Since the late 1960s, multimedia artist Lynn Hershman Leeson has been exploring the ever-shifting relationship between humans and technology in performance pieces, installations and photography. In the 1980s, she began creating video work, which in turn lead to her becoming a bona fide filmmaker during the following decade.
Her first two features, Conceiving Ada (1997) and Teknolust (2002), both star the inimitable Tilda Swinton and concern themselves with the convergence of the cyber world with the physical world. In Conceiving Ada, Swinton plays Countess Ada Lovelace (a colleague of Charles Babbage, the father of computing), who a young computing whizz tries to bring from the 19th Century to the present using “undying information waves,” while in Teknolust, Swinton takes on multiple roles, playing both the brilliant scientist Rosetta Stone and the three cyber clones she has created using her DNA.
In the interview below – fittingly conducted over email – Leeson discusses the dominant themes in her work, collaborating with Swinton, and her forthcoming riff on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
– Both Conceiving Ada and Teknolust are about gender and technology, and how humans and computers interact. What is it about these themes that continues to interest you as an artist and filmmaker?
Basically, I think these are the main themes of our time, how technology affects life and the reverse; how we use technology to create a utopian future, globally, and how it can bring a new awareness.
– You worked with Tilda Swinton on both Conceiving Ada and Teknolust. What was it like to work with her over multiple projects?
A dream! Tilda is intuitive, brilliant, hyper creative, risk taking and fun. I feel so fortunate to have built the kind of communication we have. It is such a thrill to work with people who are so generous. The communication builds over time.
– Your films are very visually rich – the bold color palette of the three cloned Tilda Swintons in Teknolust, and the virtual sets of Conceiving Ada – but is the look of the film driven by the ideas you are tackling, or do you see the world you want to portray before the film is fully planned out in your mind?
I somewhat see the world in advance but half the fun is taking the chance to change the preconception and renew new fresh ideas when we can. Generally the film’s look comes together first in the writing, then is refined as people add to the scheme, and finalized when we invent and shoot the film. It is always a process.
– You are a multimedia artist rather than just a filmmaker, so how does filmmaking fit in the bigger picture of your work?
It is a different audience, and a different means to telling story. I see them as all inter related. Most of my films have installations that accompany them, from Difference Engine on Conceiving Ada, which won the Prix Ars Electronica, to Agent Ruby and DiNA on Teknolust to now Raw War for !Women Art Revolution. These pieces expand the borders of the ideas and now give them global access.
– You not only take technology as one of your main subjects in your work, but are very innovative in the technology that you employ in making your films and other projects. How do you anticipate your work will change in the next decade due to technological advancements?
I have several times created the technologies to tell the ideas I had at the time. We tend to predict based on linear notions of existing information but it doesn’t work that way in real life because inventions cause leaps of thinking one does not anticipate. I think Raw War invents some technology and one has to be open to see the world in the present, not the past or presumed future. This is always a challenge.
– Conceiving Ada and Teknolust are both fiction films which grounded in big ideas, whereas your most recent two movies –Strange Culture and !Women Art Revolution: A (Formerly) Secret History – are documentaries. Have you made a shift towards the documentary form? Or are these films just the best way to encapsulate the ideas you are tackling?
These were critical stories of the time, and could only be told through the documentary genre. The next one is part 3 of the trilogy of Conceiving Ada and Teknolust…quite wild, and after that, I am planning another doc. It is Killer App, a sci-fi based on premises of our time. This film is a revisioning of Metropolis: Avatars seek to avenge humans for the chaos and destruction they have created, until one woman uses her inbred technological impulses to cure the polluted planet and reset the soul of mortals. It is as narrative as Conceiving Ada or Teknolust, but is a consistent theme I’ve worked on for two decades. I thought of all three at once, and it is a resolution about ecology, genetics, and coming to terms with age / mortality and a planet not consumed by avarice.
Nick Dawson is a frequent contributor to FilmMaker magazine and is the author of Being Hal Ashby.