Lynn Hershman Leeson

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Lynn Hershman Leeson
Lynn Lester Hershman

1941 (age 82–83)
Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.
EducationCase Western Reserve University,
San Francisco State University
Occupation(s)Artist, filmmaker, new media art
Known for
Notable work
*D.velop Digital Art Award,
*Sloan Prize for Writing and Directing,
*Siggraph Distinguished Artist Award,
*IFP Pixel Market Prize[1]

Lynn Hershman Leeson (née Lynn Lester Hershman;[2] born 1941) is a multimedia American artist and filmmaker.[3] Her work combines art with social commentary, particularly on the relationship between people and technology. Leeson is a pioneer in new media, and her work with technology and in media-based practices helped legitimize digital art forms.[4] Her interests include feminism, race, surveillance, and artificial intelligence and identity theft through algorithms and data tracking. She has been referred to as a "new media pioneer" for the prescient incorporation of new science and technologies in her work.[5] She is based in San Francisco, California.[6]

Early life and education[edit]

Lynn Hershman Leeson was born in 1941 in Cleveland, Ohio.[3][6] Her father had emigrated there from Montreal.[7] Leeson earned a bachelor's degree in Education, Museum Administration and Fine Arts from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland (1963), and a Master of Fine Arts degree from San Francisco State University (1972).[8] One aspect of Hershman's master's thesis involved writing art criticism under three pseudonyms: Prudence Juris, Herbert Goode and Gay Abandon.[7] She received an honorary Ph.D degree from Pratt Institute in 2023.


Leeson's work has as its themes: identity, consumerism, privacy in an era of surveillance, interfacing of humans and machines, feminism, violence, artificial intelligence and identity theft through algorithms and data tracking, and the relationship between real and virtual worlds. Her work grew out of an installation art and performance tradition, with an emphasis on interactivity.[9] With a practice spanning more than 40 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.

Her projects explore technology in digital media and science. 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 an example of her tendency to expand her artwork beyond the traditional realms of art.[4][10]

Work by 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, di Rosa,[11] the Walker Art Center and the University Art Museum, Berkeley, in addition to the private collections of Donald M. 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. In 2020, In 2021, Hershman Leeson was awarded a special mention from the Jury for her participation in the 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia.[12]


Early works[edit]

Leeson's earlier works drew interest from themes within science fiction and assemblages of the human body and sexuality. After suffering from cardiomyopathy while pregnant in 1965, Leeson, created her piece Breathing Machine, composed of wax castes of her own face with dyes and assemblages as well as the recordings of her struggled breathing during her illness. The recording includes the voice asking the viewer a series of personal and uncomfortable questions. A New Future from the Passed: Lynn Hershman Leeson Comes into Her Own After 50 Years of Prophetic Work

The 1968 piece Breathing Machine II also is composed of a wax face with a wig and butterflies contained in a wood and plexiglass display, expressing the a dichotomy of life and entrapment within the female body. Shaped by her experiences, Leeson's early works were political in nature and characterized as being closer inspections of femininity and gender roles.[13]

Alter egos[edit]

From 1974 until 1978, Leeson 'developed' a fictional persona and alter ego of "Roberta Breitmore." It consisted not only of a physical self-transformation through make-up, clothing, and wigs, but a fully-fledged personality existing 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.[14][15]

This was later taken to further lengths when Leeson introduced another three 'Robertas', by hiring other 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 (Leeson's) dates. Towards the end, the 'original' Roberta withdrew from her character leaving the three 'clones' to continue her work, until they were retired 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 physical artefacts of any life: documentation and personal effects such as legal and medical documents and a diary.[10]

Between 1995 and 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 for a broader public. They worked to recreate and re-enact both Roberta Breitmore and The Dante Hotel in a virtual space.[16]

Room of One's Own (1990–1993)[edit]

From 1990 to 1993, Lynn Hershman Leeson produced a project called Room of One's Own.[17] The project is said to be inspired by Thomas Edison's kinetograph, a device where a film is displayed on loop and an individual is allowed to view it through a peephole.[18] The project, Room of One’s Own, allows the viewer to peer inside of a box through a small periscopic device and see a bed, telephone, chair, television, and some clothes on the floor.[19] In the back of the small room, a woman appears on a screen and it is there where she asks the following: “What are you doing here? Please look somewhere else!”.[19] There are about 17 segments and depending on where the viewer is focusing, a different video plays in the back wall.[19] Throughout the experience, the viewer is positioned to be a voyeur, an individual who gains sexual gratification by watching an unsuspecting individual either partly undress, get naked or engage in sexual activities, but any pleasure that is gained, is quickly frustrated in many different ways.[19] At the end, the viewer's reflection is shown in a small television in the back of the room.[19]

LORNA (1983)[edit]

LORNA was an early project of Leeson's from 1983,[2] and was the first interactive laser artdisk art project. LORNA tells the story of an Agoraphobic woman, viewers have the option of directing her life into several possible plots and endings.[20] LORNA never left her one-room apartment. As LORNA watched the news and ads, she became fearful, afraid to leave her tiny room. Viewers were invited to liberate LORNA from her fears, using remote control units.

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 often made of cut-off and dislocated body parts such as a mouth, or an eye.[20]

Agent Ruby[edit]

In 2002, Leeson created the "Agent Ruby" as part of an expansion on the film Teknolust (2002).[2] Since that time Agent Ruby 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.[2] 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.[21]

Films and documentaries[edit]

Lynn Hershman Leeson has directed 26 films, including six feature-length films.[22] According to Leeson:[16]

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.

