In performances, videos, and installations, Sharon Hayes examines the intersection of history, politics, and speech, with a particular focus on the language of twentieth-century protest groups. By appropriating the tools of public demonstrations, Hayes reconfigures the images of the protestor in a manner that destabilizes the viewer’s expectations and opens up the possibilities and challenges of reviving past models within a cynical present. Staging protests, delivering speeches, and ‘performing’ demonstrations, she creates interventions that highlight the friction between collective activities and personal actions.

Hayes embraces the friction that results from what she terms ‘re-speaking’ in her project ‘In The Near Future’ (2005-09), a performance staged on the streets on Brussels, London, New York, Paris, Vienna, and Warsaw. Standing in sites historically associated with public protests, Hayes held up placards with texts either derived from past movements (‘We condemn U.S. aggression in Vietnam’, ‘I Am A Man’) or invented (‘Nothing Will Be As Before’). The words acquire new resonances even as they are stripped of spatiotemporal specificity of meaning, but the image of a lone individual earnestly imploring the public to listen conveys an immediacy that transcends concrete politics.

In recent projects, Hayes weaves intimate speech into a context as a means to further implicate the individual voice in the body politic. In ‘I March In The Parade Of Liberty But As Long As I Love You I’m Not Free’, performed from December 2007 to January 2008 in New York, Hayes addresses an anonymous absent lover through a bullhorn, retelling the recent history of their love as ebbed and flowed with the politics of the team in a plea for understanding and return.

In ‘Revolutionary Love: I Am Your Worst Fear, I Am Your Best Fantasy’ (2008), commissioned by Creative Time and performed at the Democratic National Convention in Denver and the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Hayes enlisted local volunteers from the LGBT community to create a chorus of voices reciting a similar appeal to a nameless lover. Punctuated with 1970s gay rights slogans, both texts describe an ambiguous longing that could apply to a general public, a friend, a lover. As with earlier projects, potency results not so much from the incongruity of dislocated modes of address but from the unexpected affinities that occur across history or between public and private discourse, which arise from pronouncements such as: ‘I refuse to give up the territory of my emotional expression. And I want you to love all of me.’ ‘Parole’ (2010), Hayes’ recent contribution to the 2010 Whitney Biennial, refers to the term used by Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure to distinguish individual acts of speech (parole) from a larger system of language (langue). In this installation, several distinct scenes present examples of public speech in different contexts.

In each of the settings, which include Hayes’s recent performances as well as fictive scenes without an audience, the same figure appears, recording sound but never speaking. Hayes draws on historical texts—such as early lesbian activist Anna Rüling’s 1904 speech, ‘What Interest Does the Women’s Movement Have in the Homosexual Question’ — that “re-speak” to new audiences. These historical speeches, and Hayes’s work in general, explore the construction of gender and sexuality and the articulations of political protest, revealing unexpected resonances across time periods. ‘Parole’ encourages the viewer to think about how past forms of protest can inform the present and how the effects of public speech are altered in the process of documentation.

Hayes work has been seen at national and international exhibition spaces including documenta 12 (collaborative project), Kassel; Generali Foundation, Vienna; P.S. 1 Museum of Contemporary Art, New York; Museum Moderner Kunst (MUMOK), Vienna; The Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Artists Space, New York; Art-in-General, New York; New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York; Lisson Gallery, London; Tate Modern, London; Yokohama Triennial; Istanbul Biennale; Kunstmuseum St. Gallen; Göteborgs Konsthall; and most recently at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, the 4th Auckland Triennial, and the Reina Sofia, Madrid.

Sharon Hayes lives and works in New York.

Sharon Hayes
'My Memory Translates Everything into Something Else', 2012
Synthetic polymer on fabric
Installation view, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 2012

Sharon Hayes
'We Knew We Would Go to Jail', 2003/2012
Two-screen video installation, colour, sound; 27:28 min.
Edition of 3 (+ 1 AP)
Installation view, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 2012

Sharon Hayes
‘Unannounced’, 2009-2010
5 framed prints
30 x 21 cm
Edition of 7

Sharon Hayes
‘In Times like this only Criminals remain silent ’ (collaboration with Andrea Geyer), 2005
5 page poster project

Sharon Hayes
'The Lesbian', 1998
Letterpress print
17 x 11 inches
Edition of 3 + 2 AP