Seducing Time: Selected Prize Winning Videotapes by Lynn Hershman Leeson 1984-2008
Microcinema International, San Francisco, CA, 2011
DVD MC-1091, English
Col. and b & w; Disc One 133 mins., Disc Two 167 mins., US $29.00 (individual) $149.00 (educational)
Distributor’s website: http://microcinema.com.
Reviewed by Mike Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University
Lynne Hershman Leeson has long been interested in technologies, love, risk, and talking heads on camera. "Strange Culture" recounted the weird case of Steve Kurtz. Kurtz is an artist who reported the sudden death of his wife (played by Tilda Swinton) and found his biological art project seized as possible terrorist weapons and was prosecuted as a terrorist (though the prosecutor's charges gradually melted into insignificance). Leeson's earlier project with Swinton was a biography of computer theorist Lady Ada Lovelace "Conceiving Ada" (1997), made skillful use of digital sets, a Victorian bed and breakfast suite photographed, and the actors then inserted. Twenty years before, Leeson was notable for working in the medium of interactive videodisc, her project ,"Lorna," shown at both museums and digital media industry conferences. In a public, institutional setting "Lorna" seemed (like so many video art works of the time) lugubrious, unengaging, and affectless. Yet in an intimate living room setting, the artist's characteristically unspooling monologues and scenarios prove interesting and thoughtful. Ongoing themes of Leeson's work are being seen by the camera, seeing with the camera, and seeing the self with unclouded eyes and heart.
In "Virtual Love," Leeson makes use of some interesting, edgy actors. The film features chromedome performance maven Rachel Rosenthal as her mom. Perhaps while filming women artists for her multi-decade project "!Women Art Revolution! A (Formerly) Secret History," (completed 2010) Hershman Leeson said to Rosenthal, hey, do a turn for a couple of my fiction films, will ya? I first read about Monte Cazzaza 35 years ago in an art magazine talking about his FILE magazine and comparing his performances to self-mutilating artists Rudi Schwarzkogler and Iggy Pop. Rinde Eckert appeared in George Coates’ Performance Work in the 1980s. Coates' theater was located in the chapel within what was, when built in the 1920s, the tallest building west of the Mississippi. This San Francisco theatre made use of scrims and lighting in a non-digital marriage of performance art and virtual reality (VR).
At the Second Cyberspace Conference, hosted by the History of Consciousness program at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1991, the anthropologist Barbara Joans determined the conference was divided into two groups. The first was technologists, with answers—digital tools and systems—but not the questions to pose within them. The other was artists, with questions—ideas for projects—but not the tools—the answers—with which to pose them. The goal was to put them together. I thought of this trope when watching "Virtual Love", over two decades later. Beyond the fictional personages, the movie is punctuated with serious interviews on VR as if the artist was not sure if she wanted this film to be a documentary or fiction upon starting out. She got both. Jaron Lanier, star of SIGGRAPH '89 and CHI '90, to pontificate as he did in his moment of fame. Another pioneer in the field, Scott Fisher, is interviewed in his Sunnyvale, CA telepresence lab, which he showed to a group of YLEM Artists Using Science and Technology around then, too. There's an appearance by Larry Shaw, of the Exploratorium, which hosted many YLEM events. Around these pedagogical moments, events unspool in monologues, street sequences, and phone sex reminiscent of Spike Lee's movie "Girl 6". There's the impending risk of a murder, but instead (spoiler alert!) it all wraps up in happy ending reminiscent of Emil Jannings' "The Last Laugh," quick though not as improbable.
In another work interrogating cybericity, "Life Squared" revisits her 1973 installation in the Dante Hotel, San Francisco. The original installation was created with her collaborator and supporter Eleanor Coppola, while Eleanor's husband Francis was off making his movies. Constructed in a single upstairs room of North Beach transient hotel after the UC Berkeley Art Museum refused a project with sound and video as unartistic, two mannequins lie intertwined under the covers on a bed, and one visitor thought they were real corpses so called the police. "Life Squared" demonstrates the utility of reconstructing past, transient site-specific projects in cyberspace. Stanford University residency supported this Second Life rendition of the Dante Hotel project, and this clearly demonstrates how reconstruction of past installations is a worthy function for Second Life. In the spirit of the late Mike Kelley's material "Educational Complex" sculpture (material, not digital) of incompletely-remembered school buildings, I'd like to see Dartmouth College re-create its butt-ugly Berry Hall (with aqua blue checkerboard facade), and the University of Michigan reconstruct the 1960s Unistrut-enabled steel exhibition platforms in the central rotunda of its Art Museum, with bass notes replicating the vibrations of walking upon the suspended metal stairs. And in the manner of Leeson, they could be both be populated with personages, real or fictional, who studied, conversed or even trysted there.
The other productions by Leeson on the “Seducing Time” discs are worthy, too. In "Seeing Is Believing" (1991) the filmmaker gives her film equipment to a young woman, just as she's investigating her own life and relationship with her bohemian mother and grandmother (again, Rosenthal). "Desire Inc." (1990) recounts the effects of mysterious but provocative ads Leeson placed on late-night television. Several men who saw the ads, and were moved to answer them, discuss onscreen the implications they found in the ambiguous promises and come-hither gazes. In "Longshot" (1989) a carefree urban spirit named Lian tells her tale and reveals her thoughts, while a videographer named Dennis muses upon her effect on him. After interest builds, it's burdened by a strange climactic ending. Finally, "The Electronic Diaries," 1984 through 1996, are the most personal of Lynn Hershman Leeson's videos. The patchwork diaries address issues of childhood abuse and body image in the form of her talking head confessions to her camera, over time.
In all, “Seducing Time” is a valuable document of Lynne Hershman Leeson's long engagement with media art. This collection will prove useful to provoke classroom discussions of virtuality, fiction and nonfiction, persona and autobiography.