Declaring !WAR on the Art World: Interview with Director Lynn Hershman Leeson

“War does not determine who is right, only who is left.” – Bertrand Russell

!Women Art Revolution opens with a challenge. Outside the lobbies of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and SFMOMA in San Francisco, museum attendees are asked to name three women artists. None of them are able to comply. The best that anyone can muster is Frida Kahlo. Eva Hesse, perchance? Ann Hamilton? Rebecca Bird? Eve Sussman? Christine Chaney? Pipilotti Rist? Eva Švankmajerová? Gretchen Bennett? Or at least Tamara de Lempicka? And these are just a few of the individuals that spring to mind when limited to the artists that aren’t even mentioned in the film.

Which is to posit that !WAR is an essential education regardless of your background or prior knowledge. The film rights a wrong that has persisted for far too long. It takes marginalized artists—some relatively well known, others perhaps only familiar to ardent contemporary art followers—and finally gives them their due.


I’ve known artist/filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson for several years. Given the assorted intersections of filmmaking and technology these days, our paths would naturally tend to cross. Most documentary filmmakers are merely outside observers. The results regularly mirror the discovery process of the person behind the camera. Not so with !WAR, making the film an unusual and, at times, confounding artifact. From the outside looking in, it is a wonder why this film wasn’t made years ago; from the inside looking out, it is a wonder that the film was ever made at all. Regardless, the world is a much better place for its existence.

The film initially opened in New York in June and continues its journey across North America over the months ahead. A fortnight before its arrival in the Bay Area, Lynn Hershman Leeson’s home for the past several decades, I met with her to discuss !WAR and her earlier works.

Keyframe: I was fortunate enough to see !Women Art Revolution in Toronto [where it premiered] last year and I will admit some trepidation with the notion of interviewing you about a documentary that largely consists of forty years worth of your interviews with other people. !WAR is the result of rediscovering and then painstakingly editing countless hours of footage of folks that passed through your living room and elsewhere. How did you arrive at compiling and organizing this great wealth of material?

Lynn Hershman Leeson: When this started, I wasn’t a filmmaker. I didn’t become a filmmaker until much later. I believed in my faulty memory; I believed that I wouldn’t have much of a memory in a few years. All of these great people were passing through my home. I thought, “Why not just document these people and show my grandchildren that I knew them.” That really was the impetus. I rediscovered this footage when Stanford University acquired my archive. As I was cleaning my studio, I saw it again. By that time, I had become a filmmaker and realized how important this material was. That’s why I decided I had to finish it.


Keyframe: There are numerous interviews in !Women Art Revolution with individuals that are rarely presented in such a context. Marcia Tucker [founder of the New Museum], for instance.

LHL: This is the only [interview] footage ever shot of her. At her memorial, they asked me for this footage. I found it really astounding that well-known people in New York were never interviewed.

Keyframe: This is anecdotal but why do you think that someone this important to the art world would not be interviewed prior to your discussion in 2006? It isn’t as if there was a shortage of filmmakers in New York that could’ve taken a camera to Marcia Tucker’s office.

LHL: People didn’t know the history. They didn’t know the story. They were just used to an invisible or marginalized idea. Had they know the importance of the story, there would’ve been people [interviewing these people]. I think that there will be in the future. At the time, nobody took it seriously. Nobody ever saw the work as a cohesive unit. They’d see people here and there but they didn’t really know what was involved to make the achievements that were made.

Keyframe: Much of the work that is discussed in the film—painting, performance art—is created, traditionally, as a solitary activity. Filmmaking, however, is a collaborative activity. It is no coincidence that Kyle Stephan and Michella Rivera-Gravage, two noteworthy co-conspirators of recent years, appear in the !WAR credits. Do you believe that the “feminist art” movement or whatever you might call it is, by its nature, a collaborative activity? Everyone was working in relative isolation until the dialogue was started in Fresno and elsewhere. Like-minded artists began to realize that there was a great advantage in sharing these experiences.

LHL: I do think that the first consciousness units originated in the classes that Judy Chicago began to teach [at California State University in Fresno] with people supporting each other. It was okay to talk about your personal experiences. It was okay to talk about politics or okay that you didn’t have to imitate minimal art. It validated that you had something important to say. When you’re brought up thinking that what you say isn’t valid, isn’t important, nobody cares about it and it won’t be remembered, that extinguishes whatever you might leave as a record. I see this film as a real treatise against the cultural oppression that America has foisted over the decades. We’ve really lost so much by not honoring or supporting many of these voices.

Keyframe: Your extensive collaboration with Tilda Swinton has created a whole other gateway for audiences to discover your work. With Teknolust and Conceiving Ada, by working within the framework of a “conventional” narrative, you’re able to find a way into the minds of an audience that otherwise might be unconditioned or unprepared for where you’ll be taking them.


