Lynn Hershman Leeson, America’s Finest, 1994, M16 rifle, webcam, original software. Installation view.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, America’s Finest, 1994, M16 rifle, webcam, original software. Installation view.

Lynn Hershman Leeson

Lynn Hershman Leeson, America’s Finest, 1994, M16 rifle, webcam, original software. Installation view.

I'VE NEVER HAD works of art take so many photographs of me. Soon after entering Lynn Hershman Leeson’s recent show at the ZKM, I was met by Past Tense, 2014, a projection displaying a frantic succession of pictures of animals on the brink of extinction; the image collection was sourced by searching “endangered” on Flickr and was updated on a regular basis throughout the course of the exhibition. But these creatures were not the only things on display. My own picture, apparently taken moments ago by a smartphone on a pedestal as I was peering at the installation, was smuggled in at regular intervals between the cougars and cheetahs—ostensibly to engage me, the (equally endangered?) viewer, more forcefully and perhaps to remind me that my own existence in the fragile ecology of our planet is not unrelated to the plight of this threatened fauna.

Shortly after, I encountered a sprawling work, The Infinity Engine, 2014, which addresses the dangers and possibilities of genetic engineering. Standing in front of another large screen, I saw my own face being analyzed in real time by facial-recognition software, which then broadcast data about my genetic makeup: In my case, a disembodied voice focused on the genes I must carry as a “white male,” with “brown” (actually greenish-brown) eyes. Finally, I saw my image appear to enter a kind of digital catalogue, dancing on an adjacent screen with the portraits of others who have submitted to this analysis (including Peter Weibel, the director of the ZKM and curator of the show), which seemed to offer an ominous warning that surveillance today reaches well beyond external appearances to the very core of identity. Soon after, I wound up in front of America’s Finest, 1994, a shooting stand equipped with an M16, a staple of the postwar US military. The rifle sports a large scope, designed by Hershman Leeson, which incorporates a small digital display. Cradling the rifle and peering into the scope, I saw sequences of moving images of war scenes on which I could train the crosshairs; meanwhile, via a live video feed, my own body appeared in the line of fire as a potential victim: Here reflexivity became particularly menacing. Food for thought, presumably.

Interactive media art gunning for not-altogether-unexpected didactic effects is hardly a novelty at the ZKM: Work that relies on a rote deployment of technology to produce not just interaction but the cliché of the eye-opening experience has long been the museum’s bread and butter. In the waning years of the past century, the institution proclaimed with futurist ardor the rise of an electronic avant-garde. Now that the genre has aged considerably, and has repeatedly drawn criticism for its rather simplistic conception of the “activity” in “interactivity,” the ZKM seems dedicated to a slightly truculent defense of standard-issue media art. Indeed, through works such as Past Tense, The Infinity Engine, and America’s Finest, this show introduced Hershman Leeson’s work as fully in line with its usual fare. Such works, however, are only one type amid a great number of different artistic techniques, practices, and employments of technology that the artist has explored over more than five decades. And, ironically, through the very thoroughness of its comprehensive retrospective, the museum effectively contradicted or at least qualified its own emphasis: What’s at stake in the artist’s oeuvre is not a particular relationship between artist and media or technology but a set of well-defined political and philosophical questions that have remained remarkably constant over the decades.

Put simply, Hershman Leeson’s work undertakes a feminist critique of the naturalization of gender through an exploration of the denaturalizing potentials implicit in novel technologies. It was not until the 1990s, when the writings of Donna Haraway were widely read, that the art world finally caught up with the investigations that Hershman Leeson had launched in the late ’60s. Haraway may be credited with inventing so-called cyborg feminism, but this hybrid figure appears early on in Hershman Leeson’s output as the model of a new subjectivity—one not merely to be envisioned by society but to be constructed in actual fact. This techno-realist perspective led the artist, in the early ’60s, to initiate the ongoing “Cyborg Series,” a vast array of drawings, paintings, collages, photographs, digital prints, ceramic plates, and other works that visualize the cyborg as both a promising feminist project and the manifestation of an oppressive scientific-industrial regime, an ambiguity she has explored in far-ranging reflections.

