San Francisco

Lynn Hershman

Fuller Goldeen Gallery

“The first interactive laser artdisk” is a claim that cannot be ignored, yet after viewing (playing?) performance artist Lynn Hershman’s piece twice, for extended periods, I still wondered, Where’s the feat? Hershman’s intentions for this branched narrative seem much grander than the means she has provided for their achievement. Lorna (the heroines name significantly almost but not quite an anagram of “normal”) presents a 40-year-old woman who fears everything and consequently has not left home in four and a half years; to compensate for her agoraphobia, she obsessively watches TV. In contrast to her passive escapism, the viewer/player actively determines the course of the protagonist’s experience by choosing which “chapters” of the work to view at several forks in the profile of her life. In an initial pan of her living room, items such as a clock, a television, a digital wristwatch, and a telephone each are assigned a number which the viewer can punch into the video monitor’s remote control to call up and start a descriptive sequence. These are intricately and cleverly intertwined so as to eventually lead either to Lorna’s suicide, to a return to the beginning, or to her release from the confines of her home via a flight to Los Angeles. In the process one ostensibly learns by inference to be more analytical and assertive in one’s own behavior.

Hershman thus aims to reformulate our culture’s most passive instrument of entertainment, the television, into a tool of behavior modification. Yet her illustration of a masochistic, albeit mundane, lifestyle doesn’t even display the slight drama of typical TV fare (the prototype Hershman is adapting), making theatrical “suspension of disbelief” difficult, and cathartic identification impossible. The viewer’s participation in Lorna by choosing among its potential plot lines is insufficient by itself to create the kind of character affiliation that results in transformative psychic affect. Without this aura of transformation, or art, the work’s attempts to portray common or universal anxieties are rendered clichés of narcissism. Instead of sympathizing with Lorna’s worries about aging, for example, we simply see her staring into a mirror. Her suicide seems more pathetic than tragic, and in the scenario in which she escapes, the stock shot of an airborne plane is more of a letdown than a triumph—particularly when followed by the conclusion, “You have helped Lorna follow her dreams. We hope you follow yours.”

One of the more intriguing questions the work poses is why it appears in an art gallery. The answer, apparently, is that because an artist made it, it is art. But what is the esthetic dimension of this “art-disk”? Devotees of video arcades would certainly find this interactive game simplistic, as would those of substantially transformative art. In a brochure essay more thought-provoking than Lorna itself, Kim Smith distinguishes between a video artist who experiments with the abstract language of the medium and a ‘television artist’ who takes up ‘television’ in a dialectical embrace: Hershman’s synthesis of the television format and interactive mode for psychological instruction is admirably adventuresome, but the “embrace” might be more imaginatively creative if she disengaged to a greater extent from the soap opera genre.

Suzaan Boettger