B. Ruby Rich has likened the doubles in my work to
"in effect, a summoning of a contemporary golem. According to this interpretation, Hershman, as the artist, represents a modern version of the learned one, the devoted Talmudic disciple, who seeks to bring her own creation into the world. Furthermore, the golem is a form (or, shall we say, image) that is given life through a magical formula, such as the power of the letters of the divine name or the word for "truth" that according to some legends is inscribed on the forehead of the golem. Speaking truth through doubles sounds like a fair description of First Person Plural, with its multiple monitor perfect replications of the self. And consider Hershman's description of the early character, Roberta Breitmore as a "private performance of a simulated person." What better a description of a Golem than a "simulated" person?
With the trope of the golem in mind, a Kabbalistic analysis of Hershman's filmography verges on the irrefutable. In her first feature film Conceiving Ada, the heroine uses a magic formula - in this case a computer software program - to create a computer artificial intelligence agent. The agent, a bird (with justifiable connotations of phoenix powers) or perhaps a golem in another form, journeys not just into the Internet but back into the past. There the bird contacts Lady Ada Byron Lovelace, the inventor of the world's first computer language (Figs. 6.1-2). Through the bird/agent, the hacker heroine revivifies Ada by melding her with the DNA of her own daughter, the fetus inside her body at the time of these investigations (and, yes, one could say "magical incantations.")This "unnatural" birth is an alchemically-computerized interference with nature that goes to the very heart of the golemic enterprise.
Historically, golems are inventions of mind, created through meditation and thinking - perhaps through something very close to the creative act of making a video or film today. There were two legitimate reasons for creating such a golem. One was to protect the community. In the case of Hershman's work, we could interpret "community" to mean the family. Her golem may be conjured in order to protect the girl-child within a brutal family. The other legitimate reason to invent a golem was to achieve a greater understanding of the creative process. The implication, of course, was to understand God's creative process, or the creation of humans. (In such a reading, Adam is the first golem.) But I think we can see this activity on Hershman's part instead as an entry into her own creative process as an artist, as a performance artist, installation arts, as a video artist, and now as a filmmaker. The golem, then, may well be the films and tapes and performances and installations themselves, not merely the characters within them."1.
Hershman Leeson's seminal project The Roberta
Breitmore Series (1974-1978). From 1974 until 1978, the artist conceived of, constructed and `developed' a fictional persona and alter ego: that of Roberta Breitmore. The creation of Roberta Breitmore consisted not only of a physical self-transformation through make-up, clothing, and wigs which enabled the occasional role-playing, but a fully-fledged, `complete' personality who existed over an extended period of time and whose existence could be proven in the world through physical evidence: from a driver's license and credit card to letters from her psychiatrist. According to the artist, Roberta's character was born one day in 1974 when she arrived on a bus in San Francisco and checked into the low-budget Dante Hotel, with $1800 in her pocket. The fabrication and corroboration of her existence began at that moment, through a series of carefully orchestrated actions such as placing an advertisement in a newspaper seeking a roommate through to blind dating via the same means. The latter resulted in a series of physical encounters that Roberta had, with real people, in the real world, the repercussions of which played a key role in the formation of her psyche. Thus Roberta's existence came to be manifested into the world, through such encounters and accumulating material traces, which at the end of the project numbered hundreds of documents from which one could attempt to piece together a portrait of this young woman in mid-seventies, West Coast America. This fracturing or splitting of personality and fragmentation of identity was later taken to further lengths when Hershman Leeson introduced another three `Robertas', by hiring three additional performers to enact her character. These `clones' of Roberta adopted the same look and attire, engaged in some of Roberta's correspondence and also went on some of Roberta (Lynn's) dates. Towards the end, Hershman Leeson, the `original' Roberta, withdrew from her character leaving the three `clones' to continue her work, until the character(s) where finally terminated in a performance at the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara, Italy in 1978, during an exorcism at the grave of Lucrezia Borgia. What remains are the standardised physical artefacts of any life: documentation and, of course, personal effects: from legal and medical documents to a personal diary. Though these `prove' the existence of Roberta, what was of fundamental importance to Hershman Leeson, were the real experiences of Roberta, which perhaps more importantly `determined' her character. But who exactly was Roberta Breitmore and how can we come to know her? To what extent? Indeed how do we come to know anyone (including ourselves) and to what extent? How far was Roberta Breitmore fashioned out of Lynn Hershman Leeson? And how much of Roberta permeated into and shaped Lynn Hershman Leeson, given that Lynn spent considerable time being Roberta? If Roberta Breitmore is a figment of the imagination, then how much `reality' resides within her? These are but some of the questions raised by Hershman Leeson in this work. Clearly the existence of Roberta was dependent on Lynn, but at same time she also became completely independent of her, the two identities being conjoined like Siamese twins but also separated. The Roberta Breitmore Series thus constitutes one of the most profound meditations on existence and the impossibility to neatly circumscribe the human psyche and identity. It highlights the fact that identity is both nature and culture, both self-consciously constructed, as intrinsically experienced, and that it is often hard to pinpoint which of the two elements dominates. Finally, in a way that is both phantomic and very real, The Roberta Breitmore Series captures in an unequivocal way the complexity of identity, the fact that we all have many `selves', some of which we may not recognize, who appear as estranged from our person as Roberta often does from her own. These different `existences' cannot be easily be separated, much in the same way that Lynn Hershman Leeson cannot be separated from `her' Roberta Breitmore. But who exactly was Roberta? We know that she was married, divorced, at some point unemployed, battling weight gain, and getting psychotherapy. There is evidence of all of this. But to what extent can she become knowable?