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  • Writer's pictureMadeleina Kay

Sharon Hayes - "Can we speak of the ‘professionalisation’ of the artist as having reduced or eliminated political consciousness from cultural production?"

(With the exception of Tolstoy’s War and Peace) I’m not sure I’ve ever been so glad to get to the end of a book, 'Sharon Hayes' by Julia Bryan-Wilson, Jeanine Tang and Lanka Tattersall (amongst others). It’s not that the content wasn’t rich or interesting – I have no qualms over abandoning a book that is dull or boring – the problem was the way it was presented, and the language used to communicate it. Perhaps, it was just too high brow for the likes of me, but I found the eclectic material (including interviews between Hayes and other people, creative works written by Hayes herself, creative works written by other people, writing by other people about Hayes’ work, writing by other people about other stuff and the myth of Narcissus and Echo thrown in for good measure, as well as visual material by a variety of people) to be incoherently presented (often with little-to-no context) which made the book lack any sense of narrative or cohesive line of argument. And I understand that Hayes’ is an archival researcher, so it does make sense to include materials by other people about other stuff – but it felt like someone had waltzed into an archive of vaguely related material, pulled out documents at random and then stacked them together without further explanation or contextualisation, put a cover on it and claimed it was a book. Having just finished reading Helen Kara’s book ‘Creative Research Methods’, in which she explains at length the challenge of presenting multi-modal research, warning that ‘this can be confusing, difficult to read and understand, but, if done well, it can be very effective’ (page 181). Confused was definitely an adjective I would use to describe this book.


Furthermore, the use of “pretentious art waffle” increasingly irked me – the mental gymnastics required to comprehend some of the language made the process of reading this book an arduous chore – sorry, I mean “intellectually stimulating”. It’s one of the reasons it took me so bloody long to finish the book, I could only manage 15 minutes at a time before wanting to scream. The reason it annoys me so much is because it is entirely unnecessary to write like this, as it gate-holds knowledge for an elitist audience by making the writing inaccessible to the majority (but perhaps that is the point). I found it amusing that when typing up this paragraph, Microsoft Word refused to believe these were actual words (I tried both American and British spelling):

Anyways, as I said, it could just be too high brow for me. Rant over. I’m glad I read it because of my total deficit of knowledge on Queer histories. I’ve also taken some insights on protest art which relate to my own practice.


The Lesbian


The book opens with Art Historian, Julia Bryan-Wilson, in conversation with Sharon Hayes. Whilst discussing publications, Arena Three and The Ladder, which Hayes worked on, they explore the topic of identity, ‘they were aiming towards an articulation of an identity that became named ‘lesbian’. Inside the magazines there is a great contestation around this question: do we want to name our identities? What name is best? Do we agree around what this identity even is?’ (page 11) Later, Jeannine Tang (another writer) elaborates on this point whilst discussing Hayes’ research and performance project ‘The Lesbian’ in which she travelled across America interviewing the Lesbian community, ‘As The Lesbian unfolds, this mythical figure becomes increasingly incoherent, appearing as an effect: of research, or theatrical, institutional and curatorial conventions or presentation, and screen for cultural projection and desire. In short, ‘the lesbian’ is fully discursive construction, an ambivalent, conflicted site of self-determination.’ (page 42) I think this speaks to the inane need of human society to slap labels on everything, to put people in boxes in a futile attempt to categorise the complexity of humanness: Epitomised by ‘Equal Opportunities’ forms. It’s made me reflect on my research project, and my first participant’s interview in which she said, ‘flags are a flattening of identity’. I am now questioning if the process of transcribing identities, either through visual language or by ‘naming’, is reductive and facile? Probably. Am I still going to attempt to do it? Yes. Why? Because failure teaches you things.


