It takes a moment of looking at the note to understand why I can’t seem to read it – the handwriting is backwards. I take the piece of paper to the bathroom and hold it up to the mirror. Now I can make out the words: I hope Berlin is all they say it is! A place to hide and to find dreams. I need both!!! I need to be anonymous… But I wonder, can anyone truly be anonymous now?
This is The Novalis Hotel. The Novalis is a real hotel in Berlin Mitte where one of the rooms is occupied by a fictional guest, a creation of the artist Lynn Hershman Leeson. From now through June 18th, you can go there and explore the room and this strange private life for yourself — a sneak preview of which you can find below.
Leeson, who was born in Cleveland in 1941, has recently risen to international prominence as one of the first and most influential new media artists, using contemporary technology to investigate life and how that same technology has changed it. Way before “fake news” or the Zuckerberg hearing, she was asking questions about surveillance, artificial intelligence, and where the lines between “real” and “digital” life break down. However, like many of the female artists of her time (and today), she struggled to find a foothold in an art world dominated by men, and relatively disinterested in serious questions about technology and selfhood.
In The Novalis Hotel — a commission by the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, to coincide with the artist’s current solo exhibition First Person Plural — Leeson revisits one of her early site-specific installations, The Dante Hotel (1972-3). After being removed from a mainstream gallery exhibition for including work that featured a recording device, she rented a room in a run-down North Beach hotel, The Dante, and designed it as if it were occupied by a woman named Roberta Breitmore, one of several alter egos Leeson has developed throughout her career. Visitors would get a key to Roberta’s room, which they could visit and find clues about her life — why she was there, what she hoped to do and so on.
The character staying in the Novalis is an older woman named Roberta Lester. In the taxi on the way to the Novalis, I pull up her Instagram account. The bio reads “On Vacation in Germany / Interested in forensics, AI, and pharmaceuticals / You can find me on OK Cupid”. All the photos she’s posted are from the inside of some sort of lab, with artless captions like “safe disposal for sharp objects and water pipette” and “this was a sterile facility, so we had to wear lab coats”.
When we arrive at the hotel, we are told that, if we want to, we can leave a sample of our DNA before going into the room. Once the exhibition closes, Leeson will collaborate with a forensic scientist to analyse the samples for gender, race, and eye colour — idea being that you are in a sense under surveillance as you yourself surveil Roberta. The samples are anonymous, voluntary, and can be withdrawn at any time.
The room is small; there’s a double bed, a table, and a television on top of a refrigerator. The bed is half-made, pyjamas and socks tangled in the sheets; a necklace hangs from a lamp beside the pillow. On the table is a laptop and an iPhone, the handwritten note, and a bowl of candies and candy wrappers.
Things get more eerie after the first pass. A painting has been taken off the wall and turned around; as I bend down to see what it is, I notice that the door of the mini fridge is open. Inside is a syringe, and bags of DNA samples, the same kind as the one I’ve given at the reception desk. Behind the door is a wall-sized print out of what appears to be DNA sequences, with circles drawn in red marker around certain strands.
You can also open the phone and the laptop, scroll down Roberta’s Instagram feed, read her emails, click through her open tabs. It’s here that the story comes together, and you get something of an answer as to what the hell Roberta is doing with all the forensics stuff. This “why” has enough of a twist that I won’t give it away, but this is fine art, not Carmen Sandiego, so the narrative reveal isn’t supposed to correspond to the larger meaning you take away from the experience. If anything, it pushes you towards other questions, ones that are meant to be asked rather than answered: What does it mean to know another person? How much can we ever actually exist in a certain place?
Leeson’s work ties together a lot of different conceptual threads, and it’s not always possible to discern an intention behind these alignments, or indeed whether there’s supposed to be one. Some of this messiness is due to the fact that it isn’t clear how much one should read into the choices the artist has made in constructing Roberta and her room; in other words how “real” we are supposed to take her as a figure. The photos on her Instagram account, for example, feel more like concepts of what a character might post than an actual person producing content.
Providing one’s own DNA sample, too, connects in a narrative sense with the tubes of DNA Roberta keeps in her refrigerator, but given that it is anonymous and voluntary, this doesn’t register as commensurate to the facts of modern surveillance (Facebook sells your data, Google always knows where you are). In an era when our digital selves already have such a hold on our physical ones, pulling these punches makes it harder to feel as though the art is seriously trying to confront the questions it claims to be.
Still, the most powerful moment in the exhibition for me was another ambiguous one. The phone on the table is open to the fake Instagram account, but you can close out of that and go into the messenger app, which contains messages that belong to Lynn Hershman Leeson herself, dating as close as 2011.
The character’s life peels back, revealing the tissue of the artist underneath. Reading Leeson’s messages, I imagined myself as Roberta scanning DNA readings, trying to understand something of the person behind these oddly personal points of data.
Something is certainly there. You can read her talking to her father, apologising for arriving late for coffee, consoling a sick friend. It turns out that internationally acclaimed artists, too, get data-plan texts from Sprint and spam about online gambling. But, Leeson herself does not exist on the phone; only fragments from her past do, so again you find yourself wandering through a space full of things she’s left behind.