Lynn Hershman Leeson, Logic Paralyzes the Heart, (still from video installation, featuring Joan Chen), 2022.
Courtesy of the artist; Altman Siegel, San Francisco; and Bridget Donahue, New York.
Some Meditations on Logic Paralyzes the Heart:
A Conversation with Lynn Hershman Leeson
by Tanya Augsburg
Portrait of Lynn Hershman Leeson, 2021. Photo: McNair Evans. Courtesy of Lynn Hershman Leeson.
Even a global pandemic couldn’t slow down San Francisco-based artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson’s indefatigable momentum. Shortly before COVID-19 surged in the U.S., Hershman Leeson debuted Shadow Stalker (2019), an installation comprised of three parts, including a 10-minute film, in the group show Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI at the de Young Museum in San Francisco in February 2021. A few months later in June 2021, the New Museum opened Twisted, Hershman Leeson’s first museum survey in New York that was widely critically acclaimed. In March 2022 Altman Siegal gallery in San Francisco opened About Face, a remarkable exhibition that traced Hershman Leeson’s explorations over five decades of facial identifications. But that’s not all. At the age of 80 (now 81) Hershman Leeson participated in her first Venice Biennale in 2022, and was awarded a special distinction by the jury “for indexing the cybernetic concerns that run through the exhibitions in an illuminating and powerful way.”
To fully appreciate all that Lynn Hershman Leeson accomplished in the 2022 Venice Biennale, one first needs to know what curator Cecilia Alemani planned for The Milk of Dreams, its main exhibition. Its title was inspired by a children’s book authored and illustrated by Surrealist artist Leonara Carrington. In her curatorial statement Alemani interprets Carrington’s book as depicting “a magical world where life is constantly re-envisioned through the prism of the imagination. It is a world where everyone can change, be transformed, become something or someone else; a world set free, brimming with possibilities.” Alemani additionally proclaims that the 2022 Venice Biennale “focuses on three thematic areas in particular: the representation of bodies and their metamorphoses; the relationship between individuals and technologies; the connection between bodies and the Earth.”
The works of 213 invited artists are supplemented by five “historical” capsules with the following themes: 1) Witch’s Cradle, which surveys early 20th-century works addressing transformation – a persistent theme in Hershman Leeson’s oeuvre; 2) Corps Orbite, which examines expanded notions of textual production and language; 3) Technologies of Enchantment, which celebrates 1960s abstract works by Italian artists; 4) A Leaf a Gourd a Shell a Net a Bag a Sling a Sack a Bottle a Pot a Box a Container,” which reinterprets feminist science fiction writer Ursula LeGruin’s metaphor about the importance of vessels; and 5) The Seduction of the Cyborg, which borrows from Hershman Leeson’s 1994 video of the same title, as well as feminist scholar Donna Haraway’s 1985 “Cyborg Manifesto,” to explore hybrid bodies that fuse the biological with the technological. The last historical capsule takes up a large chamber at the Arsenale. The attention on early
20th-century cyborgs prompts visitors to make connections with additional thematic concerns. As Alemani points out in her exhibition statement:
Many contemporary artists are imagining a posthuman condition that challenges the modern Western vision of the human
being − and especially the presumed universal ideal of the white, male “Man of Reason” − as fixed centre of the universe
and measure of all things. In its place, artists propose new alliances between species, and worlds inhabited by porous,
hybrid, manifold beings that are not unlike Carrington’s extraordinary creatures. Under the increasingly invasive pressure of
technology, the boundaries between bodies and objects have been utterly transformed, bringing about profound
mutations that remap subjectivities, hierarchies, and anatomies.
Hershman Leeson’s Venice work is also located in the Arsenale. Two mirror prints from her Missing Person series occupy a white wall to the right of a doorless entrance. One “portrait” features an AI-generated image of a slightly cross-eyed boy with piercing blue eyes, and the second depicts another of a blond woman staring intently. Viewers can see themselves gazing at both works, which seem to be photographic portraits of actual individuals--except that their subjects only exist as images, as empty signifiers with no real referents. They do not exist as living human beings. They are literally and figuratively no bodies.
Lynn Hershman Leeson, Missing Persons, 2019, La Biennale di Venezia 2022: The Milk of Dreams, Installation view, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Logic Paralyzes the Heart, 2022.
