Time and Space

Along with anthropology, you have a deep interest in theories of language and speech.  You have done several ‘re-speaking’ pieces that question how words function across time and space, and when enunciated by different speaking bodies. These pieces address the gap between the then and the now that your work so insistently probes. I’m thinking here, of course, of My Fellow Americans, in which you re-spoke all of Ronald Reagan’s thirty-six addresses to the nation in one continuous and exhausting ten-hour session, as well as your Patty Hearst project about the Symbionese Liberation Army.

SLA is a piece that I did when I was at UCLA studying with Mary Kelly. I was rather aimlessly trolling the library and came across a book containing all the communiqués that the SLA had sent to the public during their somewhat brief existence. Included in that collection, of course, were transcripts of the four audiotapes that Patty Hearst and the SLA made for her parents during her kidnapping in 1974. I was fascinated by the texts because they were addressed to her parents but were also a communication to the FBI, the media, the public, etc. And, of course, she was speaking but she was also a filter through which the SLA was sending its message. So I decided to begin working with one of the transcripts. I started with the second communication, because it was the one in which Patty Hearst was the most suspended, somehow, between the world of her parents and this world of revolutionary politics. I was asked to participate in a performance evening and decided use the event to push my questions forward. I partially memorized the text, gave an audience the transcript of the text, and told them I was going to attempt to speak the text. I asked them to correct me when I was wrong and said sometimes they might have to feed me a line.

I sat on a stool looking into a video camera that I had set up between the audience and me and recorded the speaking. Of course I couldn't say the text accurately and people had to intervene quite a lot to correct me and move me along. I am not ‘playing’ the character of Patty Hearst; I am just trying to speak the text that she spoke. Similarly, the audience is not playing the part of the SLA, but their task does structurally cast them in the position of co-author. It was an experiment. Immediately I felt liberated from some of the confining conditions of performance. There was something really interesting about using performance to ‘make a tape.’

In addition, the audience is pulled into the work (and here I mean both the art-piece and the labor of its process of making) at a structural level, not at the level of individual ‘participation’ but as an active collective agent.

Yes, and their task - the fact that they had a task and a rather active one - distracted all of us...me and them from the self-conscious awareness that this was a performance.

But they are also off-camera, and the aesthetic choices you made for the tape (a tape that was the residue of the performance) also put an emphasis on the not-seen, a shadowy chorus of correctors that are all the more powerful for not being on camera.

What is interesting about the off-screen audience is what happens to the second audience that picks up a tape or sees the video. The existence of the off-screen audience generates an important awareness in the second encounter.The video audience knows that they could be but aren't that off-screen audience. The off-screen audience creates an imagined position for the audience or viewer of the video, a place where a viewer or set of viewers could be but, instead - because they are not in that position - they have the chance to reflect upon it. In doing so, they are able to reflect upon agency, political language and their own participation in operations of collective memory.


Visual Strategies


That piece brings me to another question, which is about your aesthetic sensibilities.  The viewer of the SLA video only sees your head tightly framed against a blank white background that plays with the classic “talking heads” format common in documentaries. But the image is devoid of contextualizing clues such as bookshelves or medical diplomas on walls that are usually in the background of ‘talking head’ documentaries to help spectators place people in specific sites. It also looks like some music videos where the expressions of the performer are highlighted, as if to cement the voice to the face. In its particular, peculiar look, that piece confounds genres. In much of your work, your visual strategies are pretty strongly considered - I’m thinking, too, of the grid of activist fliers on colored paper that you installed on one whole wall at the Whitney. That had a specific almost optical effect. Can you say more about how you think visually and make aesthetic decisions?  

My experience working with Mary Kelly taught me a lot about the deep relationship between content and form. I believe that the form of a work articulates its content and vice versa.

I try to be very precise with the aesthetic decisions I make in each work, even to say that I try to be precise about where and when I make aesthetic decisions and where and when I don’t make them but rather transmit aesthetic decisions that have already been made by someone else. With Yard (Sign) for instance, the installation of 147 or so yard signs. Some of the signs in the work are found but many are re-fabricated from found images. In this case, of course, the choices vis-à-vis re-fabrication must adhere as closely as possible to aesthetics of the original sign because why would I compose or express any aesthetic authorship in that sign space? Any choice I might make as to the color of the text, the size of the text, the handwriting, etc. would be completely arbitrary. The aesthetic choices I make in that work are solely ones related to the whole collection of signs: choosing certain signs for inclusion, constructing how the signs addresses people in space, what the whole means as a collection of particular signs and how to support the work’s aim to interrogate the speech, political and otherwise, that people make through and from their property.

