Lynn Hershman Leeson

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Lynn Hershman Leeson
Born 1941
Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.
Residence San Francisco, California and New York City, U.S.
Nationality American
Education Case Western Reserve University, San Francisco State University
Occupation Artist, Filmmaker
Notable work America's Finest, Synthia, CybeRoberta, Tillie, Agent Ruby, DiNA, Conceiving Ada, Teknolust, Strange Culture, !Women Art Revolution
Awards d.velop digital art award [ddaa], Sloan Prize for Writing and Directing, Siggraph Distinguished Artist Award, IFP Pixel Market Prize [1]
Lynn Hershman Leeson

Lynn Hershman Leeson is an American artist and filmmaker. She has received wide recognition for a body of work combining art with social commentary, particularly regarding the relationship between humans and technology. In 2004 she was named the most influential woman working in New Media. Leeson's experimentation in media-based technology was a powerful force in the legitimization of digital art forms such as web based art, interactive and procedural media, and even works of artificial intelligence.[1]


Leeson's work has as its themes: identity in a time of consumerism, privacy in an era of surveillance, interfacing of humans and machines, and the relationship between real and virtual worlds. Her work grew out of an installation art and performance tradition with an emphasis on interactivity.[2] With a practice spanning more than forty years, Leeson has worked in performance, moving image, drawing, collage, text-based work, site-specific interventions, and later new media / digital technologies, and interactive net-based works, making her one of the first truly multi-disciplinary artists. Her projects tended to explore the newest technology in digital media and science in general. Leeson was the first artist to launch an interactive piece using Videodisc, a precursor to DVD (Lorna, 1983–84), as well the first artist to incorporate a touch screen interface into her artwork (Deep Contact, 1984-1989). Her networked robotic art installation (The Difference Engine #3, 1995-1998) is a prime example of her tendency to expand her artwork beyond the traditional realms of art.[1][3]

Work by Lynn Hershman Leeson is featured in the public collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the William Lehmbruck Museum, the ZKM (Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie), the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Canada, the Walker Art Center and the University Art Museum, Berkeley, in addition to the private collections of Donald Hess and Arturo Schwarz, among many others. Commissions include projects for the Tate Modern, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, de Young Museum, Daniel Langlois and Stanford University, and Charles Schwab.

Roberta Breitmore[edit]

From 1974 until 1978, Leeson conceived of, constructed and ‘developed’ a fictional persona and alter ego: that of Roberta Breitmore. The creation of Roberta Breitmore consisted not only of a physical self-transformation through make-up, clothing, and wigs which enabled the occasional role-playing, but a fully-fledged, ‘complete’ personality who existed over an extended period of time and whose existence could be proven in the world through physical evidence: from a driver’s license and credit card to letters from her psychiatrist.

According to Leeson, Roberta’s character was born one day in 1974 when she arrived on a bus in San Francisco and checked into the low-budget Dante Hotel, with $1800 in her pocket. The fabrication and corroboration of her existence began at that moment, through a series of carefully orchestrated actions such as placing an advertisement in a newspaper seeking a roommate through to blind dating via the same means. The latter resulted in a series of physical encounters that Roberta had, with real people, in the real world, the repercussions of which played a key role in the formation of her psyche. Thus Roberta’s existence came to be manifested into the world, through such encounters and accumulating material traces, which at the end of the project numbered hundreds of documents from which one could attempt to piece together a portrait of this young woman in mid-seventies, West Coast America.

This fracturing or splitting of personality and fragmentation of identity was later taken to further lengths when Hershman Leeson introduced another three ‘Robertas’, by hiring three additional performers to enact her character. These ‘clones’ of Roberta adopted the same look and attire, engaged in some of Roberta’s correspondence and also went on some of Roberta (Lynn’s) dates. Towards the end, Hershman Leeson, the ‘original’ Roberta, withdrew from her character leaving the three ‘clones’ to continue her work, until the character(s) were finally terminated in a performance at the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara, Italy in 1978, during an exorcism at the grave of Lucrezia Borgia. What remains are the standardised physical artefacts of any life: documentation and, of course, personal effects: from legal and medical documents to a personal diary. Though these ‘prove’ the existence of Roberta, what was of fundamental importance to Hershman Leeson, were the real experiences of Roberta, which perhaps more importantly ‘determined’ her character.[3]

