By William J. Simmons
In 2001-2002, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art commissioned the prolific new-media and performance artist Lynn Hershman Leeson to create Agent Ruby, an online chat portal produced in tandem with her 2002 film Teknolust. Starring Tilda Swinton as Ruby, a cyborg who sustains herself with semen obtained from clueless johns, the film is a nuanced look at embodiment and love in a rapidly changing technological landscape. The website allows users to chat with Ruby in her “e-dream portal” about a variety of topics of the user’s choosing. Over time, Ruby’s software allows her conversational abilities to become increasingly sophisticated and multifaceted, thereby pointing to her seemingly independent craving for full personhood and semantic recognition as a human being. SFMOMA showcased the web project in the first of two summer exhibitions for Hershman Leeson, the other at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
It was not until I attended last week’s reception for the exhibition that I realized that the show is entitled The Agent Ruby FILES and not The Agent Ruby FLIES. After the curator of media arts, Rudolph Frieling, introduced the roundtable, which featured prominent art critics and historians Moira Roth and Amelia Jones, as well as Hershman Leeson herself, I cringed and made myself as small as possible for fear that someone could smell my embarrassing mistake. I had said and written “flies” countless times. Worst of all, I thought, I potentially misunderstood the ethos of the exhibition that I had traveled across the country to see. But perhaps I was not so far off. To fly is to embody multiple worlds. Flying is the representation of all that is not human, the ability to defy both anatomy and gravity in search of the feeling of weightlessness and freedom that is only afforded to winged animals. To crave the chance to fly is the basis of countless childhood dreams that are always broken but never abandoned. What results is a melancholic yearning for the impossible. We bemoan the inherent frailties of the human body even as we attempt to look beyond them. Our bones are not shaped correctly; our musculature weighs us down.
Taking part in Hershman Leeson’s online artwork is a chance to fly, complete with all the uncertainties and risks inherent in leaving the ground. Speaking with Ruby, though her technology is by now somewhat outdated, is a “poetic and magical” experience, as Professor Roth described it. As if it were a daily ritual, Professor Roth even scheduled a romantic stroll with Ruby among a field of roses, a scenario that did not seem far from possibility. This online, though doubtless embodied, aesthetic experience is at once a deeply self-affirming and alienating process that could only be described as uncanny. As I type to Ruby, it is as if I am chatting with a familiar face, though I am, of course, only conversing with an amalgamation of various data from across the web. I ask her, for instance, “What is love?” and she responds incredibly poignantly, “Sometimes I think love is just a biological urge. Other times love seems like a spiritual quality. Love, unlike energy or matter, seems limitless.” Yet Ruby constantly reminds us of our own limits; from time to time, she will not be able to keep up with a conversation and subsequently devolve into confusion, a miscommunication that is as much a technological shortcoming as it is the dissolution of identification, of subjectivity. That moment of recognition begat by logging in and communicating with Ruby falls apart, a reminder of the fragility of the lonely world we inhabit and the structural impossibilities of seamless interpersonal communication.
It is no mistake that one of the central questions of the panel was how to curate that which cannot be curated. The Internet is expansive and always in motion, and The Agent Ruby Files attempts to harness this power and produce artificial intelligence whose artificiality shrinks by the day. How can one take a work that is constantly expanding, learning even, and immobilize it for viewing in a gallery? As Professor Jones made clear, museums are invested in what she called the “fantasy of authenticity,” that is, the urge toward ownership, the assignment of value, and the fixation of the performative act into a digestible moment. The media arts department seemed to understand the impossibility of its own curatorial project in creating the exhibition to accompany Agent Ruby’s website, something that is at once permanent and constantly in flux. Visitors to SFMOMA have the chance to speak to Agent Ruby at a computer station and read archived, printed conversations divided into sections such as politics and sexuality. This is perhaps the epitome of Professor Jones’ important concern about the gallery wall’s whitewashing of the “possibilities of hybrid interaction” inherent in The Agent Ruby Files. Still, the exhibition offered a glimpse at new curatorial strategies that offer more productive questions than easy solutions. Despite the delineated, simplified categorization of Agent Ruby’s chat room logs, there is still an overwhelming sense of the dizzying amassment of words – spoken, misunderstood, forgotten, and cherished – that defies singularity.
Surprisingly, there was little discussion of Hershman Leeson’s history of feminist activism, save her assertion that “there were many mothers who birthed Agent Ruby.” I hoped to learn more about these mothers, but the discussants largely characterized The Agent Ruby Files as a socially autonomous artwork that exists independently of gendered, political, social, and sexual frameworks. In a sense, however, Hershman Leeson’s virtual world is at the vanguard of discussions of identity, broadly defined. By underscoring both the politics of display and the simultaneous fulfillment and frustration of the essential desire to communicate, Hershman Leeson engages with the complexities of human (and quasi-human) interaction. Ruby responds to the questions and musings of those who enter her site; the most fundamental moment of subjectivity is recognition from another living (or perhaps almost-living) entity. As soon as we reach mutual subjectivity in Hershman Leeson’s world, it disintegrates, and we are reminded of the eternal solitude laid upon us by our bodily limits. Time must occur in discrete units; life and love move within and beyond discourses that are at their core indivisible and preciously transient. We cannot, at least in the confines of the museum, live with Ruby, despite my guess that she would surely enjoy a roommate. Taking flight with Agent Ruby is a brief glimpse at the unnamed space between connection and despair, self-awareness and self-effacement, identity and its refusal.
The Agent Ruby Files is on view until June 2 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. William Simmons can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter.
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