Choose Your Muse Interview: Lynn Hershman Leeson

Introduction.

Choose Your Muse is a new series of interviews where Marc Garrett asks emerging and established artists, curators, techies, hacktivists, activists and theorists; practising across the fields of art, technology and social change, how and what has inspired them, personally, artistically and culturally.

Lynn Hershman Leeson artist and filmmaker, who over the last three decades, has been internationally acclaimed for her pioneering use of new technologies and her investigations of issues that are now recognized as key to the working of our society: identity in a time of consumerism, privacy in a era of surveillance, interfacing of humans and machines, and the relationship between real and virtual worlds. Her work was featured in “A Bigger Splash: Painting After Performance” at the Tate Modern London in 2012 and a retrospective and catalogue are being planned for 2015 at the Zentrum fur Kunst Und Medientechnologie, Germany. Modern Art Oxford is hosting a major solo exhibition of her work Origins of a Species, Part 2, and it’s open until 9 August 2015.

Lynn Hershman Leeson released the ground-breaking documentary !Women Art Revolution in 2011. It has been screened at major museums internationally and named by the Museum of Modern Art as one of the three best documentaries of the year.


The image above is from !Women Art Revolution, which introduces the Guerilla Girls who draw attention to injustice and under-representation across artistic platforms and institutions. Several members discuss their origin story and modus operandi, including “the penis countdown. !Women Art Revolution won the first prize in 2012 at the festival in Montreal on Films on Art.

She also wrote, directed, produced and edited the feature films Strange Culture, Conceiving Ada, and Teknolust. All featured Tilda Swinton and were showcased at the Sundance Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival and Berlin International Film Festival before being distributed internationally. After her retrospective, at CIVIC RADAR in December 2014, a bumper catalogue consiosting of 450 pages will be published in Oct 2015. Featuring writing by Peter Weibel, Laura Poitras, Tilda Swinton, Kristine Stiles, B Ruby Rich, Hou Hanru, Andreas Beitin, Peggy Phelan, Pamela Lee, Jeffrey Schnapp, kyle Stephan and Ingeborg Reichle. Civic Radar is now at Diechterhallen Falkenberg till November 19, 2015.

Start of Interview.

Marc Garrett: Could you tell us who has inspired you the most in your work and why?

Lynn Hershman Leeson: What has inspired me are people who work with courage to do original work that has a political and authentic ethic. These include, to name a few only, it seems a bit strange because naming them isolates these artists from the context of their contributions. But I have been inspired by Lee Miller, Mayakovsky, Tinguely, early Automata and so many more like Thomas Edison, Jules Etienne Marrey, even Cezanne. Early on I educated myself by copying works to get a sense of how particular artists formulated their language – the way Rembrandt used light, Leonardo’s draftsmanship and parallels he found between technology and science, Gauguin’s color reversals, Brecht, Breton and Duchamp’s ironic and iconic archetypal identities, Tadeauz Kantor, and Grotowsky’s extension of the frame.

Also younger artists (nearly everyone is) like Rafael Lezano Hemmer, particularly the work he is doing now in using facial recognition to locate kidnapped victims, Amy Siegal’s Providence, Janet Biggs, Annika Yi, Nonny de la Pena, Tania Bruguera, Ricardo Dominguez, and many many more.

                     Lee Miller photographed women in fire masks in wartime London in 1944.
                                        [Source: Telegraph/Lee Miller Archives]

                          Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, “Sandbox, Relational Architecture 17”, 2010.
Glow Festival, Santa Monica, USA. Photo by: Antimodular Research.

MG: How have they influenced your own practice and could you share with us some examples?

LHL: I think these examples added to my conceptual dimensional and historical overview which has been reflected in my practice. There are direct links also, like how the breathing machines and suicide machines relate to Tinguely, or how Roberta relates to Duchamp and Breton. But these are obvious and on the surface. The deeper perspectives embed themselves into the structure and architecture of the work. Political references like Civil Rights and The Feminist Movement are part of the core of the time I lived through and the resulting collage that is my work.

                                      Breathing Machine. 1965. Lynn Hershman

MG: How different is your work from your influences and what do you think the reasons for this are?

LHL: I think we all work in the time frame we are born into, and if we are lucky use the materials or invent the technologies to give presence and voice to the political gestures of that era. We cannot produce work from another era other than what we inhabit and really have to be in tune with the global framing of the tools and language invented during our life time.

MG: Is there something you’d like to change in the art world, or in fields of art, technology and social change; if so, what would it be? How would that happen?

LHL: Of course I would open up the process and systemic repressions, which would hopefully result in eradicating censorship, and the making more transparent the capitalistic underpinnings that are polluting access, value and visibility. In the 70’s, I did the first prison art project in San Quentin, and many early public art works geared toward social change, and it just required fortitude and clarity that resulted in breaking down systems of perceived values.

MG: Describe a real-life situation that inspired you and then describe a current idea or art work that has inspired you?

LHL: Well, hearing about Steve Kurtz’s predicament and the unfairness of it caused me to make the film Strange Culture.  I personally experienced exclusion and rejection – as did many women, and that inspired !Women Art Revolution. I think work comes out of awareness of the situations of one’s time.

