Lynn Hershman Leeson, experimental artist, premieres as director of her first feature film


One of the most outstanding females in the technical history of computing is Ada, Countess of Lovelace. Lynn Hershman Leeson, in her new film Conceiving Ada, brings this Victorian role model into contemporary discussion, offering cyberfeminism a reconfigured look at Ada's personal life and ideas, taking the fe.male.data_set in new directions.

Conceiving Ada is sure to be recognized as THE experimental independent feature film of 1998

Conceiving Ada, directed by Lynn Hershman Leeson, it will have its European premiere at the Berlinale. Conceiving Ada will make film history not only because of the innovative digital techniques employed, but also because it brings the atypical Victorian female Ada Lovelace, and her contributions to computer language development, to the attention of film audiences internationally.

Sometimes known as 'the mother of all programmers,' Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852), was an amateur mathematician. She wrote what is now known as the first computer language and predicted its use in music, poetry and art.


Lynn Hershman Leeson in her San Francisco Studio

A specialist in female identity, Hershman uses the structure of Ada's thoughts in the film, and states:

Ada's passions and perversions forced her to live a double life. The duality of her existence as mother/visionary, lover/fiercely independent thinker, wife/schemer is acknowledged in the film by weaving a narrative that references the dual strands of the DNA molecule.

Lynn Hershman Leeson


Keywords: memory retrieval - DNA memory extension - immortality

Ada Lovelace (played by Tilda Swinton) is both the subject and metaphor of the film. This little known 19th Century braniac geekgirl, promiscuous and opiated, is now credited with authoring the first computer code. She has been celebrated widely in recent cult literature like The Difference Machine by Sterling & Gibson, and Zeros + Ones by Sadie Plant. She is a central heroine of an internationally active and growing cyberfeminist culture. Ada Lovelace serves as an example that females have made an investment in computer culture. In a direct reference to Lady Ada Lovelace, Yale University established "TAP: The Ada Project" as an online environment giving a comprehensive history of women in technology.


Eyes looking in "A room of ones own", Video, 1990-93

In Conceiving Ada, Hershman demonstrates originality and astuteness, but never disregards her feminist mission to explore female communication practices, insight and sexuality. In previous works of Hershman, her characters were named Lorna, Roberta, Marion or Chystene, but each female character looked the viewer directly in the eye and validated her credibility. Ada and Emmy Core (Francesca Faridany), her 20th Century counterpart, also 'connect' and 'communicate', visually, spiritually and professionally.

Lynn Hershman Leeson gives birth to a new film style

Conceiving Ada is not only an important feminist inquiry into the life and precocious genius of Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, it is the telling of her life story as a parallel. Like Ada embroidered her incriptions, Hershman weaves themes of memory, desire, and immortality through the parallel representations of Ada. Through associative mechanisms, obsessive desire, and the wise guidance of Emmy's mentor Sims (Timothy Leary ), Ada and Emmy eventually become linked by a freak trial experiment of Emmy, a genetic memory specialist. A DNA transfer (which after her partner Nicholas (J.D. Wolfe) messes with the program) allows Emmy to make contact with the past, and she becomes a voyeur into Ada's most personal moments.

Phantom Limb, Photograph, 1984

Throughout the film, Hershman's trademark stylistic symbols can be clearly recognized: the use of the eye for what Margaret Morse has termed 'the reversal of the [male] gaze". Hershman repeatedly employs personal connectivity between her subjects and her viewers with direct eye contact and a fearless gaze from the subject. Normally, the male gaze is associated with attitude that disempowers women and/or objectifies them. In Conceiving Ada, the gaze is an eye into the past - an eye into a parallel person's soul and identity. Even her digital dog watches over her, and from a monitor comments on the live and remote actions going on in the studio as Ada and Emmy connect.

In the film, the easygoing freedom and honesty that women have a right to enjoy in the 1990s, including digital careers, alternative lifestyles and fad diets, is juxtaposed with the priggish, hypocritical Victorian decade. Ada, for example, is told by her doctor that her intense abdominal pain was due to the stressing of her mental capabilities with mathematics (later she was diagnosed, and eventually died from, Uterine cancer). 'Have another child', she was told, 'that puts everything right.' Portrayed as a romantic realist to the end, we see Ada on her deathbed, saying, 'the redeeming gift of humanity is the ability of each generation to recreate itself" whereupon, her memory becomes implanted in the fetus of Emmy's unborn daughter

'Room of One's Own' 1990-93, s.o.

In her critical analysis of Hershman's early multi-media interactive work 'Room of One's Own' (1990-93, with Sara Roberts and Palle Henckel) --a tiny interactive electronic peep show-Margaret Morse says:

"The trick is in adopting a technology which was organized for quite another purpose, and using it to a self-reflexive end."