On the term ‘lesbian’, Hayes adds, ‘radicality has always been part of the term ‘lesbian’, but it often gets erased. Inside of this piece I want to resurface the profound power of these struggles over language, identity, racism, gender, expression, action.’ (page 17) I was intrigued by this statement, which was made clearer in a writing by Sara Ahmed which was included later in the book, ‘The Cultural Politics of Emotion’, 2004; ‘The reproduction of life – in the form of the future generation – becomes bound up with the reproduction of culture, through the stabilisation of specific arrangements for living (‘the family’). The family is idealizable through the narrative of threat and insecurity; the family is presented as vulnerable, and as needing to be defended against others who violate the conditions of its reproduction.’ (page 108) In a heteronormative society which historically and still (albeit to a lesser extent) stigmatises queer individuals and alternative family set-ups – deviating from the norm is a radical act. I think this is incredibly visible at Pride parades, where the joyful defiance draws me like a moth to flame. But perhaps, Hayes is right, that as acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community improves, the radicality gets erased – in the same way that so many young women believe they are entitled to equal rights and treatment, yet refuse to call themselves feminists. Being “radical” isn’t cool.



Given my work around artist exploitation and working conditions in the sector, I was  interested by this comment on roles from Hayes in relation to her participatory performance work; ‘for me there is a distinction between a performer and an actor, or a reader and an activist, and those differences are drawn out or elicited or sometimes concretized through the protocols we use as artists or as cultural producers to draw people into participation, and what structures we use to maintain that participation. Do we pay people? Do we recruit them as self-selected volunteers?’ (page 14) My work has always been very blurred in terms of voluntary and paid (for example, I worked in a voluntary role for a network, until funding was acquired for a specific project on which I am currently employed – but I am still expected to fulfil duties for the network which are unrelated to the project). This has made me hyper aware and very cautious about managing expectations and demands of other people, depending on whether they are remunerated or not.


Hayes discusses one of her performance works, ‘I made began with me coming on stage, saying ‘Hi, I’m Sharon Hayes’. In statement of fact, that description of my name, I also always felt that I was demonstrating the fiction of my name, the fiction of myself, in that everybody knows I am on stage, and so I am also in a space of construction of a character or persona names ‘Sharon Hayes’ that is distinct from me’ (page 34). I can really relate to this idea of a “constructed stage persona” that feels distinct from yourself, even when you use your own name. I have the added complication of have changed my name (aged 21), if you have ever heard a stern French lady say “Madeleine” (pronounced ‘Mad-Len’ very aggressively) you will know why I dislike the name. Adding an ‘A’, forces a more melodic rhythm and gives a gentler, more flowery sound which much better matches my personality. ‘Kay’, on the other hand, was my middle name and my Grandmother’s first name – I changed it to my last name in an act of rebellion against my parents’ marital drama (double-barrel surnames are so pretentious anyway). Despite or maybe because of constructing a new name to represent my identity, I feel distanced from it in the same way that Hayes’ describes here. I recently recorded a podcast series and I had to end every episode with ‘I’m your host, Madeleina Kay’ – I felt ridiculous every time I had to say that line – like I was channelling my inner James Bond.


Jeannine Tang writes, ‘the majority of Hayes’ use of live events are structured to produce a document, as she engages performance for its utility in generating components of a larger work’ (Page 60). I wonder if this practice has become ubiquitous in the social media era, everything filmed – documented – to be later posted online. Or god-forbid, LIVESTREAMED. I always get panicky before performances which I know are being live-streamed – it’s the oppression of feeling like there is no margin for error – at least with a straight recording, you can choose whether or not to post the video, crop and edit out the mistakes afterwards.


This has made me think of the song ‘The Revolution Will Not Be televised’ by Gil Scott-Heron:


‘You will not be able to stay home, brother

You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out

You will not be able to lose yourself on skag

And skip out for beer during commercials, because

The revolution will not be televised’


Does the act of documenting a performance change its very nature? If the objective of a performance delivered to only those present in the room is human connection and closeness… Then, is a performance which is intended to be filmed and shared online – for promotional / marketing / broadcasting of a message?


Hayes discusses the distinction between ‘performance’ and ‘performative’ in conversation with Yvonne Rayner (2006):

Rayner: ‘What do you see as the difference between performance and ‘the performative’?’

Hayes: ‘For the last several years. I’ve been interested in extending this to the notion of a ‘performative copy’: an utterance which does something in its repetition.’ (page 126)


I think this is particularly interesting from a musician’s perspective as the ‘cover song’ is a hallmark of any musician’s work – it’s how you first learn music, but also how you define your distinct voice. The best cover songs bring a unique perspective to a familiar song – I frequently find myself preferring covers to their original version, an infamous example is Jeff Buckley’s ‘Hallelujah’. I don’t even like the original version of my favourite song, ‘Vincent’ (I have had the lyrics tattooed on my arm), but there are many fabulous covers which, I believe, give more meaning, impact and pertinence to the lyrics.


