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How to navigate our fantasies

SANTA FE, N.M. — A scantily clad blonde woman knocks on a screen, from the inside with her satin-gloved knuckles, signaling people on the outside.

“Touch me,” she says.

The touch screen below the projection of the woman allows people to choose a part of her body to touch. After that, they make choices for her at various locations, some mundane – what channel to watch on TV – some meant to have an erotic feel: who to flirt with at a bar, where to go within a garden.

The user also has a chance to describe his or her personality to see if it entices or turns off the woman, named Marion, with options like “I’m fairly shy” or “I love to dominate.”

One choice leads to a video of this virtual world’s creator, “cyberfeminist” and artist Lynn Hershman Leeson. She made the interactive installation, “Deep Contact,” in the 1980s and was the first artist to ever utilize touch screen technology.

“We’ve never been more alienated or more lonely,” Hershmann says in the video, ending her speech with this takeaway about technology: “It doesn’t talk back.”

Reflecting on the decades-old installation recently, Hershman Leeson told the Journal that people should not take the piece too seriously and just follow the paths it makes available, adding that the piece is a way for viewers to use technology to reflect on their lives.

“I wanted to do something on an individual … dealing with a fantasy… and how to navigate the demons of our life and to navigate fantasies,” she said.

Back when it debuted, she said, people didn’t know how to react to it. At that time, museums didn’t often have interactive, touchable work, especially not with touch screens.

Hershman Leeson’s display and two other pre-internet artworks are part of Art House Santa Fe’s Cyberbodies exhibition, opening tonight. The pieces in the show are all from Carl and Marilynn Thoma’s digital art collection. Their Thoma Art Foundation runs Art House Santa Fe.

Curator Jason Foumberg said he was impressed by the messages and ideas behind Hershman Leeson’s work and wanted to create an exhibition including hers and other similar digital art from the collection that revolve around how technology has changed views of humans, particularly women, the body, and relationships.

Though these pieces are from decades ago – the oldest being a digitized nude photo made in 1967 by the Experiments in Art and Technology Collection – Foumberg said the then-“cutting-edge” work is even more relevant now in a world of apps like Tinder and online dating that alter the way people connect.

“We’re constantly meeting people and desiring people through screens,” he said. “It’s an interesting contradiction. You feel a strong connection and yet a great distance through these technologies.”

Eduardo Kac, a Chicago-based artist who made his work in 1986 when living in Rio de Janeiro and restored it this year, said he embraced how technology and intimacy could intertwine.

“Tesao” was made on a Minitel terminal, a software heavily used in Europe before the internet that was powered through telephone lines. He uses animation to make what he calls “digital poems.” On the screen, the animation spells out “Tesao,” slang for “horny” in Portuguese. While some people at that time saw a digital future as “distant and cold,” he saw it as a natural, evolving part of life.

“I saw no separation between working digitally, using digital [elements], and being able to perform this permanent state of flux and the visceral nature of human nature: being attracted, being in a relationship and being alive,” said Kac.

The artwork in Cyberbodies will be on display for about a year, Foumberg said. Tonight’s opening reception is free and open to the public.

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