Media @ McGill

Archival research, Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester

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Lotfi Gouigah

 

My visit to the Whitworth Art Gallery’s archives at the University of Manchester has allowed me to examine pieces from Lynn Hershman’s Roberta Breitmore (1973-75) project.

The collection consists of artifacts, documents and photographic pieces from the Roberta Breitmore  performance taking place between 1974 and 1978. Lynn Hershman changed her name, moved to San Francisco and became Roberta Breitmore. Breitmore had her own bank account, a distinct wardrobe and handwriting, and official papers attesting to her identity. Hershman thus proceeded to be Roberta Breitmore.

My encounter with the work has allowed me to discover notable features I would not have could not witness through documents and scholarship surrounding Roberta Breitmore. My visit was also an opportunity to meet with Whitworth curator Mary Griffiths who explained to me how the Whitworth had acquired the Roberta Breitmore collection. Unfortunately, on the day of my visit, I was informed an archival door was malfunctioning and prevented the Whitworth staff from making the full collection available to me. While an engineer worked in vain that day to unlock the door, I was only able to view about a quarter of the collection. I am currently planning with Mary Griffiths to convene another visit.

On my visit, Mary Griffiths’ assistant provided me with a printed database of the collection which revealed Roberta Breitmore to be a work organised into five thematically distinct series: External Transformations, Internal Transformations, Anonymous Social Constructions, Articles of Identity and Meet Mr. America.

The close examination of one piece from of the collection is a gelatin print entitled Robota (1976-2005) revealed to me the way in which the documentation of the Roberta Breitmore performance self-consciously harnesses the performative potential of technics and tools as things.  

Robota is a portrait of Lynn Hershman embodying Roberta Breitmore. Although it is 11 x 14” it resembles a passport photograph or other photograph produced to ascertaining identity. However, the face appears off centre, we can see Hershman’s real hair under her wig, her large glasses are jarringly crooked. Moreover, her make-up is heavy, almost grotesque. The eyes appear to be midpoint between a vacant gaze and a knowing look. In this photograph, which belongs to the External Transformations series, the use of props and of the photographic medium itself conspired to expose the complex palmiest of personal identity. Here the face is literally and figuratively constructed and annotated beyond legibility. As noted by Bill Brown in “We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us: when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the windows get filthy, when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested, however momentarily.”[1] Robota, with its ornamental crooked glasses and thick make-up façade, is a failed portrait; it appears to have no referent other than its own plasticity. The title of the work which appears to be a pun of the word ‘robot’ and Roberta further discounts any claim that it is a photograph whose referent is clearly defined human subject. This is consistent with what I argue in my dissertation to be a performative rather than representationalist use of media and plasticity in Hershman’s work.[2] In that respect it is worth noting that that this approach occurred decades before the publication and wide dissemination of a gender theory inflicted form of Feminism sparked in part by Judith Butler’s “Perfomative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory”.

While helping inform my discussion of Hershman’s work, my encounter with the Roberta Breitmore collection, helps me compare the artist’s approach and methods with those of her contemporaries Cindy Sherman or predecessors like Claude Cahun who have produced many self-portraits or portraits of themselves as others. Witnessing the material and formal features of Hershman’s work thus helps me in situating it historically. These features as inseparable from their historical specificities since, as noted by Bernard Stiegler, “Every epoch is characterized by the technical condition of actual access to the already-there that constitute it as an epoch, as both suspension and continuation, and that harbor its particular possibilities of a ‘differantiation’ and individuation.”[3]

Overall my viewing of the Roberta Breitmore collection of the Whitworth Art Gallery’s archive has been very useful to my dissertation writing. I would like to thank Media@McGill for its continued support and for making my visit possible. I also want to thank Whitworth curator Mary Griffiths for her help and assistance, and for allowing me to view the collection.

 




[1] Bill Brown, “Thing Theory,” Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry 28, no. 1 (2001): 4.

[2] I am using the notions of performative and representationalism as discussed in the work Karen Barard and in J.L. Austin’s speech acts theory.

[3] Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998), 236.