The Reluctant Orator


I entered the Guggenheim Museum this past Saturday for New York-based Sharon Hayes’ performance as the second half of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic 1963 speech, “I Have a Dream,” echoed through the museum’s rotunda. It’s Twentieth Century America’s most famous bit of rhetoric, although it’s unlikely many Americans can recall more than a few lines. As a part of Haunted: Contemporary Photography/Video/Performance, the museum’s collection show that examines how artists’ photo-based works test and invigorate the image’s famous relationship to death, Hayes installed behind a DJ booth on the ground floor of the rotunda and spun spoken-word records.

Hayes is best known for her politically charged performances and installations that use the strategy of “respeaking” (a term associated with her often direct recitation of non-fiction dialogues and political addresses) that calls for participation poignantly provoked but not seized upon. Stemming from the artist’s similar but only 20-minute performance in 2004, Hayes’ five-hour DJ set here included It highlighted speeches from the Civil Rights Movement and poems, dating primarily from the 1960s.


Audience members set up chairs in front of the artist, who quietly stood on an elevated platform between four turntables and wall supporting a grid of vertically arranged LP record albums. Donning bulky headphones and dressed in an unassuming wardrobe of jeans and a T-shirt, Hayes refrained from commanding the kind of spotlight attention that has lately been associated with performance in museums. She also commands less than the male celebrity orators she invokes.

Malcolm X’s 1963 “Message to the Grass Roots,” delivered in a Baptist church in Detroit shortly before he left the Nation of Islam, includes the memorable line, “America has a very serious problem.” In the present context, Malcolm X seemed to make vague and ominous reference to America’s self-imagined fortitude and the urgency with which its residents call for change—as well as the format of sound-byte journalism.

As King’s National Mall audience began to clap, so did that of the museum, and for a moment past and contemporary audiences seemed to merge. Museum goers peered down from various heights as Hayes began to spin a new track. Hayes transitioned from one vinyl to another, contemplating her choices. The importance of contemplating the past through primary material proves invaluable to the present and future, but how can we fully recognize its potential and move beyond being audience members? One is to imagine how contemporary events would sound four decades from now.