Saturday, November 26

Pardon Me, but the Art Is Mouthing Off

November 27, 2005

IT was late in the day, rain was streaking the windows of a converted warehouse in San Francisco and the robot was not behaving. Represented by a talking head on a flat-screen monitor, and equipped with voice-recognition software, the artificial intelligence computer - known as DiNA - was designed to chat with visitors about current affairs. She is supposed to be a political animal, or more precisely, machine. But at this point in early November, just a few weeks before making her New York debut, she sounded rather clueless. When asked her opinion of the war in Iraq, she called it a "silly question." When asked whether she supported President Bush, she didn't recognize his name.

The robot's programmer, Colin Klingman, was taken aback. "She has a lot to say on Bush, believe me," he said. "I'll have to check the code."

The robot's creator, on the other hand, seemed unfazed. "She still has a lot to learn," said Lynn Hershman Leeson, the 64-year-old digital-media artist. "And she's not yet connected to the Internet, where she can gather information on anything from the mayor of Pasadena to the capital of Pakistan."

An animated exchange with the programmer followed: could that Internet integration happen in time for DiNA's New York debut at Bitforms gallery? Ms. Hershman Leeson calmly insisted it was important. The programmer relented: "Well, then, that's it. Whatever Lynn says will happen, will happen."

The next day, relaxing on a brown couch in her studio, Ms. Hershman Leeson talked about what it was like to be an artist forever bumping up against the limits of technology. "I'm always trying to do something that doesn't exist yet," she said. "Voice recognition for DiNA, for example - everyone said that we couldn't do it, that the technology wasn't far enough along. But I've learned over the years that you can never stop at the first no."

Steve Dietz, who showed her work at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis when he was curator of new media there, said: "Like most great artists, Lynn is amazingly tenacious. Anyone can have a sci-fi imagination and daydream about what is possible, but not everyone has the doggedness and determination to make it happen."

For more than 30 years, she has made artwork across many platforms - from painting, photography and performance art to video, laserdisc, DVD, Web-based work and interactive sculpture. She has also made two feature-length films: "Conceiving Ada," in 1997, and "Teknolust," in 2002. Like the rest of her work, they explore mind-bending questions about reality and identity. How can we tell in an age of digital and genetic sampling what is real? Can another mode of existence become more real or powerful than ours? Does a robot have its own personality? Does a clone have its own identity?

Such interests anticipated popular Hollywood themes, not to mention the obsessions of the video game industry, and art historians have begun to credit her as a pioneer. But until recently the technology has been recalcitrant. And so has the art world.

"Lynn should be much better known than she is," Mr. Dietz said. "Part of the problem is that she started in the 70's, when so many women artists were fighting an uphill battle for recognition. And since then she's been working with technology, which has more support from museums in Europe than the U.S." He pointed out that her biggest awards have come from Germany.

Ms. Hershman Leeson said: "When I started making interactive art during the 1980's, it didn't really exist as a genre. There were no grants, no collectors, no audience and no language for describing it. But now, more and more, it's considered a valid art form."

And now it appears that she is finally receiving her due. The University of California Press has just published an anthology, 10 years in the making, that documents her various projects in critical essays and samples them on a DVD. "Hershmanlandia," her first American museum retrospective, opened earlier this month at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, covering work from the 1970's to today. A survey of recent photographs opened on Nov. 23 at her longtime San Francisco gallery, Paule Anglim. And "Selected Works: 1976 - 2005" opens at Bitforms on Dec. 10, with an appearance by DiNA and prints from her series "Phantom Limbs" (1986-94), among others.

DiNA first arrived on the scene in September 2004 as part of a group show in Paris, where visitors could communicate with her only through a keyboard. Now, she has evolved to speech recognition, as has her predecessor, Ruby, an older robot in the Seattle retrospective who originated as a character in "Teknolust."

The two robots look alike: they both have the face of the actress Tilda Swinton, who starred in the film. But they don't think alike. Ms. Hershman Leeson says DiNA is smarter than Ruby, containing twice as much programming code; Ruby is more likely to make wild leaps in logic.

"Men seem to like Ruby more," she added. "She's funnier and quirkier, and they are put off by DiNA's intelligence."

The artist has been exploring artificial intelligence and virtual reality of one sort or another since she was a student. While completing her master's in art at San Francisco State in the early 1970's, Ms. Hershman Leeson was frustrated by her lack of recognition. So she began writing reviews of her own work and publishing them, under pseudonyms in local newspapers. Another early project involved taking a room at the Dante Hotel in San Francisco and spreading out personal items - books, cosmetics, clothes - to create portraits of imaginary inhabitants.

