Interview: Sharon Hayes

Chris Mansour: What provokes you, both artistically and politically, to reenact–or in your words, “cite”–iconic moments of political history? How do these specific events you chose to re-present inform the present?

Sharon Hayes: The primary impetus in my work is always a question about the present moment. The present moment is never exclusively its own. It is littered with literal references to the past and is deeply affected by various investments in future moments. So, what animates me about the past is bound up in the desires I have for and in the present moment.

Having said that, I think that each of us grabs onto different past moments based on who we are and from where we come, geographically, linguistically, etc. Maybe because I was born in 1970, the late 60s and early 70s have a particular hold on me. But I came of age as a political person in my late teens and early twenties, which was in the late 80s and early 90s. It was during that moment that I became a feminist, an activist, a lesbian, and an artist.

CM: Why exactly do your performances focus on protest themes in the era of the 1960’s and 1970’s, as opposed to the themes and styles of the protests previous to that era, especially from the mid-nineteenth century? Other moments than the 60’s-70’s seem equally significant to address in their own ways. Is it because this time period is mainly based on an autobiographical coming of age? Or is referring back to these moments something that you find to be of more social interest?

SH: My focus has always been on what I call the “near past.” I am interested in the political legacies that we confront in the present moment. These legacies are more potent, more disruptive, and more contested than those of the far past. A figure like Nixon or Reagan, for instance, functions very differently for us in 2010 than someone like Lincoln. Lincoln has been reclaimed so many times by so many different historical moments, that his words and actions are diluted and dispersed. It is as meaningful and as meaningless for the Democrats to claim Lincoln as it is for the Republicans.

In contrast, for the Democrats and the Republicans to fight for control over the political narrative of the Vietnam War, as they did actively in the Presidential Election of 2004 with John Kerry and George Bush, prods far more precisely into the issues of the present moment not only because Kerry and Bush were both young men who participated in the war either by fighting in it or specifically by not fighting in it. Vietnam touches ways in which we still actively disagree, ways in which we still actively stake out positions about personal responsibility, collective actions, etc.

One example of the “near past” in my work is the piece My Fellow Americans 1981-88, in which I re-spoke the 36 Address to the Nation speeches that Ronald Reagan made during his two terms as President. The short distance we all have to that era means that the piece can activate both lived experiences and recently historicized understandings. The piece can actively address the experience of a collapsed present moment, which is filled with a diverse set of lived temporalities. The piece can function as a sort of physical agitation. That is interesting to me and only possible in dealing with the near past.

CM: Are you interested in provoking a visceral reaction, the way people experience a socio-political moment based on their subjective feelings?

SH: I wouldn’t say visceral, I would say embodied. I am intrigued by the way history lives in our bodies. We remember the first time we experience important historical moments or figures. We are affected by history through our bodily locations, where we were and when. And we re-engage those moments from other bodily locations. This kind of embodied experience is in even our most anecdotal, mundane way of talking about the relationship between memory, experience, emotion and physical location.

CM: What do you mean by “embodied” experience?  Are you speaking about a past experience that is cognitional, remembered sensually as well as conceptually?

SH: I don’t know what you mean by cognitional. Politics is an embodied experience. We hear, see and say things through our bodies. Just to be clear, I’m not trying to privilege phenomenology. I am more interested in actually thinking through subjectivity in its social, political, historical and psychic singularity.

In my 2005 piece After Before, I asked to young women to go onto the streets of New York City in the lead-up to the 2004 U.S. Presidential election. They asked a range of questions about public speech, public opinion, the election, etc. We had a very interesting experience when we went out to interview people on September 11th. It was, suddenly, impossible to approach people with a camera and a microphone without them assuming we would ask them about Sept. 11th. To steer around that subject, we hit upon the question: “What’s the first political image you remember?”It became a fascinating lesson for me on the relationship between who we are and what we grab onto.

On the one hand, I could track very significant relationships between a person, inclusive of his or her nationality, age, ethnicity, gender, and the image they marked as the first that they remembered. On the other hand, this relationship was never entirely reducible to those subject positions. Probably twelve people in their 40s said the assassination of JFK but so did a 12-year-old girl whose mother had shown her a film clip of the assassination.

I use performance and performative strategies precisely because it allows me to send a particular speech act back out to a public in its original material form–meaning, as speech.

Performance is one of the only mediums that allows me to take a past event of a speech–a body speaking to a public–and to displace the person, the body, and the public, but keep it in terms of the materiality of the speech-act.

CM: But re-performing an event completely changes the context from its original moment, which makes me question how this “speech-act” retains a certain kind of validity in its reproduction. I imagine that some of your re-enactments, the dis-embodying and re-embodying of these speeches, have a timid quality that purposely treats the event as if you could not grasp it in a concrete way. This reminds me of the famous quote by Marx in his 1852 text The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, when he began with the way history tends to repeat itself. I think that you choose a very specific way of re-presenting these historical documents so that they come off on a much more mundane and farcical level in their re-performance. I am thinking here specially of My Fellow Americans 1981-88, or Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) Screeds #13, 16, 20 & 29, or even 10 Minutes of Collective Activity. As for the convention piece, what struck me most was hearing the roaring crowd and political energy from the footage, but only seeing the facial expressions and body language of the audience you video taped watching it. The audience looked very antsy, bored, and disconnected. So, do you consider your work to self-consciously represent the farcical and mundane nature of historical events when we are trying to translate, and perhaps reenact their relevance today?

