September 20, 2021
A WOMAN NAMED ROBERTA BREITMORE steps off a Greyhound bus and checks into San Francisco’s Dante Hotel. The year is 1973. Single with no friends in the city, Roberta nervously contemplates her next move, eventually placing roommate-seeking ads in local newspapers. She receives forty-three responses. A victim of childhood trauma, she never finished college and struggles with anxiety. Susceptible to the promises of self-improvement fads, she joins Weight Watchers and EST. After undergoing an exorcism in 1978, Roberta resurfaces, zombielike, as a telerobotic doll with camera eyes in the 1990s. In 2005, she consults with a plastic surgeon. Her last known activities are in 2018, when she checks into a hotel in Berlin, seemingly in search of a boyfriend.
Who is Roberta Breitmore? Her backstory is legible through an archive of photographs, drawings, and personal artifacts. More difficult to answer, though, is the question of what she is: cyborg or human, dead or alive, real or fake. Most provocative is the question of her autonomy, or lack thereof. Invented and embodied by the artist Lynn Hershman Leeson but also by so-called multiples and eventually even by a doll, Roberta is an individual dispersed across bodies and through time.
Bodily autonomy has long been a feminist rallying cry. Without a doubt, Hershman Leeson is a feminist. And yet among the most revelatory facets of the artist’s six-decade career is how she complicates the conversation surrounding bodily autonomy, a concept that underpins not only the demand to govern one’s own body but the very existence of a discrete self—corporeal or otherwise. While the former is an important rhetorical strategy in the fight for reproductive rights (“my body, my choice”), the latter is more fraught, tethered to a neoliberal ideology that preaches rogue individualism, severing people from responsibility to a larger community. Contemporary ecological and posthumanist feminisms, on the other hand, challenge anthropocentric worldviews to suggest that our bodies are porous in every sense, materially and ethically enmeshed in vast networks of coexistence and exchange with nonhuman actors. Soon after Hershman Leeson began her career, second-wave feminists in the art world were celebrating the biologically female body as a site of difference, but a difference that presupposed a fixed and essential identity, often narrowly circumscribed in terms of race and class. Hershman Leeson pursued a different path, one that anticipated the urgent questions surrounding the responsibility of bodies to one another—human and non—with which contemporary feminism now grapples.
Hershman Leeson frequently recounts an epiphany that catalyzed her early practice: A Xerox machine jammed and scrambled one of her figure drawings in such an intriguing way that she began to consider the possibilities of technology as a collaborator. Many of the early drawings in “Lynn Hershman Leeson: Twisted,” a retrospective at New York’s New Museum curated by Margot Norton and on view through October 3, reflect confluences between organism and machine, picturing women (with a few men and the occasional animal) as cyborgs, parts of their flesh supplanted by mechanical augmentations: zippers, gears, an electrically pulsating heart. Born with a heart defect, the effects of which intensified with pregnancy, Hershman Leeson was acutely aware of her physical vulnerability during intense periods of hospitalization and recovery. Technology and science opened up possibilities for overcoming the limitations of an ailing body.
Coined in 1960 by scientists Manfred Clynes and Nathan S. Kline, the term cyborg initially described an animate being outfitted with inorganic components in order to adapt it to new environments, which at the time were typically imagined as explicitly extraterrestrial. The cyborg appeared in the 1960s American mainstream media as exosuit-clad astronauts and airmen: Cold Warriors and Space Racers. Such masculine and militaristic associations make Hershman Leeson’s delicate drawings of hybrid woman-machine bodies all the more radical for the era. This is not to say that the artist’s view of technology is unequivocally utopian. “Phantom Limbs,” 1985–88, a series of hand-collaged rephotographed compositions, illustrates the more insidious impacts of technology on women’s bodies. Seductively posed women merge with cameras, TV screens, and electrical plugs, pointing to ways in which gendered mass media representations shape and distort women’s self-image.
“Roberta Breitmore,” 1972–79, and the ongoing “Water Women” series, 1976–, continue to dismantle perceived divisions between self and other. The artist created the character of Roberta as an archetypal version of a single woman living in San Francisco. More than a series of performances, Roberta Breitmore became a fully functional person in the world, complete with distinctive mannerisms, a driver’s license, credit cards, and a psychiatrist—her memory lives on through snapshots (the artist hired a photographer to follow Roberta) and other documents. Text in Roberta’s Body Language Chart, 1978, a series of notations analyzing photos of the character, suggests that she is shy and self-effacing. Grappling with intense self-scrutiny, a fear of sex, and depression, Roberta was an amalgamation of the dominant female stereotypes of the 1970s and their damaging effects. Remarking on Roberta’s routinely negative experiences, the artist describes her as “a vehicle to show how endemic this negativity was to our culture.” While Hershman Leeson “played” Roberta for the first five years of her existence, in 1978 the artist hired three other women to inhabit the character—all of whom reported similarly painful feelings while in her guise. An individual dispersed across multiple actors, Roberta Breitmore raises questions about what constitutes personhood, challenging the core humanist assumption that a body houses a discrete and individuated subject.
