In 2008, artist Sharon Hayes led crowds outside the Republican and Democratic national conventions in mass recitations of a text about “political desire and romantic love.” It wasn’t her first attempt to wed performance to politics. Hayes has been at it since her college days during the AIDS crisis. Still, the Art Institute curators couldn’t have known how prescient it was to pick this moment for her first solo show at a major U.S. museum: it’s been widely noted that there’s a certain amount of political performance art going on around the country right now.

The show, “Focus: Sharon Hayes,” features variations on the activist theme. Attempting to find out how the language of bygone protests—women’s lib, civil rights, the Vietnam war—speaks to the present, Hayes spent the years from 2005 through ’09 holding up placards with slogans from those movements (one said, I am a man) on street corners; her In the Near Future documents that experiment. Hayes’s collection of vinyl recordings of political figures—Angela Davis, Eleanor Roosevelt, Malcolm X—is put to work in An Ear to the Sounds of Our History, an exploration of how some voices gain purchase in the public sphere while others don’t. Those records also figure into the opening-night party, at which Hayes will mix and sample historical political speeches.