: It’s something I’ve been dealing with in my work since the mid-1980s. My current project, The Infinity Engine [2011–], involves a scanning booth that accesses viewers via DNA readings, which I think is going to be the standard way of determining individual genealogy and histories in about ten years. The project was developed as a way of using facial recognition to reverse engineer a person’s genetic origins. I worked on it with a (then) NASA scientist, Josiah Zayner, and several other programmers, and we premiered it in my retrospective, “Civic Radar,” at ZKM [Museum of Contemporary Art, Karlsruhe, Germany, 2014–15]. Peter Weibel and Andreas Beitin and the entire ZKM staff valiantly committed to fully actualizing this piece. At some point, I hope to install it somewhere in New York. There were also rooms at ZKM devoted to bioprinting, mutation, genetic transplants, ethical conundrums. . . . We even had a bioprinted nose and mutant GMO fish. ZKM declared itself a science lab to accommodate all this.

JH: That’s so ahead of the curve, to be dealing with these things in your work.

LHL: I think that if you’re dealing with the present, and I’ve said this before, people think that you’re in the future, because they don’t know what’s going on in their own time. I try to understand what is happening in the time I live in. The full human genome was sequenced in 2005. That was a huge leap in discovering the possibilities for the inevitable genetically migrated and hybrid planet that we will inhabit in the future.

JH: In terms of the critical reception of your work, how have people responded to seeing their present reflected back at them? How did they respond to CybeRoberta, for instance?

LHL: They didn’t, because nobody would show it. In fact, about 65 percent of the work in my retrospective was seen for the first time last year. Much of my work wasn’t shown for fifty years, and most of it took at least twenty years to be acknowledged, because people had no reference or language for it.

JH: So almost all of the writing has been in retrospect, much later?

LHL: Yes. It’s the opposite of your situation in a way.

JH: I have no clue what the perception of my work will be later on. I’m just thankful that it has been written about. I was really honored that people were writing about the performance versus the triennial work. In the case of the triennial, I felt like a lot of the writing was really just an accessory to the image. It was mostly anecdotal, biographical information about me, supplanting a discussion of the work itself. I was nervous that would happen with the performance—that it would become about the circulation of an image—and I was happy that there seemed to be more engagement with the actual work itself.

LHL: So what you’re saying is that your work is aimed at combating any calcification of your identity into merely an autobiographical cipher? It’s almost as if you’re actively trying to disrupt the process of stability of your identity, as if it is constantly shifting.

JH: I think I felt a sense of freedom for a while, because I found my visibility through multiple avenues. I was working in nightlife, but I also had a blog where I had built a following, and I would share other people’s work and my own writing and criticism. I felt I had these microcommunities and multiple identities online, and they didn’t ever really have to come together.

In the past two or three years, that all condensed into a singular body. Especially given the moment we’re in—it was too easy for people to say: “trans.” And that just became a reductive signifier—clickbait. I was so shocked by how crude people could be. I felt like I had to be aware of that and counter it in my own work.

LHL: When you say counter it, are there platforms that are especially useful for that?

JH: Maybe Twitter, because right now Twitter feels like it’s a little bit more open to experimentation. If I don’t read it for two days, I’ve missed so much. There’s no algorithm to push something back up. And that appeals to me. It has become a space where I can say, even just for a day, “OK, this is my character right now, my alter ego of the moment.”

LHL: That’s interesting. For me, Roberta was a way of testing the blur that exists in spaces where people perceive reality, and to show and exhibit flawed belief systems. At first, I didn’t really think that I was going to actually perform the role of Roberta myself. I certainly didn’t want to do it. But I initially couldn’t find anybody else to do it, so I had to. Then it took all that time to flesh it out. These projects are like vampires. They enter your bloodstream surreptitiously, and then they inhabit you. Don’t you feel that?

JH: Yes, that’s how I feel.

Lynn Hershman Leeson on Art + Identity