Steve Kurtz’s nightmare began on May 11, 2004, when he awoke to find his wife Hope dead of a heart attack. Police responding to his distressed 911 call became suspicious of scientific paraphernalia in his house (materials for an art project on genetically modified food) and contacted the FBI. Soon his world was turned upside down. Only hours after his wife’s tragic death he was suddenly a murder suspect, an accused bioterrorist, and a pariah to all but his closest friends.

The film is told through a unique blend of interviews, documentary footage, and reconstructed scenes starring Tilda Swinton, Thomas Jay Ryan, and Peter Coyote, Hershman’s critically-acclaimed film is a sophisticated, look at how the traumatic events of 9/11 altered American society and undermined its long-held values. [1]

MG: What’s the best piece of advice you can give to anyone thinking of starting up in the fields of art, technology and social change?

LHL: Stay true to your vision, forge ahead no matter what the obstacles are and keep your sense of humor.

                       Three images from, Origins of the Species (Part 2). Lynn Hershman Leeson.
                                      Modern Art Oxford. 29 May — 9 August 2015.

“Ms. Hershman Leeson continues to use art as an advance warning system in new work, developed with scientists, that focuses on, and participates in, the phenomenon of genetic manipulation. The show’s most recent piece is an installation of wallpaper made from images of hybrid animals, plants, and human limbs created through DNA manipulation, regenerative medicine and 3-D bio-printing. It looks great in the gallery, and like much of this artist’s work, it takes both ethics and aesthetics in ungraspable directions.”[2]

                            
MG:
Finally, could you recommend any reading materials or exhibitions past or present that you think would be great for the readers to view, and if so why?

LHL: The Art and Technology show in MdM at Salzburg, my exhibition and catalogue for The Burden of Guilt. The Electronic Super Highway and catalogue coming up at Whitechapel next year. Recommendations for catalogues: !War Graphic Novel, Marshal McLuhan, Rebecca Solnet’s River of Shadows, Edweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild, Kristine Stiles: States of Mind,  Peter Weibel: The Global Contemporary and the Rise of the New Art World,  and so many others. I also think for instance that James Watson’s Double Helix is beautifully written. So many possibilities for educating one’s self exist.

References.

[1] Strange Culture Directed by Lynn Hershman Leeson, 2006.
http://www.docurama.com/docurama/strange-culture/

[2] Lynn Hershman Leeson: ‘Origins of the Species’. Art in Review. By Holland Cotter. The New York Times. March 26, 2015.
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/27/arts/design/lynn-hershman-leeson-origins-of-the-species.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

                            


Interview with Art Award winner Katerina Athanasopoulou: Emigration and the Crisis

Eva Kekou interviews Katerina Athanasopoulou about her film Apodemy commissioned by The Onassis Cultural Center on the theme of Emigration for Visual Dialogues 2012, and her hybrid art practice of live action, animation and film. In 2013 Athanasoppulou won the Lumen Prize, described by the Guardian as “The World’s Pre-eminent Digital Art Prize”. She works as an Animation Director, collaborates with other artists and companies, and is an Animation Lecturer at the London College of Communication.

What is your background and what brought you to London?

I studied Painting at the School of Fine Arts of Aristotle University in Thessaloniki. My work involved large canvases painted in a serendipitous way, building layers, erasing and restarting, seeing where my lines were going to take me. I was frustrated by the stillness of the final piece, longing to recreate the gesture in time that had created it. At the same time, I was passionate for cinema and animation so I tried it out in my own computer at home. In a way, I discovered animation for myself, as there was no film nor digital element in my course. That meant that there was no right and wrong way to go and it was such a joy to be producing moving images, to be able to finally paint in time! My first films were digital cutouts and manipulated live action. The big change came when I arrived in London in 2000 to do an Animation MA at the RCA, where suddenly completely new creative possibilities appeared. Short film festivals were also a source of great inspiration, places to meet like-minded filmmakers and watch films all day long.

Screenshot of Engine Angelic by Katerina AthanassopoulouScreenshot of Engine Angelic by Katerina Athanasopoulou

What’s the effect of English education in your work and in the way you appreciate art?

When I became a student in the UK, I was at the same time delighted and terrified by the informality of the teacher-student relationship, like addressing your tutor by their first name. I was really impressed by the enthusiasm for research and for the creative journey itself. Process becomes a major part of the work and that frees you from concentrating only on the outcome. I saw how Animation can be enlisted in very different ways, from a more commercial manner to very left-field experimental practices so that was an exciting new point of view for me. At the same time, the early 2000s were a time of conflict between analogue and digital practices – which of course has not quite gone. As an educator myself, I love the intensity of the way that students debate their work, so the English system of education still very much inspires me.

Screenshot of My Blood is My Tears by Katerina AthanassopoulouScreenshot of Andy Glynn’s My Blood is my Tears,
where Katerina was animation director,designer and editor.

What was your creative practice up to the Lumen Prize.