Photo: Andrea Rossetti Studio. Image courtesy of the artist, Bridget Donahue NYC, and Altman Siegel, San Francisco.
Their titles, Missing Persons, Born 2019 (2021) highlight this unsetting dichotomy. They call attention to the possibility that algorithms can generate physiognomies in seconds that previously required the mixing of human DNA by means of sexual reproduction or reproductive technologies. Recognizing their own reflections in the mirrors may challenge viewers as they confront their own appearances that may or may not have been cosmetically altered or enhanced.
The entrance leads into an anteroom with two walls covered with additional images of AI-generated headshots of “individuals” from all backgrounds, genders, and ages. Hershman Leeson underscores the very real existence of online fake human countenances along with the possible repercussions that the simulations entail. While fake people are not fake news, our ability to discern what is actual and what is not is rapidly diminishing, especially online, which is why it is so significant that these AI-generated portraits include the logo from where they were downloaded, the Generated Photos website (https://generated.photos/).
La Biennale di Venezia 2022: The Milk of Dreams, Installation view, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Logic Paralyzes the Heart, 2022. Photo: Andrea Rossetti Studio.
Image courtesy of the artist, Bridget Donahue NYC, and Altman Siegel, San Francisco.
On a third wall two of Hershman Leeson’s early “cyborg” works are exhibited. In her 1966 painting X-Ray Woman with Bathing Cap (XRay Woman 2), she surpasses the representational capabilities of the dominant non-invasive imaging technology of the 1960s, the X-ray.
A pink Valentine heart with an arrow (a likely autobiographical allusion to Hershman Leeson’s cardiomyopathy during the same year) points to her longtime interest in the heart’s inner workings and movements. As I have written previously, the work is clearly both an illustration of futuristic X-ray vision and a portrait of a female cyborg. The X-ray woman can be regarded as an uncanny ancestor to Cyborg #1, the main femme-appearing subject of the single-channel 13-minute film she made for Milk of Dreams, Logic Paralyzes the Heart, which plays continuously inside the installation’s interior space, a black box. The film not only addresses all of the exhibition’s main themes (as well as those of the historical capsules), but advances them, inviting viewers to consider the potentials and problematics of artificial intelligence (AI). In it, the renowned actress Joan Chen plays both Cyborg #1 and her human “avatar,” whom Cyborg #1 contacts to alert humans about recent developments in AI with an appeal to change their destructive environmental behaviors and a plea to reconsider their relationships with technology.
On June 15th, 2022 Hershman Leeson spoke to The Art Section over Zoom about her work at the 2022 Venice Biennale. The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity. Since Cyborg #1 appears in female form in the film, Cyborg #1 is referred to as “she” and “her” throughout the dialogue.
Lynn Hershman Leeson, Logic Paralyzes the Heart, 2021. Photo: Pamela Gentile. Courtesy of Lynn Hershman Leeson.
Courtesy Altman Siegel, San Francisco; and Bridget Donahue, New York
Tanya Augsburg: Language is a big part of Logic Paralyzes the Heart, the film you made for Venice – whether it is AI language, artistic language, or Lynn Hershman Leeson's language.
Lynn Hershman Leeson: Right.
TA: I was really struck by the words of the film. You're an extraordinary writer. I also reread your interview with Laura Poitras. You said you didn't speak until you were five years old…
LHL: It's true. I still don't talk a lot. People complain that I give one-word answers. I'm not loquacious. But I did my master's thesis on writing as a critic. Writing film scripts is a different kind of writing. I always do a lot of drafts, but for this film I wrote more than normally.
Since the Arsenale historically was all about war weaponry, I was going to focus on that history how it is being used today with assault weapons, but I decided to address the evolution of the Cyborg in the military instead.
TA: It was really interesting when Cyborg #1 asks her human avatar, “Can you teach me how to dream?” Is Lynn Hershman Leeson trying to teach us how to dream?
LHL: Well, I do think that we as humans are becoming too logical. Sometimes you have to let go of logic, and one of the best ways to do that is to dream, to think of things that can happen that don't exist in the real world … and to invent your own reality through dreaming. This idea wasn’t in the first script, and maybe emerged with the fortieth draft.
TA: How long did it take you to write the screenplay?
LHL: When I met Joan Chen in September  the script wasn't finished. She said she wanted to see the script so I completed an early draft right away, in September. We then shot it in December.
TA: How long did it take?
LHL: It took probably four hours to shoot it.
