From the speeches and protest songs of the 1960s to the people’s mic made famous by the Occupy movement, the human voice has been an instrument essential to social change in contemporary American political history. With her recent show, Sharon Hayes honored and extended this legacy, presenting works that examine the power and perplexities of coming out and speaking up. Encompassing a range of pieces from the past 10 years, the exhibition was like a ray of hopeful light amid the gathering storm clouds of the election season.
Emanating from a PA speaker near the entrance to the exhibition, Hayes’s fragile yet tenacious voice immediately situated viewers at the crossroads of the political and the personal. I March in the Parade of Liberty but as Long as I Love You I Am Not Free (2007-08) is the recording of a complaint to a lover/fellow activist gone AWOL issued on the streets of lower Manhattan during the height of the Iraq war. Though teetering on desperation, Hayes refuses to be dissuaded by the dual disappointment of lost love and ineffectual protest. Perseverance is a common denominator of amorous flourishing and political progress, and Hayes is intent on making herself heard, knowing as she does that, to quote a statement used in this and other of her works, “the ears are the only orifice that can’t be closed.”
Elsewhere, however, it was the uncertainties involved in speaking out that were highlighted. In the four-channel video work Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) Screeds #13, 16, 20, and 29 (2003), Hayes recites from her imperfect memory a series of taped addresses made by Patty Hearst during her time first as hostage, then as ally of the urban guerrilla group the SLA. Each time Hayes stumbles, unseen onlookers chime in with the appropriate line and the performance haltingly continues. The video plays off ambiguities surrounding Hearst’s defection from her cushy life as a media heiress, a deviation which defense attorneys argued was a classic case of Stockholm syndrome; but it also inquires more broadly into the complicated relationship between politics and performance.
This relationship has been a central concern of queer activism since the early days of the gay-rights movement, a glimpse of which was offered by the film installation Gay Power (2007/2012). The work consists of footage of the 1971 Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade; in voiceover, feminist author-activist Kate Millett narrates her firsthand experiences of the event and Hayes theorizes on the exceptionalism of queer love. Held just two years after the Stonewall riots, the parade was initially clouded by anxieties accompanying the public performance of gay identity. By the time the participants reached their destination of Central Park, however, the atmosphere was one of jubilation. Watching this remarkable footage of liberation unfolding, it is difficult not to be persuaded by a remark adapted by Hayes, in the above-mentioned sound piece, from Plato’s Symposium: “An army of lovers cannot lose.”
Photo: View of Sharon Hayes’s exhibition “There’s so much I want to say to you,” 2012; at the Whitney Museum.