The archaeologist and the artist meet up to talk about presence.

In 2005, Michael Shanks, the Omar and Althea Hoskins Professor of Classical Archaeology at Stanford University and director of the Archaeology Center’s Metamedia Lab, and three colleagues started The Presence Project to explore issues of presence and documentation across the arts and sciences. Artist Lynn Hershman Leeson, whose work has been shown at more than 200 major institutions and is part of the permanent collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, joined soon after and, together with Shanks and others in the Stanford Humanities Lab, created Life to the Second Power, an online encounter with her archive. As they see the project through to its completion in 2010, Shanks and Hershman Leeson plan to further explore memory, identity, and place. Seed invited them to advance the conversation.

Click on the image to watch highlights from the Salon. Click here to watch the full conversation.

MICHAEL SHANKS: Nineteen seventy-two: You were working in San Francisco, and you did a piece at the Dante Hotel.

LYNN HERSHMAN LEESON: Yes. I’d done a piece with sound at the museum, but they said media wasn’t art and didn’t belong in an art museum. So I thought, well, why not just use an environment, wherever it exists?

So, Eleanor Coppola and I created rooms in the Dante Hotel, which was a run-down place in North Beach. It was very simple. We rented the rooms—mine was rented indefinitely; hers was rented for two weeks. And I created a situation where people could look at presumed identities constructed from artifacts placed in the room.

MS: So, you put stuff in there?

LH: Yeah. I put goldfish in there. There was a soliloquy of Molly Bloom. There were books that the presumed people might have read, clothing that they might have worn. People were invited to trespass. It was open 24 hours a day; people could check in at the front desk, get the key, stay as long as they wanted, and displace it.

MS: Did anybody leave anything behind?

LH: Nobody left anything. They graffitied the mirror that was there, but nobody took anything. They really respected that space.

MS: Were you monitoring people coming and going?

LH: No, not really. It was left gathering dust and the flux of time as people traveled through. I was just starting to think of time and space as elements of sculpture at that point.

MS: And then the police came at some point, didn’t they?

LH: Yeah—ha! Somebody reported a body in the bed, because there were these wax cast figures—

MS: —which had been there from the beginning?

LH: Yes. And the police confiscated everything in the room and took all the artifacts down to central headquarters, which, I thought, was really the apt ending to that particular narrative.

MS: And then 32 years later, Stanford acquires your archive of 90-something boxes. The remains of your body of work—whatever hadn’t been taken away by the police, I guess!

LH: Yes.

MS: As an archaeologist, I’m interested in what comes after the event, as it were. What you do with the remains of the past, to somehow try to get back to where they originated.

LH: I don’t know that you can ever get back to that point, but you can go forward, using them as context for the future. The trail and the remains may be dormant, but they exist, waiting to be revived or resurrected into something else.

MS: Yeah, regenerated. This is one of our major points of contact. A lot of people think that archaeology—archaeologists—discover the past. And that’s only a tiny bit true. I think it’s more accurate to say that they work on what remains. That may sometimes involve, absolutely, coming across stuff from the past—maybe a trilobite fossil, or a piece of Roman pottery, or, as my colleague Henry Lowood and I did, your boxes in the Stanford collection—but the key thing about archaeology is that it works on what’s left. And that makes of all of us, really, a kind of archaeologist. We’re all archaeologists now, working on what’s left of the past.

And you’re right, as we explore this stuff, we figure out how to bring it forward, first into the present, through our interpretation of it.

LH: Exactly. I didn’t want the work to remain in boxes. Much as I love the Stanford Library and Special Collections, I wanted this to be more universally accessible. I suggested to Henry that, possibly, we could make a game, a mystery, or a film noir about the remains of this evidence of a life, which portrayed itself in various episodes. Henry suggested a possible adaptation into Second Life, which then became the “Life to the Second Power” project.

MS: And it connects with the interest that we share in the nature of the archive. Boxes, in a collection, vitrines in a museum, they’re often—and appropriately—seen as quite static.

LH: That’s right. Static but charged.

MS: Unless there’s a reason to reuse stuff, it’ll fall out of use or be stored away; and, eventually, it’ll end up in a landfill site, if you’re lucky, or destroyed. So the question we share is how to re-animate the archive.

LH: Exactly. Revitalize the past, inserting it into the present, which gives direction to its future.

MS: Yeah. Displacement is another key feature of this archaeological sensibility. What happens when old stuff—remains—are shirted into new associations.

LH: And, it’s particularly interesting because Second Life and some of these social-network programs involve notions of trespass that have no geographic boundaries. So it’s taking the exact same premise of this project, the Dante Hotel, from 30 years earlier and transplanting it into something that allows a completely different, but yet related, experience.