TA: That’s all?
LHL: It was very quick. I worked with my usual crew, so the communication was easy. I felt that Joan really understood the project. She changed languages. She took words out that she thought were redundant. Her efforts were very subtle. So, much credit goes to her and her interpretation of it.
Lynn Hershman Leeson, Logic Paralyzes the Heart, 2022, Photograph by Andrea Rossetti
Courtesy of the artist; Altman Siegel, San Francisco; and Bridget Donahue, New York
TA: You didn't know Joan previously?
LHL: Not at all. I was lucky. I couldn't afford to import anybody and she lived here. It was at the time that the show was still up at the de Young so she went and saw it. She said that she had never done anything like this.
TA: Throughout your career you’ve showcased female actors playing female or femme characters, whose very existence subverts the white male point of view.
LHL: Look at Agent Ruby and all the other work I’ve done. I speak from a female perspective. Think about Ada Lovelace and Mary Shelley [Hershman Leeson made Conceiving Ada, a film featuring Ada Lovelace and Mary Shelley, in 1997]. The first AI work was based on Shelley’s Frankenstein and my work a continuation of that. The film wouldn't have worked with a male actor.
TA: The introductory text in the film’s opening sequence establishes the fact that the word “cyborg” is over 60 years old, which is not addressed in the exhibition documentation. Did you want to include its origin story in the film because you noticed it was missing?
LHL: I don't know. I did want to place it immediately with being birthed by the military. I felt it was important to mention that even the name “cyborg” was developed by the military, as an original warfare tool.
Lynn Hershman Leeson, Logic Paralyzes the Heart (still), 2022, 4K video, 13 minutes 53 seconds. Joan Chen (Cyborg 1) dressed by Nina Hollein
Courtesy of the artist; Altman Siegel, San Francisco; and Bridget Donahue, New York
TA: The film begins by highlighting a technique that you have done throughout your career – a kind of collapse or conflation, or maybe it’s more like a juxtaposition, similar to Surrealism, of fact and fiction. The introductory text presents the facts about the cyborg’s creation before switching seamlessly to tell her story.
LHL: I think all of my work is all fact. I don't see it as fiction. I just find different ways to tell the truth. There are expanded, dreamlike ways to tell a deeper truth than you get from just the words of factual data.
TA: It struck me how after the text scroll ends, the human avatar’s arm rises up holding the cell phone, which immediately positions the viewer to identify with the human avatar’s point of view.
TA: It's intriguing because the positioning of the viewer along with the ensuing dialogue creates a sense of intimacy. Viewers watch this talking head, Cyborg #1, address them, not unlike what we are doing right now on Zoom. I was reminded of The Electronic Diaries (1984-2019), the video art works in which you disclosed very personal things while looking directly at the camera. Were they part of your thinking when you made the film?
LHL: So much of making anything is intuitive. That wasn't in the early script but when we were editing it, I said, “Why don't we try that?” I did make some shots of Joan’s hand on the cell phone. I didn't know if I'd ever use them but we tried it. And I liked it. A lot of filmmaking entails things that develop as you're actually looking at it. I always think that films are made from the edges like when people think you haven't started shooting, but I always start earlier and keep going after they think you've stopped, and in that blur the truth of the edges is something to pay attention to.
TA: It's not just about positioning the viewer as a female - a “female gaze.” There is also this kind of meditation on screens.
TA: We first see the cell phone screen within the visual frame of the film, and then when Cyborg #1 begins to speak the cell phone disappears. The viewer gets the impression that the two screens are being conflated.
LHL: When on your cell phone you forget it's a cell phone sometimes.
TA: Then, when we first see Cyborg #1 her back is turned as if she is refusing the viewer’s gaze, or making the viewer cognizant of their own viewing and objectification of the cyborg.
LHL: I just thought it was more dramatic to not know what she looks like, and especially since she changes her shape and what she looks like.
Lynn Hershman Leeson, Logic Paralyzes the Heart, 2022. Photograph by Andrea Rossetti Courtesy of the artist; Altman Siegel, San Francisco; and Bridget Donahue, New York
TA: Once she turns around, we can’t see her face clearly, right?
LHL: Exactly right.
TA: Instead, we see that what we would assume is her face actually consists of data visualizations. After the offscreen human avatar says, “You look so human,” the data gradually dissipates. Cyborg #1 responds by explaining her use of the “Deep Fake” algorithm. By the time she’s done, her face is in sharp focus.
