Sharon Hayes, Kate Millett, and the Women’s Liberation Cinema, Gay Power, 1971/2007/2012, 16 mm, color, sound, 33 minutes.

Sharon Hayes, Kate Millett, and the Women’s Liberation Cinema, Gay Power, 1971/2007/2012, 16 mm, color, sound, 33 minutes.

Sharon Hayes

Sharon Hayes, Kate Millett, and the Women’s Liberation Cinema, Gay Power, 1971/2007/2012, 16 mm, color, sound, 33 minutes.

Let Anita Bryant be muted. Yes, I admit that deep down in my heart, the image of Bryant, singer and notorious campaigner against gay rights, taking a pie in the face (as she did in a 1977 televised interview) does trigger a certain schadenfreude. Still, there is something paradoxical about the fact that the overhead projection that showed this infamous moment, I Saved Her a Bullet, 2012, formed part of a show that was all about the modulation of the (female) voice. But of course the image of Bryant is double-coded in that it bespeaks both her attempts to silence the gay community and that community’s cry of protest.

In Sharon Hayes’s recent exhibition “Public Appearance,” nothing is one-dimensional when it comes to movements of political emancipation from the late 1960s onward. Take Gay Power, 1971/2007/2012, based on original footage from New York’s second Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade, shot in 1971 by Kate Millett and the Women’s Liberation Cinema. Decades later, Hayes was asked to add sound to the footage; she in turn asked Millett to comment on the material and interspersed the feminist icon’s short, personal utterances with her own observations and quotes not only from original newspaper articles reporting on the event and flyers from the Christopher Street Day Parade Committee but also from fellow artist Emily Roysdon. Millett’s pragmatic, candid confessions (“We were very afraid”) shed a fresh light on those early days of activism, making us look through the lens of the unsentimental, the nonheroic.

The gap between now and then, between our assumptions and the experience of those involved, is also the subject of Sarah H. Gordon’s Strike Journal, May 1970, 2012. It is a contemporary recording but pressed on vinyl, and therefore somewhat nostalgic for the woman of the title reading her diaries from the time when she was a student actively helping to organize a strike to protest US military intervention in Cambodia. No visual information, no celebrity awe diverts our attention from the voice of this woman, who was never a public figure. She almost gives the impression that she is quoting from someone else’s text, so subdued, at times insecure, even hesitant is her delivery. Hayes seems to probe her as a witness, to see if she is still connected to her former political engagement. Gordon sounds even more vulnerable than her famous counterpart Millett; her testimony does little to evoke romantic dreams of a once revolutionary past.

None of this, however, means that Hayes would consider that the faith in social transformation that was so typical of those days is utterly lost to us—in fact, quite the contrary. “Join Us,” 2012–13, a collection of two hundred flyers from the 1960s onward installed in a window, all calling for action, reminds us of an uninterrupted lineage of political participation throughout the years. And in Gay Power, Hayes wonders whether “we can reuse this model of power and love.” It is not easy, perhaps, to share her optimistic belief in the transformative, even subversive forces of queer desire—a faith allied with Judith Butler’s insistence on the importance of performativity, and rooted in a time before the commodification of all things LGBTQ and the allure of the pink dollar. But if you want to believe, if you want to carry on, then take a good look at Hayes’s work. Rather than alienating us from the feminist and other political struggles of the past by glorifying them, she makes them accessible by helping us reconnect to the feelings behind them. And that surely is no easy task.

Astrid Mania