The Probable Trust Registry, a new installation by Adrian Piper, is not an exhibit so much as an agreement. Elizabeth Dee’s main gallery, to quote the press release for the show, has been “transformed into three corporate reception environments … Each reception area is fully staffed by a volunteer administrator who helps to execute personal declaration contracts to a self-selecting public.” What this means is that upon entering the gallery, the viewer can choose which desk to approach, have a short conversation, and ultimately sign a contract (or not). The contracts commit the visitor to one of three declaration statements. In order, they are:
1. I will always be too expensive to buy.
2. I will always mean what I say.
3. I will always do what I say I am going to do.
Piper, who is a philosopher as well as an artist, is notoriously notable for her use of language. The declaration statements she offers here are spare but dense. They leave room for questions that only the volunteer staffers — not the incredibly simple contracts — can answer. There is no legalese. The visitor can only get more information through participation.
With a little interpretation, however, the title of the exhibition provides us with a great deal more than we thought we knew. Probable: not definite, but likely. Trust: the trust between us and Piper (via her workers), as well as a trust — a repository, a place where we stockpile important things for later. Registry: it can’t just be that my social position as a late twentysomething woman that makes me aware of the connection between registries and gifts — particularly gifts that signify our willingness to make extremely strong personal commitments (marriage, babies). This is where we register ourselves for the things we most need for our adult lives: both the fundamentals and the frivolities. Do we trust Piper with that? Probably.
Upon signing any of the three declarations, the visitor to/participant in the exhibition is not only given their own copy of the personally signed contract, but also promised a volume containing all the signed contracts of all the people who committed to the agreement. In this way, Piper binds us together quite literally, between book covers, but also in time: anyone who breaks their promise to the agreement is somehow beholden not only to him or herself but also to the other people who have sworn to uphold it. This is tricky.
In the case of my own interaction, I didn’t know about the book until after I had signed the first contract. Given that the registry’s volunteer staffers, at least on the exhibition’s opening day, admitted to relatively non-stringent training, your experience may be different. (I’ve had friends report that some of the volunteers seem less than engaged, which disappoints me; this lack of performance veneer, especially given Adrian Piper’s usual extreme attention to detail, is the show’s major weak point.) Would I still have signed? To use Piper’s word again, probably. But my commitment would have been different. In my observation of other interactions between visitors and the registry, I noticed that some people were entirely unwilling to sign any of the statements, while others signed cavalierly. The show allows for both kinds of participation: quick and unthinking or conversational and philosophical. I like to think that Piper might prefer the latter, but it’s also honest to appreciate some of the power of the former. What amazing commitments we can make in a single second. What we sign away every day without thinking.
And what are we really signing away? Is this as simple as it seems? The answer, of course, is no. But my hunch is that we, not Piper, are the ones who complicate it, by allowing our signing of these contracts to affect the way we live every day. This is a high-level game if we make it one; it could just as easily be forgotten. How dangerous! How self-confident. A show that on the surface may seem facile or flip (Piper actually refers to the statements as “Rules of the Game,” suggesting that we’re engaging in nothing but play) can stick with you in surprising ways — much like the common and dismissive barbs listed in Piper’s 1992 piece “Decide Who You Are, #1: Skinned Alive”: “Stop making such a big deal out of it,” “I’m mystified by your reaction,” “I’m sure that didn’t happen quite the way you describe it.” The pain of a simple statement questioning the veracity of a lived experience can reshape the relationship between the teller and the story. The rules of the game are barbs that we apply to ourselves. If we really choose to remember and live by them, we’ll be questioning the relationship between our actions and their veracity at nearly all times. We can only learn more through participation, the kind that ultimately resides between us and ourselves.
Adrian Piper: The Probable Trust Registry continues at Elizabeth Dee (545 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through May 31.