The Space of an Encounter: An Interview with Sharon Hayes

One of Philadelphia-based artist Sharon Hayes’s earliest works is The Lesbian from 1997. The solo performance is based on a three-and-a-half-month research project she conducted earlier that same year, in which she drove some 10,000 miles cross-country. Along the way, she interviewed lesbians, documented—through photos and video footage—what she describes as “evidence of lesbian communities,” and performed in lesbian living rooms. In the performance, however, Hayes is the only figure visible onstage; she plays a tour guide, leading the audience through an exhibition in a museum dedicated to the “natural history” of the lesbian. The spatialized exhibition form, though (i.e., walking from gallery to gallery), was translated into the temporal divisions of theatrical scenes.

Video documentation of her journey accompanied Hayes onstage, but mirroring her solo live performance, she is the only person visible in the footage. While the performance and research project seemingly revolves around an excavation of identity or community that might lend itself to the presencing of many lesbians, Hayes refuses such facile representations. Rather, The Lesbian locates its political and relational force precisely in the interplay between presence (Hayes’s own body and voice) and absence (no one else is visible). Through these performance choices, Hayes questions the “essentialism of identity politics” through what might be described as tactics of temporal and embodied refusal. The audience, in other words, is forced to “construct meaning from absence rather than presence.”1

I begin this introduction to my interview with Hayes by describing The Lesbian for a few reasons. It illustrates her investment in and history with theatrically based performance traditions, even as her subsequent work has expanded, now also encompassing video, audio recording, multichannel installations, and text-based pieces. The Lesbian indexes her continued investment in a deeply rigorous research-based and often archival artistic practice. But it also centers what have become primary threads in Hayes’s work: namely, the ways queer desire, intimacy, and attachments can be cited/sited and how we contend with thick or dense time, as what is present or absent in a given encounter grapples for authorial claim over our understanding of a past, present, or future. This June, Hayes and I connected over Zoom to discuss her work and the ways in which she makes sense of space, time, and the re-circulation, or distribution, of ideas and histories in her artistic practice.


I want to start with a question focused on installations, as our interview will appear in Theatre Journal’s special issue focused on installation. How do you conceptualize your work and its relationship to space?


I have never found the term installation art terribly useful, because I don’t think of installation itself as a medium that creates the pressures that, say, video, performance, sculpture, or painting do. I’ve never used the term because I think that all work—video, performance, sculpture, and painting, for instance—moves through various conditions of installation in its path to meet an audience. So, I appreciate that you started with space because that’s really the question. How is space connected to place, institution, framework, discourse, and/or belonging?

For me, foundationally, space, which is also always place, is a container—and I mean that architecturally, institutionally, psychically, socially, and culturally—for the work. Space, or place, is the container that holds an encounter between the work and the audience. What that means is that I am accountable for and to the entirety of that encounter and holding it in architectural, psychic, social, cultural, and institutional space. Now, of course, it’s not the only encounter an audience has with the work, but it is a significant one. 

As somebody who came into exhibition practice via theatrically based performance practice, space was an immediate site of both familiarity and unfamiliarity, confusion and possibility. The thing that was animating and vexing were the points of difference between theatre and exhibition, which had to do with how time was regulated and how space was constructed, and what each meant to the structuring of an encounter with an audience. To move to the space of exhibition practice is to realize that the entirety of what was the theatrical space becomes, instead, a set of possibilities for encounters.


I love this term—the encounter—you’ve been using as you describe the expanded set of spatial possibilities within exhibition practice. I wonder if you could describe materially what some of those are or what they look like? Here, I’m thinking about your show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2012.2 How did the broad philosophy you’ve been describing inform those particular encounters at that museum? Does a visitor’s encounter with your work begin during their walk to the museum? Does it begin at the Visitor Experience desk? How do you conceive of the way that your work might intersect with the sum total of an institutional space?


Well, here’s where everything starts to explode out! When you were describing the possibilities, I was also thinking about the constraints of an institution. An invitation to present work always comes with a huge set of possibilities and a huge pile of constraints. Some of those constraints are decidedly mundane—like, “There’s plugs eighteen inches up the wall” or “There’s a funny cutout in one of the walls, blah blah blah; the floor this or the ceiling that”—but at other times they’re really complex.

