PRINT May 2006


“MOM, DAD, I’M OK.” This is the opening line of Patty Hearst’s first taped message, recorded soon after she was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974. Hearst made four such audiotapes in a few short months, her tone shifting from one of shaky reassurance to that of strident declaration as the rechristened, gun-toting Tania. New York– and Los Angeles–based artist Sharon Hayes repeats these words verbatim in her four-part video Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) Screeds #13, 16, 20, and 29, 2002, in which she attempts to recite from memory (with her face framed tightly against a white background) the entirety of Hearst’s four messages to her parents. Hayes’s recall is not flawless, however. And just off-camera, a chorus of sorts assists the artist whenever she falters. If so much as a syllable goes awry, we hear these prompters referring to the exact transcripts and correcting her, but they are less punitive than pedagogic, occasionally laughing at Hayes’s numerous errors. Hayes even looks to them for help and confirmation, diverting her otherwise direct stare at the camera. (“I’m sorry, could you give me the line?” she asks.) Produced as unlimited editions, the SLA Screeds are displayed in tall stacks for viewers to take, watch, and pass on—a gift that neatly contrasts with the “charity” demanded from the Hearsts as ransom for their daughter.

In the SLA Screeds, forgetting is the point. Many of Hayes’s single-channel videos, video installations, and performances, which the UCLA interdisciplinary studio–MFA graduate has been making for about a decade, are compelled by the creation—and erosion—of collective memory. What more ideal mode of address than what she calls “respeaking,” the artist’s term for her recitation of historical texts, to confront the theme of memory? Reenactment reverberates in much contemporary art; artists such as Jeremy Deller, Omer Fast, and Marina Abramovic have utilized restaging for diverse purposes, from the therapeutic, as in a community project, to the nostalgic, as a form of homage. Hayes’s work, seen in solo shows at the Andrew Kreps Gallery in New York and Vancouver’s Video In, is somewhat distinct from this trend; she is driven more by an investigation into the stutters of history, its uncanny recurrences and unexpected recyclings. While her selection of historical documents is dictated by their potential resonance or dissonance with our current political moment, there is always the possibility that they may fail to resound at all. In this regard, her work intersects with the linguistic theories of J. L. Austin and their adoption by queer theorist Judith Butler, both of whom investigate the conditions of successful communication as performative—that is to say, iterative and contingent. In the 2003 video installation 10 Minutes of Collective Activity, a small group listens to an archival audiotape of Connecticut senator Abraham Ribicoff’s speech at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Ribicoff’s fervent indictment of Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley’s “gestapo tactics” during the convention has powerful echoes in our current moment, but is received unevenly by the contemporary listeners. Some appear riveted and nod in affirmation; others gaze off distractedly. As Ribicoff is increasingly heckled by the 1968 crowd, the 2003 audience members begin to shift, silently and uncomfortably, in their seats. Watching their reactions—magnified by the installation’s large-scale projection—creates a sense of physical and temporal disorientation.

A 1999–2000 Whitney Independent Study Program alum, Hayes bears the imprint of the program’s commitment to institutional critique; in particular, she interrogates how “audiences” become “publics.” In a performance for the group show “Republican Like Me” at Brooklyn’s Parlour Projects in summer 2004, Hayes respoke each of Ronald Reagan’s thirty-six addresses to the nation. Most of these speeches begin with a direct address to “my fellow Americans,” simultaneously summoning a collective televisual viewership and hailing those viewers as citizens. My Fellow Americans: 1981–1988 was ten hours long; as Hayes read the transcripts—on topics ranging from domestic economy policies to the Iran-Contra affair—her weariness became palpable. Her straightforward, affectless readings sharply contrasted with Reagan’s famously refined performances; his grief-stricken response to the Challenger disaster, for instance, is transformed into a series of flat phrases. Stripped of flourish, the speeches, rife with lines frequently aped by the present administration (in particular, those pertaining to defense and national security policies and suffused with a religious righteousness) take on a pointed political afterlife. They are also filled with archaic cold war references that, however urgent at the time, are now only remotely remembered.

