Lynn Hershman Leeson has been pushing the boundaries of digital media since before the term “digital media” was a part of our social lexicon. Her innovative work explores the complex, ever-evolving relationship between humans and technology in fascinating ways that have garnered her countless awards and recognitions. But by her own admission, her art has gone largely overlooked by mainstream media over the course of her 50-plus year career.
“I just think the work was too early,” she says. “At the time, people couldn’t connect with it because there was no language for it, no history, no precedent.”
With groundbreaking films like 2002’s Teknolust, starring Tilda Swinton as a bio-geneticist who breeds cyborg clones of herself, Hershman Leeson engages in conversations about identity and feminism that film studios were not willing to support at the time.
“They wouldn’t distribute it,” she recalls. “I think in my case it was because I was female. I just wasn’t taken seriously. I think if other people brought up these issues, they would have been taken more seriously.”
While Hershman Leeson seemed destined to be perpetually far ahead of her time, her body of work seems to finally be catching on with today’s youth, with Teknolust and her other works proving to be quite accessible and relatable to a new generation of young feminists who are technologically fluent and not as fearful of computers as previous generations. When asked how it feels for her work to finally be resonating with people after all these years, Hershman Leeson is all smiles.
“I’ve been told that my work has influenced a lot of young women,” she says. “I’m glad it’s happening. It didn’t really matter when it happened… at least it’s having an effect now.”
At this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival, audiences will have the unique opportunity to see Hershman Leeson’s Cyborgian Rhapsody, a series of four provocative short films: Seduction of a Cyborg (1994), Shadow Stalker (2018), Logic Paralyzes the Heart (2022), and Cyborgian Rhapsody: Immortality.
From the dark implications of biotech, to the urban horror of “predictive policing,” to the ethical quandaries of AI, the series examines humanity’s complex relationship with advanced technology in a way that feels decidedly poetic and humanistic.
With the series’ latest installment, Cyborgian Rhapsody: Immortality, Hershman Leeson pushes the envelope yet again, employing a GPT-3 Chatbot to write the film’s script and perform as an animated character. AI is one of the most charged and divisive topics of conversation in the world at the moment, but Hershman Leeson approaches the subject fearlessly, as she’s likened to do.
“I think people are always afraid of anything they don’t know,” she says. “I think people have to question why they’re afraid of something and how we can collaborate with it and work together. That’s really what it’s all about.”
In addition to screening Cyborgian Rhapsody in its entirety for the first time, the Mill Valley Film Festival will be presenting Hershman Leeson with the Mind the Gap Award in honor of her visionary work in film and video art. The presentation will be accompanied by an on-stage conversation about her trailblazing career. After all these years, it seems Hershman Leeson has finally found the audience she deserved all along.
“It’s very pleasing,” she says of receiving the prestigious award. “The Mill Valley Film Festival has a record of really amazing people having received the award, so I’m honored to get it.”
Bernard Boo is an AAPI arts and entertainment critic, Bay Area native and proud member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. Find more of his work at PopMatters, Den of Geek and Rotten Tomatoes, and listen to him on the Your Asian Best Friends podcast.