LHL: I think a lot of the work is really about fracturing identity and about the multiplicity of interpretation, the way Kurosawa…

Keyframe: …with Rashomon

LHL:Rashomon, right, takes interpretation to the edges of reality. Where the splaying happens. Where the blurring happens. I think that is perhaps what our era is about. Particularly with how many people we can become, virtually.

Keyframe: Something you’ve explored in detail when you lived under an assumed identity [as Roberta Breitmore]. Or your time in Second Life.

LHL: Yes, exactly.

Keyframe: This plays clearly into that. Whereas Strange Culture is both documentary and narrative. That hybrid form is already present in your other work.

LHL: They’re all about the same thing. They just look different! The films. The photographs. Everything. It’s all about doubles and the versing of doubles and so forth. Marcel Duchamp said, “If you’re lucky, in your lifetime you’ll have three ideas.” I don’t think I’ve had three! One idea. But the work looks different because I use different media. You say what you have to say in one media and then do the same thing in another media and the results are totally different.

Keyframe: They’re all different ways of getting at the same root.

LHL: The same core. A very well-known film festival called me recently and said, “We’ve just ‘discovered’ your early films. This is a revelation that you did this work.” I said, “You know, I submitted these films and you rejected them twenty years ago!”

Keyframe: You were ahead of yourself.

LHL: I think that the Tilda access makes a difference. People look at her back catalogue and see what else she’s done. It’s true, what you said.


Keyframe: How did you come to work with her, initially?

LHL: I met her shortly after Derek Jarman died and she said that the feel of the way that I made films was like his. We would let go of the script or we would not use a script. Change everything or shift it a bit. The actors are always a part of the process. She’s so brilliant and so intuitive and so funny. I feel really fortunate that I’ve been able to continue to work with her. She makes everything so much better.

Keyframe: Was it always your intent in !WAR to be a part of—to appear in—the documentary? You narrate it, you’re seen filming in it and it’s placed in the context of your own personal history as an artist.

LHL: I really struggled with the idea. I tried to get other people to edit it because I didn’t want to have to be the one to sit there for years. And I also didn’t want it to be someone from the art world because I wanted it to reach people. I thought if it was someone that didn’t know about art they would just look at the issues and the people. But nobody could do it. I had four different editors try and one had it for six months and couldn’t figure it out. The problem is that I didn’t ask the right questions. I was just talking to people over the years.

Keyframe: They were just conversations. Like this one.

LHL: Precisely. They had to go through interviews and pick out a sentence here and a sentence there and try to make it coherent. It was difficult. I never thought I would do it. I never thought I would appear in it. I resisted that. It was the last thing that I put in the film. So many people told me that I had to put something about myself in it.

Keyframe: Which allows you to become a through-point to structure the interviews.

LHL: Yes, exactly.

Keyframe: The challenge, of course, is how to filter down this much material. You’re really only looking at artists from the U.S. You’re limited to the artists that were visiting the Bay Area at the time.

LHL: That’s the only way that I could do it. To justify how much was left out, I had to say that this was only my experience. There are other experiences. There is enough other footage that you could make a completely different film or ten different films out of it. My own bias is the cause of !WAR.

Keyframe: And the process of making the additional footage available on the RAW/WAR  site. There are no outtakes, as you say in the film. This seems fundamental to your process.

LHL: It’s the only footage! I have seventeen hours of Carolee Schneemann and only three minutes are in the film. Why shouldn’t the other footage be made available? Why do we need to limit it? Why do we need to have outtakes? And we don’t anymore. Women have been the outtakes of history. Why would I want to make more?

Keyframe: RAW/WAR allows for other footage to find a home. Footage of artists you were not able to talk to, such as Theresa Cha, but were mentioned in the film and others that were not mentioned at all. Will your work on !WAR influence the shape of your next film? After spending all of this time looking at these interviews again, will it play some part in what follows?

LHL: I wanted to do something completely crazy again. I did Strange Culture, which was a serious and important work, I felt, and really made a difference. I did this [!Women Art Revoltion], which was also an important film and I think made a difference. Next, I’m doing something totally different. I’m doing something nutty with Tilda [Swinton] and Marilyn Manson. Completely crazy.

Keyframe: How far along are you with this project?

LHL: We have a script. We have a whole plan for it. I’m going to meet Tilda in two weeks and hopefully we can shoot it here [in San Francisco] next year. It’s part of the Conceiving Ada and Teknolust trilogy. When I started Conceiving Ada, I wanted to do something over twenty years where the actress aged. I could then incorporate that material along with a discussion about our interface with technology. But this, I think, will be over the top. I hope so.

Jonathan Marlow is an occasional cinematographer, composer and critic. Not necessarily in that order. Coincidentally, he is also the chief curator (and one of the co-founders) of Fandor.

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