For over 40 years, pioneering artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson has videotaped interviews of the influential people around her. These form the basis of her recently produced, soon-to-see-release !Women Art Revolution! A (Formerly) Secret History (!W.A.R.). The film premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival and recently played a packed run at the Berlin International Film Festival.
According to Hershman Leeson, W.A.R. is the first movie to tell the history of the American feminist art movement, dating from the mid-'60s to the present.
Hershman Leeson also recently released a companion project RAW/WAR (rawwar.org), which premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival as part of its New Frontiers program. The interactive website allows users to access and contribute to the history of the feminist art movement.
A.i.A. recently sat down with Hershman Leeson in her San Francisco studio to discuss !W.A.R., RAW/WAR and untold histories.
CHERIE L TURNER: In the film, you say that you started filming the interviews as a way of remembering, so that what you were experiencing wouldn't be lost. Did you have a sense that there was something important happening?
LYNN HERSHMAN LEESON: Yes, I did. That was the mid-'60s in Berkeley [California]. There was a lot going on. People were coming over to my house, people like Allen Ginsberg, Jerry Rubin, Timothy Leary, Phil Ochs. I wasn't a filmmaker then, but I wanted, in a sense, to keep a scrapbook of what was going on. I concentrated on women artists because those were the people I knew.
TURNER: When did you realize this was a documentary in the making?
HERSHMAN LEESON: I put something together in 1993. It wasn't very good. So I just put everything away again. In 2004, when Stanford University got my archives, and I was cleaning my studio, I found all this footage and showed it to my students. All of us were amazed. They were hungry for this information that didn't otherwise exist. It was at that point I decided to make this film, and to try to get a grant to digitize everything, because it was in so many different formats.
TURNER: Salient details and events in the American feminist art movement, and the people behind them, could have been a part of art history that was lost, because you're the only one with this documentation.
HERSHMAN LEESON: It wasn't in any books because at the time most powerful people in the art structure thought that women artists weren't important enough to write about, or to collect their work or to discuss. I think that this film really creates a history that didn't exist and wouldn't have existed without it. It establishes that this happened. It credits the people who did it and the struggle to do that work, which liberated several generations beyond it, male and female.
The feminist movement itself essentially and radically changed the direction of art making, and it hasn't been credited for having done that. It absolutely revised the way that people look at content in art, social content and issues of justice, cultural issues. It's the first art that really dealt with those culturally relevant issues, such as violence against women and empowering people. It questions a different set of principles than art that just deals with the image itself.
TURNER: You were a part of the movement documented in the movie. How did the feminist movement impact your work?
HERSHMAN LEESON: I was making art up here in San Francisco alone. I didn't have a community. But by nature, the work was feminist. So I can't say feminist art influenced me because it was contemporaneous. But my work was really all about empowerment, and, probably because I was metaphorically imprisoned, severely limited because of my gender, not being able to show or not being able to sell just because I am a woman.
TURNER: I wanted to ask you about the RAW/WAR project. Can you talk about what your intentions are with it?
HERSHMAN LEESON: It took three months to look at all the film. And I was making 83 minutes out of 12,000 minutes [200 hours], and so I wanted to make that work accessible, which is how I got Stanford to put it online, so they could see the entire interviews. Instead of seeing two minutes of Carolee Schneemann, I have 17 hours that you can look at that's all transcribed and cross-linked.
The other part is, what about the future generations of feminist artists or people from the past I didn't include? I get e-mails all the time saying, "You didn't put this in, you didn't put that in." So now, people can put their own information into RAW/WAR; they can upload images or video or text; you can create a living archive, a community-based information system on this work.
TURNER: A lot your work has involved new technology to explore ideas of identity and place. What is it about cutting-edge technology that so interests you? Does the fact that technology is a male-dominated realm have any influence on your gravitating toward it? There's something poetic in using a male-dominated field to further feminist art.
HERSHMAN LEESON: First, technology is not a male-dominated field. It was invented by women.The first computer language was created by Ada Lovelace. I did the film Conceiving Ada  about her. Artificial intelligence was envisioned by Mary Shelly, and wireless computing was invented by Hedy Lamarr. All of the major advances in technology have been made by women.
But I think the thing that drew me to technology was the fact that it doesn't have a history either. Its history is particularly ignored by the arts. So I wasn't competing with 2,000 years of painting if I was trying to do something that dealt with a completely new medium.
TURNER: What do you hope that people take away from this film?
HERSHMAN LEESON: The main issue is that the women who are featured were extremely courageous and resilient and didn't give up and reinvented themselves in order to fight the repression of culture.
The film screens at the San Francisco International Film Festival, April 23 and 25, and is being released in theaters nationwide, including IFC in New York, beginning June 1.
Top: Feminist Studio Workshop at Sheila's house, September, 1973. Courtesy of Sheila Levrant de Bretteville Archives. Above: Lynn Hershman Leeson Portrait by Ethan Kaplan.