So, if you draw my attention to the Whitney: it was an invitation I received in 2012 to do a solo exhibition. One thing the invitation made me have to understand was that I’m “a mid-career artist” presented with a singular career opportunity but, by virtue of said invitation, one that is already deeply shaped or defined. What does it mean for a public to be called to the exhibition through the proposal of my name? There were two things that I needed to grapple with; one was the presumption of singularity that the solo show enforces, and the other was that a solo show of that size can’t help but instantiate the work as resolved rather than fluid, alive, unpredictable, and malleable—as work shaped, in other words, by its encounter with an audience, rather than work that sits complete and waits for an audience who absorbs that completion.

Those constraints informed my approach to making that show. I had the great fortune to work with a really fantastic curator, Chrissie Iles. She has a deep experience working with moving-image work, and that allowed us to ask, “How do you push against exhibition conventions—i.e., the typical arrangement of many little rabbit hole–like rooms?” It was important that my work occupied exhibition space. By that, I mean that I was—and am—interested in making present the tensions between institutional architecture and social, relational, or public encounters.

At this point, it’s worth saying that I don’t consider myself autonomous, and I don’t consider any aspect of my making as an artist singular or engendered through some kind of solo effort. My work is deeply collaborative. Even when there are not named collaborators—and there are always many named collaborators—the work is deeply collaborative with genealogies of performance, of materiality, with political grammars. It’s also deeply collaborative with other people who enter the space. So, with the exhibit at the Whitney, it was necessary for me to respect and to make space for that range of collaborations.

Early in the process, I reached out to a frequent collaborator of mine, Andrea Geyer, and our conversations ended up becoming a named physical work that structures the other works in the show. At the Whitney we didn’t use any internal walls whatsoever. Essentially the entire third floor was an open space bound by the four walls of the building. Inside of those we created a space that was open and fluid where works bled into each other more often than not. My collaboration with Andrea, “Space Set/Set Space” (2012), could also be called “exhibition design.” It was composed of the walls, floors, and seats of/in the space, all of which were made from untreated plywood, our interest being to reference rather than replicate other spaces: community meetings, DIY spaces, public protests.


One thing that struck me as you were talking is that you’re redefining exhibition design as collaboration, or even that the molding of space is/as intimacy. Your longer answer seems to be getting at how an artist can shift the institutional dynamics or, at the very least the connotations of a space like a museum and certainly a marquee museum like the Whitney.


One of the things that animated my work with Andrea was Caspar Neher’s theatre designs for Bertolt Brecht and their collaborative process. We were inspired, in particular, by this half curtain that Brecht and Neher often used. The half curtain acquiesced or acceded to the conventions of theatre, but also resisted, exposed, and opened up those conventions. So, when you first come up to the third floor at the old Whitney, the Breuer building, you either enter from an elevator or the stairs, but they’re on the same plane.3 Greeting you as you stepped out of the elevator or came off the stairs, was a one-hundred-and-four-foot-by-eight-foot-tall curtain. It was gathered at one end and then stretched out, and on the curtain was the sentence, “Now a chasm has opened between us that holds us together and keeps us apart” (fig. 1). The sentence paraphrases a description that Hannah Arendt offers about public-ness. In The Human Condition, Arendt offers that the space of the public is like a table that separates but also gathers a group, a collectivity.4 Yes, what you refer to as “spatial intimacy” was really important to me in that show.


What conventions would you say the curtain you and Andrea designed acquiesced to and what did it resist?


The notion of a solo show already presumes a certain relationship between the art and the public, and what was important to me was to acknowledge that, to say, “Okay, yes, conventionally that’s what we’re talking about. I’m given this real estate and you are invited to come and encounter what I have done with this real estate.” But I also wanted to make it clear that the encounter was not one where I hold expertise and the public basks in that expertise. So, what the curtain did was to say, “Here we are in space together; here we are bound together, if in different positions, in the production of meaning or, if that’s too much, at least in the recognition of certain materials, cultural objects, or political discourse.”