SH: Historical reenactments are an impossibility. For me, the question is: “To what aim is something being reenacted?” Is it being reenacted in order to be reproduced the same way it happened the first time? I am utterly uninterested in that operation. My work engages very precise anachronisms to raise a set of questions about the present moment.I would argue strongly that none of the works you cite represent the historical event  as mundane. But there is, as you pointed out, a necessary displacement, and this displacement can be strange, unfamiliar, and even seemingly boring. The displacement that I am interested in from project to project differs very precisely with each piece. I can’t talk about those three works as a unit. In the SLA piece, I intentionally partially-memorized the four transcripts of the tapes that Patty Hearst and the SLA sent to her parents during her kidnapping in 1974. Then I sat in front of four different audiences on four different occasions and attempted to speak each of the four letters. In essence these were letters to Hearst’s family but they were, of course, also statements to the FBI, to the media, and to the U.S. public. For each performance, I gave the audience the transcript of the tape and asked them to correct me when I was wrong. This structure made a seamless presentation of the letters impossible. I was interested in constructing a structure that would materialize questions about political speech and collective memory.

The event that the piece cites–the kidnapping of a young nineteen-year-old woman from a very well to-do bourgeois family kidnapped by a radical leftist group, the series of communiqués that were sent from her and concerning her kidnapping, and her eventual decision to remain with the SLA and to join their political struggle–raised immediate questions in 1974 about political language and authorship. One of the running debates in the media at the time, and then very precisely at the trial that followed her arrest in 1975, was whether she had been brainwashed or if she was “speaking for herself.” But for me, this question, though parsed over by tape experts and psychologists working for the FBI and the Hearst family, is a question of at the heart of political subjectivity itself. Don’t we become political people precisely by identifying with certain people, movements, images, speeches, ideas and taking them on as our own? How can “what is mine and not mine, what is my own authentic speech and what is an idea I am parroting?,” be parsed out?

For me, these were the critical questions of the piece and the questions that could be teased out though my re-speakings. I’m not at all interested in the mundane or banal in the historical event but neither am I interested in it as a spectacle to be seamlessly re-enacted like a Hollywood movie. Rather, I wanted to explore the possibility of “hearing” the texts from this present moment and what could be learned by hearing them with the fragmentation, distance, confusion and impossibility that 30 years brings to our understanding of what we are hearing.

In that sense, the Marx quote about repetition would not be the apt one regarding these strategies, its more of the Brechtian operation of “demonstration.” For Brecht demonstration is at the heart of epic theater. To demonstrate is to acknowledge that an event has happened, it cannot be repeated. His classic example is the street scene. The story goes that Brecht was struggling with great resistance to un-train his actors in his distanced techniques for a non-illusionary epic theater. During rehearsal one day, an actor returned from break and excitedly told the group about an accident he had witnessed on the street moments before. Here, Brecht realized, was the technique he was trying to teach. The actor need not be the person he or she is trying to communicate and neither actors nor audience need pretend they are witnessing a real event.

CM: I would like to know in more detail how you think that creating these Brechtian “demonstrations” retell events. For example, for one of your other works, In the Near Future, you held up protest signs with slogans from the 60s and 70s in the same manner as they did in the past. However, what is different in this gesture is the fact that you went out to the streets alone; there was no mass movement of people behind you nor was there any political organizing done in these performances, all of which were happening in the original context. To me, this act almost portrays a feeling of impotence, and signifies a decline in protesting, especially since the themes of the 60s and 70s were rekindled in the imagination post 9/11 and the War on Terror. You have actually expressed in the past that you have felt helpless and powerless to change the course of things after 2003 in the face of the Iraq and Afghan wars; you also attributed this to be a sensibility that was felt by society as a whole. I am wondering if you are trying to portray this sense of political helplessness through some of your art performances.

SH: I am not creating “Brechtian demonstrations.” Demonstration was a strategy for Brecht, not a thing. But if we are discussing references I am saying that Brecht is more apt than Marx in relation to my way of understanding and utilizing repetition.

The feeling of helplessness you are bringing up was an experience directly in relation to the consequences of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. This feeling grew over the course of 2005, 2006, and 2007. It is not something I can retroactively put on my work previous to those years. The SLA project was performed from 2001 until 2003. I’ve spoke about helplessness specifically in relation to the works Everything Else Has Failed! Don’t You Think It’s Time for Love?, I March In The Parade Of Liberty, But As Long As I Love You I’m Not Free, and Revolutionary Love: I am Your Worst Fear, I am Your Best Fantasy – what I sometimes refer to as the love address works.  I am not working with “impotence” or “disinterest” or “banality” as general conditions. I think this is a misreading of my work.