While I would say that I make specific aesthetic decisions with each work, one of the concerns that crosses over all the work I make is the way in which a work addresses its viewer, audience or public. My attention is acutely focused on the position of a viewer(s) and on using elements of form: scale, volume, surface, space, time to construct a precise address that allows a viewer to place and hold themselves in the field of concerns raised by the work.

You are particularly drawn to feminist and queer activism in the 1960s and 1970s, as in your piece, co-created with Kate Millet, Gay Power, consisting of footage of the 1971 Christopher Street parade with voice-overs by yourself (born one year before) and Millet (who was at the parade). Much of your work is about re-signifying the past within the present.  How do you feel about the word nostalgia?  

I don’t find the word nostalgia helpful in understanding the complexity with which past political movements, events or claims circulate within the present moment. For me the present moment is one that is always pointing backwards and forwards. It is not one moment but a collapse of multiple moments. I mean this specifically, not generically. I don’t think everything exists in everything. At any given moment of time there are precise political debates or singular ethical propositions that originated in a prior time that, perhaps because they are unresolved, are brought forward in specific ways.

Gay liberation is one of these unfulfilled propositions. The GLF (Gay Liberation Front) formed in 1969 and was disbanded in 1972. Their political positions were largely eclipsed by a shift in gay politics from liberation to equality. But in 2007 when I was first asked by the MIX Experimental Film Festival in New York City to put ‘sound’ to 33min of raw footage shot by the Women’s Liberation Cinema in 1971, I felt there was an important, even a rather urgent, reason to unspool back to that moment to consider this gay political position that actively aligned itself with anti-racist, anti-capitalist revolutionary struggles and that decried the violence of conventional familial relationships, and of forms and institutions that upheld a rigid division of gender. I approached Kate Millett to respond to the footage because I was interested in foregrounding the process through which a re-examination of that moment might happen and to offer, again, both of us as witnesses.

You have produced a series of love letters that have been spoken both singly, by you, and collectively, by many, in locations such as Manhattan and at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul. They powerfully written missives regarding desire and longing and war, both mournful but hopeful as well. What is potent about the letter as a form for you? 

I was asked recently what I mean when I say I stage ‘speech acts.’

The idea of words as action originates, as you know, as a proposition made by British linguist J.L. Austin in the term ‘performative.’ Austin articulates performative utterances as those linguistic constructions that do rather than say. His classic examples are the “I do” of a marriage ceremony or “I christen thee the Queen Elizabeth” in the instance of the christening of an ocean liner.

I do not enact performative utterances that are faithful to Austin’s identifications but, from his work and from that of theorists like Judith Butler who have examined the performative in relation to gender, I’ve been moved to interrogate the speech beyond our assumptions of its communicative value.

By this I mean things that are complex and things that are very simple. Obviously when more than a thousand African American men took to the streets of Memphis in 1968 wearing signs that say I AM A MAN, there is more going on than just communication. Certainly when I hold a sign with the same words at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 2007 (as part of a work called In the Near Future), I’m not communicating in the conventional way we think of communication, where a speaker or set of speakers attempt to transmit a statement, question or message to a listener or set of listeners.

I’ve also been interested in more complex ways that speech functions as action as when I stood on the street at Sixth Avenue and 51st Street and spoke a ‘love address’ to an unnamed lover. I was moved to write a text to the most intimate of addressee, a lover, because I wanted to talk about war publicly at a moment when the space for such public discussion had closed down. As I stood on the street for those five days in September I was literally speaking to people passing by, I was looking at them in the eyes. I was trying to “communicate” with them but they knew and I knew that they weren’t the ‘you’ that the text addresses and, in that way, the text did not communicate with them. However, I would contend the text did act upon them in some form or another, with greater and lesser depth, meaning and significance depending upon their own choice to listen for whatever given period of time.

My interest in speech as action doesn’t depend on any idea of effectiveness. Most of my work is not effective actually. I would say it circulates along different measures of value. A friend once told me he wanted his work to either make someone laugh or make someone cry. Those two responses were a measure of success for him. I’m not interested in making people do anything specific. I make work to put something out into the world – an idea, a way of looking at something familiar through a different lens – that someone can use in some way as in the way you might use a book. You absorb it, you reflect upon it, you are moved or annoyed by it, it could change your life or it might open up some small space of action, consideration or investigation. It’s dialogic.