But the curtain also restricted an immediate view of the whole space; it presented instead a pathway and, in that way, engaged a public’s active navigation of space— you can walk left or you can walk right. And, as someone did so, they walked past the work “An Ear to the Sounds of Our History,” which was installed on those third-floor building walls surrounding the other works (fig. 2). “An Ear to the Sounds of Our History” is made up of what I call “sentences” constructed out of found spoken-word album covers. That work offered these important points of access for a visitor, because suddenly it’s not so much about “here’s this artwork that has a certain set of parameters,” but rather “oh, there’s Angela Davis and Eleanor Roosevelt,” or “there’s twenty-three albums of Martin Luther King and JFK,” or “oh, my grandmother had one of those. I remember it in her collection,” or “oh, I’ve heard that speech. I know that moment. There’s Jesse Jackson thirty years younger.” It was a way to change the terms of what we mean by the oeuvre of an artist, and instead to say “here are materials that we share, and here’s a context and a set of histories that we share, even though we hold them differently and come to them from distinct cultural, linguistic, and generational positions.”

Figure 1. Sharon Hayes, “Now a chasm has opened between us that holds us together and keeps us apart,” cotton fabric sewn on cotton muslin, 8 x 102 ft., in “Sharon Hayes: There’s so much I want to say to you,” June 21–September 9, 2012, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City. (Photo: Sheldan C. Collins.)
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Figure 1.

Sharon Hayes, “Now a chasm has opened between us that holds us together and keeps us apart,” cotton fabric sewn on cotton muslin, 8 x 102 ft., in “Sharon Hayes: There’s so much I want to say to you,” June 21–September 9, 2012, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City. (Photo: Sheldan C. Collins.)



It strikes me as you’re describing in such detail this initial element of the exhibit, the curtain, that it’s not only about space, but also time. The banal time it takes to walk up the stairs or to ride the elevator; the fissure of time between Hannah Arendt and our encounter with her words in our present; the theatre curtain that alludes to the beginning or end of a traditional theatrical work; the record player and that crackle you hear as a record starts or stops. Could you discuss the ways that you understand your work’s relationship to time? What, for instance, has drawn you to certain moments in time—the 1960s or ’70s—and to the particular terms or conditions of those decades?

Figure 2. Sharon Hayes, “An Ear to the Sounds of Our History (But I am Somebody)”, 2011, spoken-word record covers.
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Figure 2.

Sharon Hayes, “An Ear to the Sounds of Our History (But I am Somebody)”, 2011, spoken-word record covers.



I have a very thick relationship to time. Time for me is the encounter between the work and its multiple publics. That encounter activates a set of dense times that are known and unknown to me that I put into play but don’t fully control. When I was describing earlier what might happen as a public encountered “An Ear to the Sounds of Our History,” that was also already going into other forms of time: family time, generational time, kinship time.

The other time that is held by that work is the time of technology. The LP has a specific technological historical life. It had an inception and a decline and was an important distributive medium for the reproduction of political discourse. One element, in particular, that holds the thickness or density that I’m talking about is the voices on those records. We used to disseminate political speech into people’s homes, into the intimacy of their domestic space. The voice so strongly conducts the body into the temporal moment of an encounter. While that particular encounter didn’t happen in the Whitney exhibit because the records weren’t being played, it did happen at other moments in my work with the spoken-word LPs, and I bring this up because I’m interested in how thick time circulates—that specter of a point of contact.5

As for the other part of your question, I think the late 1960s or early ’70s have become a frequent site for me, in part because of the way in which the near past operates. That particular near past is the time period right before and right after I was born and has, in a sense, ghosted my political consciousness. So, while there are particular biographical reasons why those temporalities circulate in my work, it’s also because the near past is a period of time that actively operates in our contemporary encounters; it circulates through various media, is instrumentalized in current political debates, and also lives in the bodies and subjectivities of elders.


