Patty Hearst’s Speech Acts

Sharon Hayes, Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) Screeds #13, 16, 20, & 29 (still), 2003; four-channel video installation with sound; Courtesy the artist and Tanya Leighton, Berlin; © Sharon Hayes

“Mum, Dad, tell the poor and oppressed people of this nation what the corporate state is about to do … That they’re about to be murdered … Tell the people that the energy crisis is nothing more than a means to get public approval for a massive program to build nuclear power plants all over the nation … Tell them, Dad, that the removal of unneeded people has already started.”

So goes the fourth audiotape in the famous series of recordings of Patty Hearst aired on public radio during her kidnapping by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) in 1974. The granddaughter of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, Patty was taken from her Berkeley, California, home by the SLA — a radical revolutionary group that fashioned themselves after Latin American guerrilla armies and drew theories from the Maoists. Hearst would remain alive, her kidnappers said, on the conditions that her family put up the money to feed all of California’s poor, to the tune of some $400 million, and that they publicize the SLA’s statements to the nation.

In her fourth radio address, Patty Hearst announced that she would stay with the SLA, fight for the cause, and from then on be known as Tania, after a comrade of Che Guevara. Hearst was later caught on camera carrying out an armed robbery of a bank with other SLA members, and arrested. 

On a series of television sets in Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) Screeds #13, 16, 20, & 29 (2003) in SFMOMA’s current exhibition Stage Presence, the artist Sharon Hayes appears, looking directly out at viewers and reciting Hearst’s radio addresses. An audience, present during the recording of this footage but hidden from view, helps Hayes by issuing script prompts when the artist’s memory fails her. Any impact that Hayes’s stalling secondhand monologues might retain is lost amid stops and starts, as the artist casts expectant glances toward her audience when she loses the thread.

Hayes’s recreation of Hearst’s audiotapes contrasts sharply with the originals, which are captivating and powerful: “I have chosen to stay and fight,” Hearst says in her soft, lilting California accent. Her audiotapes are all the more compelling for the mystery with which they are shrouded. Hearst later claimed to have been brainwashed by her kidnappers, and her actions were considered a prime example of Stockholm Syndrome; after she served two years in jail, her sentence was commuted by Jimmy Carter, and she was later issued a pardon by President Clinton. But the public remains divided in its judgment.

Hayes takes no clear critical position on her subject, but in the context of her larger body of work — in which the language of political activism comes under loving scrutiny — one assumes her attitude is sympathetic, if inflected with irony, and she takes great care to remain faithful to Hearst’s original script. Pared down and removed from the drama of the SLA’s 1974 media circus, though, Hearst’s tapes, heard through Hayes’s voice, are rendered somewhat anemic. The artist draws attention to the theatrics required to imbue these speech acts with force. Her piece comes to represent a collaborative effort, and ultimate failure, to recreate the political theater and poignancy of this real-world narrative. But re-speaking the monologues four decades later, she also suggests the endurance of these historical sequences of words, asking us to listen and to understand their original context — and their content can’t help but resonate in today’s climate of corporate power and Occupy-style protests.

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