With ‘Shadow Stalker,’ Lynn Hershman Leeson Tackles Internet Surveillance

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With ‘Shadow Stalker,’ Lynn Hershman Leeson Tackles Internet Surveillance

She pioneered interactive video and Artificial Intelligence in art. Now this new-media path-breaker scrutinizes technology’s abuses at the Shed.

Credit…Talia Herman for The New York Times

This article is part of our continuing Fast Forward series, which examines technological, economic, social and cultural shifts that happen as businesses evolve.

SAN FRANCISCO — “I found my voice through technology,” the artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson is saying, sitting in an old-world bar here, wearing a long jacket with quotes from French philosophers embroidered on it.

She has lived in the Bay Area since the 1960s, spending formative years in Berkeley and participating in the free speech movement. Through technology, she said, she “found amplification, microphones — and it was an era when women were silenced.”

Ms. Hershman Leeson planted a stake in cyberspace decades ago with what is considered to be the first interactive video art disc; an early AI bot; and a film (starring her longtime collaborator Tilda Swinton) that explores the legacy of Ada Lovelace, a 19th-century mathematician whose writings were foundational to computer science. At 78, Ms. Hershman Leeson is one of the more experienced citizens of the internet, but her work largely went under the radar for decades.

One of the pieces that set her free, “The Electronic Diaries, 1984-2019,” is an acclaimed video work created over 30 years in which she shares her personal experiences and reflections with a camera, appearing with evolving hairstyles and body language. The work, which she calls the archive of her life, is set to go on view in expanded, complete form for the first time at the Shed Nov. 13 through Jan. 12. (An earlier version of the “Diaries” is also on view in MoMA’s newly-rehung opening installation). It is part of a group exhibition called “Manual Override,” which Ms. Hershman Leeson anchors with three works — including her more recent forays into the field of genetic science — alongside a younger generation of new media artists, Martine Syms, Simon Fujiwara, Morehshin Allahyari and Sondra Perry.

Ms. Hershman Leeson is still making work vigorously in her studios in San Francisco and New York, and on a Sunday in August she was shooting the final component of a new commission, “Shadow Stalker,” that will also appear at the Shed. An interactive installation and film, the piece tackles the rise of data-driven surveillance on the internet. It is based on the algorithm that powers Predpol, the controversial predictive policing system that is deployed in law enforcement departments across the United States. The algorithm uses statistical data to predict where future crimes might occur, throwing up red squares overlaid on maps that direct officers to potential trouble areas. Racial biases and inaccuracies in the data can lead to problematic predictions and perpetuate flaws in the criminal justice system. (A proliferation of red squares inevitably tend to hover over low-income neighborhoods.)

“It’s such a perverse, pervasive, invisible system that people don’t understand,” said Ms. Hershman Leeson, cutting a commanding figure in all-black and tinted glasses. She was sitting across from the actor Tessa Thompson (of HBO’s “Westworld”), who narrates the film component, guiding viewers through some of the internet’s more pernicious manifestations.

“It’s very easy to forget that we’re being watched on the internet,” Ms. Thompson said. “We’re living in a time where there needs to be real literacy in terms of data and technology and our relationship to it.”

Ms. Hershman Leeson hopes to give visitors to the Shed a chilling sense of their own vulnerability to this kind of data-mining. When they enter the installation they’ll be asked to enter an email address, setting a simulation of the Predpol algorithm into motion, fetching biographical data — names of friends, loved ones, old addresses — that ultimately spits out a data shadow that appears behind them.

“The starkness and flatness” of the way the code profiles individuals is what Ms. Hershman Leeson wants people to feel, said Nora Khan, the exhibition’s curator. “This very limited set of data is being used to determine who you are as a human being,” she said, noting that, given the Shed’s footprint within Hudson Yards, and the limits of its demographic reach, the technology “would be less effective if it were just about Predpol and low-income communities, as opposed to those who have done insider crimes, insider trading, white-collar crimes.” A monitor in the installation will give predictive percentages for white-collar crime according to ZIP code.

Ms. Hershman Leeson, who is at once warm and enigmatic in person, has from her earliest days held a sharp critical light to technological and scientific developments, exploring the possibilities of their abuse oby the powerful as much as for their more utopian promise — and always grappling with their relationship to our identities, often from a very personal point of view.

Her best-known work centers on a character named Roberta Breitmore, an alter ego she created in 1972. A shy, neurotic blonde, Roberta conformed to the era’s archetypal feminine ideal. Ms. Hershman Leeson created charts that determined her makeup and hair, and took to various public places dressed as the character. She hired a photographer to snap paparazzi-style shots of her, developed her credit history, and had her attend therapy sessions. (The artist initially played Roberta herself, but later hired actors to share the role.) Like a digital avatar that roamed the real world, existing only by way of ephemera and documentation, Roberta foreshadowed our self-conscious, voyeuristic relationsh

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