Interview with Sharon Hayes

Melanie Crean: In many of your pieces you employ the act of re-speaking: the recitation of historical texts. Can you talk about the method of interpretation you are exploring, by shifting historical contexts and spaces? What types of issues are you playing with by inserting the past into the present?

Sharon Hayes: I arrived at this set of strategies that I call, “re-speaking” which has to do with taking an oral text that was once spoken and “re-speaking” it in a different moment. An oral to oral translation with out the idea of shifting language but rather shifting time. Shifting temporality and location. I came to that through two influences: one was my history working in downtown theater, dance and performance in New York in the early/mid nineties. Using the conventions of theater using scripts and having scripts, having to script yourself and to repeat yourself again and again as if you are speaking anew.

That intersected with my content interest in historical narrative. The way in which historical narrative is constructed and the way in which history interacts with the present moment.

Re-speaking gets at the operations which are already happening in the present moment. The ways in which our root and our ability to access history is always fragmented, fraught, interrupted, mistaken or there are mistakes or mis-identifications in that attempt to understand or to recuperate a certain understanding of a past event, past moment, past articulation, past understanding, past speaking.

MC: There is no seamless understanding of history. You use the word “operation.”
Operations are rule based and structured, not necessarily invested in a particular emotion or character necessarily. So what is the relationship between the action and the speech? The idea of the language you are dealing with as a material, and the idea of the action also as a material: there are two things you are dealing with at the same time.

SH: There is a slogan that I used in a piece, In the Near Future, where I stand on the street in different iterations in different cities, for a number of days with a protest sign with anachronisms or citations culled from some past moment. Some were conditional or future. But most were from the past. One citation read: “Actions speak louder than words” and it’s actually only half of the slogan. The second part read “Ratify the ERA now!” and I ended up splitting them and using them in two
separate slogans.

The idea of me holding a sign and saying “Actions speak louder than words,” is the impossibility of separating the speech and the action. Most of my work has been animated by a foundational understanding and interest in speech as action. On a theoretical level I could call it, “JL Austin’s performitive.” The speech act that does something rather than says or tells something. It is also something that comes about or evidences itself in the way I experience the world (not just in a theoretical framework). Even if we are outside of the space of the “performative” and even if we
are outside of the space of rhetoric, explicit classic parliamentary debates or speech debates. There is constantly speech that is doing things. All of this crap that is being said about Park 51 is doing something really powerful and potent and horrible that may make it impossible for that center to ever come about. I don’t know how to separate the speech from the action in those cases. They are bound up with each other

That is where my ground is. On a precise level, from project to project I engage different strategies to work through a set of questions that varies. In very similar types of terrain. It is my interest in these intersections of history, politics, and speech. But in each given piece it is a different set of questions I am trying to ask. In the Near Future, which is the piece where I am holding the sign, I am interested in the speech act of protest and how that speech act makes meaning. It is not just the words that form the meaning of the speech of protest. It was something that I was interested in asking and had to do the piece to understand. To fully feel the triangulation between the words on the placard and the body that holds those words and the time and place in which they are held. The speech act only has meaning when those three things are together. When one is disconnected there is kind of a rupture that has to go on. A double take.

MC: I wonder if there might be one other axis, if the viewer has been a part of the era when the original slogan took place and maybe they took part in the original action. Like the piece you did in Warsaw that referenced some of the things that were going on in the 80’s. Some of those people who saw your signs could have been at the original event. What is the difference between people who were a part of those original protests and maybe connected the dot back, and people who were teenagers who didn’t? In addition to those other axis, maybe there is connection to a past moment as well.

SH: Things that function as citations reverberate in a field of differing reception. Someone’s understanding, age, geographic or national background, someone’s
linguistic competence and identity, all determines their relationships to a given
citation. That is true of how citations function. Some people who wear Che Guevara tee shirts have no idea who Che Guevara was, but they got it because their friend identifies with an idea of revolution, but don’t really know. This is an example of how historical events ripple. Both how they ripple into a present moment or how they more violently rupture into a present moment. Our differing access to those moments is a big part of our relationship to history. We all have different reaches and proximities to various historical events.

