Art is a Form of Encryption: Laura Poitras in Conversation with Lynn Hershman Leeson
Long before the digital revolution and virtualization of identities became part of our everyday lives, American artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson created surrogate personas and investigated issues of surveillance, interfacing of humans and technology, and media as a tool to counter censorship and repression. Spanning five decades, her groundbreaking work has ranged from Roberta Breitmore (1973-78), the fictional character that she enacted in real time and space, to !Women Art Revolution (2010), a documentary charting the history of the feminist art movement in America, to works dealing with robots and the latest developments in genetic engineering. Hatje Cantz Verlag has recently published Civic Radar (2016)—the first comprehensive monograph devoted to this pioneer. In the following edited interview, released in Civic Radar, Hershman Leeson and Laura Poitras discuss their experiences with electronic and DNA surveillance and more.
Lynn Hershman Leeson: Laura, do you think that people are aware of the deep level of surveillance we are experiencing?
Laura Poitras: If you are an activist, an artist, or someone perceived as critical of the establishment and you are living in a repressive environment—for instance, Saudi Arabia or China—then, yes, of course. State surveillance is something that you must circumvent and navigate on a daily basis. Activists in Saudi Arabia know how to use VPNs (virtual private networks) and encryption, because they know that if they don’t their lives are on the line. The perception of [state surveillance] as a threat has everything to do with what one’s relationship is to the state. If you perceive the state as benign—which a lot of people do in Western democracies—you don’t necessarily feel that it is harmful to you. Some specific communities in the West—say, African communities in the United States and Muslim-American communities—have a very different relationship to the state. The state has always been threatening to them or at least has been active in their repression. What we are seeing right now in terms of surveillance is that we have both perspectives in societies that include a spectrum of cultures. And it also depends on where you are globally.
LHL: Is there any place in this world that surveillance doesn’t exist?
LP: I think probably you have a better answer to that question, because you have been working on the theme of surveillance, alongside issues of emerging technologies, for much longer than I have, for at least as long as I have known your work. You’ve been looking at how surveillance and technology intersect with people on a personal and psychological level and also on cultured and gendered levels. Do you see a shift, and where can you mark it?
LHL: I do see a shift. I think that the ultimate surveillance now is in DNA, which is in itself a form of encrypted archiving. In Istanbul, for instance, you have to submit to biometric readers on door locks to gain access to some private rooms. These readers can register your blood type and trace what sect you’re from— what your bloodline is—and that will determine whether or not you can enter. Also now there are what are called brain chips, which can be inserted into your body to alleviate post-traumatic stress disorder. But they also can add new memories into your brain.
LP: I have never heard that.
LHL: Since the genome has been sequenced, in about 2001, scientists have been making completely new life forms. Mutants. Hybrids. For instance, they’ll cross, say, a goat and a spider to get more resilient milk, or a deadly mosquito and tetracycline to deliver an antidote simultaneously with the insect’s poison. I’ve been asking scientists from around the world about the implications of all this research. The reason human genes can’t be used in any experiments in the US is because it would violate the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. The Supreme Court decided that owning or patenting a gene of a human equals owning that person. Laws concerning humans are more relaxed in other parts of the world. In England, experiments were conducted last April on women who couldn’t conceive; they were given an extra female chromosome. These women gave birth to fifty babies who were born with two female markers and one male. Eventually all of these mutated babies will give birth to progeny that are also mutated in this way. There are labs that are banking the DNA of original life forms, so that we don’t forget—that is, so we know where we came from and can access and use that DNA in cloning if necessary.
LP So you must think we are naive when we worry only about electronic surveillance. DNA surveillance goes to a much deeper level of social engineering.
LHL: And racism. People could engineer designer babies who have blonde hair and blue eyes, repressing other ethnic physical attributes.
LP: And how is it that you define what you just described as surveillance?
LHL: Because micro-robots armed with a new force-sensing system can probe cells and track your interior corporeal being and also track your history. So the camera is not on the outside anymore. It’s scanning you from the inside out!
LP: I’m used to seeing a dark world, but that certainly is even more terrifying.
LHL: When they passed those laws in Congress about allowing the government to tap all of our phone lines, there was no protest that I know of other than one from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who unsuccessfully tried to stop it. The level of ignorance or denial is profound.