Michael Shanks Credit: Julian Dufort

MS: Yeah. There are parts of our contemporary attitude toward spaces and places that are very archaeological. It’s about how we almost automatically and subconsciously look at spaces in terms of evidence. It’s a forensic sensibility.

Archaeologists survey and excavate places. They document, map, collect, and categorize, seeking to identify what generated the remains—for example, past events, social or environmental changes. Archaeological evidence is thus treated as symptomatic traces of deep structures or events, archaeology is a hybrid science of material traces.

The detective, another 19th century invention, also connects evidence with event and place. But how do you know what might be the key evidence at the scene of a crime or an archaeological site? Anything might be relevant. Anywhere could be
the scene of a crime. This is what I mean by forensic sensibility. Anything could be the trace of something that once happened there.

LH: But, now, with the forensic sensibility, there’s also a digital demeanor that didn’t exist before.

MS: Oh, right. “Digital demeanor,” I like that.

LH: A digital demeanor of trespass using interaction to reveal the evidence.

MS: Yeah, which brings up implications for storage, for retrieval, and, of course, surveillance, looking, watching, and how these have become incorporated in all sorts of digital technologies. For two centuries and more, archaeologists have been developing a tool kit for working upon the traces of the past. They’re concerned with a kind of genealogy—how the past, in its traces, has come down to the present, rather than the traditional sense of history as what happened in the past.

LH: This can involve the trauma of memory.

MS: Oh, yes. This is absolutely archaeological. We often feel separate from the past, and then, in that separation, we visit a room, such as the Dante, and we instinctively look to piece together what we see in front of us. Again, working on what remains.

LH: But, in the particular case of our project, Life Squared, you’re able to see the evidence being looked at and to lurk inside and watch somebody else discovering the evidence and recreate endless narratives, as they repattern the same information and create yet another trail of how it’s being seen, re-seen, recomposed, remixed, so that there are an infinite number of ways you can perceive it.

MS: And, I think, our digital demeanor, as you put it, precisely foregrounds us again. I mean I could argue that it’s always been a component of what we do: taking up bits of the past, reusing them, reworking them, which absolutely implicates issues of memory.

LH: And erasure of ownership.

MS: Oh, yeah, absolutely. And I’m very keen on countering this notion that, in terms of the past, we need to somehow hang on to it and preserve it.

LH: How do you preserve it? How do you embalm time?

MS: Well, yeah. In this way, to preserve the past is to kill it off. Transformation, translation is essential if the past is to live.

LH: Yes.


MS: Just yesterday, I got an email announcing a website that essentially comprises virtual reality reconstructions of ancient sites—3D models of the forum at Rome, or a basilica, or an ancient monument in Greece. These are CAD architectural models visualized in 3D, so you can walk through them. And they’re realistic, in the sense that you can admire the textures, experience the spaces. It’s meant to be a very engaging experience of the past—history reconstructed in some kind of photographic verisimilitude—so that it’s present to you now. But I find them utterly, utterly empty and dead.

LH: Why?

MS: Well, to walk through a room, in this way, on a computer screen, doesn’t necessarily elicit any reaction other than a distracting and superficial one, such as, “Ooh, the texture of the floor is spot on…. Ooh, I like the light coming in through that window; it’s just right.”

And what generates a sense of being there is not this kind of surface authenticity, but the fidelity of narrative. The narrative of these graphics is nothing more than taking a stroll.

These models can be very flashy, highly naturalistic and look “real” but they don’t help us make sense of and understand things—floor plans or the shape of ashlar blocks give little understanding about life in the past. This is the old illusion, that a faithfulness to the external appearance of things gives us a hold on reality.

And such models forget about engagement. Not just the experience of visiting old places, but the detective work that turns data into information and then into stories that engage people now.

I sometimes think that these elaborate models of the past are part of a contemporary optimism that a quantitative increase in data will somehow deliver a better understanding of the world. In this kind of digital archaeology I see the dream that eventually, and with so much data at hand, we will be able to relive the past. This is the impossible desire to bring back the dead. I say, look, the past is over and done, decayed, ruined, lost. We only have a few bits to work on. And this is what is fascinating.

Virtual reality archaeology is a project that brings to mind the movie The Matrix—the creation of a world that actually doesn’t or didn’t exist, though it is lived as reality.

LH: The closer you get to what you think something is, the more evident it becomes that it’s also an illusion.

MS: Yes. Absolutely. It’s a question of what truly constitutes evidence about who you are, about who I am.

