Issue 12 : Spring 2007







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Lynne Hershman Leeson’s Strange Culture: a Tapestry of Dilemmas

by Mike Mosher

4 Feb 2007

Lynne Hershman Leeson showed her film “Strange Culture” in a rough cut, at the Camera 12 as part of ZeroOne Festival in San José, California on August 11, 2006. Listings at called it a “critical documentary” in progress. The fact that the filmmaker distributed a questionnaire soliciting input towards its completion testifies to unresolved issues in the project. Being the provocative and thoughtful artist that Lynne Hershman Leeson is, she has woven a work containing rich formal and informational dilemmas.

The first dilemma is the narrative arc. The movie tells the important story of Steve Kurtz, an artist and Associate Professor of Art at SUNY Buffalo. Kurtz is a founding member of the the Critical Art Ensemble, and uses biotechnology in his work, including the exhibition he was preparing when the tragicomedy began.

Leeson endeavors to make an informative and inspiring political piece, one not compromising her vision as a digital video artist. I hope she pulls it off ...

May 11, 2004 Hope Kurtz, Steve’s wife, died unexpectedly in her sleep of cardiac arrest. When the husband reported the death, local medics and police were suspicious of the chemistry equipment (his art supplies) aroung the house. They were reminded of 2002’s yet-insufficiently-explained anthrax attacks in the US Capitol, National Enquirer newspaper offices and elsewhere. They called the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and FBI and ATF agents in hazmat suits raided the home and combed it for anything supsicious or unexplained, and impouded computers, manuscripts, books, a cat, and Hope Kurtz’s body. Steve Kurtz was charged with bioterrorism, along with his collaborator Robert Ferrel, a geneticist at the University of Pittsburg School of Public Health.

As the evidence was sifted, the prosecution’s case dissolved, and charges were continually reduced. Consequently, the movie’s suspense is gradually reduced, until what began as Kafkaesque (think “The Trial”) horror becomes comedy and chuckles at government stupidity. This is good for Prof. Kurtz...but bad for the story.

The movie’s second dilemma is one of casting. Leeson has decided to use both actors in a reconstruction of actual events, and interviews with Steve Kurtz, benefit organizer Peter Coyote, and the opinionated and charming Brenda Laurel. Kurtz is a dead ringer for actor Steve Buscemi, so this would be moot had Buscemi had taken the role (was he approached?) . Yet Kurtz is played by Thomas Jay Ryan, whose rectangular face and wide features look more like the author Stephen King. The viewer would not demand facial versimilitude and would easily suspend belief and (as we did for Anthony Hopkins as Nixon, Laurence Fishburne as Ike Turner, Denzel Washington as Malcolm X), except for the fact that Kurtz himself appears in the film as a talking head to give nuance and updates to the fictional recreation. It is odd that a creative filmmaker would--maybe inadvertantly--posit a from-the-horse’s-mouth interview as more “true” than her fictional recreation of events. Until she did this, the recreation seemed convincing to me.

Tilda Swinton appears as Hope Kurtz. At one point we see Swinton on the phone, saying she’s in San Francisco. At that moment we ask, is this the actress, keeping someone abreast on her real-life schedule? Or is she Hope Kurtz, away at a conference, talking to her husband and soon to return to him in Buffalo?

The work’s third dilemma is the knowingness of the artist. Multiple viewpoints marks a solid intellectual, who recognizes the subjectivity of any one telling of a story. Yet “on the other hand” can be a killer of pursuasive argument (witness the well-informed John Kerry suffering in debate against the pitbull will and rottweiler intellect of George Bush). She plays with Brechtian violation of the “third wall” of the stage or camera. In her ballad of Steven Kurtz, Leeson wants both fiction and fact, doesn’t want to decide, wants it all.

A suitable medium for this kind of multiplicity is digital interactivity, of which she was an early pioneer. In videodisks such as “Lorna” (1979-82), she allowed the viewer to pilot the course of the story, deciding from among myriad choices at critical points in the protagonist’s tales. In 2007, Lynne Hershman Leeson took a position as the new head of Film Department at the San Francisco Art Institute after having taught at the University of California, Davis for many years.

Leeson is still feeling her way into linear narrative cinema. Tilda Swinton also appeared in Leeson’s “Conceiving Ada” (1997), the story of Lady Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron who published a paper in the early 19th century formulating fundamental ideas of computer programming. The movie, with its longuers, is most memorable for its use of digital sets, poured into the actors who acted in front of a green screen. Here the reviewer admits his own impatience with the world of museum-installation video art, from which Leeson emerged. TImothy Leary also appears in it, filmed shortly before his death.

Leeson endeavors to make an informative and inspiring political piece, one not compromising her vision as a digital video artist. I hope she pulls it off, to create a valuable document for artists and art students to think about civil liberties. Strange Culture debuted January 19th at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, so presumably all edits inspired by the August showing’s questionnaires have been made. The producer of the movie, Lisé Swenson, is a filmmaker herself and Mission neighborhood arts activist (she is on the Board of ATA, where Other Cinema is housed). As Swenson has obviously put her energy into seeing that the important story of Kurtz’s prosecution be told, the reviewer would be curious to see her play a greater aesthetic role in future collaborations with Lynne Hershman Leeson. Give us future works on critical issues, that promise to offer as many provocative dilemmas in content and form to be solved in their completion as in “Strange Culture”.

Artist Mike Mosher is Associate Professor of Art/Communication Multimedia at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. He formerly lived in San Francisco, and in 1997 was the subject of a retrospective at ATA of his films and videos curated by Molly Hankowitz.