Sharon Hayes "In the Near Future"
/Tanya Leighton Gallery 2008/

Click. Blackness, the image changes. "Who Approved THE WAR in Vietnam??" Click. Blackness. I swivel. Another image. "I AM A MAN". Click. Blackness. I swivel. Another image. "WE ARE INNOCENT". Click. Blackness, the image changes. I swivel. Another image. "The AMERICAN PRESIDENT might have to call in the NATIONAL GUARD to put this REVOLT DOWN!" Click.


When I saw the photo of Sharon Hayes being approached by two police officers while carrying a hand-made protest sign bearing the slogan "I AM A MAN", I knew I had to write about her show "In the Near Future" at Tanya Leighton's new Berlin gallery. The opening was busy and featured a live-sampling session and great drinks, I couldn't even begin to think about the work. When I went back a couple of weeks later for a better view and some contemplation, I was arrested by one long sentence in the press release:

...Hayes stages anachronistic and speculative protest actions in an ongoing investigation into the figure of the protester, the speech act of the protest sign and the contemporary political construction of public space and pubic speech.

I was also struck by one deep uncertainty: what is the work? The urban interventions? Or the slide carousel installation at Galerie Tanya Leighton?

Anachronistic and speculative protest actions.

I tended intitially to favor the interventionist aspect of this work, but the more I thought about it, I realized I had scant information on which to base any discussion of it. According to the press release, Hayes' protest actions are anachronistic and speculative, meaning they are not directly concerned with the present. Or perhaps the acts and their present are wholly irrelevant. But there are two presents at play: the present of the intervention and the present of the installation. These presents not being concurrent... Perhaps any present is just too complex to address.

History is a filtered epistemological category of what is past. It has been decided what is important and what is forgotten - erased or simply left undocumented. Its signature slogans and neat soundbites have been divided into chapters with concise subdivisions, key ideas in italics and new words in bold print. The future is a dimension of the present, a projection, that in which we must imagine ourselves in order to take action. It is more defined than the present simply because it is not - yet. But the present is a flood of raw data, an unfiltered and eternally mutating flux. It is infinitely divisible, entirely unstoppable. Yet it is real, realer than history, realer than the future.

So the insistence is on the anachronistic (the out-of-date) and the speculative (the theoretical, the hypothetical). These acts do not pretend to be actual protests.

An ongoing investigation into the figure of the protester.

The word figure in French means the face. The figure in German is the shape of a person or a character (as in literature or film). English: 1. external form or bodily shape. 2.a. a persona as seen in outline but not identified. b. person as contemplated mentally. The figure of the protester is nothing more than the sum total of all transmitted images of protesters, the icon. It is a facade, a visual characterization, composed of the images selected and replayed in media representations of this nebulous figure. It is the one (or few) protesters who stand for the many. It is a disembodied head, a decontextualized body.

A hypothesis: most people only know the protester through media representations, which perhaps could lead one to develop a set of constants (characteristics) which could be applied to every protester. Until one comes to know the protester in another way....

But still the present of this work remains inaccessible.

The speech act of the protest sign.

Like the figure of the protester, the protest sign is also a mediatized image - but perhaps also displayed as an original in some museum somewhere, but then only the chosen sign, the chosen protest. "I AM A MAN". The one sign, the one image which will represent the many, because it will be repeated indefinitely and reused when it comes time to represent its moment in history - United States Civil Rights Movement.... Sharon Hayes, 2005.

Hayes does not stage an actual or current protest. But is it real? To draw on these mediatized slogans, to speculate on possible futures - is this an attempt to detach the figure of the protester and its speech act from the violence of the image, the static, simulacral specter of paralyzing mediatization? Sharon Hayes would not make these images and she would not select and display them if they weren't important to her, at the least. They too are guilty of the violence of the act of selection/exclusion/freezing - but with the same technique, they undercut the power of the iconic and the stasis of the mediatized image.

Excepting one caveat. In fact, Hayes tried to do her protest actions with professional photographers and ended up ditching them in favor of amateurs. Something to do with the way they affected the intervention. But in light of this discussion, could it be that professional photographers simply reproduced the same type of iconic imagery that Hayes would seem to want to subvert? In their lens, trained to capture key and/or emotional moments worthy of inclusion in the historic pantheon, could Hayes have never seen the image she wanted - the non-inconic, the banal, the amateur composition: instead of another coding (read: historical), a decoding precoding (read: spontaneous, present)?

The contemporary political construction of public space and public speech.

Today, public space and public speech are nothing more than the photographic and/or televisual media space. Anyone who really, actually witnesses anything will probably check the TV or the Internet first to see if it was real, and then if it was significant and if so, what was significant about it. "What should I think?" Hayes' images rotating (CLICK) in the slide carousels like watchtowers (CLICK) in the darkened gallery space (CLICK) begin to affect the figure of the protester and the protest act and the slogan. For the visitor (me) in this nice white gallery space not far south of Potsdamer Platz in Berlin... well it's a start. But what if Hayes were to make a more direct intervention in the media space, with her images - maybe even with her anacronistic and speculative protest actions?

/no copyright c.c. roseland, August 2008/ /Last Edit January 2010/