Approximately two months ago, I attended a screening of Sharon Hayes’ Ricerche: three in Gamble Auditorium. It was a slightly surreal experience: Hayes and her partner, Brooke O’Harra, had shot it a year and a half before, and it was startling to see some of the friends who had accompanied me to the event on the screen. I knew many more of the film’s subjects, too, either personally or by sight. Most of them had changed drastically in physical appearance in just the span of time between the film’s creation and the moment we watched it: short hair had grown out, long hair had been cut — even gender identities had shifted. This tangible fluidity embodied the spirit of the film, which aimed to capture a moment in time. In her address to the viewers, Hayes focused on the temporality of the event: it was significant, and a crucial part of the project, that the views expressed in the film were specifically attached to the moment in which they were captured.
The event itself was an extended conversation, framed in a series of questions and answers delivered by Hayes and a group of 35 Mount Holyoke students, respectively. Hayes borrowed the format and tone of her project from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1963 film Comizi d’Amore. In the earlier film, Pasolini asked a series of blunt and provocative questions to citizens on the streets of Italy. Hayes called this film a “contemporary inquiry into the ‘sexual problem,'” and the clip she showed did indeed feature such topics as sex, sexuality, love, homosexuality, perversion, and inversion.
Hayes also focused her dialogue on questions around gender and sexuality. In her lecture, she noted that her choice of population was not merely an accident of proximity. Hayes was interested in the women’s college atmosphere for the fascinating combination of its strong foundation in tradition, including traditional notions of femininity, and its more contemporary progressive and liberal attitude toward sexual identity and gender politics. Furthermore, she felt that Mount Holyoke presented a unique opportunity to explore this attitude in a more global context, given the extent of its international population.
On the April day on which the film was shot, Hayes gathered the group of students, a sample she and O’Harra felt was representative of the overall Mount Holyoke population, on the Delles Hill. Both the students and the questions felt distinct and rigid at the start of the film. Hayes directed questions to individual students at random, involving sex, virginity, the decision to attend Mount Holyoke, gender identification, religious and cultural values, and so on. These students attempted to give “correct” answers to the questions, while the surrounding crowd looked on somewhat awkwardly. As the questions progressed, however, the discussion became more cohesive. Students responded to previous responses without being directly addressed and began to deliver answers more confidently. At first, the atmosphere was generally tense, as students struggled to understand Hayes’ purpose in asking these particular questions; however, it became apparent that the questions were meant to inspire a dialogue, rather than well-formed individual answers.
It worked. Tension lifted; genuine laughter replaced awkward giggles. By the end, the focal point had shifted entirely from Hayes to the collective mass of students on the hill. A heated debate broke out, almost to the point of conflict. Hayes had hoped for such a conclusion, she revealed to our audience, though not necessarily in the form of a fight. She had hoped to capture some heightened form of human interaction based in these questions. She emphasized her desire to situate the personal within the collective in order to develop broader insights into the human experience. To that end, she didn’t assign physical spaces or any sort of instructions about how to behave to the individuals in the film. Instead, she allowed students to stand in “affinity groups,” which had the dual advantage of indicating relational structures and elevating comfort. These groups, she said, became “operative” in constructing the dialogue. “We are always ourselves inside of collective affiliations.”
Some of the students who had been interviewed on the hill that day were in attendance, and they were all invited to participate in a talkback. This, too, made the temporal aspect of the project evident. Students reflected on their views then and now, and when they were invited to answer questions, some of them had difficulty recalling the exact parameters of their earlier mindsets. Poorna Swami, a friend of mine as well as a participant in the project, spoke on the importance of recognizing that all the statements made at the time of the film’s shooting were attached to a “singular time in a singular place.” She also noted the limitations and biases of the film: “At the end of the day, this is an elite liberal arts institution.” However diverse the population may have been, the points and arguments made during that conversation were reflective of a certain standard of education. That idea was strangely appealing to me: of course this group wasn’t perfectly representative of the larger human experience on all levels. A precise encapsulated version humanity remains elusive, which is human in itself — the idea that such an endeavor must necessarily be flawed. Overall, Sharon Hayes did a beautiful job examining tones and modes of dialogue in the context of the personal and the collective in a particular moment in time.