Q&A: Sharon Hayes on Performance Art
Having come of age in New York City during the AIDS crisis, artist Sharon Hayes has always made work connected to political movements. She blends performance with installation and video to create large-scale works that explore the relationship between “the private and the public; the personal and the political.”
Hayes moved to Philadelphia in 2015 to join the faculty in the Department of Fine Arts at the Weitzman School, where she teaches performance, video, a course entitled Across Forms: Art and Writing with poet and Department of English faculty member Rachel Zolf as well as advising MFA students individually and in group critique classes.
Phaidon published a monograph of Hayes’s work in 2018. She recently had a solo exhibition called Echo, at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden, that featured works going back 16 years that bridged history with politics and speech. And this January, she co-led a pilot project called Performance Intensive that brought together Penn students, emerging artists from around the country, and the greater Philadelphia community. [The project was supported by The Sachs Program for Arts Innovation, Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, the Center for Experimental Ethnography, the Weitzman School, the Department of Fine Arts, Wolf Humanities Center, and public event partners Philadelphia Contemporary, ICA, FringeArts, Icebox Project Space.]
Hayes spoke with Design Weekly in January of 2020. The conversation has been edited.
Tell me about the Performance Intensive and what the process was like.
The Performance Intensive is a pilot project that I developed with Brooke O’Harra [senior lecturer, Creative Writing] from the School of Arts and Sciences. Brooke is an experimental theater practitioner, an artistic collaborator and also my partner. While we often collaborate artistically, being at Penn offers us the exciting opportunity to collaborate pedagogically. Since arriving in 2015, we’ve done presentations and workshops in each other’s classes but we wanted to develop a pedagogic container that could allow for a more fully developed intersection between our fields of knowledge and experience. The Performance Intensive is a laboratory in which a group of participants collectively explore performance across the genres of theater, dance, music and visual art.
One of the things I really appreciate about the medium of performance is its heterogeneity. What we were interested in with the Performance Intensive was to create a container that could do hold three primary aims. One is to allow emerging artists working with performance, across different genres, to come together and learn from each other. The second is to provide a temporal frame for learning, exploring and experimenting that allows for longer and more sustained time than that of a class period. The third is to seed the beginnings of an infrastructure for engaged, in-depth innovative research in performance praxis. We’re hoping that the Performance Intensive can continue, but also that the project might serve as a magnet to attract relationships with other scholars and practitioners across different schools at Penn and beyond who are interested in elevating performance as a praxis and a site of research.
What was the format?
The Intensive was an eight-day performance laboratory structured around three primary activities: public performances and a public lecture offered by three visiting artists, taisha paggett, Wilmer Wilson IV and Jibz Cameron (aka Dynasty Handbag) and one visiting scholar, Tavia Nyong’o, workshops led by me, Brooke O’Harra and three visiting artists and the development and presentation of “proposals” by the 18 emerging artists who participated in the Intensive. These 18 participants were selected through a nomination and application process. We had three MFA students from Penn, three PhD students from Penn, one from Communications, one from English, one from Music. There were three local Philly artists and then 9 out-of-town artists, from Boston, from Oakland, from Berlin, from Virginia, from New York.
We did not ask the participants to develop a work during the Intensive, but instead offered “proposals” as a form through which the participants could steer into some aspect of their performance practice that they wanted to specifically work on with their fellow participants.
We worked together as a group in the morning Monday through Friday. Each morning we began with Brooke O’Harra leading us all in “grid work,” which is a super simple structured improvisation that comes out of a performance training called “Viewpoints” developed at NYU by choreographer and teacher Mary Overlie. Grid work was a great way to begin each day and also allowed the group to get to know each other, not through the typical set of verbal introductions, “This is who I am and this is what I do” but through collective experimentation with pace, movement, stillness, energy, and sound. Grid work doesn’t presuppose existing skills, anyone can do it. And when you are not in the grid, you can sit and watch images form and disappear in front of you. It’s a great way to research presence in space and organizing bodies in space. For us as a group, it allowed for contact, or points of intersection, it allowed for the co-existence of a wide range of explorations, some of which were movement-based, some sound focused and others “story-centered.” Most nights of the week, we went to a public performance or lecture where our group of 18 folded in with a broader public. Then halfway through the week, the group started to formulate their own proposals which they presented over the final weekend.
What was the experience like?
It was intense! And extremely generative. There was a ton of generosity passing amongst all the participants. One of the things we hoped the Intensive would offer the artists participating was the possibility to use each other to stage, engage, or try something that one can’t do alone in a studio or with the three friends you’re able to gather together for some brief moment of work in between a too-busy-work schedule.
Overall, the model was able to contain a lot of different investments in performance and embodied practice. One of the things I really appreciate about performance is that it can conduct so much–ideas, thoughts, gestures, sounds, actions, activities, fictions, smells. And performance is necessarily attached to so many of the individual and collective activities we engage in regularly: like politics, sports, ritual and spiritual practice, even work. And, yet, performance as a medium is also foundationally invested in liveness and in the idea of being present with others, so when people gather in a specific place at a specific time to encounter something together, it can be quite profound. In this way, there’s a whole field of unpredictability to what arrives in front of all of us. For me, it was a real gift to have these energetic, engaged explorations happening in our midst throughout the Intensive.