Between 1995–2000 Roberta transformed into the CybeRoberta, an interactive artificial intelligent sculpture on the web. In 2006 Roberta Breitmore developed into a character in Second Life. After Stanford University acquired her archive Leeson worked with Henry Lowood (Stanford Humanities Lab) to convert parts of the archive into something accessible for a broader public. They worked to recreate and re-enact both Roberta Breitmore and The Dante Hotel in a virtual space.[4]


LORNA was an early project of Leeson's. The first interactive laser artdisk, LORNA tells the story of an Agoraphobic woman. Viewers have the option of directing her life into several possible plots and endings.[5] LORNA never left her one room apartment. According to Leeson, the objects in her room were very much like those in The Dante Hotel. Except that there was a television set. As LORNA watched the news and ads, she became fearful, afraid to leave her tiny room. Viewers were invited to liberate LORNA from her web of fears by accessing buttons on their remote control unit that corresponded to numbers placed on the items in her room. Instead of being passive, the action was literally in their own hands. Every object in LORNA'S room contains a number and becomes a chapter in her life that opens into branching sequences.

The viewer/participant accesses information about LORNA'S past, future and personal conflicts via these objects. Many images on the screen are of the remote control device LORNA uses to change television channels. Because viewer/participants also use a nearly identical unit to direct the disc action, a metaphoric link or point of identification is established and surrogate decisions are made for LORNA. The telephone was LORNA'S link to the outside world. imageViewer/participants chose to voyeuristically overhear conversations of different contexts as they trespassed the cyberspace of her hard pressed life. There were three endings: Lorna shoots her television set, commits suicide, or moves to Los Angeles.

The plot has multiple variations that can be seen backwards, forwards, at increased or decreased speeds, and from several points of view. There is no hierarchy in the ordering of decisions. And the icons were made often of cut off and dislocated body parts such as a mouth, or an eye...[5]

Agent Ruby[edit]

Lynn Hershman Leeson created the online project Agent Ruby for the SFMOMA in 2001. Since that time Agent Ruby[6] — an artificial intelligence Internet entity — has conversed with online users, which has shaped her memory, knowledge, and moods. In 2013 the SFMOMA presented Lynn Hershman Leeson: The Agent Ruby Files. This digital and analog presentation reinterprets dialogues drawn from the decade-long archive of text files of Agent Ruby’s conversations with online users and reflects on technologies, recurrent themes, and patterns of audience engagement.[7]


Lynn Hershman Leeson's three feature films - Strange Culture, Teknolust, Conceiving Ada - have been part of the Sundance Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival and The Berlin International Film Festival, among others, and have won numerous awards. In 2011 Hershman released the ground-breaking !Women Art Revolution, a feature-length documentary about the Feminist art movement in the United States.


The films are all about loss and technology. Ada Lovelace invented computer language, but was never credited and was basically erased from history. Teknolust is about artificial intelligence clones: the bots that escape into reality and interact with human life, in effect a symbiosis between technological life and human life, and how the two can marry. Strange Culture again was about misidentity, where the media created a fictional character that they blame this crime on, rather than the actual person. All of these works are about erasure of identity and how technology adds to it and creates it. And how you can defeat that.[4]


In 2007 a retrospective at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, Autonomous Agents, featured a comprehensive range of the artist's work - from the Roberta Breitmore series (1974–78) to videos from the 1980s and interactive installations that use the Internet and artificial intelligence software. Her influential early ventures into performance and photography are also featured in the current touring exhibition WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, organized by the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. The Art and Films of Lynn Hershman Leeson: Secret Agents, Private I, was published by The University of California Press in 2005 on the occasion of another retrospective at the Henry Gallery in Seattle.

