Pictures of protesters carrying signs have become familiar sights this year, but Sharon Hayes makes us look twice at the slogans she brandishes. In her installation In the Near Future (2005–09), 13 old slide projectors beam 354 photographs of the artist’s one-woman movement onto the walls. "RATIFY E.R.A. NOW!" she urges Wall Street passersby—more than 20 years after efforts to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment stalled.
It’s not too late to pass the E.R.A., though. History bleeds into the present in all of Hayes’s work, which often revisits speeches from the past to engage politics and civil-rights issues today.
Presented at the 2010 Whitney Biennial, the New York–based artist’s video installation Parole (a linguistics reference) depicts a succession of speakers, many of whom perform other people’s words. Hayes plays different scenes on four screens. A young man reads German activist Anna Rüling’s 1904 plea for cooperation between the women’s movement and lesbians. Hayes and stand-ins on the streets of Istanbul, Frankfurt and London read letters to her unnamed lover.
Despite its focus on speech, Parole is really about listening. Its star, artist-actor Becca Blackwell (pictured), records most of the performers. Blackwell remains silent, but the intensity with which she takes in the speakers’ words, the sound of a boiling kettle or a dancer’s breaths rivets viewers’ attention. Alone in a room, she holds a microphone as though it’s a gun.
In the show’s third work, An Ear to the Sounds of Our History (2011), Hayes photographs arrangements of ’60s and ’70s spoken-word albums from her collection. The similarity between Martin Luther King Jr.’s and John F. Kennedy’s records is striking—as is the fact that public figures commanded enough sustained attention to power an LP.