From March 30 through June 2, 2013, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) will present Lynn Hershman Leeson: The Agent Ruby Files. In 2001–2 SFMOMA commissioned the web project Agent Ruby (agentruby.sfmoma.org/) by acclaimed San Francisco artist Lynn Hershman Leeson for its pioneering online platform e.space. Since then, Agent Ruby—an artificial intelligence web character—has conversed with online users, which has shaped her memory, knowledge, and moods. Organized by SFMOMA Curator of Media Arts Rudolf Frieling, the digital and analog presentation features dialogues drawn from the decade-long archive of texts—the Agent Ruby Files—and explores recurrent themes, technologies, and patterns of audience engagement.
Agent Ruby was conceived as an “e-dream portal,” a new experience in expanded cinema originating from the character Ruby (played by Tilda Swinton) in Hershman Leeson’s 2002 feature film Teknolust. The piece reflects the artist’s long-standing interest in the interaction of fictional and virtual characters with real people and situations. Through extensive research and analysis of Agent Ruby directed by Jill Sterrett, head of collections and conservation at SFMOMA, the museum recently discovered that the project’s server contained an enormous archive of user conversations with Agent Ruby over the past 12 years. Based on these logged files, the exhibition on the third-floor landing offers public access to the web project in conjunction with the previously unseen material of user interaction.
A number of binders produced by SFMOMA will be on display, drawing on transcripts of user chats with Ruby based on a selection of frequent semantic tags as “economy,” “dreams,” “feminism,” “human,” “philosophy,” “politics,” “sexuality,” and “technology.” Each archival binder is foregrounded by a new printed conversation between Ruby and an individual connected either with the project’s development or exhibition, including the artist herself talking to Ruby about the “human condition.” Ruby manages gracefully to respond to the wide range of user behavior, including unpredictable responses to automatically generated spam requests.
“Revisiting Agent Ruby is especially appropriate for Hershman Leeson, who has creatively reinterpreted her past work and artist archive online,” says Frieling. For example, SFMOMA’s presentation of Hershman Leeson’s Life² (2006) in The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now (2008) highlighted her forays into representing her archive and her seminal site-specific works like The Dante Hotel (1973) through the online platform Second Life.
The museum has a long-standing relationship with Hershman Leeson. In 2008, Frieling initiated and coordinated Lifeⁿ (Life to the power of n), a collaborative survey of Hershman Leeson’s work in six individual presentations throughout the Bay Area, jointly organized and promoted by the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, the de Young Museum, The Hess Collection, New Langton Arts, SFMOMA, and 01SJ A Global Festival of Art on the Edge at the San Jose Museum of Art. Hershman Leeson has been included in key SFMOMA exhibitions surveying pioneering performance and experimental media in the Bay Area such as Space / Time / Sound-1970s: A Decade in the Bay Area (1979) and Bay Area Media (1990), and she guest curated the major group exhibition The Floating Museum: Global Space Invasion Phase II (1978). Hershman Leeson’s feature films, including Teknolust (2002), Strange Culture (2007), and !Women Art Revolution (2010), have been screened at the museum.
SFMOMA was among the first major institutions to commission online projects in the late 1990s and later spearhead the integration of online works into its collection. The online gallery web portal e.space, co-organized by the Department of Media Arts and the Department of Architecture and Design, hosted a number of web projects on the museum’s server until the SFMOMA website was redesigned in 2008; Agent Ruby was then brought into the collection. Today, SFMOMA is also a leader in developing best-practice guidelines for the preservation, and display of time-based media and other nontraditional artworks. Lynn Hershman Leeson: The Agent Ruby Files exemplifies Frieling’s and the SFMOMA Department of Media Arts’ curatorial approach to highlighting web-based artwork both online and in the gallery context.
Related Public Program
On Thursday, May 23, 2013, from 6–8 p.m. in the SFMOMA Koret Visitor Education Center, Frieling will moderate an on-site and online conversation on such topics as the archive and museum, discourse and participation, and emerging technologies and digital humanities. Joining Frieling in this discussion will be artist Hershman Leeson; Amelia Jones, author, professor, and Grierson Chair in Visual Culture at McGill University, Montreal; Henry Lowood, Curator of the History of Sciences and Technology Collections and Film and Media Collections at Stanford University Libraries, Palo Alto; and Moira Roth, art historian, writer, and Professor of Art History, Mills College.