The form of the letter allows me to address a public indirectly and, as a result of that ever-so-slight-distance, people listen when they might otherwise not. I think they allow that, while they are not the ‘you’ I am talking to, they could or might be. I remember during the Wednesday love address of Everything Else Has Failed..., I looked into a small crowd of people who had gathered to listen and noticed that a woman was crying. This disturbed me for quite a while. Did the performance cause her to cry? Was there something in the text that reminded her of a painful situation of her own? Did she love someone from whom she was separated? A soldier, a journalist, a person living in an area of war? What is my responsibility for provoking her emotions? I stewed over this and then let go as, I think, the work asks me to do. The language or discourse of love is unwieldy; it is intensely generic, general, accessible but attempts to describe and name the most intimate and particular experiences or emotions. In that sense, I am less in control of the impact of this work than in any other I’ve made which has been a fascinating realization.


You have moved from having your work focus on your own body, as with In the Near Future, in which you hold up actual and imagined protest signs, to casting others in your pieces -- as in Parole, for instance. What brought about this shift and how do you continue to think about questions of culpability, ‘acting,’ and experience? 

I remember Lorraine O’Grady saying in a public conversation that she stopped using herself in her work because as she grew older age and aging necessarily came into the reading of the work and she had no interest in that content. (I am completely paraphrasing.) I haven’t shifted away from using myself in my work and would perform again in future work if the necessities of the project demanded it. The decisions I make about whether to use myself in a piece (as in In the Near Future), or to cast an actor (as in Parole), or to recruit participants - in the sense that a group of people forms through some form of self-selection - (as in Revolutionary Love) has everything to do with how the body or bodies in the work contribute to the meaning of the work. In ITNF, I had to use myself for two reasons: one, that the actions of holding each sign in public, while an invited audience documented the event, were a form of research, and I had to be the body in the speech act in order to figure out how the speech act of protest makes meaning. To cast a body that would hold the sign brought up too many unrelated questions: How old should the body be? What gender? What ethnicity?  Let me be clear, my age, gender and ethnicity have a great impact on the way in which the piece functions but to cast another body that would hold the sign would fix this relationship in a way that my use of my own singularity does not.

Performance, part of the exhibition Haunted: Contemporary Photography/Video/Performance, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2010. Photo by: Enid Alvarez
“I make work to put something out into the world…that someone can use…You absorb it, you reflect upon it, you are moved or annoyed by it, it could change your life or it might open up some small space of action, consideration or investigation. It’s dialogic.”Sharon Hayes
(video still), 4-channel video installation, 2010. Performers: Becca Blackwell and Oliverio Rodriguez
Symbionese Liberation Army
(SLA) Screeds #13, 16, 20 & 29 (installation view), 4-channel video installation, 2003, part of There’s so much I want to say to you, The Whitney Museum of American Art, 2012. Photo by: Sheldan C. Collins
Everything Else Has Failed! Don't You Think It's Time for Love?
Spraypaint on paper, 2007.
Everything Else Has Failed! Don't You Think It's Time for Love? (audio excerpt), 5-channel audio installation, 2007.
In the Near Future
multiple-slide-projection installation, 2005.
Gay Power
(excerpt), Sharon Hayes, Kate Millett, and Women’s Liberation Cinema, 1971/2007/2012
Now a chasm has opened between us that holds us together and keeps us apart (installation view)
felt on cotton muslin, 2012, part of There’s so much I want to say to you, The Whitney Museum of American Art, 2012. Photo by: Sheldan C. Collins
I Saved Her a Bullet
Transparency and overhead projector, 2012.
I Saved Her a Bullet
I Saved Her a Bullet (installation view), transparency and overhead projector, 2012, part of There’s so much I want to say to you, The Whitney Museum of American Art, 2012. Photo by: Sheldan C. Collins
“Although I have a deep relationship to many, many artists, organizations and practices now being held under the term ‘social practice,’ I actually strongly reject the term.”
Sharon Hayes
Voice Portraits (composite video still)
Multi-channel silent video installation, 2012, from left to right, Aya Ogawa, JD Stokely, and Lola Pashalinski
Do you consider your work to be part of what is called social practice? Why or why not?

No. Although I have a deep relationship to many, many artists, organizations and practices now being held under the term ‘social practice,’ I actually strongly reject the term. Probably for the mundane reason that, like many attempts to name a broad movement of related but disparate practices, it does more to pacify than it does to clarify the productive chaos of a field of works that are invested in the ways art is actively in dialogue with political and social communities, structures, institutions and discourses.

*Julia Bryan-Wilson is associate professor of modern and contemporary art at the University of California, Berkeley.  She is the author of Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era (2009) and editor of Robert Morris, forthcoming in the OCTOBER Files series from MIT Press.