In 2014 a retrospective at The ZKM Museum of Contemporary Art in Karlsruhe, Germany, "Civic Radar", has realized the first retrospective which not only ensures an overview of all creative phases in Lynn Hershman Leeson’s oeuvre but also the most recent productions of this innovative artist. [8]

List of Solo Exhibitions[edit]

2000 Sweeney Gallery, University of California, Riverside.

2000 Filmhaus, Koln, Germany October 12–30.

2000 Retrospective, Tribute, Feminale, Koln Germany October 12–14.

2001 University of Virginia Museum of Art, Charlottesville, Virginia.

2001 Media & Identity, UCR Sweeney Art Gallery, Riverside, California.

2002 Lynn Hershaman, Gallery Paule Angli,. San Francisco, California.

2004 Lynn Hershman, bitforms Gallery - New York, New York City, NY.

2005 Hershmanlandia, Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington.

2005 Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco, California.

2005-2006 Bitforms Gallery, New York, NY.

2008 No Body Special, de Young Museum, San Francisco, California.

2008 The Floating Museum (1975-1978): Lynn Hershman Leeson, New Langton Arts, San Francisco, California.

2008 Lynn Hershman, Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco, California.

2008 Found Objects, bitforms Gallery - New York, New York City, NY.

2011 Roberta Breitmore, Galerie Waldburger, Brussels, Belgium

2012 Me as Roberta, Museum of Contemporary Art, Krakow, Poland, February 17 –April 29

2012 Seducing Time, Retrospective, Kunsthalle Bremen, Bremen, Germany

2012 W.A.R. Documentary screening, Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain, March 12

2012 W.A.R. Documentary screening, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden, September 2012

2013 Video Works, Galerie Waldburger, Brussels, Belgium

2013 Present Tense, Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco, California.

2013 Agent Ruby Files, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMa), San Francisco, California.

2013-2014 New Acquisitions in Photography, Museum of Modern Art (MoMa), New York, NY. March 1, 2013 – July 1, 2013

2013-2014 Dissident Futures, Yerba Buean Center for the Arts, San Francisco, California.

2014 Pop Departures, Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, Washington.

2014 Post Speculation, P!, New York, NY.

2014 Taking a Stand Against War, Lehmbruck Museum, Duisburg, Germany.

2014 Vertigo of Reality, Akademie der Künste, Berlin, Germany. September 16-Dec. 1.

2014 Women: Seeing and Being Seen, Scott Nichols Gallery, San Francisco, California.

2014 Playback, AUTOCENTER, Berlin, Germany.

2014 California Rhapsody, Harald Falckenberg Collection, Hamburg, Germany.

2014 How to Disappear, Aanant & Zoo, Berlin, Germany. July 15-September 6. [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16]

2014 Civic Radar. Lynn Hersman Leeson - The Retrospective, ZKM | Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, Germany. December 12, 2014 – March 30, 2015. [17]

2015 Modern Art Oxford, UK. May 30 – September 30.

Awards and honors[edit]

Lynn Hershman Leeson has been honored with grants from Creative Capital, The National Endowment for the Arts, Nathan Cummings Foundation, Siemens International Media Arts Award, Prix Ars Electronica, and Alfred P Sloan Foundation Prize for Writing and Directing. In 2009 she was the recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship.[18] Also in 2009, she received the SIGGRAPH Distinguished Artist Award.[19] The Digital Art Museum in Berlin recognized her work with the d.develop digital award (ddaa) for Lifetime Achievement in the field of New Media in 2010.[20] Her work was recently included in Arthur and Marilouise Kroker's Top Ten for the January 2013 issue of Artforum.[21][22]

In 2014, IFP Pixel Market Prize went to The Infinity Engine starring Tilda Swinton, directed by Lynn Hershman Leeson in collaboration with producer Lisa Cortes, whose credits include the Academy Award and Sundance Film Festival winning film Precious. The Infinity Engine is an installation, film and online interactive website. The prize comprises a six-month fellowship at the Media Center and an invitation to participate in next year’s No Borders programme. [23] [24]

Leeson was also featured in the Women's eNews "21 Leaders for the 21st Century" special in 2014 for her role in empowering young female artists to strengthen their artistic voices. Her documentary !W.A.R. raises awareness for the fact that the art world is a male-dominated realm and explores the many influential works of female artists over the decades.[25]