Hayes reflects on her evolution as a performer, ‘I fell into the very available trap of wanting to please the audience which I dealt with in the only way I knew how, which was to make it part of the context of the work. I’ve moved a long way from that point and I’m no longer afraid of boring large groups of people’ (page 129). It struck me that it is somewhat a privilege to be able to afford to displeasing your audience. Especially in a capitalist system, where ticket sales are how you can afford to keep producing your work, boring your audience doesn’t seem like a viable option. Maybe if you’re infamous enough you can get away with it (I find Damien Hirst’s recent work utterly tedious). I won’t be trying it any time soon – it doesn’t seem like a great way of connecting with people.




As a fellow protest artist, I have found myself taking my phone camera out at many an event, in order to document the action and film interviews with the intention of amplifying the in-person activities on social media. Initially, I posted single videos directly, but then I taught myself to use editing software to make more documentary-style videos or music videos. I could really relate to Hayes when she said, ‘The nature of art is always that you have to make up everything inside of each project. So you have to learn to be an interviewer in one project, or a cameraperson in another, or a performer in another… Nobody started as an expert in that space. That’s something that I learned – that everybody was becoming. They were training themselves in the work that was necessary at that moment, and that training was not instrumental. It was generated from the concerns in the room, and from the bodies present.’ (page 38) I am notoriously bad at “learning from others” – people can explain something to me repeatedly, for example, how to use their coffee machine, but my brain will not process the information until I attempt to do it for myself. (Maybe this is why I am an “actions not words” person?) I learn best “on the job”, I have taught myself how to play guitar, how to sing, how to write songs, how to film and edit video and photography, how to write and deliver effective speeches, how to do media interviews, etc. I think there is some truth to the adage “fake it till you make it” – we all have to some extent or another.


Hayes describes how ‘I recorded the conversation with the audience on audio, but whenever I was by myself, I used video. I didn’t have anybody riding in my truck with me, so I needed the video to be my witness, even if it was an inconsequential witnessing… In those first years of working with video, I was most solidly mobilised by video as a recording device, video’s ability to record an event, to hold an event past its moment of happening.’ (page 25) I found this notion of ‘inconsequential witnessing’ interesting, especially in the era of social media where videos are filmed to be posted online. Is it enough to have a recording purely for your own records, or because you have a need to feel “seen”? Or is the temptation to receive validation from an external audience too overpowering?


When discussing three classic ‘cinéma-verité’ works, Hayes comments ‘truth in cinema or truth through cinema – moved from the assumption that the camera makes possible activities, speech, acts, and images that don’t otherwise exist: not the documentation of reality but the production of a reality through the presence and demand of the camera or, in my case, the camera and the microphone.’ (page 28) This has made me think about the documentaries I have made and the documentaries I am currently making, and the music videos I make with my videographer. Some of the footage is filmed as purely documentation of the event / performance, whereas other footage, especially interviews, piece-to-camera or lip sync, is clearly “staged” for the camera – it is a production of a new reality. I am currently working on a documentary for my art collective, Dare to Care, of our activities in Bologna – this is comprised purely of “documentation” footage to provide us with a record of our work. In contrast, the other documentary I am currently filming for the EU elections campaign, is comprised predominantly of interviews (with some documentation) as the primary aim of this video is to support an advocacy campaign to an online audience or through screening events. The important insight here is that the footage filmed needs to match the intended purpose of and audience for the content.