There are three elements that for me collaborate to create the meaning of the speech act of protest. What I am doing is then a demonstration in a Brechtian sense, I don’t think of what I am doing in that case as a re-enactment. Rather, I am putting something into play, pointing to it, in order to ask questions about how protest in a general sense, about how protest functions in a present moment. To do that I have to speak indirectly to an audience, to a public.

Both the people who had no idea what the slogan meant and the people who remember it and recognize where it’s from are still addressed indirectly. The only people who are addressed directly are the people for whom the sign was originally intended, which was maybe never totally codified but was direct because most protests are in a certain sense directed and goal oriented. The actions that I did weren’t goal oriented in that same way, but rather an attempt to call up questions around protests and our relationship to them in a present moment and what possibilities there are for public resistance that uses that kind of speech.

MC: You are not necessarily acting, but you are executing a task. In your methodology of performance I would guess that you would not consider yourself a character. How would you describe the methodology that you are trying to enact and what is the reason for it?

SH: In The Love Address I do think I am a character of sorts. It is not a named character that goes through an enormous amount of character development. Because I am speaking from the “I” to a “You” who is not who I am actually speaking to. I am doing and not doing what I seem to be doing. I am speaking to the people on the street literally, through a microphone or a bull horn. Who ever is in proximity can hear me. As I often repeat in that work, the ears are an orifice that cannot be closed. There is a fictional story between an “I” and a “You” and I am the “I.” I did use strategies unlike some of the other work that are strategies toward character. I did wear a costume of sorts. It is not far off from me and my persona but my character is not equal to me. I am not just a body with certain identity characteristics. I am also a speaking subject who talks about her home, apartment and work and this “You” and the things they have done together. In the other work I don’t think of myself as a character. In The Near Future I am in the task of holding those signs. I am a
white woman having characteristics that can be observed on the streets. Part of why I am doing that work is that I felt like it was important that it was an act that I took responsibility for. It changes the meaning of the piece if I hire an actor or cast someone to do it. In an attempt to limit what it is I am trying to find out. If I cast and then hire someone I am making choices about who would do the piece who would hold that sign and would they always be the one to hold it and why and those factors aren’t really relevant in the piece.

MC: In the SLA pieces there are issues with memory and accuracy and repetition but mostly this idea of historical memory being imperfect. I wanted to ask you about the purposeful difficulty you have in that piece and how it relates to the inaccuracy. I wanted you to speak a bit about your idea of an accuracy and what that exposes and why.

SH: I did four live performances to generate 4 video tapes. I never repeated a live
performance. I partially memorized the text intentionally and gave the transcript to the audience and asked them to correct me when I was wrong. I remember after one of the performances, one of the people came up to me and said that it was really frustrating because they couldn’t hear the text. It was so interesting because he wanted to have an uninhibited relationship to the words that Patty Hearst had spoken. I don’t think it is ever possible even if one can read the whole text and take it in or hear it spoken, I don’t think it can ever be a smooth process with full understanding or recognition. I think that speech and speech acts, the words we say, are repeatable and are repeated constantly. How they function as an act and hit an audience is very particular to each enunciation. Each enunciation happens at a different place and time.

MC: There is no seamless understanding, experience or access to history. It is always
mediated by something. This segues to the idea of “publics.” The frustrated man was an active participant trying to make meaning in his own way.

SH: Frustration is not a bad response.

MC: You’ve treated publics in different ways. You’ve performed in public where people have come up and spoken to you as part of the experience. You’ve filmed people watching different pieces of media. In After Before with the two newscasters speaking to people and calculating public opinion. You have made work where the audience was a character in the performance. It seems like you’ve been moving through different constructions of how to work with audiences in different ways. What kind of explorations are you trying to do?

