New York

Sharon Hayes

Art in General

The title of Sharon Hayes’s new five-channel video installation, After Before, 2005, seems utterly opaque until it suddenly makes sense. Shown at Art in General a full year after the 2004 presidential election but filmed two months prior to George W. Bush’s dubious reelection, it effects a kind of anticipation of a time already long gone. Indeed, the work, which documents the travails of two young microphone-wielding women as they scour the streets of New York City in search of “public opinion,” is charged with a very particular set of anxieties, hopes, and suspicions that feel at once prescient and scarily outdated.

The two interlocutors—an androgynous art student with a thick accent and an African American actress, both hired by the artist—never inquire directly about political parties or current events, but the responses they receive are perhaps unsurprisingly, given the political climate, addressed largely to these subjects nevertheless. Interviewees from all walks of life (a socialite; Bill Ayers; a bus driver; George McGovern), invited to respond to such questions as “Who is your public?”; “What does free speech mean?”; “Are you politically active?”; “What do you expect from your fellow citizens?”; and “What do you hold strong opinions about?,” offer answers—passionate, aggressive, apathetic—that run the gamut, with succinct articulations of the failure of American democracy segueing into adamant affirmations of the Bush administration’s policies. Two city kids convey their surprise at being asked to share their opinions at all, while an angry protester chastises the women attempting to interview him, accusing them of not asking sufficiently serious questions at such a critical moment.

The footage compellingly refuses to add up to anything holistic but instead conveys the feeling of a topical mapping, displaying the shifting contours of a “public” made up of so many particulars. Presented as four projections (impossible to see simultaneously) and a monitor on which a slightly out-of-synch transcript appeared, After Before offered a kind of disjunctive concurrence. One had to perpetually reorient one’s body in order to ascertain which projection linked up (momentarily) with the spoken words on the sound track; screens went suddenly blank; narratives were interrupted and new ones begun midstream.

Described as a “quasi-fictional, quasi-documentary research project,” After Before nods explicitly to 1960s cinema verité, particularly in its emphasis on the interpersonal and the political. Yet the fascinatingly “quasi” nature of the project has perhaps more to do with the performative than with film per se. Hayes, whose performance-based practice has long explored the vicissitudes, coercions, and resistances at the heart of subject formation, typically appears in her own work. But in After Before, she stays behind the camera, her surrogates each taking on the job of “interviewer” as a part to play but also as a role made real through enactment.

After Before operates as neither an after-the-fact proclamation nor a preemptive warning, but rather as a literalization of the desire—and the need—for public discourse. Interestingly, during the show’s run, the artist also presented documentation of in the near future, a work-in-progress commissioned by Art in General and which was slated to be part of the separate PERFORMA05 festival. For each of nine successive days, Hayes staged a solo protest in a different significant site around New York. On November 6, for instance, she stood at St. Patrick’s Cathedral (site of the famous 1989 ACT UP protest) with a placard reading I AM A MAN (a slogan borrowed from the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike); and while most of the signage was similarly borrowed from protests past, some evoked another kind of temporal dislocation, pointing toward possible future standoffs. A STOLEN ELECTION OR OTHER INTOLERABLE EVENT COULD SPARK MILLIONS TO THE STREETS IN A MASS REBELLION was the sign Hayes carried to Madison Square Garden on November 3. Thankfully, a lot of people had opinions about it.

Johanna Burton