Between 1974 and 1978, pioneering new media artist Lynn Hershman (now Hershman Leeson) created an elaborate alter ego for herself as Roberta Breitmore. The Breitmore persona was very fully developed: she had her own mannerisms, handwriting, clothing, wig, makeup, apartment, psychiatrist, credit cards, acquaintances, life story, and adventures. Hershman Leeson notes that Breitmore reflected the zeitgeist, being aware of or coming to terms with such cultural trends of her time as EST and Weightwatchers.
Roberta Breitmore was 'born', according to Hershman Leeson, when she arrived in San Franisco with $1800 on a Greyhound bus and checked in to the Dante Hotel. At one point, Roberta advertised for a roommate in a newspaper personals column--"Woman cauc. seeks bright companion to share rent and interests"--and the real people who answered the ad became part of the Breitmore world . Not coincidentally, Breitmore's name was inspired by a Joyce Carol Oates story, "Passions and Meditations" (1972), in which the character Robert Bright "finds celebrities through letters she writes to them and ads she places in newspapers" .
Later on, Hershman Leeson hired three additional performers, all women, to play Roberta. They wore costumes identical to the ones Hershman Leeson herself wore, and they treated Roberta essentially as a professional (albeit part-time) gig. They undertook some of Roberta Breitmore's correspondence and went on some of her dates (which were documented in photos and audio recordings). Eventually, Hershman Leeson stopped enacting Breitmore, reducing the instantiations of Roberta Breitmore from 4 to 3.
Roberta Breitmore's last official appearance was in a 1978 performance at the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara, which sits over the site of Lucrezia Borgia's crypt. What remains now are the artefacts of any life: documentation and personal effects.
Hershman Leeson categorizes this project variously as as a "private performance," a "time-based sculptural" work, and a "virtual or simulated persona" . As the latter comment shows, there has been a tendency for both Hershman Leeson and critics to focus on Breitmore's artificiality rather than her reality in their assessments. However, I would argue that what makes Roberta Breitmore unlike many similar projects in which artists adopt alter egos or personae for peformance is precisely the degree to which she wa willing to "make it real". As Tracey Fugami writes, it "moves beyond...mimicry or facsimile", and in doing so it raises the question of how long a "life" has to last before it is seen as a real life, rather than a second life .
1. Giannachi, Gabriella. "Gabriella Giannachi Introduces Lynn Hershman Leeson." The Presence Project website. See also Lynn Hershman, Lynn Hershman Is Not Roberta Breitmore, Roberta Breitmore Is Not Lynn Hershman. Essays by Jack Burnham, Arturo Schwarz, Kristine Stiles, and cartoons by Spain Rodriguez. San Francisco: de Young Museum, 1978.
2. "Lynn Hershman Leeson." artpapers.org websiteMarch/April 2006.
3. Fugami, Tracey. "B.C. and A.D: Hershmanlandia: The Art and Films of Lynn Hershman Leeson". Afterimage (Jan./Feb. 2006).
Hershman Leeson, Lynn. "Home."