Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Life Squared: A Screenology

Stephanny Boucher

In the era of the screen, it is essential to question how we are to redefine our understanding of artistic practice in response to an evolving screen culture.[1] As economic, social, and cultural discourses are rapidly absorbed and reprocessed by the screen, it becomes apparent that art, both as an idea and entity, must also be reconfigured. Artist Lynn Hershman Leeson has worked with new media for over thirty years, critically engaging with the environments they generate[2] and questioning ideas of identity, privacy, human/machine interfaces and real/virtual experiences.[3] Her work, Life Squared (2007), addresses the challenges posed by the screen to complex notions such as ‘art’, ‘history’, and ‘identity’, swinging like a pendulum between anchored discourses of historical continuity and an endless reconfiguration of the past. This essay will begin by dissecting the simulated contents of Life Squared and reviewing the basics of both Hershman Leeson’s practice and the new media archaeological concerns put forth by the work. Next, a screenological study of the work will attempt to trace the history of the screen. This research ultimately seeks to understand whether the work critiques, propones, or is ambivalent towards the media it employs; is Life Squared just another self-referential screen-based work, critiquing its own environment? Or, does it propose something more? Further, how can it be used to discuss the possible future relationship between art, humans, and the interactive computer screen? These are the questions which this essay will seek to answer.

Life Squared is, by one definition, an archive. The work engages concepts such as history, materiality, conservation, and archaeological methods. In its abstract location in the cyberspace community Second Life, it “re-animates”[4] some of Hershman Leeson’s past works and highlights both the possibilities and limits of “augmented reality.”[5] In essence, Life Squared must be understood as a screen-based work which, as such, operates within certain limits. The boundaries between virtual and real, mind and body, time and timelessness, and physical and augmented space expose, through their binary structures, the systems of thought that shape our philosophies regarding art and existence. As Marshall McLuhan suggested, one role of the contemporary artist is to counter the environment, that is, to make it visible.[6] By baring the tensions between the demands of simulation (to be invisible) and the limits of the interactive computer screen, Hershman Leeson paradoxically reveals the spectacle through which body has become subordinated to the mind.

Hershman Leeson’s work is as much about content as it is about context. In order to understand the screen as a tool, mediator, and metaphor, one must address the concerns of both aspects. Discussing the content of Life Squared requires knowledge of Hershman Leeson’s past work and on the subject of the archive. In this work, the already complex concept of a virtual archive is fused with an exploration of how we receive and interact with screens to produce meaning, which can be unearthed through a screenology of the interactive “screen of real time.”[7] Erkki Huhtamo[8] and Lev Manovich[9] have used screenological methods to show how inter-screen relationships can expose the significance of a specific type within changing frames of reference – emphasizing how computer displays both “continue and challenge the tradition of the screen.”[10]

In 2005, Hershman Leeson stated: “My sense is that newly formed digital identities will be autonomous and unpredictable, with minds of their own, just like the best of us corporeal beings. Our task is to make friends with them.”[11] Therein, Hershman Leeson encourages working with what Joohan Kim has termed “digital beings,” simulated entities, such as an avatar or a 3D environment, which have “thing-like features” and through which living subjects can communicate with each other.[12] This statement also suggests that her view has changed since earlier works like Seduction of a Cyborg(1994), for which the artist argued that, “the premise of this video is that technology can infect the body through manipulated computer chips and invincibly seduce women into cyborghood.”[13] In this instance, the word “infect” is disparaging, as it suggests the loss of control of our bodies.

