Lynn Hershman Leeson and "Strange Culture"

Susan Gerhard January 22, 2007

Lynn Hershman Leeson’s work in fiction has always been reliably bold and alarmingly innovative. Her latest, however, is a non-fiction, and, and they say, truth is stranger — particularly when it involves government paranoia and interventionist art. Hershman Leeson’s “Strange Culture” did serve as a literal and metaphorical wake-up call to its Sundance audiences at its 9 a.m. Egyptian Theatre screening Friday. In taking on the case of Steve Kurtz — a nightmare scenario where FBI agents mistook art for bioterrorism, and still haven’t admitted they made a mistake (in fact, the artist is still awaiting trial) — it takes on an awful truth about the “anti-terror” era: the government has absolutely no idea what it’s doing in its search for agents of destruction. Hershman Leeson took time as she prepared for the film’s Sundance screenings to answer a few of’s questions. For people who don’t know your work, I’d love for you to give them some context: Can you offer a short overview of the media you’ve creating and teaching you’ve been involved with?

Lynn Hershman-Leeson: I began to create interactive works in 1973. In fact, it was the first one, and was a story about an agoraphobic woman unable to leave her house. This laser disk allowed users to navigate the character in both moving image and sound, and reconstruct her future, know about her past, and it had three separate endings. It was pre-DVD and very radical for its time. Ultimately, I was interested in the construction of a viewer who is an active participant in a work of art, engaging with and potentially altering its course, rather than passive voyeur.

Since then, I did: First eight-year performance based on simulated female identity (“Roberta Breitmore,” 1972-1980); first site specific public artwork (1972, “Dante Hotel”); first use of television ads broadcast as artworks (1973-74, “N.Y. Hotel Rooms”); first organization for site specific art (“The Floating Museum,” 1973-1978); first use of department store windows for narratives of public space (“Bonwit Teller,” 1976); first Interactive computer based art work (“Lorna,” 1979-81); first use of Virtual Sets in a feature film (“Conceiving Ada,” 1996); first telerobotic work based on a humanoid (“Tillie the Telerobotic Doll,” 1996); one of the first networked telerobotic sculpture (“The Difference Engine,” 1997-2000); first use of extended graphics in 24 p hi definition (“Teknolust,” 2000 – 2003); first Artificial Intelligent Web Agent created as an artwork (“Agent Ruby,” 1993-). What happened to artist Steve Kurtz, beginning with the tragic day when his wife died, and the FBI came to notice his art?

Hershman: The surreal nightmare of internationally acclaimed artist and professor Steve Kurtz began when his wife Hope died in her sleep of heart failure. Medics arrived, became suspicious of Kurtz’s art, and called the FBI. Within hours the artist was detained as a suspected “bioterrorist” as dozens of agents in hazmat suits sifted through his work and impounded his computers, manuscripts, books, his cat, and even his wife’s body. Today Kurtz and his long-time collaborator Dr. Robert Ferrell, former Chair of the Genetics Department at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, await a trial date. How did you personally intersect with the story?

Hershman: Like many artists, I heard about it and thought it would blow over when they found the materials were nontoxic. When they continued, I became alarmed. Simultaneously I was having issues about censorship myself, so I was really sensitive to what this means to a culture, and how important freedom of expression is, and how it represents fundamental rights not only to an individual but to culture and society in general. How was the film financed and developed?

Hershman: Ha! I had been working on several big budget projects that had taken years to try to get financed. Somehow the immediate relevancy of Steve’s situation seemed to be something I had to do, and do quickly. I was also having a book released and a retrospective and two gallery exhibitions. Yet, this story resonated. I vowed to make it no matter what, to not wait for traditional financing, to make it with my mini DV if I had to, (which we did) in order to get the story out and have an effect. Originally, I thought I’d just make and distribute DVDs. I asked some of my former students to help, like Lise Swenson, to help produce it quickly. She agreed. Others who had worked with me in the past, like The Residents and Hiro Narita came in very generously, I might add. I wanted to prove by example that using the great resources and talent in the Bay Area we could accomplish this. What led to the decision to use actors Thomas Jay Ryan and Tilda Swinton to portray Steve and his wife, Hope?

Hershman: Originally, Steve couldn’t do it. Additionally there were things he could not talk about on camera, so I thought I’d use a decoy. Then Steve mentioned how much Hope liked Tilda and what a tribute it would be to have her involved, so I asked her and she said ‘Yes,’ simply that. The actors were so smart and passionate and interesting what normally would be outtakes were a shame, I thought, to not use. How would you categorize the film?

Hershman: Hybrid, tactical media, like Steve’s work. It’s kind of a portrait, in that way. Like everything I do, it defies categorization. One might think of it as a documentary, or even as a sci-fi, though. Can you talk about the work of Critical Art Ensemble?

Hershman: Best to use their own descriptions. Where does Steve’s case stand now?

Hershman: Awaiting a hearing for trial date for mail and wire fraud. Who are his biggest supporters?

Hershman: The Art community for sure. artists, academics, critics, historians, from 45 countries signed his petition. Where are you planning on taking the film after Sundance?

Hershman: We may go to Berlin, and I get invited to places every day, but I hope we will be able to get it distributed widely, despite the very very ridiculously low budget, so that people understand some of the conditions that we are now living under.