Though most of the work Hershman Leeson created as an avant-garde feminist in the ’70s appeared in the show primarily in the form of historical documentation, the ZKM’s excellent displays made clear that these pieces are closely linked to her recent media installations by their focus on spatial and social interaction. She repeatedly used public settings—shopwindows, developments of model homes, hotels—as sites for installations. Many of these pieces scrutinize the interplay between gender and social architecture, the behavior expected from women in interior spaces, or the individual gendered roles assigned within families, while also hinting at utopian and transgressive forms of community life. Such works include, for example, 25 Windows: A Portrait/Project for Bonwit Teller, 1976, in which twenty-five windows of the Bonwit Teller department store in New York were converted into installations that constructed social and physical interactions between male and female mannequins, and Dream Weekend: A Project for Australia, 1977, in which the audience was invited to watch, via surveillance cameras, the increasing disenchantment of a family in a suburban town house. The Dante Hotel, 1973–74, offered round-the-clock access to derelict rooms in the titular building, where two women (represented by wax faces and mannequins) appeared to be sleeping. These projects explicitly explored oppressive architectures designed to force women—whether housewives or prostitutes—into submission, unmistakably echoing her earliest electronic projects.

While Hershman Leeson’s early installation works are still known today, the multitude of pieces she created over the course of several decades using the fictional character Roberta Breitmore occupy an even more prominent place in the annals of the feminist avant-garde. Although they have much in common with some of Eleanor Antin’s experiments, they are now primarily read as precursors to Cindy Sherman’s early self-portraits or Sophie Calle’s social experimentation. The artist undertook a protracted first phase of this work from 1973 to 1979, when she lived in the character of her alter ego, recognizable by her unchanging dress and makeup. She inhabited Breitmore to the edge of exhaustion, since she let the fictional person became more and more real; she even provided her with official documents and obligations of all kinds, including appointments with men and meetings with prospective roommates. This project was followed by several resurrections of Breitmore in various new media, including one in the now largely forgotten virtual-world experiment Second Life, undertaken at the height of the platform’s popularity in 2005. Lorna, 1979–1984, perhaps the artist’s best-known piece, is another foray into emerging media and a rare example of the use of interactive videodisc in visual art. The project relates the story of an agoraphobic woman holed up in her home through an interface reminiscent of the period’s early computer games, in which the player often explored a sequence of rooms to discover hidden clues and complete the game’s objectives. Displayed in the ZKM’s galleries, these works presented an acutely palpable contrast between the rapid obsolescence of each novel technology Hershman Leeson has enthusiastically embraced and the persistent currency of the underlying social and conceptual problems she addresses.

At the same time, the show reminded us that Hershman Leeson does not use experimental media exclusively; in recent decades she has become known to European audiences, in particular, for her three films starring Tilda Swinton, which include Conceiving Ada (1997), about the computer pioneer Ada Lovelace, and Teknolust (2002), about the ill-fated genetics experiments of a scientist enlightened by then-recent gender theory and feminism. Unfortunately, the exhibition presented both films in suggestive and, again, slightly overdetermined settings: Visitors watching Conceiving Ada sat on replicas of the historic furniture that appears in the film. Such “immersive” techniques, obviously designed to encourage engagement with the art and lend the viewing experience a faint air of popular spectacle, are no less distracting than the didactic quality of the later interactive works. One wishes the exhibition designer had lavished similar attention to detail on more basic issues: The sound in both screening installations was so low that it was impossible to follow the dialogue. By contrast, the presentation of the brilliant historical documentary !Women Art Revolution (2010), which Hershman Leeson shot over forty-two years beginning in 1968, was exemplary: It was screened in a movie auditorium that was built into the ZKM, allowing the full nuances of this rich and dense history of feminist art in the US to emerge. The feature films could be viewed here as well, but were presumably encountered by most viewers in their more rigid installations.

In a sense, !WAR encapsulated many of the best qualities of the ZKM show; this extensive retrospective provided a long-overdue opportunity to rediscover the conceptual politics of Hershman Leeson’s art. It offered, too, a reminder of the richness and complexity of her oeuvre, her involvement in early forms of activism and interventionism, as well as her strategic appropriations of formats such as the computer game and the feature film. In this context, her latest forays into media art seem less significant for any resonance they may have with contemporary artistic engagement with technology than for their continuation of a long, varied, and relentless confrontation of art’s patriarchal hegemony.

Diedrich Diederichsen is a Berlin-based critic and a professor of theory, practice, and communication of contemporary art at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna.

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.