This fear has occupied Hershman Leeson throughout her career. Her exploration of identity and the role that technology plays in its construction began as early as 1974 when she created ‘Roberta Breitmore’, a fictional personality who manifested herself through her presence in cultural databases, such as a bank account, and who was physically assembled through cultural stereotypes, “engaging in adventures that typified the culture in which she participated, (…) engaging directly in the environment.”[14] Later in her career, Hershman Leeson turned to interactive art because “video is all one sided, it does not talk back.”[15] Although she suggests that conversing with digital media is an illusion, she is self-admittedly interested in the space where “truth and fiction blur.”[16]

In Life Squared, this ambiguous space is embodied in the screen, where the work functions as an animated archive of her site-specific installation at the Dante Hotel in 1972 (fig. 1). Located in a permanently rented room of the San Francisco building, the installation was open to the public 24/7, “gathering dust and changing through interaction.”[17] Objects and made-up traces of a life lived were incorporated into the scene as though bodies occupied it, forcing visitors to construct a sense of history for entities that did not exist. The Dante Hotel is especially relevant for an animated archive because its remains are “inherently resistant to traditional paper-centered approaches to conservation and documentation.”[18] The project remixes newspaper clippings, photographs and videos from the Dante Hotel in a virtual space constructed on the floor plan of the hotel itself (see fig. 2) with the label The Hotel that Time Built.

The notion of time is crucial to the meaning of this work. In its original real-world location, physical traces of the passage of time were left on the room through dirt and dust, the actions of visitors, and the eventual takedown of the installation by the police. In its Second Life location, however, the Dante Hotel becomes purely conceptual, relating only to physical reality through the archive of Hershman Leeson’s work which sits on the shelves of Stanford University. The concept of a ‘shelf-life’ becomes obsolete as the work is remediated by the virtual space, existing only when users ‘teleport’ to its location and encounter memories which were not initially their own. Life Squared remixes the past by forcing visitors to work with a few selected remains of reality and then to fill in the blanks.

The idea of the archive as a repository, static and collecting dust, is completely reconfigured through its animation in Second Life. Michael Shanks, an archaeologist from Stanford University and major collaborator in the Life Squared project, stresses this idea, stating: “Rather than static depositories I see archives as active engagements with the past.”[19] Collaborators working on Life Squared implemented a system so that users of the space wouldmark it, alluding to the physical traces that had been left at the real life Dante Hotel.[20]
Art/archaeology and art/networks relationships are gaining momentum in the era of the screen. In Aftermath, John Schofield discusses the importance of art as an archaeological record: “[We] create as well as consume material [and visual] culture …. The past is a renewable resource.”[21] He also quotes Stan Douglas:
Projected images have a particular capacity to reach into us … we replay memories as though they were our own home movies. And other people’s stories become, by some circuitous route, our own … The events unfolding on the screen may not have happened to us, but the movies did. And now the movies are in us, and T.V is in us. They frame our dreams, and in some part, our waking life.[22]

What Douglas is referring to is partly remediation, partly the conventions of screening which have been “nurtured by cinematic culture.”[23] In Life Squared, the archaeological approach of “working on the remains of the past” echoes that of remediation.[24] The conventions of photography and film as platforms for memory are embedded in our reception of the computer screen as an immersive environment. To untangle the metaphorical associations between Life Squared, memory, identity, and space, we must address the technologies that have affected our perception of them. Before doing so, however, something should be said about Archive 3.0, the name given to the type of interactive architecture seen in Life Squared. Shanks identifies Archive 3.0 as marking the development of “new prosthetic architectures for the production and sharing of archival resources – the animated archive.”[25] Further, he sees Archive 3.0 as opening doors for new media, addressing some major points of concern which include: “historiography – how we make history using archives […] the new (art) museum – conserving creativity in the absence of a definitive material form for the art work […] media archaeology and the new architectures of engagement […] presence/absence and archaeologies of the contemporary past in multiple mediated forms of record.”[26] Considering these elements, he asks, “In what form might the past now confront us?”[27] Life Squared attempts to answer this question.