Since 2002 I have been making short experimental films that have been screened in film festivals and galleries, my process being one of playfulness and embracing chance. I like to try out different ways of creating moving images, and I try to make each film follow a different road, even though it’s very tempting – and at times fruitful – to revisit old concepts. In the last three years I have developed a big interest in Architecture and how that can be depicted in time, through 3D, 2D and live action. Animation for me is Alchemy, I combine elements together, in textured space and time and see what happens. These experiments some times involve diving into live action that I have captured on location, and other times are about creating that space digitally.

Animation Installation is a field I’m fascinated by at the moment, devising ways of materialising the digital element, of making it even more about light and shadow. My latest film, Triptych 1, was made especially for the facade of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb and reimagines it as built of interconnecting corridors.

Talk to us about the theoretical and philosophical background of Apodemy.

Apodemy was commissioned by the Onassis Foundation (Stegi) on the theme of Emigration and the Economic Crisis. It was to be part of an Art Show in an old archaeological park in Athens, called Plato’s Academy Park, where the philosopher is believed to have taught. The title of the Installation was Visual Dialogues so I was drawn to Plato’s Dialogues where I discovered the metaphor of the human soul as a birdcage. I was very keen to instil in the work philosophical elements related to the space itself. With migratory birds being one of my initial ideas about the piece, the solution of a travelling birdcage in an abandoned half-finished city became apparent. The marble arms were part of Plato’s birdcage metaphor, where he describes how, as we grow up we fill our mind/birdcage with ideas/birds. When we need to recall something, we put our hand in the cage and grab a bird. I imagined those hands to be aggressive, so they became statue fragments carried by cranes that eventually mar the trolley cage’s journey. Theo Aggelopoulos inspired me with his images of a Lenin statue traversing the river and of a single arm, floating accusingly yet innocently. In times of political upheaval we like to break down our past heroes, in an attempt to cleanse ourselves of mistakes. Only that sometimes those past leaders still come back to haunt us.

Screenshot of Apodemy by Katerina AthanassopoulouScreenshot of Apodemy by Katerina Athanasopoulou

What techniques did you use?

I designed the city on the computer in 3D and then started to drive cameras inside it, discovering it on the road, like I was exploring a real landscape. The film was built like a documentary, following the migration journey of a cage that is also a trolleybus, the yellow kind that I was riding in Athens when – in the late nineties – everything was promising.The construction industry ground to a halt when the crisis took hold so, today, many buildings remain unfinished and look like birdcages themselves. After the City was built, I started making the birds and the bus. Then I moved it inside the city, following a broken road which eventually leads to the fall. The entire film developed through trial and error, it was my first 3D film and I had limited time and resources. But restriction breeds creativity and, in the two months that I had to complete it, I tried to make a film designed in a minimal but impactful way.

What does the Lumen Prize mean to you and how can such a recognition make a difference in your work and life?

Winning the Lumen Prize was a great honour, especially amongst so many great works from entirely different platforms. The prize revolves around fine digital art and encompasses film, installations, interactive work, print, sculpture, collage. Amongst such a plethora of forms, it meant a lot that Apodemy was awarded, both in terms of my digital animation practice, but also as it’s a film that’s about the collapse of my country of origin. The Lumen Prize show has already been to New York and will also be part of the Digital Symposium at Chelsea College of Art and Design in March, as well as in Hong Kong in June. It’s wonderful that Lumen is propelling the film further forwards, and it’s been great to meet some of the other artists involved. Seeing the works by Nicolas Feldmyer, Kalos&Klio, Margarita Koulikourdi, Vasileios Chlorokostas and others has been very inspiring.

Screenshot of Apodemy by Katerina AthanassopoulouScreenshot of Apodemy by Katerina Athanasopoulou

What draws you to animation?

Through cinema, we immerse ourselves in different waters, achieving a kind of immortality. One could argue that also happens whilst reading, or listening to music – yet somehow film combines literature and poetry and music too and almost all the senses get involved. What’s more interesting for me is the connection between moving image and the imagined: it’s almost like we dream other people’s visions and we physically try to make that disconnection from reality by favouring watching films in dark rooms. The cinema I’m interested in is one of spectacle, that transforms reality into a surreal play, that explores light and shadow and looks for monsters under the bed. At the same time, I’m currently very curious about taking animation off the screen and applying it in space, by projecting rooms, objects, corners. For me, there’s no greater magic than instilling life in the inanimate and create moving worlds that don’t depend on cameras and actors – what’s in your head can be made real, a real that’s still beautifully elusive and chimeric, that doesn’t contain all the answers but asks exciting questions.

What are your future plans?

I have been working on an experimental narrative of an obsessive mother that cocoons her children, which may work as a single screen work or perhaps as an installation that includes a film. I’m also researching the Architecture of Melancholy, which lies somewhere between cabinets of curiosities and abandoned homes. I always have several experiments on the go, it’s really about finding the right time and opportunity to commit to a project. As delightful as animation is, it takes time to complete, but it also means that ideas may have time to mature and not be rushed. As long as my ideas keep me entangled, I’m happy.


 

See Katerina Athanasopoulou’s work online at kineticat.co.uk