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As evidenced by the wonderful interview between Lynn Hershman Leeson (b. 1941) and Juliana Huxtable (b. 1987) in Art Forum this summer, Hershman Leeson’s pioneering media legacy continues to provoke and inspire contemporary artists. Here is a look at one of her daring technological accomplishments, which is part of the Walker Art Center’s permanent collection. And on […]
As evidenced by the wonderful interview between Lynn Hershman Leeson (b. 1941) and Juliana Huxtable (b. 1987) in Art Forum this summer, Hershman Leeson’s pioneering media legacy continues to provoke and inspire contemporary artists. Here is a look at one of her daring technological accomplishments, which is part of the Walker Art Center’s permanent collection.
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
—Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias”
Lorna (created between 1979 and 1983) was the first interactive piece of video art created for LaserDisc, and uses the technological capabilities of the LaserDisc to tell a compelling story about an agoraphobic woman. Renowned for their visual clarity (particularly when compared to other media at the time, such as Betamax or VHS) LaserDiscs were nevertheless never commercially viable due to their expense and inability to record television. LaserDiscs prefigured DVDs and Blu-rays in several capacities, not least in their ability to play, pause, fast forward, and select various options from a menu stored on the disc. All of these technologically advanced affordances are available to the player in Lorna, which combines long clips of video with interactions best compared to point-and-click graphic adventure games. Furthermore, because Lorna’s agoraphobia is facilitated by various kinds of technology (in particular the television and the telephone) it feels appropriate to access her story via obvious and almost obtrusive technological means.
Lorna opens much like a montage at the beginning of a television show—it is even accompanied by a strangely upbeat country song. After this introduction, Hershman Leeson’s camera pans around the room only to settle on a pile of mundane objects. These objects, which include a fish bowl, a television, and a wallet, introduce the player to the central mechanic of Lorna: branching menus. The player navigates the menu easily with a remote to select one of the objects. Similar to the home screen on commercial DVDs with forking options (Play Movie, Subtitles, Bloopers, etc.) this first screen helps launch the player into different parts of the piece. Exploring Lorna’s environment (which includes the ability to watch her television programs, look through her wallet, and even have sex with a delivery man) helps the player feel empathy for her and her condition. Lorna’s life is expressed and contained by the limits of her apartment, which is why Hershman Leeson’s camera lingers and repeatedly returns to Lorna’s possessions ̶ they, after all, have a heightened relevance in her life. The objects themselves can trigger a new video clip or take the player to another menu for other choices (for instance, selecting the television takes the player to a number of different television segments), and it is impossible to know in advance if the object you just clicked on will lead you back to the title menu, back to the screen you were just on, or to another part of the narrative entirely.
Compared to both Colossal Cave Adventure (1976) and Zork (1977), the key early adventure videogames which relied on typed text commands and had no visuals, the blending of film and photography with interactive menus in Lorna was a major technologic achievement. Merging film and game, Lorna stands at the edge of how media is often demarcated, requiring input from the player even as it remains primarily voyeuristic.
As the work’s sequences are not fixed in a specific order, Lorna unfolds in a nonlinear way that differs from playthrough to playthrough. Ultimately, by navigating through menus in different orders, the player can conclude the story with three wildly different endings: Lorna can kill herself, leave her apartment for Los Angeles, or destroy her television set. This last choice is particularly poignant, as Lorna’s connection to her telephone and television enable and reinforce her agoraphobia. Hershman Leeson’s prescience about the way technology has become more and more all-consuming in our daily lives underscores Lorna’s continued relevance. Or at least it should.
This relevance is often lost in the opaqueness of Lorna’s user interface. I didn’t fully understand Lorna’s complexity until I saw a diagram that explained how its sequences fit together and branched off from one another.
This schematic gave me a much clearer picture of the interactivity and complexity Hershman Leeson was trying to cultivate in Lorna. Unfortunately, this interactivity was more forcefully conveyed to me in the schematic than in any interaction with the piece itself. This is because, like so many media creations, Lorna was ahead of the technology it needed. To create Lorna, Hershman Leeson coopted an available media form (LaserDisc) that was, ultimately, not optimal for her purpose. Lorna easily becomes stuck on particular passages, has trouble returning to its previous menus, and can be fast-forwarded in such a way that it circumvents its complex choices. The Walker Archive houses the original disc along with the transferred DVD, and primary researchers are only allowed to play the DVD. The problems with the DVD magnify the inherited problems with the original disc—problems that are an artifact of using the laserdisc in a way it was not meant to be used. Hershman Leeson has noted that she likes “to preserve the glitches of time, the underbelly of an era … I keep the scars intact.” Ontological honesty is refreshing in an era with an insatiable appetite for reskinning and iterating characters and storylines (see the recent success of Pokémon GO, the record-setting box-office attendance numbers for the latest Star Wars, etc.). These scars, inherited from the original LaserdDisc, distract from the experience so much that Lorna is almost unplayable on DVD.
Either way, both the disc and the DVD’s capacity for interactivity are woefully antiquated when compared to any modern computer. Choosing to program for this format is gloriously inefficient in terms of pure interactivity, but very helpful if, like Hershman Leeson, the images and video are just as important as the interactive elements. Interacting with Lorna in its current DVD state, one cannot help but wish it had been preserved on a computer. However, a transcription of that sort would have completely obfuscated the transgressive way Hershman Leeson expanded the uses of the laserdisc.
Like Shelley’s fictitious description of the ruined monolithic status of the great king and ruler Ozymandias (inspired by the pharaohs of old), Lorna is no longer intact (and perhaps never was as powerful or as realized as it pretends to be). Just as Ozymandias’s head is no longer attached to his body, and his sneering visage looks out onto a wasteland, Lorna is a ruin. Lorna is now the outline of what it once was, and if not a warning to media artists, she can be seen as patron saint of the Ruined Digital. The ambition of Lorna coupled, with its migrations from one hardware to another, has ensured the work would quickly become unstable and unplayable. Given that the television is an antagonist throughout Lorna, there is something appealing about this ruinous state, as if the character herself might be able to escape due to the imperfections of the technology; by transferring the choices to a new system, perhaps she will be able to move away from life on the screen.
 Shelley, Percy Bysshe, “Ozymandias,” in Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, eds. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2002, 109.
 Hershman Leeson, Lynn, and Peter Weibel. Lynn Hershman Leeson Civic Radar. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2016, 160.
 From personal experience programming in ActionScript 3.0, even current computers and programs do not offer a very good platform for combining video/photography along with interactive elements.