Of course, the past can confront us in many ways. Manovich has traced a history for the interactive screen which begins with the “classical screen,” a framed image, such as a painting, which displays a static image over time. The classical screen has the properties of flatness, a rectangular shape, and a frontal viewpoint.[28] Classical screens contributed to the development of the idea of the view through a frame and the concept of the screen as a window into another space, paving the way for the next step in this evolution, the “dynamic screen,” which can display changing images over time and which is the type employed by cinema and television.[29] This screen fostered a new kind of relationship between image and viewer which Manovich refers to as a “viewing regime,”[30] with both the complete illusion of the screen and the inclination of the viewer to suspend disbelief.[31] With advent of the dynamic screen, physical space lost its privilege. Its successor, the interactive computer screen, however, demands a certain level of cooperation between the physical and the virtual, with the mouse and keyboard as real-space and real-time components of computer screen interaction. The difference between the cinematic screen and the computer screen is that, in essence, the cinematic screen seeks to completely engulf the spectators’ attention, while computer displays which require physical participation on the part of users are, rather, prosthesis. They augment our ability to do something by augmenting reality/space.[32] The gap in Hershman Leeson’s leery vision of the Cyborg in 1994 and her later inclination to befriend digital beings can be explained through the shift in emphasis between the engrossing aims of early simulation (1980s-90s), and an appreciation of digital technologies as prosthesis in our day. Manovich highlights this: “The previous image of a computer era – [a virtual reality] user travelling in virtual space – has become replaced by a new image: a person checking her email or making a phone call using her PDA/ cell phone combo while at the airport, on the street, in a car, or in any other actually existing space … The original wonder of cyberspace so present in the early cyberpunk fictions of the 1980s … was almost completely lost”[33] Indeed, the preaching of “VRML evangelists,”[34] such as Marc Pesce at the 1995 Ars Electronica conference, ring as somewhat eccentric today. Pesce saw the advent of cyberspace as marking a complete circle in mediation. “Communicated imagination evolves into the imagination electrified, which in turn becomes electronic computing, which requires computer communications. Now, back at the beginning, we return to a time of communicated imagination.”[35] Pesce’s predictions were that the combination of networking in cyberspace and simulation would gradually foster the erosion of the notion of the self: “Now the ego erodes; that figment of the Greek imagination, born when man as individual asserted the I of self over the I of species – and warred with himself ever since – will be gone inside a generation, lost to a growing hum of collective being.”[36]

Hershman Leeson’s recognition that digital technologies augment the space within which we operate, rather than replacing it, is the foundation of Life Squared. The experience of life in this era is that of the continuous exchange between digital, cyber-collective “spaces” and real space, repeatedly affecting each other and remediating the past. The end result of using digital prosthesis, such as the computer screen, is the overlaying of data over physical space.”[37] Augmented reality is life to the power.

Although our perception of worlds beyond the screen is based, as Manovich suggests, in the ‘classical’ and ‘dynamic’ screens, it has been made clear that interactive and real-time properties of contemporary computer displays are developed elsewhere. The history of the computer screen “has not to do with public entertainment, but with military surveillance.”[38] With the development of radar during the 1930s, the changing images on the screen were based in real time.[39] To bring the screen even closer to reality, live video was the next step and the key principles of “modern human-computer interface, interactive control, and 3D wide-frame graphics” were developed as a means of increasing the effectiveness of radar.[40] Simultaneously, the military was also developing the internet. By 1969, inter-computer communication was invented and the first networks were developed to preserve contact in case of the instantaneous disappearance of a communicating military station.[41] A more sophisticated version of this development emerged in 1989 when the World Wide Web, fusing networks, machines, and documents, was invented at CERNby Tim Berners-Lee.[42] The history of the “interactive real-time screen,” the fourth type in Manovich’s text, is inextricable from that of the internet. The advent of navigable interfaces in the early 1990s, with the invention of internet browsers,[43] completed the foundations upon which online gaming, chat and communities such as Second Life would be built.

