Over the last five decades, artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson has built an artistic practice investigating issues at the heart of authoritarian forces active in the present: the relationship between humans and technology, the contours of human evolution and genetic manipulation, and the politics of surveillance and algorithmic violence. Underlining her work is an emphasis on the ethics and implicated risks of technological advancements and planetary connectivity.
Hershman Leeson’s Twisted Gravity (2021) is a “living” installation produced in a cross-disciplinary collaboration with a team of scientists—Dr. Thomas Huber of Almirall and Dr. Richard Novak, Elizabeth Calamari, Ramses Martinez, Dr. Vasker Gnyawali, and Dr. Donald Ingber of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University—to conjure a possible sustainable future through the latest technologies for killing bacteria, parasites, and viruses and the smart microbes that evolved to degrade human-generated microplastic. Containing technology that purifies contaminated water using only electricity, the sculpture aligns issues of water contamination from both natural and human sources with the symbolism of the artist’s Water Women series (1975–ongoing), which underscores ideas of disappearance, evaporation, alchemical, and atmospheric transformations to air, water, and electrical currents and the fragile nature of life itself. In the words of Hershman Leeson, “water is a process, like life, that embraces the gravity of survival by simmering time into a perpetual and recyclable essence.” An image of a woman appears etched on an acrylic sheet above a reactor for the bacterial metabolization of plastic contaminants. Installed on site in collaboration with Dr. Mingkyung Song, a Korean biochemist and molecular biologist, the work is a reflection of the transformative and cyclical engagement with microbes that purify water while eliminating the plastic it contains. It is also a symbol of survival and resilience and the transition from contamination to cooperation with living ecosystems.
Her latest film Shadow Stalker (2020) outlines the history of predictive analytics and policing technologies and stars Tessa Thompson and January Steward as “The Spirit of The Deep Web.” It addresses algorithmic violence like the denial of basic rights, racial bias, and the aggravation of social injustice as the result of increasing presence of artificial intelligence. As technology continues to infiltrate every layer of society and shape our neural networks, Hershman Leeson’s works can be considered harbingers of a near future, vital reminders mobilizing awareness that the improvements technology brings to our lives can result in irreversible incursions into our freedoms.