If we are going to speak about general interests, I would say that in each work a significant element has to do with precisely what kind of address I am trying to make to an audience or a set of viewers. For example, with 10 Minutes of Collective Activity, I gathered a group of 22 people through an email invitation. I did not cast them in the room nor did I ask them to look or act a certain way. I told them I wanted to film them watching a 10 minute excerpt of a speech by Abraham Ribicoff from the 1968 Democratic Convention. For me, what was interesting about that speech is that it was given at a historic moment during which there was great debate and discord among the Democrats and in the country as a whole. And I do think–without being hyperbolic–that at this historical moment, the country was truly falling apart and politics were at a kind of brink. 1968 was a year of enormous social arrest.

This was, of course, not specifically true of the group of people who gathered in 2003 to watch the video. That the Bush administration was marching us into a new war, that most of the people watching were protesting that tide was, for me, very much a part of the juxtaposition of temporal moments. But it wasn’t the same set of events and the audience that I filmed was very clearly NOT the audience of the original speech.The aim of the piece is not to put them on view and examine how they react, it’s to bind 1968 with 2003.

The audience you see is not performing banality or boredom, they are doing what many of us do at lectures, plays, etc: they are watching something. In the piece, there is their collective activity, and also the collective activity of the television viewers, the collective activity of the crowd at the Convention, and the collective activity of the protesters outside the convention. Then, of course, there is the set of viewers or the audience that comes to view the installation. They may very well read the audience they are seeing as bored or disconnected to the event but I hope they will also consider these layers of collective actions as all a part of their experience of the piece, of our experiences of history, etc.

CM: Given that you are dealing with these issues of powerlessness and helplessness in your newer work exclusively, I wanted to talk more about your artistic interventions into protests, the love letter series. Because of these performances’ contexts, these works also relate to In the Near Future, as we were just discussing. Do you consider these works to be protests themselves?

SH: No, I do not. First, the slogans themselves are not directly addressing the people on the street. Secondly, they are not actions with specific goals and desired outcomes which is a condition that is typically quite important with a protest. With In the Near Future, I am interested in the speech-act of protest. How does the speech-act of protest make meaning? This was a question I asked at the beginning of the project and through doing it, came to understand that the speech-act of protest makes meaning in a triangular relationship between the words on the sign, the body that holds the sign, and the time and place in which they are held. All of these things go together tell us as viewers how to read a protest action, to understand how the action functions.When you look at a lot of pictures of past protests, you see this immediately. For instance, signs that say something like, “This building discriminates against your fellow Americans.” Or, “Next November is Our Year” or something like that. Obviously, the phrase “this building” or “next November” only has meaning next to the building or in the time it is signifying.

With In the Near Future, I wanted to ask questions about the status of protest in our particular political moment. I wanted to understand more about what it meant, in this moment, to “take to the streets.” I found it helpful to try to understand this by specifically not doing protest but something that looks like protest. Very often, on the street, people would do a double take, realizing that there was something off about what I was doing, that the sign was not speaking to them or to the moment in which they were living. My interest is in how protest actions function, and the ways in which we try to communicate on the street and in public. I wanted to ask “How can we own the streets, or create a set of meaningful political interactions on the street?” In the piece, I wanted to spark this kind of engagement with these signs, but again, not to use them for protest—I intend them to be about protests.

The love letter works actually arose from research for In the Near Future. I found an image at some point in the process, of a whole sea of people sitting in between two buildings at UC-Berkeley. There was this guy in the foreground, sitting cross-legged with a sign propped on his leg that said, “Everything else has failed, don’t you think it’s time for love?” I found myself thinking a lot about this question. What did it mean? It was 2007. I was depressed and despondent and felt very much that everything has failed. It was the very end of the Bush years, the US was deep into the ongoing war against Iraq and it felt like there was no meaningful way for a group of people to stand on the street and have any power. There was also a way in which I felt that it wasn’t possible to talk about the war in a salient manner publicly.

So the first love address was an attempt to talk, in public, about the war. In the first piece, Everything Else Has Failed? Don’t You Think It’s Time for Love? I emerged from a door of the lobby of the United Bank of Switzerland, where I had been invited to participate in a show curated by Sofia Hernandez at Art in General, everyday at lunchtime for a work week–five days. I read a love letter to an unnamed “you.” The letter I read indicated that an I, the speaker and writer, was somehow separated from a “you” for some unnamed reason. The letter weaved personal longing with political longing, discussion about love with talk about war. On the surface the text is an address of a lover and sounds very personal, but really it is an attempt to talk about power from a place of powerlessness. In this first piece, I really had no idea what I was doing, I just had an intuition to try to speak about love and war in as complicated a manner as it comes to us as people moving through the fraught political landscape. I suppose that is something I could say I try to do in much of my work, to speak to a set of social and political conditions through and as lived, embodied, singular subjects.


About Bret Schneider,

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  1. Pingback: The Conditional Mosque – Gallery Visit « Studio Fuse Art Blog

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