I was interested by Hayes’ work with publications, since I have myself used self-published books / booklets and posters as a toll to aid political resistance. I’ve also been researching the history of zines a little bit recently and gained a insight into their traditionally subversive or “fringe” content. Julia Bryan-Wilson in conversation with Hayes mentions, ‘behind the video projections, you attached copies of some letters to the editor… My favourite is a letter complaining about typos. A woman writes ‘you really need to get a proofreader’, and the editors printed the letter under a title that reads, ‘it’s a disgrace’ – but the ‘it’s’ is misspelled. They didn’t even proofread that! It’s possible the misspelling was itself an act of defiance’ (page 22). I found this extremely amusing especially since I have proofread (and asked multiple volunteers) to proofread all of my publications. There is a Facebook group called “spell-check a racist” and it is my favourite retort to trolls – just to spellcheck their grammatical errors and typos with no other comment. I guess the unspoken message, perhaps unfairly, being that they are too stupid to bother replying to – I had never considered that their mistakes might be an act of protest (against the “liberal elite”?). Here is a great example from my Facebook page:

Graphic Design


I was also interested by this comment from Bryan-Wilson, which explored another aspect of Hayes work which I similarly dabble in; ‘Another facet of your work, but one that has been less discussed, is your investment in graphic design. You are so thoughtful about fonts, about the placement of text, about the orientation of elements, about how language and image work formally on the page or the wall’ (page 29). As a communications professional, graphic design goes with the territory – fortunately we have great apps like Adobe Creative Suite and Canva which can help us create impactful content at lightning speed. It always frustrates me when I see communications which have been poorly designed, spatial awareness just seems instinctive to me. I also love the way different fonts communicate different messages, for example, in my email and newsletters, I choose slightly whimsical fonts with thin linework and lots of loops and curls – a similar vibe to my name - to represent my personality.

Whereas for the YEUF project branding, which I designed, we went for a chunky, rounded font which had a fun, “youthful” vibe.



Bryan-Wilson then delves into Hayes work with sound, ‘so much of what you do is not just concerned with speech acts or language, but also sound and how we as subjects are formed around and in noises and silences. An oft-quoted sentence of yours is ‘the ears are the only orifice that can’t be closed’.’ (page 33) As a musician, and now a podcast host – I’ve recently been hyper focussed on this topic and the delivery of words. As I didn’t write (only edited) the scripts for the podcast, the focus of my job was predominantly the delivery – the tone, the emotion, the intonation, the pauses, the emphasis and where to breathe all has to be considered. I was introduced to the industry phrase ‘smiling into the mic’ – something which comes quite naturally to me, but is an odd metaphor to think about.


Hayes responded to Bryan-Wilson’s comment with a clarification, ‘it’s not precisely true that ears are the only orifice that can’t be closed. It’s the idea that we are all continuously perceptive but not in ways that we’re always able to absorb.’ (page 33) I often contemplate perception, as someone who is hyper-vigilant (due to trauma) – I know that I am overly sensitive (evidenced in how easy it is to make me jump). One of the reasons I struggle to sleep is because I am hyper alert to any minor noise, light or cat climbing on me that will wake me up. I wish I was less perceptive. In contrast, I frequently encounter people who seem oblivious to how their behaviour is impacting on other people or who just seem completely oblivious to something which seems blindingly noticeable to me. Are we ‘all continuously perceptive’? Or have some people found a way to shut their perceptions down? I wish they would teach me how.




On the topic of research, ‘Hayes notably pursued undergraduate work in anthropology and journalism at Bowdoin College, and came to be sceptical of ‘the investments that lie under the scholarly desire to analyse society and/or culture’ and the training of analytical lenses ‘on a community outside of the scholar’s society or culture of origin.’ (page 45) This reminded me of Helen Kara’s book again, which discusses the ethics of exactly this problematic nature of much research and the associated power dynamics. She says that recently there has been a shift to acknowledge the position of indigenous cultures who critique the exploitative nature of research, ‘some Euro-Western commentators are beginning to argue that research should directly benefit participants and other stakeholders as well as researchers’ (page 103).


Her protest placards held aloft in public space, an intense and solemn expression on her face, was the work for which I first knew Hayes. It was her work that legitimised my own protesting as “artwork”, at least in my own mind (despite the fact that an artist friend of mine, Mike Dicks, had told me back in 2018 that “EU supergirl is an art project” – I laughed his comment off at the time, but in hindsight, I think he was right). Jeannine Tang writes, ‘the sign, site and action undertaken by Hayes who elects to physically hold the signs, locating herself ‘in the space of enactment’ in order to examine how ‘history is rupturing in the present moment’. (page 63) I find this act of present protest, to draw attention to the past quote curious. There is a certain truth to the ABBA lyric, ‘the history book on the shelf, always repeating itself’ – the human race can be so stupid constantly going round in circles, repeating their mistakes the moment they forget the consequences of the previous time they made them. It’s the reason why I am so fearful of the rise of the far-right across Europe, the possibility of a third world war is very real.