A 1990 documentary, Desire Inc. features a series of seductive television ads in which a sexy woman asked for viewers to call her.

Leeson's six feature films - Strange Culture, Teknolust, Conceiving Ada, !Women Art Revolution, Tania Libre, and The Electronic Diaries- 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. Hershman's ground-breaking 2011 release, !Women Art Revolution, was a feature-length documentary about the feminist art movement in the United States, distributed by Zeitgest Films. Artists interviewed for the film include Judy Chicago, Guerilla Girls, Miranda July, Mike Kelly, Joyce Kozloff, Howardena Pindell, Yvonne Rainer, Faith Ringgold, Martha Rosler, Carolee Schneemann, Cecilia Vicuña, and many others, including the artist herself.[23] The film is currently held by Stanford University in their archives, and can be accessed through the university's website documenting the project.

As part of her 2014 exhibition "How To Disappear," she premiered her video The Ballad of JT LeRoy,[24] examining Laura Albert's use of the literary persona JT LeRoy. Reflecting on the parallels between JT LeRoy and Roberta Breitmore, Hershman Leeson has commented:[25]

The concept of an alter ego is not new at all. Writers have been protecting themselves in that way for centuries. Mary Shelley did it. Of course Laura took this practice further and I think that was very smart and I do not think she deserves the kind of condemnation that she got. If I had done the Roberta thing ten years later, I would have faced the same problems.

In 2017, Leeson released her latest film, Tania Libre, composed of the therapy sessions between Cuban-artist and activist Tanya Bruguera and Dr. Frank M. Ochberg revolving around the subjects of political surveillance, past trauma and the aftermath of imprisonment in Havana after her prior advocating for freedom of expression.[26]


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 The ZKM Museum of Contemporary Art in Karlsruhe, Germany held "Lynn Hershman Leeson: Civic Radar", a retrospective of work. The ZKM Museum described the retrospective as having "realized the first retrospective which not only ensures an overview of all creative phases in Leeson's oeuvre but also the most recent productions of this innovative artist."[27] While encompassing a wide body of Hershman's work throughout the years, as an exhibition, "Civic Radar" highlights Hershman's interest in technology, looking closely at artificial intelligence and genetic modification. In 2017, "Lynn Hershman Leeson: Civic Radar," Hershman's retrospective from ZKM was hosted at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, California.[28]

In 2021, the New Museum in New York City hosted the first solo museum exhibition in New York of Hershman Leeson's work, entitled Twisted.[29] The New Museum described the exhibition as bringing "together a selection of Hershman Leeson’s work in drawing, sculpture, video, and photography, along with interactive and net-based works, focusing on themes of transmutation, identity construction, and the evolution of the cyborg. Filling the New Museum’s Second Floor galleries, this presentation [included] some of the artist’s most important projects, including wax-cast Breathing Machine sculptures (1965–68) and selections from hundreds of early drawings from the 1960s, many of which [were never] exhibited before."[29] The exhibition also included works from the Roberta Breitmore series (1973–78), her video Seduction of a Cyborg (1994) and selections from the series Water Women (1976–present), Phantom Limb (1985–88), Cyborg (1996–2006), Infinity Engine (2014–present), and other works.[29] The exhibition was curated by Margot Norton, Allen and Lola Goldring Curator, and was accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with contributions by Karen Archey and Martine Syms, and an interview with Lynn Hershman Leeson conducted by Margot Norton.[29]


Solo exhibitions[edit]

Group exhibitions[edit]

  • 2013–2014, New Acquisitions in Photography, Museum of Modern Art (MoMa), New York City, New York
  • 2013–2014, Dissident Futures, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, California[49]
  • 2014, Post Speculation, P! gallery, New York City, New York[50]
  • 2014, Women: Seeing and Being Seen, Scott Nichols Gallery, San Francisco, California.[51]

Grants and awards[edit]

In 2023, Leeson received honorary awards from Creative Capital The Mill Valley Film Festival, The Contemporary Jewish Museum (San Francisco).

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.[52] Also in 2009, she received the SIGGRAPH Distinguished Artist Award.[53] The Digital Art Museum in Berlin recognized her work with the d.velop digital award (ddaa) for Lifetime Achievement in the field of New Media in 2010.[54] Her work was recently included in Arthur and Marilouise Kroker's Top Ten for the January 2013 issue of Artforum.[55][56]

In 2014, IFP Pixel Market Prize went to The Infinity Engine starring Tilda Swinton, directed by 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.[57][58]

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.[59]

Hershman Leeson served as Chair of the Film Department at the San Francisco Art Institute,[60] as Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Davis,[61] and as an A. D. White Professor at Large at Cornell University.[62] She is the 2013–2014 Dorothy H. Hirshon "Director in Residence" at The New School.[63]

In 2004, Stanford University Libraries acquired Hershman Leeson's working archive.[64] Stanford also acquired a collection of the interviews compiled for Hershman Leeson's 2010 documentary !Women Art Revolution.[65]

In 2018, The Women's Caucus for Art awarded Leeson with the Lifetime Achievement Award, in Los Angeles.[66]

Lynn Hershman Leeson has been awarded a special mention from the Jury for her participation in the 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia – The Milk of Dreams. The award was presented with the following motivation: “for indexing the cybernetic concerns that run through the exhibitions in an illuminating and powerful way that also includes visionary moments of her early practice that foresaw the influence of technology in our everyday lives.”[12]

Personal life[edit]

Hershman Leeson and her husband George Leeson have one daughter together, Dawn L. Hershman.[67] Hershman Leeson has two grandchildren, Noa and Eli.


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External links[edit]