You were describing the spoken-word LPs and the idea that you could hear, say, Jesse Jackson’s voice circulating in your living room, and I’m wondering how you understand not only the temporal materiality of this thick time, but also its politics in your work? What does it do to propose these types of temporal encounters?


What I hear in that question is “What is my investment as an artist in pointing to this condition of reception?” I guess I can say that when I was coming of age as a political person, and certainly into my early days of making art, there was an active rearticulation of historicism as not that of a master narrative. So, I grew into exciting and challenging questions about history: how else can we understand political, social, or cultural histories; how else does power circulate through historicity or the writing of history; how does it [power] instrumentalize narrative to reproduce itself over time? Thick time was a part of a whole set of conversations happening inside and outside of art. I began to define a political encounter as one animated by the audience or listener and as an intimate form of reception. The question for me as an artist is: “What is urgent or necessary about the place of an exhibition or about the types of circulations activated there?” Here, instead of circulation, I could say distribution. The materials, or what we might call the “content” of the work, is always moving through a process of distribution.


I like reframing circulation as distribution because it goes back to listening as a practice of reception, an active practice within the development of a political or relational consciousness. There’s also something very distinct about distribution: it presumes an actor actively distributing something in particular ways and not in other ways.


Right. Distribution presumes a kind of agent, and also that that agent, or set of agents, is working with a set of tactics. Distribution implies both pathways and tactics. For the piece “In the Near Future,” I took slogans from protest signs that had been held at a past moment and redistributed them by holding them myself on the street for a period of time in five different cities. One of the things I came to experience in that process was the physical and spatial distinction between direct and indirect address. Often something might be pointed [in] one direction, but distributed through rather than to an addressee: various protests, for instance, directed to a TV station in order to get the message through or to certain publics or politicians.


What you’re saying reminds me of something I read in another interview you’ve given about “In the Near Future.” In that interview, you explained that when you would perform the piece, if someone came up to you and asked what was happening, you thought of that encounter as a kind of pedagogical moment.6 Many of your works engage what I might describe as the tactics of pedagogy or depend upon the figure of the student, both literally—i.e., this particular student at this moment in time—and metaphorically. Could you discuss the role that pedagogy plays in your thinking? 


That’s a really interesting question. You’re right to identify the tendencies I have towards the figure of a student. There are two things that come to mind. One is that I had the deep privilege to study with Mary Kelly.7 I learned so much, both directly from Mary but also indirectly by absorbing the commitment she makes to pedagogy and to the capacity of the pedagogical encounter to enable what she has, in certain contexts, called a kind of ethical witnessing.

I would also say that my relationship to pedagogy is not one that is in any way bound by an academic institution. I understand it as a site of collective work, a collective study, collective research. It’s about a kind of collective willingness to stand unfamiliarly with things that may be quite familiar—to have a moment of distanciation to open up other pathways of moving, working, and thinking inside of the familiar as a form of resistance to normalization.


It strikes me that a work like “In My Little Corner of the World” (fig. 3) does what you’re describing as pedagogy so beautifully, in that it is invested in practices of listening, the intimacy of two people in a room, and at the same time defamiliarizes, or queers, reading and archival practices.


For me, there is a lot in that work that describes the pedagogical terrain that I am drawn to. I’ve spent a ton of time in queer genealogies and archives, and yet my relationship to those genealogies is constantly one of seeing anew.

In this case, publications I found in an archive in the UK drew me back to an archive in the US and to self-published work that was happening during the “homophile movement,” Stonewall, and then through the aftermath of Stonewall. The newsletters I’m working with in that piece are from 1955 to 1977 and are from lesbian, feminist, or proto-trans newsletters and small-run magazines. At the core, what I’m interested in with that piece is the production of political community, of political subjectivity through writing and reading. The primary texts included in that work are letters from the editor to their readers and letters to the editor from readers, which is also to say letters from readers to readers. They are colloquial missives; they’re not highly specialized texts. And yet so much is said in those letters and so much is produced in those letters: political community, political subjectivity, political discourse, etc.