The military history of the screen highlights the self-imposed surveillance produced by contemporary computer interactivity. As with Hershman Leeson’s Roberta Breitmore, most people today also exist as digital data: as bank accounts, as Facebook profiles, and as online shoppers. It must be questioned: what happens to this part of us that lingers in cyberspace? Who uses our information and is it possible to imagine our identity as extricable from our digital ‘selves?’ Finally, how do we relate to the avatar that stands in the Second Life Dante Hotel, modelled after our physical bodies (or not)? The answer is that the avatar is prosthesis to our sense of identity, a relationship epitomized by interactive computing.

We have looked at Life Squared through the lens of an array of questions, ranging from how traditional notions of historical continuity are challenged by the digitization of life to examining the conditions that shape our relationships with interactive computer networks and displays. As mentioned earlier, this research seeks to understand the position of the artist toward the media employed in Life Squared, including the archive, the internet, the cinematic screen, and interactive computer programs. In their comments, Hershman Leeson and Shanks obviously suggest that Archive 3.0, the animated archive, is one possible solution to the growing gap between history and the digitization of life and art. Despite this suggestion, I would argue that regardless of how promising Archive 3.0 is portrayed as being, it must also be acknowledged that Life Squared conveys a significant sense of loss and nostalgia, which possibly critiques the limits of media to provide content for identity. Simon Penny made a case against the “redefinition of human capability in terms of the computer,” because it reinforces the dichotomy between notions of mind and body.[44] We defined the memory capacity of computers after human memory and then redefined its semiotics to include computer-generated discourses, but memory is a process; “memories are not static items which are stored and retrieved but they result out of a construction process, the body is the point of reference for all remembering events.”[45] Archive 3.0 prevents the real-life Dante Hotel from retelling its own story. Instead, media intervenes and mediates the information. The past encountered in Life Squared becomes a dream rather than a reality because we are aware of its simulation and our bodily interaction with the computer system interferes with our acceptance of the simulated Dante Hotel as a real space.[46] Nostalgia for the physical body is a possible experience in Life Squared, while the digital self is also weaved into the history of surveillance through its manifestation on the screen. Further, nostalgia is also communicated through the “discourse of loss and mourning” which we experience when encountering older media.[47] The black-and-white photographs of the Dante Hotel in the simulated Second Life gallery, alongside the evoked notion of Hershman Leeson’s videos ‘molding’ on the Stanford shelves, come together to create a sense of loss.

To conclude, I return to the question of how Life Squared can be used to discuss the future relationship between art, humans, and the interactive computer screen. Archive 3.0 does succeed in that it retains a certain awareness of the material remains of Hershman Leeson’s works, although their physical presence is absent. It also allows users to work with those remains and (re)create the past. However, our experience is shaped by a constant awareness of those gaps that our imagination is filling due to the limits of the technology. We are aware that something has been lost. Life Squared demonstrates the importance of the physical body to identity. By showing the potential of augmented space as prosthesis, and evoking nostalgia for the physical body, it comments on the impossibility of total immersion into simulated or virtual space. Who we are cannot be built only on conceptual remains. For the moment at least, it is essential that “90 odd boxes”[48] of Lynn Hershman Leeson’s past work physically remain on the shelves of Stanford University.

