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Viewing scary science through rosy glasses

In her newest offbeat film, 'Teknolust,' Lynn Hershman Leeson sees sci-fi's softer side.

August 17, 2003|Chloe Veltman | Special to The Times

San Francisco — In director Lynn Hershman Leeson's feature film "Teknolust," a biogeneticist covertly downloads a sample of her own DNA into her latest research project.

The clandestine experiment generates three clones or Self Replicating Automatons, or SRAs, who, despite the scientist's best efforts, break loose of their high-tech prison in her home and run amok through San Francisco. Yet what sounds like a familiar sci-fi plot involving the terrors of a technology turns out to be quite the reverse.

In the decades since scientists James Watson and Francis Crick unveiled the structure of DNA in 1953, the double helix has unfurled tendril-like in our collective conscience.

Artists and thinkers have riffed endlessly on the possible outcomes of the merging of mankind and machine, but few have had anything positive to say about it.

Films as diverse as "Blade Runner" and "The Matrix" and "Terminator" movies all see the Rise of the Machine in largely dystopian terms. Margaret Atwood's new novel involving futuristic reproduction techniques, "Oryx and Crake," is similarly cynical about cyber-evolution. Even scientists are wary of the reproductive capabilities of non-exclusively biological forms.

"Robots, engineered organisms and nanobots share a dangerous amplifying factor: They can self-replicate," Sun Microsystems chief scientist Bill Joy wrote in an April 2000 article for Wired magazine, "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us."

"A bomb is blown up only once but one bot can become many, and quickly get out of control," he said.

Leeson, unusually for an artist, sees the 50th anniversary of Watson and Crick's discovery as a cause for celebration.

"Technology is always positive for me," said Leeson, grinning affably into a cup of coffee on a recent morning in her bright San Francisco apartment. "Technology is filled with potential, just like humans, and I'd like to think that it can enhance our lives in ways we've only just begun to imagine."

For a film about biogenetic reproduction, "Teknolust," which opens Friday in San Francisco and next month in Chicago and St. Louis, is unremittingly breezy and optimistic.

Far from being sinister, the plot turns into a quirky love story, in which robots are capable of romance.

" 'Teknolust' is about loneliness and love," said Tilda Swinton, the Scottish actress who plays all three SRAs as well as biogeneticist Rosetta Stone in the movie. She also starred in Leeson's 1997 feature "Conceiving Ada."

Rosetta finds love and no longer has to self-replicate. Even the automata need love and are lonely without it.

Over more than three decades of work as a new media artist and filmmaker, Leeson has explored the ideas of identity and cloning through technologically innovative art projects. "Teknolust," made late in 2000, was one of the earliest features to be shot in high definition video. "Conceiving Ada," which tells the story of the Victorian computer programmer Ada Byron King and explores the female scientist's dual reproductive roles as biological mother and one who "gives birth" to new scientific ideas, made extensive use of virtual sets.

With "Lorna," an early 1980s interactive art installation that gave voyeuristic visitors at museums like the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis and the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London the power to manipulate a video-based character's identity, Leeson created the world's first interactive laser disc.

"I see computers and technology as media of our time, like fresco painting was to the Renaissance," Leeson said. "Computers, the Web and surveillance techniques are ways we have of projecting and ingesting identities."

Leeson's interest in "human-machine symbiosis" manifested itself from an early age. At 16, she created pictures of women's crumpled bodies by using Xerox machines. In 1971, Leeson began "Roberta," a nine-year performance art project in which the artist refashioned herself as Roberta Breitmore, a blond wig-wearing and handbag-toting alter ego. The character had three clones that would participate in "happenings" around San Francisco. Leeson, who partly modeled "Teknolust's" Stone on Roberta, sees the earlier project as a major influence on the film.

"Roberta, like Rosetta, has three multiples that run around the city," said Leeson. "Both projects are about those things that can't be controlled."

Impromptu creations

Currently, Leeson has four movies at various stages of development, including a film about a woman who refuses to age and a feminist take on the Frankenstein story. To the consternation of her crew, she has been known to make up scenes on the spot during shooting. Her scripts tend to zigzag chaotically and are packed with gimmicks and gags, some of which make more sense than others.

"I wrote 'Teknolust' as a complete joke," Leeson said. "The funny thing was that no one else on the set thought it was a comedy. Meanwhile, Tilda and I were constantly cracking up."

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