Jeannine Tang also discusses protest demonstrations and their futility, writing ‘the perennially adapted call and response of ‘what do we want? [response] when do we want it? [response].’ Yet we are fully aware that these demands are never met’ (page 69). This made me laugh because it is true, yet still I continue to go to these marches and chant these words. Why? Well, the function of a protest march or rally is not to influence policy making. If you think it will lead to change then you are naïve. There is an important distinction between being heard and being listened to – protestors are heard, they are not listened to... The purpose of these events is to galvanise a community, to facilitate connections between interested parties, to provide an opportunity for expression of ideas and sentiment – to relieve collective anger. These militant actions contribute an important element to an ecosystem of influence which can lead to meaningful change.


Then onto the thorny question of whether art should be political, ‘artists were debating how to produce art as political activism as we as part of political movements. However, this occurred precisely at a time when institutional frameworks of art foreclosed those possibilities, with the emphasis on individual authorship rather than collective struggle, market-driven criteria and a lack of support structures for dissent in culture and politics’ (page 69). I got into a fierce debate with a German Professor of Media during a panel discussion when she said, ‘all art is political’, when I have witnessed the sanitisation of artwork for commercial audiences and the censorship of political viewpoints. For example, the recent Art’s Council England debacle, where it issued and then retracted guidance warning that “political statements” that could cause “reputational harm” and “break funding agreements”. Even my Unit 1 feedback scratched at this scab, ‘if you were to share and exhibit your artwork in a gallery or community arts setting that didn’t have a specific political standpoint - or the space/event was not set up to promote a specific cause, but merely to ask questions - or a neutral space - how would your work be read and received?’ I’m still not sure if this comment was implying that I should be less political with my work? I’ve recently negotiated this exact situation with my “Brexiles” exhibition – finding a gallery located in a community centre in Sheffield (which was conveniently EU funded and had massive plaques on multiple walls declaring this) – they loved the exhibition – I only had positive feedback from them. In a couple of weeks I’m taking the exhibition to Summer Hall in Edinburgh as part of a ‘Europe Talks’ event – they don’t think the works are “too political” to be displayed. Ultimately, authenticity is a absolute priority for me and I won’t allow my art practice to be censored or sanitised in order to make it more “commercial” – that’s capitalism at its worst. I applaud artists whose work is too “provocative” or subversive to be shown in conventional spaces, so they go rogue, self-publishing zines, plastering posters or distributing pin badges – and of course everything can always be shared online, regardless of how “political” it is. This is one of the main benefits of social media – it has democratised publishment and taken power away from the gate-holders of what is “acceptable culture”.


In a ‘previously unpublished questionnaire from 2008’ (it wasn’t clear where this came from nor who was asking the questions and who was answering – and I couldn’t ascertain the information from the bibliography either), the topic of ‘professionalisation – which we discussed in our MA classes last term – was explored; ‘Can we speak of the ‘professionalisation’ of the artist (a highly paid and market dependent provider of infotainment) as having reduced or eliminated political consciousness from cultural production? …Do artists and academics still regard cultural production as a socially and politically communicative, transgressive, or critical activity?’ (page 132). What is even the point of art if it isn’t these things? Empty aesthetics. I’ve written enough about capitalism already in this blog post – but I want to emphasise that I think it is shit.



