Southland Sessions Presents: From high school operas and drive-thru art exhibitions to Chicano comedies and underground DJ sets—we are showcasing the vibrancy of arts and culture across our city today.
Sharon Hayes makes video, performance and installation art that tackles complex questions about history, politics and speech. Her work is staged on the street, in living rooms, and in museums and galleries. She incorporates historical texts and her own writing into her work. She might involve strangers, activists and fellow artists as performers.
Hayes was born in Baltimore and came of age in a community of queer artists and activists in New York’s East Village in the early ‘90s, where she drew inspiration from feminism and AIDS activism. She received her MFA from UCLA and now teaches in the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Fine Arts.
In this episode of the UCLA Arts podcast “Works In Progress,” Hayes discusses the form love takes in the personal, private, public and political spheres. She will also explore that theme on Monday, Nov. 30 in the UCLA Arts-led “10 Questions: Reckoning“ public discussion “What Is Love?”
UCLA Arts · Sharon Hayes: Words of love and protest
The first of Hayes’ performances that featured love as its main theme took place on a busy street corner in midtown Manhattan in September of 2007. She stood outside of the UBS corporate headquarters at the corner of 51st St and Avenue of the Americas at lunchtime every day for a work week and read texts that are addressed to an anonymous lover.
Besides speaking about personal longing and desire, Hayes also talked about politics, war and the traumatic nature of life during war.
“The conceit of the speaker is that she can’t find the lover for some reason, she can’t connect to the lover, so it is as if she’s sending this kind of love address out into the ether, hoping that it will be received,” Hayes said.
By speaking so personally in such a public space, Hayes was also interrogating the boundaries we imagine between the private and the public spheres, and between the personal and the political. It was the first of a series of works she calls “love addresses.”
More food for thought
The work was later shown as a museum installation in which five PA speakers stand in a line, like a line of speaking bodies, projecting Hayes’ five addresses.
The name for the piece was taken from a protest sign Hayes had come across in her research for a previous project, “In the Near Future.” An archival photo showed a protester in Berkeley in 1967, sitting cross-legged on the ground with a sign leaning against their knees that read “Everything Else Has Failed! Don’t You Think It’s Time For Love?”
Hayes’ first performative actions that took place on the street were part of “In the Near Future,” a project that began in 2005 and continued until 2009. She held protest signs with anachronistic slogans from past movements, such “I Am A Man” from the Memphis sanitation worker strike. She selected locations of current or historic public speech or protest in Brussels, London, New York, Paris, Vienna and Warsaw.
Hayes began the work amid a despondent feeling among activists that street protests were unable to stop the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The project explored the figure of the protester and the “choreography of activism,” the speech act of the protest sign and the construction of public space and free speech. Rather than literal reenactments or appropriations, the actions are meant to evoke memories of past protest and suggest possible future ones.
In her time spent wandering through historical archives and looking at thousands of protest photographs, Hayes came to realize “that the speech act of protest makes meaning in a triangulation between the body that holds the sign, the words on the sign, and the place and time in which they’re held,” she said.
“So what I was primarily interested in was taking these slogans out of context in order to create a kind of anachronism, which is to say a mistake, a mistake in time, a mistake in body, that allows for another question to be asked,” she said.
The series of love addresses ended with “Revolutionary Love: I am Your Worst Fear, I am Your Best Fantasy.” Staged with over 100 participants in the summer of 2008 at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, groups of performers read in unison a text addressing political desire, romantic love and queer and trans liberation.
Once again, Hayes found inspiration in the archives of gay activism. She found a portrait made by Diana Davies at the 1970 Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day rally of famed lesbian photographer Donna Gottschalk holding up a sign that reads: “I am your worst fear / I am your best fantasy.”
“Love functioned as a political tool for the liberationists. It became not only a demand and assertion to have a liberated space for sex, love, desire,” Hayes said, “but also to wield the homophobic and transphobic hate again itself.”
The performances drew on the history of the Gay Liberation movement and the contemporary debate about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike the classic hippie slogan “Make love not war,” Hayes took as inspiration the chant of Stonewall-era Gay Liberationists, “An army of lovers cannot lose.”
Footage of the performances was cut into a five-channel video installation and displayed with projectors in a room filled with helium balloons and lit with colored bulbs.
“I was interested in what happens if we think about queer love from a political point of view and as a political tool, and we think about the ways in which various collective bodies gather together as an army of lovers, and to ask, ‘what does that mean in this present, or in the political conditions of 2008? And what does it mean inside of the political theater of the conventions?’”
For the last several years Hayes has been working on a series of video projects called “Ricerche,” Italian for research. The project is inspired by a Pier Paolo Pasolini documentary film from 1964 called “Comizi d’Amore,” or “Love Meetings.” In the film, the Italian poet, activist and filmmaker travels across Italy, interviewing people about sex and sexuality, as a way to also examine underlying political and economic conditions during a period of post-war industrialization.
The project began in 2013 with a group interview of 35 students at Mount Holyoke College in western Massachusetts. The school was about to become the first all-women’s college to accept and allow matriculation of anyone except for cis-male-identified people.
Because Pasolini interviewed Italian male soccer players in “Comizi d’Amore,” Hayes decided to interview members of a women’s tackle football team.
“I think that women’s tackle football is on a kind of threshold vis-a-vis gender that some of the other women’s sports aren’t on, because tackle football is so deeply connected to patriarchy and to masculinity and to a certain kind of performance of masculinity,” she said.
In 2017, Hayes erected a temporary monument called “If They Should Ask” in Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia for the exhibition “Monument Lab.” The sculpture addresses the absence of monuments to women in the city of Philadelphia. In a city that includes hundreds of sculptures to historic figures, only two are dedicated to women: French heroine Joan of Arc and Bostonian Quaker Mary Dyer.
The cast concrete pedestals are encircled with the names of women who contributed to civic and public life in Philadelphia, from early European contact to the present day. The project suggests that failing to publicly recognize women’s contributions leads to continued inequality in politics, society and culture.
Currently Hayes is working on a video project called “If We Had Had” for Prospect.5 in New Orleans, the fifth iteration of the Prospect Art Festival that was set to take place this past October but has been postponed to October 2021. “If We Had Had” will look at how queer people move through private and public spaces in New Orleans, and how those bodies shape the spaces around them.
“I’m interested in the life of politics inside of the daily, the life of politics inside of the commute or the walk, or the way one inhabits their neighborhood or moves from their home to the corner store or their home to the karaoke bar,” Hayes said.
See artist Sharon Hayes speak at the UCLA 10 Questions: Reckoning event on Monday, Nov. 30, responding to the question “What Is Love?” alongside UCLA scholars Alicia Gaspar de Alba and Tyrone Howard. RSVP and find more information here.
Top Image: Sharon Hayes performs “Everything Else Has Failed! Don’t You Think It’s Time For Love?” a 2007 work staged on a Manhattan street corner where Hayes read texts directed to an anonymous lover. | Courtesy of UCLA