Julia Bryan-Wilson on Sharon Hayes

By Bryan-Wilson, Julia | Artforum International, May 2006 | Go to article overview

Julia Bryan-Wilson on Sharon Hayes


Bryan-Wilson, Julia, Artforum International


"MOM, DAD, I'M OK." This is the opening line of Patty Hearst's first taped message, recorded soon after she was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974. Hearst made four such audiotapes in a few short months, her tone shifting from one of shaky reassurance to that of strident declaration as the rechristened, gun-toting Tania. New York- and Los Angeles-based artist Sharon Hayes repeats these words verbatim in her four-part video Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) Screeds #13, 16, 20, and 29, 2002, in which she attempts to recite from memory (with her face framed tightly against a white background) the entirety of Hearst's four messages to her parents. Hayes's recall is not flawless, however. And just off-camera, a chorus of sorts assists the artist whenever she falters. If so much as a syllable goes awry, we hear these prompters referring to the exact transcripts and correcting her, but they are less punitive than pedagogic, occasionally laughing at Hayes's numerous errors. Hayes even looks to them for help and confirmation, diverting her otherwise direct stare at the camera. ("I'm sorry, could you give me the line?" she asks.) Produced as unlimited editions, the SLA Screeds are displayed in tall stacks for viewers to take, watch, and pass on--a gift that neatly contrasts with the "charity" demanded from the Hearsts as ransom for their daughter.

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In the SLA Screeds, forgetting is the point. Many of Hayes's single-channel videos, video installations, and performances, which the UCLA interdisciplinary studio-MFA graduate has been making for about a decade, are compelled by the creation--and erosion--of collective memory. What more ideal mode of address than what she calls "respeaking," the artist's term for her recitation of historical texts, to confront the theme of memory? Reenactment reverberates in much contemporary art; artists such as Jeremy Deller, Omer Fast, and Marina Abramovic have utilized restaging for diverse purposes, from the therapeutic, as in a community project, to the nostalgic, as a form of homage. Hayes's work, seen in solo shows at the Andrew Kreps Gallery in New York and Vancouver's Video In, is somewhat distinct from this trend; she is driven more by an investigation into the stutters of history, its uncanny recurrences and unexpected recyclings. While her selection of historical documents is dictated by their potential resonance or dissonance with our current political moment, there is always the possibility that they may fail to resound at all. In this regard, her work intersects with the linguistic theories of J. L. Austin and their adoption by queer theorist Judith Butler, both of whom investigate the conditions of successful communication as performative--that is to say, iterative and contingent. In the 2003 video installation 10 Minutes of Collective Activity, a small group listens to an archival audiotape of Connecticut senator Abraham Ribicoff's speech at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Ribicoff's fervent indictment of Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley's "gestapo tactics" during the convention has powerful echoes in our current moment, but is received unevenly by the contemporary listeners. Some appear riveted and nod in affirmation; others gaze off distractedly. As Ribicoff is increasingly heckled by the 1968 crowd, the 2003 audience members begin to shift, silently and uncomfortably, in their seats. Watching their reactions--magnified by the installation's large-scale projection--creates a sense of physical and temporal disorientation.

A 1999-2000 Whitney Independent Study Program alum, Hayes bears the imprint of the program's commitment to institutional critique; in particular, she interrogates how "audiences" become "publics." In a performance for the group show "Republican Like Me" at Brooklyn's Parlour Projects in summer 2004, Hayes respoke each of Ronald Reagan's thirty-six addresses to the nation.

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