LP: The fact that people don’t know is not surprising, because the government is not telling; even elected officials in many cases don’t know what intelligence communities are doing. If you have this awareness, you are considered paranoid and crazy. If you worry about chips tracking people, you might be called crazy until the culture at large sees it actually happening and then catches up with you. It’s hard to know what the ultimate impact will be from Edward Snowden’s disclosures—if it will actually lead to change or not. But what you’re describing in terms of manipulating biology, that’s profoundly scary, and people should be scared. Technologies should not engage in this without a robust debate about the ultimate consequences, because it impacts humanity. Why isn’t it part of the public conversation? How much of what you know in terms of biological manipulation and engineering is being done in a private sphere or a governmental sphere?
LHL: The military is funding a lot of this research. The labs say that they have ethicists on board. But, of course, the ethicists are being paid, too. Bear in mind, it took me a year to get the interviews, and I had to send the scientists the questions before I was allowed to ask them. Even so, they told me a lot off the record. I’m working with Lisa Cortés, who produced the films The Woodsman (2004; directed by Nicole Kassell) and Precious (2009; directed by Lee Daniels), among others, and was an early voice in Def Jam Records. We find articles in the papers every day about this, but people are not paying attention.
LP: How are you translating the research into art?
LHL: It’s a three-part project. It will be a documentary and a feature film—part three of my trilogy on technology and women—and then it’s also going to be an installation called “The Infinity Engine,” which will include all of this research material and will play sequentially, on its own, in a program modeled after DNA. We will have in it a bio-printed nose and ear, and we’ll have projected interviews with a person who’s had the first bio-printed body part— a man whose finger grew back by putting protein powder on it. Among the people I interviewed was Myles Jackson, who testified in the US Supreme Court on the gene-patenting case. I intend to have many of the patent files available.
LP: So with something like skin grafts—that’s a positive use of the technology, right?
LHL: Of course, like most technology, it can go either way. For example, scientists have discovered that the telomere, or the “aging gene,” can also be used to deepen the understanding of cancer. I’ve consistently worked on projects where the roles of the observer and the observed are interchanged, and the user becomes both the victim or aggressor. The viewed or voyeur. They can see both sides, the dark and the light. There’s always a choice—one can use technology to alter biology in either dystopian or utopian ways. Our decisions now are crucial in that they affect whether or not our polluted planet and the life forms on it can survive. We are not going to start the film until next spring. Tilda Swinton is going to play a phosphorous cat that has jellyfish genes of the kind they used for some early experiments in the search for a cure for AIDS.
LHL: Art is a form of encryption.
LP: People have always used encryption. That is one of the goals of encryption, how to communicate privately. I think art is in a kind of different category, because it is communication with the desire to express something more openly. Or perhaps it is communicating some kind of different emotion. It is a translation, or a type of communication that is not based on a set language. Encryption is pretty basic; it has a more practical use. I want to say something to you, and I don’t want anyone else to hear it. I want you to know what I’m trying to say. Art making is not about anything practical.
LHL: What if you’re doing art that’s activist? You want people to react, but at the same time you need to be protective…
LP: Sure. Again, if you go to a country with a regime that you can’t criticize, you have to figure out a way to do it and people do find ways. You find metaphors, for example, to stand in for the government. In China, there are certain words that can’t be used on the Internet or they’ll be censored, so people use other words as replacements. That happens with art all the time. And does your art-making feel like a type of encryption?
LHL: Yes, because it’s a metaphor. If I make a film about [artist] Steve Kurtz, it becomes a metaphor for the kind of culture we live in. I use stand-ins. I used a stand-in for Steve because he couldn’t talk about his case.
LP: I understand. I use codes all the time. I pretend to be talking about something else. There are certain people who don’t encrypt their e-mail, so we just create a coding system. Perhaps we are talking about having lunch at a certain restaurant, when in fact we are talking about meeting to do NSA research. It is a way to use codes to communicate, whereas with art making it is maybe about more universal issues. I don’t particularly use encryption to talk about broader issues.
LHL: After I made the film about Steve, I started to get audited—which is what happened to all his friends. It hasn’t happened this year yet, but the last three times I got audited they had to give me money back because I never report everything since it looks ridiculous that I spend so much. I think that may have done the trick. That was a relatively harmless thing to go through. People asked me when I made that film if I was afraid of what the consequences would be for me. For me there was no choice though. If you know about these things, you feel you have to go forward and deal with the consequences. Have you ever thought about those things for yourself?