What was so interesting to me about these texts was that despite the extreme relevance to our contemporary political moment, they did not circulate forward—or when they did, they were often misrecognized, misread, buried, repressed, or erased. This is certainly true not for just these queer publications, but also for the important publishing work of the Black Left which had a sizable and expansive influence, including on the queer self-publishing ventures that I had discovered in the archive. I was interested in the forces that push present political communities away from these other historic collaborators. That question became an operative force in the work; I wanted to push against it by conjuring a kind of trans-historical conversation between political communities [i.e., those who wrote and read the original letters, and those who could read or hear them in a present moment of readdress]. It informed all of my choices, like: “Who am I reaching out to as readers, performers? Where am I placing them? How am I shooting this? What form will the installation take?”

Figure 3. Sharon Hayes, In My Little Corner of the World, Anyone Would Love You, five-channel video installation, April 15– June 5, 2016, Studio Voltaire, London. Installation view, performers (l-r): Tiny and Madeline Rafter, TS Hawkins, Mahogany Rose, Sharron Cooks, Jeannine Betu Kayembe, and Karl Surkan. (Photo: Andy Keate.)
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Figure 3.

Sharon Hayes, In My Little Corner of the World, Anyone Would Love You, five-channel video installation, April 15– June 5, 2016, Studio Voltaire, London. Installation view, performers (l-r): Tiny and Madeline Rafter, TS Hawkins, Mahogany Rose, Sharron Cooks, Jeannine Betu Kayembe, and Karl Surkan. (Photo: Andy Keate.)



I’m thinking of a work like Symbionese Liberation Army Screeds #13, 16, 20 & 29 from 2003 that was originally circulated as VHS tapes you could take home (figs. 4– 5).8 What vastly differently experiences one might have had either watching the tape of the work at home or viewing a digitization of your performance in a gallery [its current installation form]. I don’t know if you would understand a work like SLA in these terms, but in the move away from VHS tapes to new installation forms, the translation of obsolete technologies seems to also allow for a transformation of distribution tactics. I’m wondering how you understand the tactics of your work shifting as you phase out previous technological mechanisms? How do you see technology intersecting with your understanding of thick time? 

Figure 4. Sharon Hayes, Symbionese Liberation Army Screeds #13, 19, 20 & 29 (2003), installation with multiple VHS tapes, exhibited in The Real Me, Occidental College, Los Angeles, 2003, detail.
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Figure 4.

Sharon Hayes, Symbionese Liberation Army Screeds #13, 19, 20 & 29 (2003), installation with multiple VHS tapes, exhibited in The Real Me, Occidental College, Los Angeles, 2003, detail.


Figure 5. Sharon Hayes, Symbionese Liberation Army Screeds #13, 19, 20 & 29 (2003), installation with multiple VHS tapes, exhibited in The Real Me, Occidental College, Los Angeles, 2003, installation view.
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Figure 5.

Sharon Hayes, Symbionese Liberation Army Screeds #13, 19, 20 & 29 (2003), installation with multiple VHS tapes, exhibited in The Real Me, Occidental College, Los Angeles, 2003, installation view.



It’s a great question, and it’s a great reminder for me about the interconnectedness of the materials of art-making. The physical materials of a work are not static; they deteriorate over time. We know this because conservation departments go to great lengths and spend a lot of money to fix and maintain various artworks in time. But if the materials of art-making are also, as you’re pointing out, technologies, political vocabularies, contexts, etc. that are informed by place and time and institution, then they are never stable or static.

All the materials of an artwork are in a state or a process of change, and they don’t change at the same rate nor in the same way, nor do these changes mean the same things. The way that a newspaper yellows conjures time and aging in a really different way than, as you point to, a VHS tape that no longer has anywhere to go. In this way, SLA is a good piece around which to ask, “What does installation mean?” I made very specific choices about that work in 2003 when it was first installed. In that moment, I chose to explicitly refuse the image of the video in the exhibition space—i.e., you would never see the image of me. I did that because I wanted to activate a process of distribution that was in dialogue with the choices and actions of SLA—i.e., kidnapping the granddaughter of a media mogul, recording her speaking to her parents, and then leaving those reel-to-reel audio tapes for a local radio station, KPFK, to amplify over their radio broadcast. In other words, the production of that moment in history was embedded in circuits of distribution. To activate a consideration of that context, the work was installed as a large stack of VHS tapes (multiple copies of my four-performance respeakings) on the floor next to a letter-sized sign that said, “Please take, watch, and pass along.” This created an activated public encounter. A viewer had to decide to take a tape or not and then they had to go somewhere else, at some other moment of time, to watch the work on their own terms and in their own setting/s.