When discussing her work ‘An Ear to the Sounds of Our History (2011), which is an arrangement of album covers of speeches by historical figures’ (page 33) Bryan-Wilson remarks, ‘the speeches were packaged and marketed and became consumable objects, things to collect and own and display. The album covers are also a testament to a certain kind of celebrity. You’ve chosen famous political figures, mostly, or people who became famous for political reasons, from Martin Luther King, Jr. to the first trans celebrity, Christine Jorgensen. How does this piece speak to the problematic of the charismatic figure who sometimes takes a leading role in social movement history?’ (page 34) This point poked at a deep wound inside me – the constant criticism I received for being a figurehead of the Remain campaign – the accusations of ‘attention seeking’ and ‘self-promoting’. Having recently read the ‘Women for Peace – Banners from Greenham Common’ book, which presented the flat hierarchy of the group and their collectivist ethos against having any “heroines” (unlike the Suffragette movement) – it’s made me feel ashamed. It’s made me question whether my whole approach to campaigning and advocacy has been wrong – too much ego and self-obsession. I’ve found myself at recent events, actually relieved when I get to be “behind the camera” instead of in front of it. Hayes responds to Bryan-Wilson’s question; ‘The relationship between politics and celebrity is, of course, not a stable relationship… there is a paucity of records of women political figures, for instance’ (page 34). And now I’m wondering whether my self-doubt is internalised misogyny.


In one of the slightly random writing extracts by Florynce Kennedy, she writes;

 ‘I really don’t understand why people get burned out politically,

There are so many of us that one day we’re going to step out on the platform

And it will collapse.’ (page 140)

The reason people get burned out politically is not because of their political views but because of how other people treatment them because of their political views. The relentless trolling I received from 2018-19 burnt me out and the self-doubt still clouds my mind, a continuous internal monologue criticising my every action.

Back to the mystery questionnaire; ‘Similarly I don’t think we can assess the current moment of protest without also discussing the widely successful, economically and politically-backed, directed campaigns to dismantle resistance movements… this dismantling of counter-hegemonic movements was also achieved through more insidious forms of political transformation, like those at which Ronald Reagan was so successful, recasting a small population of people with vested interests as the ‘American people’… Reagan’s incredible success was in his rhetorical strategy of reconstructing the ‘American people’ through speech, as a body that defended individualism and free market economics, that fought communism and welfare recipients and nuclear war protestors all to bring ‘America’ back to her rightful glory… This rhetorical marginalisation moved hand-in-hand with his economic and political policy making’ (page 132). I think this quote is incredibly powerful because it is something we witness being replicated in the UK in recent ideas. The weaponization of a narrow idea of ‘The British People’ to justify cruel treatment of vulnerable minorities and to justify stupid policy decisions like leaving the single market and customs union. “BUY BRITISH!” (pronounced Bri-ish) produce with packaging plastered in Union Jacks.


Jeannine Tang writes, ‘Historian Lisa Duggan has termed this shift ‘homonormativity’, in which ‘equality’ becomes narrow, formal access to a few conservatizing institutions, ‘Freedom’ becomes impunity for bigotry and vast inequalities in commercial life and civil society, the ‘right to privacy’ becomes domestic confinement. And democratic politics itself becomes ‘something to be escaped’. (page 71) I think this public disempowerment is most evident in the youth who tend to be very apathetic and disengaged from current affairs, with the lowest voter turn-out. Lanka Tattersall adds, ‘Downsizing citizenship to a mode of voluntarism and privacy has radically changed the ways national identity is imagined, experienced and governed in political and mass-media public spheres and in everyday life.’ (page 91)


A final quote from the mystery questionnaire, which is especially relevant to my work, ‘On one hand, the internet very simply offers another frame and another technology with which to engage long-practiced methodologies of organising. On the other hand, there are ways in which the frame and the technology create new political possibilities and new political positions’ (page 134). Social media, for example, is responsible for the rise of the “influencer”. I frequently get referred to as an “influencer” – I have even been given a freelance gig as an “influencer” before – I hate the term because it implies a commerciality. But it is accurate – I am trying to influence (albeit public opinion not sales).


Some eclectic stuff which doesn’t seem to fit anywhere else


‘The life of Mary Wollstendraft, full length drama

(Thesis: Strong-minded woman of rationality; & a creature of

History; nonetheless, a human being, destroyed many times over

By ‘life as she is lived’)’

Lorraine Hansberry, Note, 1960 (page 98)


This extract felt profoundly tragic. I guess, ‘destroyed many times over / By ‘life as she is lived’ resonated with me.


Hayes wrote, ‘I think irony is facile. Irony folds into reverence for the replicated icons. It seems to me it’s a safe cover for something else (perhaps something quite a bit more earnest) that is going on’ (page 129). I particularly enjoy clever use of irony, so this is something for me to mull over.


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