Hershman Leeson served as Chair of the Film Department at the San Francisco Art Institute,[26] as Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Davis,[27] and as an A. D. White Professor at Large at Cornell University.[28] She is the 2013-2014 Dorothy H. Hirshon "Director in Residence" at The New School.[29]

In 2004, Stanford University Libraries acquired Hershman Leeson's working archive.[30] Stanford also acquired a collection of the interviews compiled for Hershman Leeson's 2010 documentary !Women Art Revolution.[31]

Selected filmography[edit]

Other works[edit]

Early works[edit]

  • Drawings, Collages, Paintings (1958–72)
    Investigation: The integration of humans and machines in line drawings, watercolor, and collage
  • Sculptures (1963–74)
    Investigation: Recyclable modular human body casts with recyclable materials


  • Prudence Juris, Herbert Goode, Gay Abandon (1968–72)
    Investigation: The effect of three simulated art critics on public opinion
  • Performance Dinners (1970–83)
    Investigation: Site-specific consumable dinner portraits/performances
  • The Dante Hotel (1973-4)
    Investigation: A simulated hotel room, in real life and real time, that reconstructs fictional occupants through fragments of their identity
  • Roberta Breitmore (1974–1978)
    Investigation: A simulated person who interacts with real life in real time. This project allowed people to add and contribute to the simulated person. This project is related to the term of identity performance because it allows a person to be created into something that the programmer wants to portray.
  • Forming a Sculpture Drama in Manhattan (1974)
    Investigation: Three simultaneous, dispersed site-specific installations with intertwined narratives
  • The Floating Museum (1974–1978)
    Investigation: Organization to commission and exhibit public, site-specific, and non-traditional art forms
  • Lady Luck: A Double Portrait of Las Vegas (1975)
    Investigation: The American mythology of chance and luck
  • RE:Forming Familiar Environments (1975)
    Investigation: Construction of social relationships by means of a live interactive game set in a private home
  • 25 Windows: A Portrait of Bonwit Teller (1976)
    Investigation: Department store windows as a cultural portrait
  • MAMCO: Myth America Corporation (1979–80)
    Investigation: A simulated corporate structure to finance artwork
  • Non Credited Americans (1981)
    Investigation: The dichotomy of credit and non-credit within a consumer structure
  • Deep Contact(1984–89)
    Investigation: The user is allowed to interact with a woman's body parts via a touch screen that changes the story based on the body part that is touched.
  • New Acquisitions (1985)
    Investigation: A simulated museum acquisition of Greek sculptures as a site-specific public performance


  • Face Stamps (1966–72)
    Investigation: How the state controls and alters individual identity
  • Water Women Series (1975-)
    Investigation: 'Bodies of water' that reflect invisibility, evaporation, and survival
  • Hero Sandwich Series (1980–87)
    Investigation: genetically motivated photography
  • Time Frame Series (1984)
    Investigation: A manipulation of media to mask and to celebrate corporeal vulnerability
  • Phantom Limb Series (1988-)
    Investigation: Embodied identity in a culture of mass media and surveillance
  • Digital Venus Series (1995-)
    Investigation: The disembodiment of the female nude in art history
  • Cyborg Series (1997-)
    Investigation: The seduction of cyborgian subjectivity


  • Fifty-three videos, various lengths
    Investigation: Video as alternative space
  • Interactivity
  • Lorna (1983–84)
    Investigation: Self-referencing games; an interactive branching system of multiple narratives and points of view
  • Deep Contact (1984–89)
    Investigation: An interactive touch-sensitive videodisc about the relationship of intimacy to technology
  • Room of One's Own (1990-3)
    Investigation: A reverse peep show in which the viewer's 'gaze' both determines the narrative and captured in the act of surveillance
  • America's Finest (1994-5)
    Investigation: A camera/gun that transforms the aggressor/user into a victim of surveillance and capture
  • Paranoid Mirror (1995-6)
    Investigation: A sensor-driven environment that transforms the user into the interface
  • Camera Obscura (1998)
    Investigation: Real-time digital inverse capture becomes a reverse surveillance system