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Endnotes
1 Manovich, Lev, “The Screen and its Users,” The Language of New Media, www.manovich.net/LNM/Manovich.pdf“>http://manovich.net/LNM/Manovich.pdf
2 McLuhan, Marshall. “Technology and Environment.” ArtsCanada24, no. 2 (1967): 5.
3 Leeson, Lynn Hershman, “Biography,” Secret Agents, Private I: The Art and Films of Lynn Hershman, Leeson.www.lynnhershman.com/lfiles/L_HERSHMAN_BIO_CV_8-708.pdf“> http://lynnhershman.com/lfiles/L_HERSHMAN_BIO_CV_8-7-08.pdf
4 Stanford University, “Life Squared,” Stanford Humanities Lab,www.stanford.edu/group/shl/cgi-bin/drupal/?q=node/31“> http://stanford.edu/group/shl/cgi-bin/drupal/?q=node/31
5 Manovich, Lev, “The Poetics of Augmented Space,” in New Media: Theories and Practices of Digitextuality, ed. John T. Caldwell and Anna Everett (London and New York: Routledge, 2003).
6 McLuhan, “Technology,” 5.
7 Manovich, “The Screen and its Users,” 105.
8 Huhtamo, Erkki, “Elements of Screenology: Media Archaeological Explorations” (presented at WRO 01 9TH International Media Art Biennale, Wroclaw, Poland, May 1-6, 2001).
9 Manovich, “The Screen and its Users,” 99.
10 Manovich, “The Screen and its Users,” 99.
11 Leeson, Hershman Lynn, “The Raw Data Diet, All-Consuming Bodies and the Shape of Things to Come,” Leonardo 38, no. 3 (2005), 208-212, http://concordia.ca/journals/leonardo/v038/38.3hershmanleeson.pdf
12 Kim, Joohan, “Phenomenology of Digital-Being,” Human Studies24, no. 1/2 (2001), 87-111, www.jstor.org/stable/20011305“>http://jstor.org/stable/20011305.
13 “Seduction of a Cyborg,” in The Art and Films of Lynn Hershman Leeson :Secret Agents, Private I. DVD/CD-ROM. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.
14 “The Fantasy Beyond Control,” in The Art and Films of Lynn Hershman Leeson :Secret Agents, Private I. DVD/CD-ROM. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.
15 Lynn Hershman Leeson, “The Fantasy Beyond Control.”
16 Ibid.
17 E:Art, New Technologies and Contemporary Art: Life Squared. Video. La Fondation Daniel Langlois. www.fondation-langlois.org/e-art/e/lynn-hershman.html“>http://fondation-langlois.org/e-art/e/lynn-hershman.html
18 Stanford University, Life Squared.
19 Shanks, Michael. “Animating the Archive.” Stanford University,http://stanford.edu/MichaelShanks/186
20 E:Art, New Technologies and Contemporary Art: Life Squared.
21 Schofield, John, “Constructing Place: When Artists and Archaeologists Meet,” in Aftermath: Readings in the Archaeology of Recent Conflict (New York: Springer, 2009): 187.
22 Douglas, Stan in Aftermath: 194.
23 Murray, Timothy. “By Way of Introduction: Digitality and the Memory of Cinema, or, Bearing the Losses of the Digital Code,” Wide Angle 21, no. 1 (1999), 3.
24 Shanks, “Animating the Archive.”
25 Shanks, “Archive.”
26 Ibid.
27 Ibid.
28 Manovich, “The Screen and its Users,” 105.
29 Ibid., 100.
30 Manovich, “The Screen and its Users,” 100.
31 Ibid.
32 Manovich, “The Poetics of Augmented Space,” 4.
33 Ibid., 1.
34 Ibid.
35 Pesce, Marc, “Ontos, Eros, Noos, Logos” (presented at the International Symposium on Electronic Arts, Montreal, Canada, September, 1995).
36 Ibid.
37 Manovich, “The Poetics of Augmented Space,” 4.
38 Manovich, “The Screen and its Users,” 100.
39 Manovich, “The Screen and its Users,” 103.
40 Ibid.
41 Pesce.
42 Ibid.
43 Ibid.
44 Penny, Simon, “The Virtualization of Art Practice: Body Knowledge and the Engineering Worldview,” Art Journal 56, no. 3 (1997): 34.www.jstor.org/stable/777834“>http://jstor.org/stable/777834.
45 Ibid., 33.
46 Penny, “Virtualization,” 33.
47 Murray, “Digitality,” 9.
48 Shanks, Michael. “The (Digital) Future of the University Museum.” Stanford University. http://stanford.edu/michaelshanks/347