Media @ McGill

Opaque Media and Performative Technics: Communication Theory and New Media Art Criticism

Submitted by Media@McGill on


Lotfi Gouigah


Support from Media@McGill will allow me to complete a dissertation chapter and potential journal article. My dissertation centers primarily on the work of American artist Lynn Hershman Leeson. Leeson has produced work of performance, video art, electronic art and installation. She has used cybernetic and communication technologies as well as artificial intelligence. The aims of the chapter are to renew the theoretical framework used to discuss work like Leeson’s, which is commonly classified as New Media and Performance. The journal article will be aimed at publications dealing with debates surrounding art historical methods and multidisciplinary scholarly and artistic practices (e.g. Interventions, Art Journal). 

The aim of my doctoral project is to participate in the renewal of theoretical frameworks used in Art History and Criticism to discuss work like Leeson’s and other commonly classified as New Media. While Art History can trace the genealogy of artistic gestures, and produce formalist, visual and iconological analyses, much of the relationship between meaning and materiality that media enable remains unexamined. I believe the work of Leeson is an appropriate case study for investigating this relationship.

Leeson began her career as a performance artist, but later made use of electronics, video, film, and computer software. Amongst her most notable performance work is Roberta Breitmore (1978), in which Leeson adopted the identity of the fictitious persona of Roberta Breitmore – even going so far as to change her legal name. In Roberta Breitmore (1978), Leeson hired a private detective to watch and document the life of Roberta that she performed. Leeson accumulated a great number of official paper documents and third party accounts of this ultimately fictitious persona. Later, Leeson produced Synthia Stock Ticker (2000). This work brought together a repurposed stock ticker, computer software and hardware, algorithms, and cybernetics to create an aesthetic experience that mirrors in real time the mood of the stock markets. In all these works, the process of transduction as well as the noise, distortion and opacity involved in mediation, is highlighted and becomes the crux of the work.                                                       

I will use two theoretical approaches in my attempt to help renew art historical methods used to discuss work such as Leeson’s. The first will be informed by the question of the transparency and opacity of media found in communication theory in the lineage of Plato’s Phaedrus, Jacques Derrida aporia of origins in Of Grammatology and in Bernard Stiegler’s Technics and Time. The contention that writing, logography and all media are opaque and fail to convey full presence will thus be examined in relation to Leeson’s work. The second approach will draw from the idea of performativity as articulated by J.L. Austin in How to Do Things with Words as well as by Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler and Karen Barad. The concept of Performativity tells us that meaning can emerge through a process rather than simply a representation. I believe the highlighting of the opacity and failures of media, together with the notion of performativity and praxis based meaning, can provide a new theoretical framework in art criticism to view New Media as performative devices rather than as simply the tools used for aesthetic or iconographical ends.

In January 2016, with the support of Media@McGill, I conducted archival research at the Getty Center’s Research Institute. I was able to consult archives of Leeson’s work as well as of her contemporaries Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Allan Kaprow. I also had the opportunity to participate in a Noura Wedell seminar with Leeson at USC while also discussing her past, current and upcoming work. I hope to soon visit the Whitworth Gallery archives at the University of Manchester to view more Leeson related archival material.