Then she conjured up Roberta Breitmore, her most sustained character study. From 1974 to 1978, while Ms. Hershman Leeson was a wife and mother trying to make it in San Francisco as an artist, Roberta was a divorced woman new to town, trying to make it on her own. The artist brought her to life by wearing a blond wig, applying heavy makeup and adopting a set of rather depressive tendencies.

Other performance artists in the 1970's were also creating characters to untangle the knots of identity and gender, but Roberta was no one-act wonder. She had her own slumped posture, slow gait, colorful outfit, loopy handwriting, odd jobs and romantic encounters. In time, Roberta acquired a driver's license, two credit cards and her own apartment.

"Everyone thought I was crazy," the artist said. "But I rented Roberta an apartment across the street from my house. I just didn't feel her life would be complete without her own space."

Still, being Roberta was not easy. She went to Weight Watchers and gained weight. She met a man through a personal ad who tried to recruit her into a prostitution ring. Ms. Hershman Leeson also found it hard to sit through psychoanalysis as someone else when "my marriage was ending and I had so much going on that I could have really used the therapy myself."

By the third year, she asked other women to become Roberta to see if they would attract more positive experiences. The first was Kristine Stiles, then a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley and now a professor of art history at Duke University. Going out on the town as Roberta was rather unsettling, Ms. Stiles recalled: "The persona of Roberta was such a part of Lynn's psychological makeup, it felt like I was assuming someone else's pathology."

Still, Ms. Hershman Leeson documented the project like a work of art. She kept letters written to and from Roberta. She had surveillance photographs taken of Roberta in her various escapades, and had the comic-book artist Spain Rodriguez dramatize a few memorable episodes, including the brush with the prostitution ring. Ultimately, after Roberta was "exorcised" in an elaborate ritual, the project was exhibited at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. The show ended with a Roberta lookalike contest that drew a sizable crowd, mainly gay men.

Since then, Roberta has fallen out of the spotlight. "Hardly anybody today knows the richness of this project," said Robin Held, who curated the Henry Art Gallery retrospective. "And it could not be more important in terms of Lynn's practice - from her preoccupation with the dispersal of identity over different bodies to her interest in the shifting boundaries between real and virtual. Roberta was a sketch for everything to come."

Indeed, the artist soon found in computers and new technology other means to "test the edges of reality." In 1984, she completed Lorna, recognized today as the first interactive laserdisc by an artist. "Lorna was originally conceived of as a game," the artist explained. "If you freeze the right frame, you can find an airline ticket hidden inside her body that I was offering as a prize." But like Roberta, Lorna doubled as a portrait of a rather sad woman - "agoraphobic, lonely, alienated" - whose adventures were directed by remote control.

Another pivotal year was 1993, when the Napa Valley winemaker Donald Hess bought the entire Roberta archives, some 300 images and documents. That was also the year the artist went online for the first time. She saw rather quickly the Internet's power for hyperconnectivity and imagined spreading a kind of computer virus that she called an antibody. But the law stood in her way, so the virus notion evolved into plans for a self-replicating automaton.

This idea for the robot inspired her to write and direct "Teknolust." "Not that financing a movie is easy, but it's really hard to get funding to a make a robot that nobody has seen," she explained.

Both of her movies, which won awards on the film festival circuit, are feminist sci-fi adventures. "Conceiving Ada" is a fantasy about bringing Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron's brilliant daughter, back to life through computer programming - the language she helped to invent. "Teknolust" tells the story of a geeky female biogeneticist who uses her own DNA to create three computer-bred clones, rather personable and sexy cyborgs named Marinne, Olive and Ruby. Ms. Swinton, who played all four characters in the movie, said: " 'Teknolust' is either about a sociopath who has a closet full of wigs or about something that Lynn and I both play with all the time - the fact that no one has a stable identity, we are many things at once."

What does she think of the robots who have her face? "They're like sisters to me," she said.

The movies received some withering reviews, but the artist's supporters don't seem to mind. "I'm fascinated by the way Lynn's films and art are coming together," said Ms. Held, the Seattle curator, noting that the film version of Ruby gave birth to a Web portal, which gave birth to the stand-alone robot now in Seattle, which gave birth to the DiNA robot heading to New York. And, of course, Roberta, that early experiment in artificial intelligence and self-replication, could be considered the mother of them all.