LH: It’s always apparent in the flaws. You know, it’s in the crack in the wall, not the replication of it. I mean, that’s where the truth is. It hides, waiting to be discovered.

MS: Yeah. It’s in the gaps, in the stuff that gets overlooked.

So, anyway, that issue of authenticity, I think, is a big one. Considerable resources,
research dollars, and institutional support are being devoted to this kind of VR modeling. And you know, it’s…

LH: It’s wrong.

MS: Well, it’s illusory in the Matrix sense. And there’s an authenticity there, because all of the stuff that’s “left over” is on show, in high-res, so you can zoom in on it and look at it in considerable detail. But by no means is it “The Past.”

It’s an interesting negotiation between our current means and the ends we have in mind for archaeology. How we document the past connects, obviously, with all sorts of technologies and instruments now. Instrumentalities relating to information, information flow and organization. The whole field of documenting ourselves is changing as our tools change.

Lynn Hershman Leeson Credit: Julian Dufort

LH: The information age requires new tools, absolutely. I’m making a piece right now that deals with the five leading blog tags in the world. It’s to see what people are thinking about, a global mind-reader. Software reads key words, tags them, and makes “judgments” about the emotional range of information. So it lets us know at a glance the mood of the global mind, as seen in constantly evolving and morphing blogs.

So many things that used to be hidden are now evidenced and present. We’re inverting the exoskeleton. For example, there are some wonderful ways to photograph and scan paintings to uncover their histories.

I like to pull forward the things that we’ve always thought should be invisible and make that a part of the communication structure, in fact, the whole nature of a work. So the invisible becomes the aesthetic itself. Because by revealing process, we reveal meaning.


MS: As you know, I have a deep interest in the history of archaeological approaches to the world, to evidence, to information, to documentation. And it’s undoubtedly the case that a lot of this interest in ruination and the interest in decay—the gothic interest in the dark side of things—is very much an 18th century invention, or preoccupation at least.

It’s the idea, the figure, of the undead, of the renegade. It’s the perverse count in some ramshackle castle who’s coming back to haunt us and thereby, you know, influencing the present.

LH: Was the creation of the undead simultaneous with the invention of electricity?

MS: Well, certainly it all goes together. There was a barrage in the age of reason, the development of experimental methods, of science, of rationality. And this accompanied, of course, a romantic fascination with the other side of reason. The irrational. Whether it’s mental or social or cultural. The invention of modern notions of crime comes at this same time. So, deviation, crime, all goes with this hyperrationalized approach to nature and the world. It was about separating the rational from the irrational.

LH: And deciding which is which.

MS: Yeah and trying to decide between the two, which is connected to another component: the demarcation of what it is to be human. What is human and what isn’t human.

So, it’s the machine and the human, or the inhuman and the human. Or the stuff that is often seen as accoutrement to us, separate from us, whether it’s the information that we generate about ourselves, our relationships, or our stuff, our material things.

So, questions of: Is it me? Is it not me? Is this trail I leave in the world around me, this archaeological trace, is it me or is it something secondary? The things I use and own, do they constitute who I am? Or are they just the things that I use? This theme of, where do I end and where does the world begin and how am I, as a person, dispersed in the socio-cultural world? This is a classic theme that has worried us—in its modern guise—since the 18th century. And it goes with the invention of disciplines such as archaeology, anthropology, and human and social sciences.

LH: But now we’re spawning a different kind of mutation, because we’re able to reconceive ourselves virally and instantly put that morphed and evolving regeneration into the world specifically so that it can be adapted and changed. So, where does that mutation leave us? Is our sense of presence, and who we are, an appendage to how we are perceived?

MS: I always say that what archaeologists have to make them distinct is the long-term view of things. Absolutely, we’re made very conscious of this now. But I see all of this, really, as just coming at the end of a long, long history. I don’t think it’s new. I think these issues have faced us for as long as we’ve been human. The phrase that I use is: For as long as we’ve been human, we’ve been cyborgs; we’ve been intimately connected with things, with goods.

In the early days—and I’m going back to 120,000 years ago—I think what made us human was an intimacy with goods, with things, in kind of “machine-ic” assemblages, even though they weren’t formal machines.

The temple and imperial administrative bureaucracies of the ancient Near East were what Lewis Mumford called megamachines. They built the pyramids—20,000 horsepower running for perhaps 600 years and capable of positioning a million stone blocks accurate to a fraction of an inch.

LH: So can autonomous agents even exist, do you think? Or do you think that everything is kind of tempered by these assemblages, this sampling and remixing? How would you determine whether something is independent, isolated? It can’t be, in order to function.

