Sharon Hayes’s exhibition “In My Little Corner of the World, Anyone Would Love You” presented the activist “speech acts” for which the Baltimore-born, Philadelphia-based artist is known. The focus of the show, installed at a slight angle to the walls of Studio Voltaire (a former chapel), was a five-channel video projected onto an L-shaped structure made of plywood. Each channel shows a room in a house: bedroom, bathroom, living room, kitchen, and office. Performers from the feminist and queer community in Philadelphia appear in the rooms reading aloud from newsletters printed between 1955 and 1977 by American and British groups fighting for women’s liberation and gay rights. Together, the performers, whether seated at the kitchen table or resting on a quilt-covered bed, convey a sense of domestic harmony; one person speaks at a time, while the others engage in unobtrusive tasks like typing or stapling papers.
The other side of the plywood was papered with colored photocopies of pages from these newsletters. In addition to reports about court battles for lesbian mothers’ cohabitation rights, there were hand-drawn street maps, photographs of meeting places, and announcements for events like a demonstration to repeal abortion laws and a retreat to debate alternatives to the heterosexual family.
The performers in the video work breathe new life into the archive while eliding its historical specificity, since proper names and places are generally omitted. Questions about the home’s stability arise when the rooms start shifting between channels, a metaphor, perhaps, for the unpredictable loyalties in a community whose common goal is liberation. “We cannot even begin to talk about obtaining rights when we are so busy taking rights from each other,” warns one writer. Another decries her “three-fold oppression” by racists, sexists, and heterosexists, imploring her fellow activists to “work on all three oppressions or not at all.” A self-described “mild transvestite” rejects high-heeled shoes as unilateral tools of male oppression; a drag queen laments how so many in the gay community marginalize those who are “enclosed in a male body” but are “feminine in thought, deed, and action.” While the readers who deliver these decades-old lines provide no commentaries of their own, they seem relieved of the extreme isolation described by the newsletter writers living in remote communities.
In this work, Hayes revives strategies she employed in earlier projects, such as In the Near Future (2005–09), where she held up placards in the streets that bore both fictional and historical slogans. Here, too, Hayes detaches her chosen “speech acts” from the subjects who uttered them and the contexts that gave them meaning, exploiting how the recent past exists in the gap between living memory and historical record. Through the metaphor of a house whose configuration of rooms is precarious, she recalls the fraught nature of intersectional alliances, an issue as relevant now as it was then.
From the speeches and protest songs of the 1960s to the people’s mic made famous by the Occupy movement, the human voice has been an instrument essential to social change in contemporary American political history. With her recent show, Sharon Hayes honored and extended this legacy, presenting works that examine the power and perplexities of coming out and speaking up. Encompassing a range of pieces from the past 10 years, the exhibition was like a ray of hopeful light amid the gathering storm clouds of the election season.
Emanating from a PA speaker near the entrance to the exhibition, Hayes’s fragile yet tenacious voice immediately situated viewers at the crossroads of the political and the personal. I March in the Parade of Liberty but as Long as I Love You I Am Not Free (2007-08) is the recording of a complaint to a lover/fellow activist gone AWOL issued on the streets of lower Manhattan during the height of the Iraq war. Though teetering on desperation, Hayes refuses to be dissuaded by the dual disappointment of lost love and ineffectual protest. Perseverance is a common denominator of amorous flourishing and political progress, and Hayes is intent on making herself heard, knowing as she does that, to quote a statement used in this and other of her works, “the ears are the only orifice that can’t be closed.”
Elsewhere, however, it was the uncertainties involved in speaking out that were highlighted. In the four-channel video work Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) Screeds #13, 16, 20, and 29 (2003), Hayes recites from her imperfect memory a series of taped addresses made by Patty Hearst during her time first as hostage, then as ally of the urban guerrilla group the SLA. Each time Hayes stumbles, unseen onlookers chime in with the appropriate line and the performance haltingly continues. The video plays off ambiguities surrounding Hearst’s defection from her cushy life as a media heiress, a deviation which defense attorneys argued was a classic case of Stockholm syndrome; but it also inquires more broadly into the complicated relationship between politics and performance.
This relationship has been a central concern of queer activism since the early days of the gay-rights movement, a glimpse of which was offered by the film installation Gay Power (2007/2012). The work consists of footage of the 1971 Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade; in voiceover, feminist author-activist Kate Millett narrates her firsthand experiences of the event and Hayes theorizes on the exceptionalism of queer love. Held just two years after the Stonewall riots, the parade was initially clouded by anxieties accompanying the public performance of gay identity. By the time the participants reached their destination of Central Park, however, the atmosphere was one of jubilation. Watching this remarkable footage of liberation unfolding, it is difficult not to be persuaded by a remark adapted by Hayes, in the above-mentioned sound piece, from Plato’s Symposium: “An army of lovers cannot lose.”
Photo: View of Sharon Hayes’s exhibition “There’s so much I want to say to you,” 2012; at the Whitney Museum.