Hayes’s respeaking of Hearst’s and Reagan’s words in the SLA Screeds and My Fellow Americans raises questions about the sincerity of their original utterances. Sincerity, as theorized by Lionel Trilling in 1972, is “a congruence between avowal and actual feeling.” Was Hearst fed her lines to begin with, and how “real” was the actor-turned-president’s empathy? Today, when the conveyed air of steadfast certainty or belief often trumps accuracy—comedian Stephen Colbert, of The Colbert Report (his Comedy Central spoof of Fox’s The O’Reilly Factor), calls ours a time of truthiness—the question seems of particular pertinence. “Please listen to me because I am speaking honestly and from my heart,” Hayes repeats in (SLA) Screed #20 (Patricia Hearst’s Third Tape)—a sentiment that could have come straight from George W. Bush’s mouth. If for Trilling sincerity means a conjunction between what is said and what is felt on the part of speaker, the congruence—or noncongruence—that Hayes points to is the match or mismatch between their reception then and now. Hayes could easily have made her performances ironic, campy, mocking, farcical (Hearst herself, with her cameos in John Waters’s films, has been fully recuperated as camp), but, through their lack of theatricality, the SLA Screeds sidestep the slippery nature of Hearst’s earnest intentions in 1974—coerced or not.

The question of the past as interpreted in the present returns in Hayes’s ongoing work In the Near Future, 2005–, presented by Art in General and PERFORMA05, last November. For this performance, Hayes stood for nine consecutive days in nine locations throughout New York holding different protest signs. Some clearly conjure their original moment: RATIFY E.R.A. NOW!, for instance, which she carried on Wall Street. Others, such as STRIKE TODAY or ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS, are generic, and incomprehensible when held by one person unmoored from the context of a catalyzing event. NOTHING WILL BE AS BEFORE, read another sign Hayes held in front of City Hall—this slogan (likely ambiguous in its own day) is, the artist thinks, from May 1968, although she learned of it by anecdote only. Time, place, the collective identity of protesters—these factors must converge for the nature of protest to be legible in public space. Such convergences are, to use Austin’s term, a matter of “felicity,” and Hayes here purposefully produces infelicity with her deliberate anachronisms. By dislocating one or more of a protest’s identifying factors, she creates static in the sign’s intended clarity. A white, somewhat androgynous woman holding a sign that proclaims, I AM A MAN, in 2005 would seem more likely to refer to transgender activism than to the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike.

Hayes’s signs provoked enough curiosity and interest to generate small eddies of conversation: Teenage girls asked questions; cops had puzzled queries; tourists snapped photos. When she held a sign in Central Park reading, WHO APPROVED THE WAR IN—VIETNAM?, people came up to tell her. Hayes welcomed the interactions: Hers is not a simple wistfulness for a lost collective culture but a genuine invitation for exchange (these interactions are documented and were shown as a slide presentation in last month’s “When Artists Say We” exhibition at Artists Space in New York). In the Near Future not only mines the past but also speculates about the future of dissent. This sets her work apart from that of a number of other artists who take historical protest movements as their subject—Andrea Bowers and Sam Durant, for instance. A few of Hayes’s slogans are her own inventions, such as THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT MIGHT HAVE TO CALL IN THE NATIONAL GUARD TO PUT THIS REVOLT DOWN—unwieldy as a catchphrase, forceful only to the point of conjecture, but certainly evocative, and, perhaps, longing.

To abruptly insert history into the present as Hayes does is a peculiar—even queer—thing. It activates what queer theorist and literary scholar Elizabeth Freeman has called “temporal drag,” or “the pull of the past upon the present.” Temporal drag implies a chronological distortion in which time does not progress seamlessly forward but is full of swerves, unevenness, and interruptions. With her emphasis on the ruptures of time, Hayes insists that our collective political past is not a compendium of documents that can be transparently analyzed. Revolutionary communiqués, presidential transcripts, protest signs: These are archives that have been unevenly catalogued, partially understood, and often wrongly cited. The inaccuracies of Hayes’s Hearst performance are telling. All missives from the past are misremembered or misread as they enter the present tense. Some might be discarded and lost; others will linger, mutate, or become unrecognizable. Hayes’s work, however, shows us that at least this much is clear: Nothing will be as before.

Julia Bryan-Wilson is assistant professor at the Rhode Island School of Design.