SH: Doing work in largely theatrical venues in the downtown dance, theatre, and
performance scene in conditions where I would perform in a room by myself and there was an audience that came in and then watched and then got up and then left. One thing that was uncomfortable to me was that I was speaking words that I had written in another time and yet addressing to this group of people as if I was saying the words to them for the first time. I picked up this set of systems and incredible respect for the community of performers but always rubbed up against this idea of the “wink wink nod nod” I know that you know that I am not truly having this experience with you but that I’ve scripted it. There are two bodies that are functioning differently but both as themselves and something different than
themselves. One is me as the performance. The first five performances I did started with, “Hi I am Sharon Hayes.” But clearly it wasn’t the same Sharon Hayes that wasn’t on stage that hadn’t scripted themselves who would be talking to you after the show or as I am to you know. Similarly there was this contract that we make sitting or standing across from each other in the theatre that they are functioning and sitting there as an audience, or a collected body. In the artificiality of that encounter, from the beginning of that work I was very interested in the position of the audience. In
the last theatrical piece I did I named the audience as a character and they didn’t do anything. It wasn’t audience participation. I named them and I even said there was a scene that we just didn’t have time to do but I gave them a script of the scene that was theirs.

I am creating imagined positions for a public and an audience in all my work. In SLA I made the work by doing four performances where there was an audience. I gave that live audience the transcript of each text, I said I was going to speak it and that they would have to correct me so you hear their voice on the video tapes that are eventually made from those events but they are never imaged. The viewer of the video tape in a sense could be them, it’s not an extraordinary thing that they are doing, you can recognize that they are a group of people who are there with
me at a particular moment, which is what the viewer to the video is, in a sense. There are these kind of layers of audience which hopefully allow people to understand their own participation in these speech encounters. By giving them an imagined body that could be them, either a character called the audience or a group of people on a videotape that respond as the audience, it creates something that they can look to as the choices that are available to them in those motions and how that position in itself functions. The position of the public.

In the works that I do on the street, In the Near Future and The Love Address, work a little bit more so that there is an interesting interaction between the audience and the public. The audience being people who know that I am going to be there doing a performance and come because they get an email that I am going to be there. I lightly advertise, I inadvertently try to keep it a little under the radar because I want there to be a balance between an audience and the public. There is the audience who shows up to see me and the public who doesn’t. We three interact in those moments. For many audience people The Love Address work talks about how the piece is about the public and me and they would notice things that happen between me and
the public. Something I said would layer itself onto that body, the public. For the public the piece is me and the audience. They are also aware that they are there, in the case of The Near Future, taking photographs, which is what I asked audience members to do. I invited people to come and document me. In The Love Address work the people that gathered in a small semi-circle in front of me becomes something and turns peoples heads. They think something is happening because
people are watching. They don’t exactly identify themselves as people who are watching because they are not yet watching but if they choose to watch then maybe they fold into the audience.

There are these positions which are different but which are all a part of these encounters. For me it is part of the question of the work.

MC: Your work addresses who is allowed to speak, and when it is appropriate and in what venues? Does your work address notions of freedom of speech and if so how?

SH: For me maybe because of my privilege the notion or idea of “Freedom of Speech” is not helpful. The more pertinent questions are the ones you were just posing. Who has the right to free speech and who doesn’t, who has the right to be heard and who doesn’t – the provisions through what sanctioned lines. In New York City it is present in and under “Free Speech Zones” which of course is a myth and doesn’t exist. The classic free speech zones that were designated over the past 10 years in certain protest areas look like a prison. As great bastions and defenders of free speech we still exist in states of changing power relationships. The work I do is invested a lot in the operation of public speech, in particular speech that has rules and roles and it has exclusions and inclusions. A lot of the work I have been invested in doing in a small way allows those parameters and constraints to be seen or heard.