Tell me about yourself and how you came to performance art.
I landed in New York City in the early ‘90s, which ended up being a formative and foundational time for me. What was significant were two facets of my arrival: One was landing in the city in the middle of the AIDS crisis, and the other was landing in the middle of markedly feminist, queer, politically-engaged performance. I was in my early 20s, going to see tons of performance, and going to political meetings and meetings by collective organizations involved in political activity. I learned a lot, and what was impressed upon me was the capacity that performance, as a medium, had to transmit, to channel, a whole range of direct, concrete material, political content, and a whole range of affective or emotional landscapes.
I came of age as an artist at a moment when there really wasn’t an option to ignore politics or movements of resistance. There were incredible artists fighting the government neglect of the AIDS crisis, but also a ton of important work inside of intersectional feminism and a lot of work of by artists and activists of color and black feminists to challenge master narratives, to challenge mainstream media’s power regime, and to push the voices of queer writers out into public forum. I was trained, in a sense, by the most radical and dynamic cultural movements happening in the early ‘90s and in that way, I had to address my own position in that field of culture, in that field of practice, in that field of politics.
Having come into this political awareness in your 20’s, what is it like then to see your twenty-something students living through similar times?
Particularly at this moment in time, my students move me. They’re asking hard questions. They’re confronting hard debates and trying to make their way to deep social, political and personal transformations, both for themselves and for the institutions or collectives that they’re a part of.
It’s demanding and I appreciate the level of demand. Some of this demand is concrete, such as demanding the right inhabit their gender, to be gender fluid and gender non-binary, to be addressed through the pronouns that they want to use. We must respect our students and follow them. This means we that change our relationship to language, that we develop new ways of addressing a classroom and new ways of supporting a community of students. From this generation of students, there are also multiple demands that we change the structures and infrastructures of our institutions, that we make gender-neutral bathrooms, that we be more vigilant and better at accommodating students with disabilities, that we recognize invisible disabilities and that we recognize the impact of deep economic disparities in our student body, that we support and make space for the fullness of who these students are in the work we do with them in the classroom and in critique and in studio visits. I am impressed and inspired by my students. Not every form of labor comes with such sustained intergenerational contact, such an opportunity to learn from other generations, but teaching does, and I find it a true pleasure.
What effect does teaching have on your art and your art have on your teaching?
My teaching is not my work and my work is not my teaching. I don’t teach my work in the classroom, for instance, because teacher and student is not the same as artist and audience. I do, of course, share my work as much as I can with students outside of the classroom. And, having said that, I certainly show up in the classroom as an artist and I show up with all of the vibrant, invested, enervated urgencies that I engage in my work. Everything about who I am as an artist engenders the pedagogic structures I work with, the readings I bring to bear, the artists that I propose we look at. I’m most interested in teaching from the point of view of engaged inquiry, not some idea of expertness. In this sense my teaching and my work share a deep commitment and responsibility to inquiry, to observation, to listening and to research.
Let’s talk about your recent exhibition in Stockholm at the Moderna Museet. What was that experience like, having such a large body of work all together in this solo exhibition and being able to see these works side-by-side and see the evolution of your work and have other people experience it?
It was a privilege, exactly as you said, to get to see works that I made over 16 years next to each other and to get to see my work in a way I’ve never seen before. The works that I make are almost all time-based. They take up space, they need technology to materialize them. When I am making a work, I am so close to it, so intimate with its material that I live, sleep, eat and breathe it. You can’t get it out of your head. But then when you’re done making it, the forms break apart, the video might hide away on a hard drive and various documents in file cabinets or whatnot and then I’ll go years without seeing the work. No one every really explained that to me as an artist.
In 2018, there was a monograph published about my work, and the writer who did the survey text, Jeannine Tang, wanted to come and sit with me and talk about my work, do a studio visit. When she first came she said, “I want to look at The Lesbian,” which I made in 1997, and was the last work I made in a theatrical context. I had a VHS copy of the performance and we sat down together to watch it. I knew it was a foundational work for me but I hadn’t looked at it in 20 years probably. To look at it again and to see so much of what I am now digging into sort of laid out diagrammatically in that early work was astounding.
The challenge to a solo show for me is always, how to retain the reality that my work is not solo, it is deeply collaborative. Sometimes literally so, in that I’m making the work with other artists, but even when I’m not, I’m making the work in relation to a whole field of practitioners, activists, organizers, writers, poets, other artists, theater makers, choreographers, alive and dead.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a new piece, which is another component in an ongoing series, a video series I have called Ricerche––Italian for research. It’s a piece that steps off of a Pier Paolo Pasolini film called Comizi d’amore. I’m going to Dallas-Fort Worth to shoot a group interview with 24 members of two women’s tackle football teams. In that work, I’m interested in this current moment and the ways in which gender, sex, and sexuality are deployed or the ways they act symptomatically on other debates: political, economic, et cetera. It’s partially commissioned by an art space in Glasgow, Scotland, called The Common Guild and it will be presented initially as part of a festival called the Glasgow International.
Are you going to be bringing back the performance intensive?
We would love too, Brooke and I. We both feel that it carved out a vibrant space of interdisciplinary performance practice at Penn. It was porous to the larger Philadelphia community and to the performance world in a broader sense. It’s a model that really works. I think it would be great to do it again.