Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Strange Culture: An introduction by Jackie Stacey

“Seduction” (1986), a photograph from a series by Ms. Hershman Leeson called “Phantom Limb.”

As part of the ‘New Sciences of Protection’ conference a screening of Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Strange Culture was arranged. Jackie Stacey, RICC, University of Manchester, introduced the film…

Lynn Hershman Leeson has been making visual investigations of the integration of the human body and the machine and of fantasy personae for 50 years now. In particular, Leeson has been fascinated by deception, artifice and the fluid boundary between secure and insecure identities. Long before the current anxieties about security and safety, Leeson explored the technologies of the self that meant that we could adopt other people’s identities or even make up fictional ones and get people to believe in them. One of her early pieces of work involved Leeson developing a persona, Roberta Breitmore. She appeared as a performance, when Leeson took up this identity as a disguise herself, wearing a blonde wig, costume and make-up; Roberta also appeared in photographs. Roberta’s existence was substantiated when she got an apartment, employment, a psychoanalyst, a driver’s license and credit cards. When Roberta put an ad in a San Francisco newspaper for a roommate/companion, it prompted dozens of responses. Roberta agreed to meet each person (mostly men) three times only to avoid too much intimacy, and each of these meetings was recorded in surveillance photographs and tape recordings. More recently in Leeson’s exhibition of her work in the virtual environment Second Life, Roberta has re-appeared, and we hope that Lynn will be joining us here at the Dukes after the film screening through her Second Life avatar, Roberta, to discuss some of the ideas in Strange Culture on the director’s behalf.

Continuing this preoccupation with fabricated, provisional and improvised identities, Leeson made a film entitled Teknolust (2003) in which Tilda Swinton plays a scientist (Rosetta Stone) and her three digital clones. All four parts are played by the fabulously mutable Tilda Swinton, who is perfect for the multiple cyborg roles as she has something not fully human about the way she inhabits her body. Teknolust is a noirish pastiche about the melding of digital and genetic technologies in the production of perfect female bodies. Leeson pokes fun at men’s anxieties about their redundancy in the age of genetic engineering and self-insemination; she mocks the fears about bioterrorism that led to ubiquitous surveillance and screening techniques; she satirises the use of evidence and documents to control the imagination in both science and art. Leeson’s extraordinary prescient work about the strange cultures of mutable identities lead us directly into the film we’re about to watch.

The film tonight moves these investigations into the directly political arena of how the US state deploys its technologies of security to designate particular citizens as unsafe. This is the statement on the film’s website summing up the events that led to the making of Strange Culture:

The surreal nightmare of internationally-acclaimed artist and professor Steve Kurtz began when his wife Hope died in her sleep of heart failure. Police who responded to Kurtzs 911 call deemed Kurtzs art suspicious and called the FBI. Within hours the artist was detained as a suspected “bioterrorist” as dozens of federal agents in Hazmat suits sifted through his work and impounded his computers, manuscripts, books, his cat, and even his wifes body.

Strange Culture was made as a campaign film to publicise the injustice and absurdity of Steve Kurtz’s arrest. The filmmaker, Lynn Hershman Leeson, used her insurance money from an accident to begin making the film, and invited people with whom she had worked on previous films to work with her: Tilda Swinton, Peter Coyote, Thomas Jay Ryan. What is interesting about the film is how different it is from Leeson’s fictional work Teknolust, and yet how many of the preoccupations are carried through from her previous artwork and filmmaking. When I called this film a ‘docudrama with a difference’ I was thinking of the ways in which the film mixes traditional documentary (voice-over, news footage, talking heads) with dramatised sequences that narrate the events in question, and yet it keeps on undoing the comfortable familiarity of these forms of filmmaking. Having actors performing the roles of Steve and Hope Kurtz, sometimes in the screen presence of Kurtz himself, returns us to the question of the double, of the alter ego of the impersonator. There are even moments when the actors step out of role and begin discussing the significance of the events they are supposed to be performing for the camera. The construction and then deconstruction of the evidence, of the characters, of the events draw us in to participate in the processes of meaning-making that are shown to be so political in the film. We become active spectators as the story is narrated and re-narrated through many different forms, styles and registers. What is interesting to me is the balance achieved between mobilising the audience’s investment in the injustice in question and Leeson’s willingness nevertheless to play with film form and to undermine our belief in the authenticity of the image. What is especially clever here is her ability to dislodge conventional attachments to truth-telling through documentary or dramatic illusion and yet to anchor our belief in the story largely through its absurdity and its unbelievability. In other words, our emotional attachment is to the ways in which this story is literally beyond belief.

Finally, to connect this to the conference this weekend, I’ll finish by asking two questions: first: what are the designs behind the thinking and actions that make it possible for an artist preparing a show on genetically engineered food to be arrested for bioterrorism when all he has done is call 911 for the emergency services when his wife dies suddenly in the middle of the night from a heart attack? How might we think about design as governing modes of perception and activity? And secondly, what are the tensions between the state’s fantasy of elaborate systems of insecurity and the randomness of being designated an unsafe citizen? This is a question posed by the film, The Road to Guantanamo (2006, directed by Mat Whitecross and Michael Winterbottom’s), and it is also central to Strange Culture. As Lynn Hershman Leeson says in the interview that follows the screening of her: the strange culture in the petri dish being prepared for the art show, Free Range Grains, and the even stranger culture that ensues when one of the artists enters the surreal designs of a paranoid state.

The Art and Films of Lynn Hershman Leeson (2205), edited by Meredith Tromble, (University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, and Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington Seattle).

Article in NY Times

Thank you to our fabulous Joseph Rigby for this great summary

One Response

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