New York

Sharon Hayes, Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) Screeds #13, 16, 20 & 29 (detail), 2003, four-channel video installation, color, sound, 9, 10, 20, and 15 minutes, respectively.

Sharon Hayes, Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) Screeds #13, 16, 20 & 29 (detail), 2003, four-channel video installation, color, sound, 9, 10, 20, and 15 minutes, respectively.

Sharon Hayes

Whitney Museum of American Art

Sharon Hayes, Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) Screeds #13, 16, 20 & 29 (detail), 2003, four-channel video installation, color, sound, 9, 10, 20, and 15 minutes, respectively.

Sharon Hayes’s ambitious show was set amid wooden dividers, platforms, and stair-units. Designed by Hayes and her frequent collaborator Andrea Geyer, the mise-en-scène was a cross between speaker’s corner, radical-history library, and trade fair—mixed, of course, with major-museum exhibition. (The show was curated by Chrissie Iles.) Hayes’s art, here as in the past decade, explores oratory, confession, re-performance, and the erotics of public talk. We need all the intelligence we can muster on such subjects, and hers is considerable. Still, results were mixed.

Arriving visitors were confronted by a huge curtain blocking off the installation. A slogan was printed on it: NOW A CHASM HAS OPENED BETWEEN US THAT HOLDS US TOGETHER AND KEEPS US APART. This seemed coy, or canned, as did the words on a second banner: MY MEMORY TRANSLATES EVERYTHING INTO SOMETHING ELSE. It’s complicated, though. In the exhibition’s accompanying book, which is not a conventional catalogue but a gathering of speculative texts on community, aesthetics, and politics by Lauren Berlant, Claire Bishop, Dean Spade, Lynne Tillman, and others, there is a “research still,” a photograph by Hayes. It shows another banner, emblazoned with the exhibition’s title—THERE’S SO MUCH I WANT TO SAY TO YOU—hanging off the roof of a drab, brown-shingled house. On the next page is a photo of a Hayes/Geyer platform in New York City’s Tompkins Square Park. Part sculpture, part utopian as-if, both objects in situ look modest yet provocative. I can imagine spontaneous public acts, articulate or otherwise, taking place in the park in a way I cannot in the museum, where I was reprimanded by a guard for peeping around the backs of videos (Voice Portraits, 2012) that were projected, after all, on double-sided screens hung several feet from the wall. Each un-sound-tracked video presents an interview with one female performer. Their faces are dynamic, and Hayes has silenced them to make points about gender, visibility, audibility, and power. In the event, however, choices by auteur and institution synced, and critique flattened into the staging of a staging.

Several other projects comprised selections from DIY political archives, including flyers for militant actions, contemporary and historical; a forest of yard signs, original and re-created; an LP recording of a former Smith College student reading from her protest diary (Sarah H. Gordon’s Strike Journal, May 1970, 2012); and a video collaboration with Kate Millett and Women’s Liberation Cinema, involving footage of a 1971 Gay Liberation Day march (Gay Power, 2007–12). These collections hold fierce microhistories. But here, again, raggedy civic chutzpah felt disciplined into docility by the conventions of display. Hayes wants us to understand this tendency, in art contexts and beyond. But does she mean to intensify it?

Elsewhere in the plywood-scape, more specific artfulness was more persuasive. Speakers broadcast recordings of Hayes’s declamatory street performances, in which appeals to lovers mix with open-ended discourse around war and other more-than-personal debacles (I March in the Parade of Liberty but as Long as I Love You I’m Not Free and Everything Else Has Failed! Don’t You Think It’s Time for Love?, both 2007–2008). The piece that best encapsulated the drama of political agency and lack thereof was Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) Screeds #13, 16, 20 & 29, 2003, a four-channel video housed in a special plywood cubicle. Hayes half-memorized four audio communiqués from Patty Hearst, which the heiress’s kidnappers mailed to California radio stations in 1974. Each screen in the quartet shows only the artist in mug-shot close-up; reciting the transcripts before a collaborating audience, she relies on them to prompt her when she flubs. Her interlocutors are heard but invisible. Are they supporting her? Brainwashing her? Is she a spokesperson or a pawn? These were questions asked about the SLA recruit called Tania (i.e., Hearst herself). But as we watch the performer accept crowd-sourced direction, struggling when a correction isn’t clear, delivering the stirring speeches without irony or zeal, these uncertainties reveal themselves as endemic to political speech as such. The piece deploys the Human Mic, and it’s exciting for the same reason: It distributes will in the social body. Each demonstrates how contingent and weird and transformative it is to speak with one voice.

Frances Richard