In 1976, Hershman Leeson described the first “Water Woman” collage as “Roberta’s shadow,” her body converted to water droplets in a perpetual state of evaporation. While Roberta Breitmore suggests that an individual can reside in a collective of bodies, the “Water Women” series questions the very notion of corporeal coherence, depicting the human form vaporizing into the ether. Their media varied over time—photo collages, digital prints, etched LED panels—but the “Water Women” generally picture frontal figures floating amid indeterminate flat fields of color. Nearly featureless, they appear at the edge of existence, shimmering into being or dissolving in a continuum of fluids in which body and environment are indistinguishable. The beginnings of the series anticipated ecofeminist theory, which articulates the connections between the degradation of environmental bodies—animals, oceans, forests—and historically marginalized female-identified human bodies.* The notion of a spiritual affinity between women—particularly Indigenous women and women of color—and the Earth is a much-criticized trope within certain strains of ecofeminism. Indeed, much of the backlash to ecofeminism in the 1990s hinged on charges of its reliance on goddess imagery that reinforced an ahistorical, gendered binary of nature and culture, one that Hershman Leeson challenged in her attention to the interpenetration of humans and machines. The twenty-first century recuperation of ecofeminism recognizes the strands of posthumanism, postcolonialism, and animal studies that are part of ecofeminism’s DNA. It would be an oversimplification to regard the “Water Women” as simple analogies between women and nature. Rather, they illuminate the complicated intersection of the construct of gender, the physical body, and a scarce environmental resource—water. While the “Water Women” may not look like cyborgs, their alliance with technology manifests itself in Twisted Gravity, 2021, a collaboration with Harvard University’s Wyss Institute. Using only electricity, portable Aqua Pulse tanks eradicate plastic and other contaminants in water from sources including the nearby East River. LED panels etched with the “Water Women” sit atop the tanks, illuminated in a range of colors during the water-purification process. The installation foregrounds the shared precarity of women’s bodies and water from the surrounding environment, their destinies interlocked.
Many writers have noted the thematic overlap of Hershman Leeson’s work and the writings of Donna Haraway, specifically the ways in which the artist’s early works anticipate Haraway’s landmark “Cyborg Manifesto,” published in 1985. The theorist’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulucene (2016) offers another point of dialogue. In the book, Haraway argues for feminist speculative fiction as a powerful strategy for envisioning a future in which humans cohabitate with and learn from nonhuman species to negotiate the environmental crisis that have come to define our era. Taking speculative fiction and sci-fi seriously as forms of knowledge production, Haraway praises authors like Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia Butler for both the farsightedness of their predictions of global crisis and the ingenuity of their imagined solutions. I would add Hershman Leeson to this list. As Karen Archey notes her contribution to the New Museum catalogue, she is a storyteller and a world builder. In her 1997 film Conceiving Ada, a brilliant mathematician and computer scientist (played by Tilda Swinton) struggles to recover the memories of Ada Lovelace (1815–1852), the English mathematician now lauded as the first computer programmer. Lovelace understood the potential of her collaborator Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine (1837), a design for a mechanical computer, to manipulate numbers as abstract quantities with applications far beyond mathematics. The film filled in the contours of a figure whose historical record was incomplete and disputed (and sometimes altogether discredited). Conceiving Ada joined the ranks of important projects like Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman (1996) in speculating fragmentary or imagined histories into being, laying the groundwork for a more liberated future. In Twisted Gravity, Hershman Leeson likewise draws upon figures from the past—from her own archive, no less, with the mythic figures of the “Water Women”—to inform the development of a technology that has the potential to assist in the struggle for planetary survival.
“Twisted,” New Museum director Lisa Phillips writes of the exhibition’s title, “describes the “ever intertwined relationship between the technological and the corporeal.” Certainly, Hershman Leeson anticipated myriad ways in which technology saturated and transformed everyday life to both positive and deleterious ends. But this recognition of interconnectedness extends beyond technology. “Twisted” could equally evoke helical relationships between bodies and environments, reality and fiction. Her most prescient contribution to contemporary art has been to consistently transcend the limits of an individual’s body and experience in order to ask how things might exist otherwise.
Paula Burleigh is assistant professor of art history at Allegheny College and the director of the Allegheny Art Galleries.
* For more on the figuration of water as a means of envisioning the connection between women’s bodies and the environment, and an overview of the state of posthuman feminism, see Astrida Neimanis, Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology (London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic), 2017.