Net Works[edit]

  • The Dollie Clones (1995-8)
    Investigation: Two telerobotic humanoids that absorb viewers into their internal networks
  • The Difference Engine #3 (1995-8)
    Investigation: A networked telerobotic sculpture using the physical and virtual architecture the Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie
  • Time and Time Again (1999)
    Investigation:A distributed network that integrates viewers in scattered locations into a sensor-driven museum environment
  • Synthia Stock Ticker (2000-2)
    Investigation: How changes in the stock market reflect and affect human behavior
  • Agent Ruby (2002-) [32]
    Investigation: An artificial intelligence agent with the capacity to develop her memory and knowledge base by interacting with users
  • DiNA (2004-)
    Investigation: A networked, artificially intelligent bot running for the political office [33]


  1. ^ a b Tromble, Meredith (2005). The Art and Films of Lynn Hershman Leeson: Secret Agents, Private I. University of California. pp. xi. ISBN 0-520-23970-9. 
  2. ^ Wardrip-Fruin, Noah, and Nick Montfort, eds. The New Media Reader. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003, p. 643.
  3. ^ a b The Importance of Being Roberta, Katerina Gregos (2011)
  4. ^ a b Aceti, Lanfranco (2011-08-06). "Hacking the Codes of Self-representation LEA Magazine Article". Retrieved 2014-04-04. 
  5. ^ a b "Lynn Hershman Leeson – Lorna". 2011-02-23. Retrieved 2014-04-04. 
  6. ^ Lynn Hershman Leeson's Agent Ruby
  7. ^ "Exhibitions + Events | Calendar | Lynn Hershman Leeson: The Agent Ruby Files". SFMOMA. Retrieved 2014-04-04. 
  8. ^ "Civic Radar". 2014. 
  9. ^ "ArtNews Review" (PDF). 2014. 
  10. ^ "Art in Berlin". 2014-09-02. 
  11. ^ "KubaParis Interview". 2014-08-07. 
  12. ^ "KubaParis". 2014-07-29. 
  13. ^ "ArtSlant Berlin". 2014. 
  14. ^ "Monopol". 2014-07-31. 
  15. ^ "Der Tagesspiegel". 2014-08-09. 
  16. ^ "Berliner Zeitung". 2014-08-12. 
  17. ^ "art". 2014-07-28. 
  18. ^ "Fellow Profile". John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Retrieved 19 November 2013. 
  19. ^ "SIGGRAPH Distinguished Artist Award". Leonardo 42 (4): 296. August 2009. doi:10.1162/leon.2009.42.4.296. Retrieved 19 November 2013. 
  20. ^ Sterling, Bruce. "An art prize called [ddaa]". Wired. Retrieved 19 November 2013. 
  21. ^ "Visual Arts Faculty featured in Artforum's Top Ten List". Retrieved 19 November 2013. 
  22. ^ Kroker, Arthur and Marilouise (January 2013). "Top Ten". Artforum. Retrieved 19 November 2013. 
  23. ^ "Screen Daily". 2014-10-10. 
  24. ^ "Power to the Pixel". 2014-10-10. 
  25. ^ Jensen, Rita. "Women's eNews Announces 21 Leaders for 21st Century 2014". Retrieved 02/05/14.  Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  26. ^ "SFAI Faculty Profile". Retrieved 19 November 2013. 
  27. ^ "Profile at UC Davis Cinema and Technocultural Studies". Retrieved 19 November 2013. 
  28. ^ "Cornell Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art". Retrieved 19 November 2013. 
  29. ^ "Lynn Hershman Film Screening and Q&A". Retrieved 19 November 2013. 
  30. ^ "Lynn Hershman Leeson Papers Finding Aid". Retrieved 19 November 2013. 
  31. ^ "!W.A.R.: Voices of a Movement". Retrieved 19 November 2013. 
  32. ^ "Explore Modern Art | Our Collection | Lynn Hershman Leeson | Agent Ruby". SFMOMA. 2013-06-03. Retrieved 2014-04-04. 
  33. ^ "The Art and Films of Lynn Hershman Leeson". 2009. 

External links[edit]