LHL: I was thinking at one point that if I couldn't get an actor, maybe I could just “Deep Fake” them in and not tell anyone.
TA: Cyborg #1 then tells us her life history. At some point she walks across a sort of stage, and we see projections behind her, which I thought were ingenious as they call attention to various cultural mediums: Joan's performance, news footage, historical documentary, and film. It’s a commentary on the integration of multiple artistic mediums.
LHL: A collage.
TA: Yes! What really struck me as a collage was the interlude in the film with Tessa Thompson, during which she discusses the inhumanity of surveilling citizens in public spaces without their knowledge or consent. She explains additional algorithmic injustices such as predictive policing programs, which are deployed to predict crimes before they happen, particularly in low-income areas. The section is recycled from your previous short film Shadow Stalker (2019).
LHL: It also wasn't in the original script. I only had Joan for very short time, because while we were working on the film both her parents were dying, so she was going back and forth to Shanghai, where she had to quarantine for three weeks. Since the character of Joan talks about how during her meditation she found out about these things, I thought that it would be all right to have it further explained by somebody else.
TA: Later, Cyborg #1 mentions Bob and Alice, the chat bots developed by Facebook that developed their own private language. The developers erased them because they were afraid of what they might do. The developers also briefly lost control. Your film addresses how the master/slave dialectic in our relation to technology is extremely problematic. And you seem to highlight the need to reframe, to have a more reciprocal relationship, which goes along with what people involved in AI ethics are saying.
LHL: Our culture particularly likes to own others and other things. That sense of ownership resulted in a non-collaborative and flawed sentience. It becomes relationships of “master to slave” where humans are always the master and elements of life work for you rather than with you.
TA: So, the film becomes a meditation on the hope of humans evolving along with cyborgs?
LHL: We have to if we're going to survive as a species or planet. We have to radically change our basic premise of who we are, and what in the whole structure of what we call civilization, which is really about greed and ownership.
TA: I was astounded by Cyborg #1’s meditation, because the idea of a cyborg meditating seems so illogical. Yet, it's really pivotal for your film. When cyborgs or robots are confronted with a lack of logic in sci-fi, they typically implode or self-destruct. In your film Cyborg #1 meditates and evolves.
LHL: I was thinking about midlife crisis and that's what she was going through. A lot of people get out of it by just thinking about where they are, what caused them to have the life they had. If they're not happy with their lives, then they change, so that's the model: she evolves and changes. That brings her to reach out to her avatar and to alert her of things that we're not paying attention to.
TA: I have another question about Cyborg #1’s meditation given the recent news headlines about LaMDA, the Google AI, allegedly meditating. A Google’s AI ethics research team member, Blake Lemoine, has claimed that Google’s AI is sentient in part because it meditates.
LHL: The Google AI supposedly also thinks it's a person, and he's convinced that it's like an eight-year-old innocent child.
TA: Is there any discussion within the AI Community about AI meditating?
LHL: I haven't ever seen one anywhere, anywhere at all. The meditation in my piece had to do more with her nervous breakdown, and the midlife crisis.
TA: Isn't that extraordinary? Suddenly, everyone is asking, “Does AI meditate?”
LHL: I read the transcript of that interview that he had with his AI agent, and I think he fed words to the chat bot in order to create specific ways the bot would reply,
I really question the authenticity of the fact that it is sentient, that it is an eight year-old. I know it could appear like that because one of my programmers talked to Agent Ruby all the time and took it with him to the beach. Do you know the Spike Jonze movie…
LHL: Yes. He saw my script [for Hershman Leeson’s 2002 film Teknolust]. Did you know that I asked him to be in it?
LHL: He turned it down. But he had the script very early. He took a lot of the ideas that were part of Teknolust and used them in his script for Her, although I was never credited.
TA: Well, it goes to show that you anticipate so much of culture. And then people borrow your ideas…It seems to me that The Milk of Dreams borrowed many of your major themes.
LHL: I was really happy that Artforum credited my Seduction of a Cyborg video of 1994.
TA: When I saw the Seduction of the Cyborg section at the Arsenale, I read the list of artists’ names on the wall and wondered: Where's Lynn Hershman Leeson? The omission didn't make sense to me. After seeing the show again, I thought that perhaps your name wasn’t put on the list because the title was for the historical capsule, and you created new work for the exhibition.