Phantom Limb, Photograph, 1984

Virtual Sets/Infinate Reality - the making of Conceiving Ada

I felt it important to use the technology Ada pioneered. Virtual sets and digital sound became the vehicle through which her story could be told. They provided environments in which she moves freely through time, becomes liberated and, ultimately, moves into visibility.

Lynn Hershman Leeson
Tilda as Ada in the Blue Box

The blue box technique allowed Hershman to utilize computer graphics, and software like Adobe Photoshop, to erase all signs of the 20th Century... "it is just beautiful!!!" she says, about this process which is used to create the background instead of building traditional sets. What this means is that the actors had to perform in a chroma-key blue room, and were composed into the set digitally, by means of an Ultimate process. Used in television, and by video artists for a number of years, this is the first instance of it being the main set in a feature film, and the first utilization where the actors could see themselves composited --live-- able to work interactively with the process.

Hershman, who has worked out a variety of ways to tell stories interactively, realizes that linear systems force the director to make choices. For her, working in a linear process was radical, because she had grown accustomed to multiple endings. In Conceiving Ada, however, the actors were interactive with one a other, and with the process of making the film because they were able to see themselves in the monitor, where they could quickly adjust to the virtual set, and to each other. The process, therefore, retained much of the spontaneity that earmarks an artists work.

Many media art characters play themselves in Conceiving Ada

Timothy Leary the infamous 60's counterculture hero --who even after death hopes to eventually transcend his life (his remains await possible future medical processes)-- plays Emmy's modern day mentor. He represents 'Memory'.

Hershman says, "...I knew him for many years....he asked to read the script beforehand, and did the scenes nine days before he died...he deferred payment for royalties."

As Sims, his message is:

"'s the key, focus on energy, illumination, zeroes and ones."

He communicates with Emmy 'through the 'vocabulary of light' and advises her, in her frustrated research efforts, to,

'...look at what you are doing right....information is like a message, you have to breath it in'.

In the scenes with Leary, R.U Sirius (Mondo2000) relaxes euphorically at Leary's feet, the ultimate understudy and muse of cyberculture.

John Perry Barlow - former Grateful Dead lyricist and Electronic Frontier Foundation founder) teaches Ada about encryption, in his role as John Crosse. He is Ada's gambling accomplice, placing her bets at the racetrack (where she lost a fortune trying out her mathematical predictions of chance).

The Production

The famous Residents Eye

Conceiving Ada is a low budget film. It was made for under a million dollars. How? First of all, many of the professionals involved were willing to waive their fees were differed. For those who didn't, the fact that it was a non-union crew meant that the pay scale was much lower than Hollywood productions. Most of the actors, editors, and creative staff felt that Conceiving Ada was an investment in the future of film making. Final cut editor, Bob Dalva (Industrial Light and Magic) deferred his fee as did Cinematographer Hiro Narita, who took the job as an experimental project. In total, about 300 people worked on the film, and over 1 million dollars of personal time was donated. The cash that was in hand came from the financing by the German public broadcasting company ZDF.

Conceiving Ada will be subtitled in German and broadcast on television in 1998 throughout Europe. The film was shot in and around the Bay Area, and the blue studio was constructed in Lynn's atelier, in downtown San Francisco. Local talent was utilized whenever possible, including the programming and graphics skills of many of her students from University of California, Davis. The soundtrack was created by the cult The Residents (also know for their 'eye contact'). The RzWeb hosts the Conceiving Ada Soundtrack (1997).

Lynn discussed the making of Conceiving Ada live, on Hotwired's pop TALK, where the Real Audio interview from November 19, 1997 is still available for listening.

Preliminary screenings at the prestigious Toronto FilmFest in September 1997 and at Sundance in January 1998, produced rave reviews and extended technical discussions about the film.

An announcement about pending theatrical distribution is expected in Berlin.

Hershman says:

" must believe in what you do obsessively to succeed."

In fields still dominated by male identification, Hershman corrects the ridiculous assumption that women have no natural ability with either machines or logic. In a informal interview at her San Francisco studio in August 1997, Hershman also pointed out that "Americans are too interested in the past, but are afraid to change their structure." In Conceiving Ada, she changes the view of the past, and offers solutions for women interested in technology. She believes that to be successful, one must be obsessive. Like Ada, she is obsessive. Hershman's unique ability is her eye for innovation. Her and success is the creation of a new language of multi-media filmmaking.

Screening Schedule: Conceiving Ada, written and directed by Lynn Hershman Leeson, has its European premiere at the 1998 Berlin Film Festival. Feb. 16th - 9:30 at the Delphi
Feb. 17th - 10:30 at the Arsenal
Transmediale will host a retrospective screening and tribute to Hershman, hosted by Rudolf Frieling. Feb. 17 - 12.00-18.00 at the Podewil