MS: Yeah, yeah. I’ve been fascinated by the way your work explores the limits of what makes someone an authentic self. As an anthropologist I agree that authenticity is not best connected solely to internal properties of an autonomous
individual. We find our authentic selves in others and in our relations with goods.

LH: Everything is defined by its relation to something else.

MS: Right—think of what’s happening in this room right now. That is, in the future, looking back, what would be the definitive statement, representation, of the room here and now?

There’s a conversation happening between you and me, but even that is influenced by where I’ve come from, where you’ve come from, and it will take us in different directions in the future. And, I don’t know, maybe in a little bit of time I’ll look back on this and say, “Ah, that was when I realized my calling was not archaeology but the arts!” So, what happened in this room was—yes, a conversation—but that was coincidental to something else that I realized, only with hindsight, had happened.

But then you might say, what’s happening in this room is that the air conditioning has been switched off and the patterns of heat transfer are now apparent. As a physicist, you have a very different view of things. As an investor, perhaps your perspective is that this is the last use of the building before they redevelop it and turn it into condominiums.

So, what’s going on here has no bottom line. There’s no definitive answer to say, this is what’s going on here, and it can therefore be represented in one way.

So, the question becomes, how do you take photographs of all of that? How do you make a video out of it all? How would you document it? That is the classic issue, I think: What is the definitive record or representation of something, an event, an occurrence, a person?

There isn’t one. Now, this is not disempowering, it’s the opposite. It’s actually empowering, because it opens the door to actually playing with it; to remixing, reworking the processes of documentation, of engagement, whatever.

LH: And invisibility, things we can’t see now, that are embedded in time, even here in this room, waiting to reveal themselves. And there are many ghosts lurking unseen that it will take generations of inventive science to understand. Our perceptions are limited to the technologies we can access.

So you really can’t discard anything. It’s only a matter of time before we see what economies determine as being sustainable. It is going to be surprising, not at all what we expect, not at all linear.

MS: I think what you’re looking for here, very appropriately, is what I would call the politics of legacy.

LH: Of presence.

MS: Yes—the politics of presence. What is made present and what is kept absent and invisible.

LH: But it’s never completely invisible, because it can always be traced.

MS: Well, there, again, in my long-term perspective—it’s a very melancholic one—I think that most of history is…. Well, we’ve just lost it all.

LH: Ahh.

MS: And I think there is a crucial issue in our current politics, now and for the future, which is what are we able to recall, to document, to trace, and also what should be documented and traced and not kept invisible.

LH: And who makes those decisions.

MS: Absolutely, it’s about power over these processes. It’s a crucial issue.

At the same time, as I say, there is a melancholy about our pasts in that so much has been deliberately destroyed or concealed or forgotten. It’s the politics of the past. As we all know, it’s the winners who write the history books.

But I think, with this digital moment, this digital demeanor—and behind it lies the utopianism of a lot of digital culture—the tools to uncover so much are in our hands; ours and those of people who haven’t had access to this kind of cultural tool before.

LH: Our memories may be gone, but they’re certainly recorded now in a way that was not possible before. They’re retrievable. What will be preserved and archived will depend on the priorities, cleverness, politics, and rebelliousness of each generation.

MS: Right, you’re talking about the will to conserve. It’s a task to conserve, to rework, precisely in the way that we took that box of stuff connected to 1972 and reworked it in 2006, 2007. That’s the only way the past is going to keep going. It has to be taken up and reworked. So, in the digital proliferation of all this stuff—from the mundane, the quotidian, the everyday of people’s lives—we have to see value. The only way it’s going to survive to give a new angle on the present, or be the basis for a new kind of understanding of the everyday history of the 21st century, is if people take it up in terms of those energies you’ve just described.

They’ve got to want to do it. Material preservation won’t work. Information is a verb. You have to take things up and rework them, remix them.

LH: To make them alive.

MS: To make them live again. It’s reincarnation, literally. You incarnate. You give them new material forms that you engage with.

There is all this stuff, so much stuff. I think the great prospect is that some unexpected components of today are going to be taken up and remixed and reworked. Not the great, grand stories of history, not the great accounts proffered by the victors and the great, powerful figures of today. But rather the mundane, the everyday, the stuff that really makes life what it is. That would be fascinating.

And, actually, this is what archaeological science has always offered—accounts of everyday life with which we can all identify and yet find uncanny. It may simply be a thumbprint upon an ancient pot that connects an inconsequential past moment with the present; it may be the evidence of the lives of those who built a place like Stonehenge. It is the archaeological focus on the everyday that many people find fascinating.

LH: Because these are the relics of ourselves.

Originally published August 27, 2007


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