Conceiving Ada

Lynn Hershman Leeson

35-mm film (digitized), color, sound, 84:54 min

With her feature length film Conceiving Ada from 1997, Lynn Hershman Leeson creates a cinematic memorial dedicated to the historical figure Augusta Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, daughter of romantic poet Lord Byron. The Duchess, better known as Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), was a British mathematician a century ahead of her time, who wrote the first algorithm for the Analytical Engine – a mechanical calculating machine designed by Charles Babbage – and thus laid the foundation for the concept of programming language. Therefore, she is today considered the originator of the first ever computer program, one hundred years before computers were even invented.

In Hershman Leeson’s film, Ada Lovelace’s story is channeled through Emmy, played by Francesca Faridan – a contemporary computer scientist researching artificial life. By using her own DNA genetic code, Emmy collapses time and is able to communicate directly with Ada, embodied by Tilda Swinton. Realizing how parallel their lives are, the protagonist embarks on the task of “saving” Ada and plans to bring her role model back to life through genetic engineering. In the process, the borders between past and present, virtual and real, blur and Ada and Emmy both recognize the implications their place in time.

Conceiving Ada is the first film ever to use a virtual set. By digitizing and manipulating still photographs taken in various Victorian inns in the San Francisco Bay Area and then using them as the film’s “sets.” Actors performed against blue screens, and the whole movie was shot in six days, with backgrounds added during production.

Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Science-Fiction film is a deep dive on feminist technological ideas, innovative visual technique and a compelling, female-centred story from the 1990s and back to the 19th century. The historic figure of Countess of Lovelace, is portrayed as a visionary pioneer in the film, whose ideas are put in check by social circumstances and rigid role models.  Hershman Leeson addresses the discrimination of women and their marginalization in the sciences. At the same time, she creates a tribute to a historically significant woman and honors her in the form of this science fiction film.

Over the last five decades, artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson has been internationally acclaimed for her art and films. Cited as one of the most influential media artists, Hershman Leeson is widely recognized for her innovative work investigating issues that are now recognized as key to the workings of society: the relationship between humans and technology, identity, surveillance, and the use of media as a tool of empowerment against censorship and political repression. She has made pioneering contributions to the fields of photography, video, film, performance, artificial intelligence, bio art, installation and interactive as well as net-based media art.