Lynn Hershman Leeson, 2010 Laureate

Lynn Hershman Leeson (*1941) utilizes new media since the 1970s as a cutting-edge artist. She has been devoted to social issues of contemporary society: protection of privacy, gender role, the changing concept of identity in the the age of virtualty. Very often, she acts as a storyteller in a non-linear way, by showing the loneliness of people in a world of mass communication systems. She works with an alter ego, puppets and agents and includes artificial intelligence. As a pioneer of interactive work, her oeuvre includes performance, film, photography, site-specific installations and digital media.  One of Hershman Leeson’s most notorious projects includes Roberta Breitmore, a fictional persona, created and enacted by the artist from 1973–79, and which anticipated virtual avatars. Hershman Leeson has been responsible for a number of technological innovations, including the first interactive computer-based artwork with Lorna (1983–84) and the artificial intelligent web agent Dina (2006).

The Jury's Statement

The Jury's Statement on the 2010/11 Laureate

Lynn Hershman Leeson has been at the forefront of new media art since the 70s, developing fluency in digital technologies as they evolved. A pivotal artist in the context of feminist discourse and a pioneer in interactive, computer and net-based media arts, Hershman Leeson has worked prolifically in mixed-media, photography, performance, digital art, video, film and interactive media.

Over the last four decades, Hershman Leeson has drawn on the fields of visual art, film and popular culture, making use of digital tools and cinematic metaphors to mirror society’s shifting ideas on identity, memory and history, as mediated through technology. Using social contexts and media platforms to rigorously examine issues related to consumerism, privacy, surveillance and the process by which personal power emerges.

Hershman Leeson’s earliest works involved the creation of fictional characters in social environments. These role-playing interventions were among the first to turn the spotlight on the cultural implications of gender during the rise of the feminist movement in the 70s.

One of Hershman Leeson’s most notorious projects was Roberta Breitmore, a fictional persona, created and enacted by the artist from 1971–80. Roberta had her own handwriting, clothing, gestures and moods. She visited galleries and went on dates with men who had responded to personal ads placed in a local newspaper. Her escapades were documented by private investigators hired by the artist and her existence in the real world was substantiated through official documentation such as a library card, driver’s license, dental records and an employment contract. Roberta reflected the values of her culture and penetrated trends like weight watchers, whilst addressing directly the acute gaze on women in her era and exploring inextricably the ramifications of sexed subjectivity.

Previous to Roberta Breitmore, Hershman Leeson created The Dante Hotel (1973), in collaboration with Eleanor Coppola. For this work, the artists rented a hotel room and furnished it with miscellaneous objects. The objects in the room evoked traces left by previous occupants and by visitors, who could participate by adding to or re-arranging the physical fragments.

In the late 70s Hershman Leeson started to work with video, which she used to further her exploration of vision, spectacle and spectatorship. These self-reflexive video works sort to explode stable notions of identity, representing the body as a medium upon which social values are inscribed.

Hershman Leeson’s work has demonstrated a sustained attention to the construction of the viewer as an active participant in a work of art, which in the 80s and 90s led her towards the development of human-computer interfaces and later, into an exploration of the relationship between real and virtual worlds. As exemplified by her recent project Life to the Second Power: Animating the Archive. Involving a reconstruction of archival materials, produced in earlier performance works (The Dante Hotel and Roberta Breitmore), to produce a game interface for the online platform of Second Life.

Hershman Leeson has been responsible for a number of technological innovations, including the first interactive videodisk artwork entitled Lorna (1979–1983), and the first artwork to use touch-sensitive screen technology Deep Contact: The Sexual Fantasy Videodisk, 1984–86.

Room of One's Own (1990–1993) was her third interactive work. Followed by America's Finest (1993–1995), which enacted the idea of Étienne Jules Marey's camera-gun. Finally, a commission from the Seattle Art Museum allowed her to create Paranoid Mirror (1995–1996). In these interactive works, Hershman Leeson was interested in how the spectator's gaze becomes enmeshed and politicised within the embodied construction of the reflected self.

Since 1995, Hershman Leeson has created tele-robotic pieces and experimented with works that use both sited and Internet elements; Difference Engine # 3 was shown in 1998 at the Media Museum of the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM), and Time and Time Again was presented in 1999 by the Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum in Duisburg am Rhein, Germany, as part of an exhibition entitled Connected Cities: Processes of Art in the Urban Network.

Conceiving Ada 1997, was her first feature film, including not only the invention of virtual sets, through the use of blue screen technology and computer graphics, but also the creation of "The Difference Engine 3", an interactive net-based artwork about identity, that won the Golden Nica at Ars Electronica and is now part of the permanent collection of the ZKM Media Museum.

Hershman Leeson’s second feature film, Teknolust 2002, also had interactive components with Agent Ruby and Dina, which are in the collection now of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Donald Hess. These are art works that use artificial intelligence bots to engage interaction from audience members, for the purpose of extending aspects of the script.

The film, Strange Culture (2007) is a documentary-fiction fusing cinema with animation, in which Hershman Leeson tells the story of artist, Steve Kurtz from the Critical Art Ensemble, who was arrested for his critically engaged work around genetically modified foods; a shocking account, boldly addressing issues of privacy, national security and human rights.

Based in San Francisco, California, Hershman Leeson is currently Chair of the Film Department at the San Francisco Art Institute as well as Emeritus Professor of Digital Art in the Techno Cultural Studies Program at the University of California, Davis, and an A.D. White Professor at Large at Cornell University.

For the jury, Kelli Dipple, Curator, Intermedia Art at Tate Modern, London, May 2010