On entering Hershmanlandia: A bold new exhibit at Henry Art Gallery is interactive to the max

The future is here! And you'll find it at the Henry Art Gallery, where examples of the latest in electronic wizardry are applied to human interactions. It's a world where science fiction achieves reality.

"Hershmanlandia: The Art and Films of Lynn Hershman Leeson," the first major survey of this highly acclaimed American artist, traces her 35-year history of experimentation and innovation. It offers everything from drawings on paper to a computer-generated person called Agent Ruby whose voice-recognition software allows her to converse with the visitor.

Hershman Leeson has always been fascinated with issues related to human communication and the validity of experience both real and virtual. She divides her career into the B.C. period and the A.D. period. B.C. stands for Before Computers. During that time she drew and painted, created installation art and devised interactive performances.

A seminal moment in her B.C. period occurred when the University Art Museum in Berkeley closed down her exhibition of a sculpture that had an audiotape within it. The management of the gallery insisted that electronic media weren't art and didn't belong in a museum.

"Fine," said Hershman Leeson, who realized she didn't need a museum. She found a seedy San Francisco Hotel called The Dante and rented a room where she set up a tableau with sound and artifacts of daily life such as eyeglasses, cosmetics and clothing. On the bed's pillows were two wax heads and hands poking out from a jumble of covers. Visitors entered the hotel, signed in at the desk and were given a key so they could go to the room and observe the scene.

Artists like Hopper painted seedy hotel rooms. She turned one into a piece of art. The "exhibit" was expected to run permanently. Unfortunately reality overtook illusion, or vice versa. Nine months after it opened, a visitor mistook the wax heads for dead people and called the police. They came and confiscated all the materials. (Photos of the room are in the exhibit.)

Next came the Roberta Breitmore project. Hershman Leeson imagined Roberta into reality. Periodically she would assume the identity of this creature of her mind. When she was Roberta, she always wore the same outfit. Her makeup was applied with the precision of a geisha's, and her blond wig never changed. Roberta had her own psychiatrist, her own dentist, a real bank account, real credit cards (something Hershman Leeson wasn't qualified for), and she ran an ad in the newspaper for someone to share an apartment.

The ad was ambiguously written so that one had to guess about what kind of sharing was involved. People who answered the ad were surreptitiously taped and photographed as they talked to Roberta. Thus, like the dentist and the psychiatrist, they became part of her fiction as she became part of their reality. Much of Roberta is on display at the Henry.

The fascination with surveillance, voyeurism and the inherent dangers to identity continue in the A.D (After Digital) period of Hershman Leeson's career. Captivated by the possibilities presented to an artist by the new technology, she quickly became one of its most creative talents. She pioneered video techniques and invented interactive digital systems, examples of which can be seen in the exhibit.

Her feminist sci-fi movie "Conceiving Ada" explores issues of love, sex, artificial life, computer potential and DNA transference. Created in 1997, its themes resonate loudly today. In her more recent film "Teknolust" she continues to explore the increasingly complex relationship between humans and machines and the construction of identity. Tilda Swinton appears in both films playing numerous humans, clones and self-replicating automatons.

Hershman Leeson is indeed the leading lady of electronic art, and curator Robin Held is to be congratulated for organizing and bringing this retrospective to Seattle. I only wish that the signage had more clearly invited the visitor to take part in the interactive elements. The injunction do not touch is so firmly associated with a museum experience that special invitation is necessary to encourage the more timid visitors to handle an artwork when it's allowed. More information on the signage would have been helpful also.

The equipment in the exhibit doesn't always work perfectly, just as the computers and other electronics in our homes can sometimes fail us. When I visited the exhibition, the interactive "Lorna" video wasn't operating. But there's so much to do and see here that the loss of one display in no way diminishes the overall visitor experience.

So, if it's intelligence and creativity you seek, this show will provide it. In some ways, it's an electronic funhouse with a sobering message. Hershman Leeson never lets the visitor forget the real world implications of the virtual world intrusion.

Set aside a considerable block of time for your visit. The many interactive elements are so compelling that you'll want to linger. I plan to go back and have another talk with Agent Ruby. I wonder if she'll remember our first conversation.[[In-content Ad]]