I exhibited the piece from 2003 to maybe as late as 2009 in that form, and then I stopped showing it. In 2012, when the Whitney show came around, I had to decide: Is the piece dead? After some deep back and forth, I chose to accept the current conditions of technological distribution and to start again to figure out how it can/should be installed. It’s showing right now at SFMOMA, and you can go and watch the four respeakings on a monitor in the space, and you also can scan a QR code and take it somewhere else in the institution or away with you. You’re allowed to take it away with you. In a way, I can’t get around the thickness of time continuing with my work, because in certain work time gets thicker and thicker and thicker.

I’m not interested in protecting the site of an original installation where it contradicts the core concerns of the work, as if it’s the only way to receive the work. But I also work with installation as a core component, and in that way each work is proposed in specific relationship to a set of particular spatial, institutional, and financial constraints.

One of the pleasures and privileges of living with and alongside one’s work is the opportunity to rearrange the encounter, to address each specific installation of a given work, and to be precise about a given set of viewing conditions. Another pleasure and privilege of living with and alongside one’s work is the opportunity to let the work go where it will go and to watch the work and a public find each other and produce new conditions of reception.



1. Citations are taken from Sharon Hayes’s own writing on her website explaining The Lesbian

2. Hayes’s exhibit was titled “Sharon Hayes: There’s so much I want to say to you” and curated by Chrissie Iles, currently the Anne & Joel Ehrenkranz Curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Hayes’s exhibit was presented from June 21 through September 9, 2012.

3. Hayes’s exhibition took place at the Whitney Museum’s previous location, 945 Madison Avenue, New York City, a building principally designed by the architect Marcel Breuer. The Museum’s current location is 99 Gansevoort Street, in the Meatpacking District, and opened in 2015.

4. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958).

5. “An Ear to the Sounds of Our History” emerged from a 2004 performance, programed through the “Practice More Failure” performance series, organized and curated by the queer feminist collective LTTR. In that performance, Hayes DJed spoken-word LPs.

6. Julia Bryan-Wilson and Sharon Hayes, “We Have a Future: An Interview with Sharon Hayes,” Grey Room 37 (2009): 87–88.

7. Hayes studied with artist Mary Kelly in the Interdisciplinary Studio area of the Department of Art at UCLA from 2000 to 2003. During an impactful tenure at the Whitney Independent Study Program, UCLA, and now USC, Kelly’s pedagogy significantly influenced a multitude of contemporary artists, including Hayes. Kelly’s project-based practice interrogates sexuality, identity, and historical memory; she is particularly known for her work Post-Partum Document (1973–79). For more detailed information, see Mary Kelly, Dominique Heyse-Moore, and Maria Balshaw, eds., Mary Kelly: Projects, 1973–2010 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011); Paul Wood, Conceptual Art (New York: Delano Greenidge, 2002); and Margaret Iversen, Homi Bhabha, Douglas Crimp, et al., Mary Kelly (London: Phaidon, 1997).

8. In Symbionese Liberation Army, Screeds #13, 16, 20 & 29, Hayes re-performed in front of a live audience (between June 2001 and January 2002) all four audio tapes made by the Symbionese Liberation Army and Patty Hearst, kidnapped by the group in 1974. Hayes partially memorized the transcripts of these recordings, and prior to the start of her “respeakings,” handed out printed copies of those transcripts to the audience. She asked that they correct her whenever she was wrong or give her the next line if she forgot. These performances were also recorded. In the piece’s subsequent installation, multiple copies of VHS tapes of each of these four respeakings were stacked on top of each other next to a sign that read “Please take, watch, and pass along.”