LP: Yes, of course. I agree with you. For sure, there are dangers in doing this kind of work. But the dangers to us with US passports, with communities behind us—we have a lot of leverage, a power that we can deploy to do our work. And we’re public figures. Those things give us more protection than someone else. In general, I feel that the work I do is my choice. It is a privilege to do it. But, working on NSA stuff…there is nothing that has put more fear into me. It is really scary. And there have been times at which I’ve felt that if I weren’t careful about how I was communicating there would be repercussions. There are people who would do anything to make sure some information doesn’t get out and that includes harming somebody…harming me. There are risks working in Germany. The Central Intelligence Agency just had their station chief kicked out. I assume my house is monitored; I assume I get followed. Those things are all par for the course. If you stick your hand in the hornet’s nest, it is going to come at you. But there was no choice but to make the film because you realize that next it might be you who is victimized. If you back out and don’t call on your courage to take that risk then you become part of the system you are criticizing. In terms of your work, what have been the moments that have been scary or that you felt yourself at risk?
LHL: I never have been really scared by making art, but maybe that’s because I always felt like an outsider, so I haven’t felt that I have had much to lose. It is a privilege to be able to give voice or give some presence to issues that have cultural resonance and can absolutely cause change.
LP: I absolutely agree. We are incredibly fortunate that people are opening up.
LHL: When did you become acutely aware of surveillance systems in your life and how they affected you?
LP: When I started working on this series of films about America post-9/11. I didn’t conceive the first one, My Country, My Country (2006), as part of a trilogy; I just wanted to document what was happening in the Iraq wars, so I went to Iraq. While I was filming it, I knew that my next film had to deal with Guantanamo because the fact of that prison still being open was such a national shame. I also felt that my films were not all about the Middle East, that they are about how the war and terror is brought home to the US. At the same time as the government was planning the invasion of Afghanistan and later Iraq, it was also planning to surveil the US population. In fact, the turning of the powers of the NSA inward, into the US, happened before any bombs were dropped on those countries. It was an important part of the story to tell, and I became interested in doing research on wiretapping after seeing a New York Times story about it in 2005. After I finished the film about Iraq, I was put on a watch list and started to be detained and interrogated every time I traveled. I became acutely aware of it on a personal level, not just on the level of a person informed about the issue. I have never been tortured—and we do know that the US legalized torture—but my notebooks were photocopied and my computers confiscated. They contained my source material, real things I had an obligation to protect. The government started to infringe on this obligation, so I became aware of the risks that it posed to my work as a documentary filmmaker. I guess the short answer is that I became aware of surveillance post-9/11. Before 9/11, I had a more naive relationship to it.
LHL: What happened when you most recently came into the US? Did you get stopped?
LP: No. For six years, I was stopped every time. There was a particular incident at Newark when they threatened to handcuff me for taking notes. I was taking notes because my lawyer said take notes about what time of day it is, the names of the agents, and the questions they ask you. So, I was taking out my notebook, and they threatened to handcuff me. They yelled at me. There were several agents telling me to put the pen down, and I asked why. They said that I could use the pen against them as a weapon—and they were not being ironic. They thought that I would stab them with it. It was so absurd, because they all had guns! And they told me that my pen was a potential weapon.
LHL: It is! (…)So those are the stakes that you go through in making your decisions. You set a path but have no idea what’s going to come from that, except that you kind of have to be ready for anything.
LP: Yes. You have been working on the themes of surveillance for a longer time than I have.
LHL: Not as publicly as you. Always as more of a voyeur of surveillance within a culture. I always felt like an outsider, therefore, like a witness. In your work, you have always tried to think ahead of technology, to ask what the next technological thing will be, and how it will be used because technology has the ability to subvert individuals and to repress freedom. That’s what the work is about to a great extent—exposing censorship and repression. Often people are victimized without realizing it. Sometimes, I hope, my work provides a tiny glimpse of what freedom could look like.
Laura Poitras is an award-winning director, producer, and journalist. Her film CITIZENFOUR, concerning Edward Snowden, received the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2015. One of three founding editors of The Intercept, Poitras is also a 2012 MacArthur Fellow and winner of the 2013 George Polk Award for her reporting on the NSA.
Lynn Hershman Leeson is an acclaimed artist and filmmaker whose work has explored technology and its effects on the human experience for over fifty years. Her use of innovative techniques such as digital media and interactivity has resulted in accolades from The National Endowment for the Arts, The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, among others.