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What is Love?: Queer Subcultures and the Political Present

Like others among the twenty or so people witness to Sharon Hayes’s Everything Else Has Failed! Don’t You Think it’s Time for Love? (2007), I spent each lunch break during the week of September 17th, 2007, crying at the intersection of West 51st Street and 6th Avenue in midtown Manhattan. The performance consisted of Hayes walking out of the United Bank of Switzerland (UBS) building shortly after noon carrying a small speaker and a microphone on a stand, and reciting a love letter from an anonymous speaker to an absent “you.” The letters gradually established a loose narrative in which the speaker has been separated from her lover by circumstances related to the war in Iraq. The two had been able to maintain something of a relationship via letters, but the speaker has stopped receiving replies from the lover and, as such, has resorted to speaking the letters in public in the hopes that this gesture will inspire a response.

Surely my tears flowed because of this longing, this gesture of love rendered unrequitable by ostensibly unassailable, intertwined institutions that keep the lovers apart: the military-industrial complex, states and citizenship, and homophobia. Hayes’s skill at delivery—her ability to use her voice to convey the yearning and the loss contained within the letters—certainly contributed to this intensely emotional response from her audience. The passion and conviction with which she infused her voice stood in stark contrast to the besuited bankers scurrying about during their lunch hour talking on their cell phones. She tried to make eye contact as unsuspecting people walked in front of her, in the space between her speaking body and the audience gathered to listen to that day’s oratory. Occasionally, someone would stop, but more often than not, if they even noticed her, they would quickly look away and hurry along out of eye—and earshot.

This clear disjunction between the audience and the general public served a purpose within the performance, alluding to how love functioned as the basis of Hayes’s antiwar statement. The dynamic present between those who understood and were interested in the performance, and those who didn’t and weren’t, productively reproduced the structure of subcultures, illustrating the gulf between those who live comfortably within the values and hierarchies of dominant culture and those who use those structures against the mainstream. As such, Hayes highlighted that her use of love was drawn from a subcultural context, raising the question of what love means within that setting.

Everything Else Has Failed... points towards specific instances in which subcultures have mobilized love to political effect. The most prominent reference is to the American hippie counterculture of the late 1960s, which looked to love as a way to construct an alternative social order while simultaneously protesting the war in Vietnam with such slogans as “Make Love not War.” For hippies, dropping out of society and forming alternative economic and kinship structures with different standards and ethics—all through the language of love—was an intensely political act. Not surprisingly, Hayes has pinpointed the origins of this performance’s title in an archival image from Berkeley in the late 1960s, which depicts a man sitting in the middle of a protest holding up a sign that reads: “Everything Else has Failed! Don’t You Think It’s Time for Love?” The sentiment conveyed by the sign, and by Hayes some forty years later, is that love encompasses an alternative understanding of political activity in the face of governmental processes that, then as now, are either unable or unwilling to address grave social and economic injustice.

Read the full article here.