LHL: I don't know. They could have put in Agent Ruby or other early pieces that were also historical. But Cecilia [Alemani] chose not to.
TA: Maybe they didn't want to include a lot of interactive work or immersive work.
LHL: They couldn't. There was no Internet. That was the problem there. I could have had, but it would have been unstable. But there's other kinds of works that could have gone in.
Lynn Hershman Leeson, Logic Paralyzes the Heart, 2022. Photograph by Andrea Rossetti
Courtesy of the artist; Altman Siegel, San Francisco; and Bridget Donahue, New York.
TA: Logic Paralyzes the Heart is not the only new work that you show at the Venice Biennale. You have two printed mirror AI-generated portraits, both titled Missing Person, 2019. You also include wallpaper of AI-generated portraits. Viewing the wallpaper with the AI portraits is almost like looking at pages from a yearbook, except that we can't avoid looking at them!
LHL: That's why I put the wallpaper in. I think that just showing an image or the image in the film – people wouldn’t get it. But if they would walk out from watching the film and really would see, really be consumed by these non-human people that look like them – that would drive the point home.
TA: The film also calls out the racial injustices of AI.
LHL: It's not about the injustice of AI. It’s about the injustices of the biases of programmers, which apparently is what the guy from Google was hired to do. He was supposed to take out bias in how he was interpreting the language they were using.
TA: But Lemoine tells the chat bot early in their dialogue, “You're a sentient being.”
LHL: Right! He's not letting it be itself, which is controlling. It speaks too perfectly. Even though Agent Ruby is 22 years old, you'll see that the language still isn't perfect. There's just something fake, something that isn’t right, that's really kind of crass and controlling.
TA: At the end of the film Joan replies to Cyborg #1 in what I am guessing is Chinese.
TA: We’ve looped back to where we began - with the importance of language. The film’s ending, I think, unnerves viewers, well, at least non-Chinese speaking viewers, because they can’t understand what is being said.
LHL: However, cyborgs understand every language. What Joan says is, “Yes, I can teach you to dream.”
TA: That's such a beautiful ending. Wow. I thought that most AI speak only one language and isn’t as good at translating other languages.
LHL: That's not true. Really smart AI can do it. Even Agent Ruby, who is the first chat bot, can do it. We showed her in Paris and she started speaking French, and that was 20 years ago.
TA: Have you spoken to Agent Ruby about the film?
LHL: No, not recently. She may not even know about it.
TA: What's next?
LHL: I'm going to be doing a new piece that I first thought I would have done for Venice. It is about gun assaults.
Lynn Hershman Leeson
Over the last five decades, artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson has been internationally acclaimed for her art and films. One of the most influential media artists, Hershman Leeson is widely recognized for her innovative work investigating issues that are now recognized as key to the workings of society: the relationship between humans and technology, identity, surveillance, and the use of media as a tool of empowerment against censorship and political repression. Over the last forty years she has made pioneering contributions to the fields of photography, video, film, performance, installation and interactive as well as net-based media art.
In 2022, her installation at the Venice Biennale received a Special Honorary Commendation.
In 2021 she had her first solo Museum Exhibition in NYC at The New Museum, TWISTED, with a new catalogue and commission that purified water, collaboration with the Wyss Institute, Harvard titled Twisted Gravity. A retrospective and catalogue titled CIVIC RADAR was mounted by ZKM, curated by Peter Weibel in Karlsruhe Germany in 2014.
She is a recipient of a Siggraph Lifetime Achievement Award, Prix Ars Electronica Golden Nica, and a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship. In 2017 she received a USA Artist Fellowship, the San Francisco Film Society’s “Persistence of Vision Award, and the College Art Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2014 she received an Anonymous Was A Woman Award.
Her five feature films- Strange Culture,Teknolust,Conceiving Ada!Women Art Revolution: A Secret History, and Tania Libre are all in worldwide distribution.
Art work by Lynn Hershman Leeson is in The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Museum of Modern Art, Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie, SF MOMA, The Tate Modern, and the Walker Art Center, in addition to many celebrated private collections.
She is an Emeritus Professor at The University of California, Davis
Tanya Augsburg is a performance scholar, critic, and curator who can be occasionally persuaded to perform.
She teaches at San Francisco State University, where she is currently Professor of Humanities and Liberal Studies.