Essays

How Adrian Piper Challenges Us to Change the Ways We Live

In her Museum of Modern Art retrospective, Piper makes visible the ways in which we are held in place by other people and their perceptions, and how their perceptions lead to the politics and philosophies that make up our world.

Installation view of <em>Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016</em> at the Museum of Modern Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016 at the Museum of Modern Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

In 2014, I reviewed Adrian Piper’s “Probable Trust Registry,” which at the time was installed at Elizabeth Dee Gallery. That project went on to win Piper the Golden Lion award at the 2015 Venice Biennale, where the jury noted her amazing ability to “[reform] conceptual practice to include personal subjectivity — of herself, her audience, and the publics in general.” I had a personal stake in this project. As an artist who also deals in performative and participatory forms, I have long looked to Piper’s work and artistic legacy as that which gives me permission to make the work I do. Piper’s ways of connecting the conceptual and the personal, along with the coexistence of image, language, and experience in her work, situate participation as a kind of training grounds for the world: what if we accepted the provocations introduced by art as real strategies for changing our behavior or relationships?

This idea of change suggests to me that participation (in the world, or within an artwork) has strong implications in forming an archive that we could call lived culture. Within this, I have been thinking a lot about the structure of the retroactive: Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, for example, in which the story of a failed affair moves toward the past to become the story of a marriage about to be demolished. Reverse storytelling allows for sturdy truths to emerge: not the linear progress of the inevitable, but more nuanced discoveries that are harder to synthesize when we live only in the moment. The same can be said for the format of an artist’s retrospective. The truth is this: on my first visit to Piper’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016, I went through the exhibition backwards. I didn’t actually mean to do this or even realize that I was doing it until about halfway through. All of this is to say that within a tightly controlled environment — works made for only one viewer at a time, such as her 1992 piece “Black Box/White Box,” mandatory humming to pass through to the next gallery in “The Humming Room” (2012), and a no-video policy throughout — no one stopped me in my retroactive journey. To me, this indicates a form of permission: in Piper’s world, backwards is OK. Backwards is a new form of reading.

Adrian Piper, "Adrian Moves to Berlin" (2007), documentation of the street performance, video (color, sound), 01:02:42; video by Robert Del Principe, collection Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin; detail: video still at 00:38:09 (© Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin)
Adrian Piper, “Adrian Moves to Berlin” (2007), documentation of the street performance, video (color, sound), 01:02:42; video by Robert Del Principe, collection Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin; detail: video still at 00:38:09 (© Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin)

My backwards movement meant the first work I saw, other than the shiny desks of the “Probable Trust Registry,” was “Adrian Moves to Berlin” (2007), an hour-long, gleeful dance video depicting Piper, approximately age 60, dancing with precision, enthusiasm, and joy in various public places in Berlin. I understand now that this work is the outro: a moment of freedom after decades of control. But for me, as an introduction, “Adrian Moves to Berlin” was a primer to experience the show as a personal journey, foregrounding and celebrating the self.

Adrian Piper, "Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features" (1981), pencil on paper, 10 x 8 in, the Eileen Harris Norton Collection (© Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin)
Adrian Piper, “Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features” (1981), pencil on paper, 10 x 8 in, the Eileen Harris Norton Collection (© Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin)

The current discussion of Piper’s work, including Cornelia Butler’s catalogue essay “Wake Up and Get Down,” focuses heavily on ideas of direct address: the continuously startling feelings that arise when an audience discovers that many of her works are speaking to them, and in some cases also about them. But I believe that this seemingly open, albeit frequently confrontational, approach is actually a cover for something a bit more delicate. Despite her desire for implication, and tendency to stress participation, Piper is also a famous refuser. As of May 2015, she is no longer doing interviews about her work. In 2013, she withdrew her Mythic Being footage from the Radical Presence show curated by Naomi Beckwith and Valerie Cassel Oliver. In 2012, in a piece titled “Thwarted Projects, Dashed Hopes, A Moment of Embarrassment,” Piper retired from being Black, becoming instead “The Artist Formerly Known As African-American.” (Arguably, this means she was never eligible for inclusion in Radical Presence, which focused on Black performance art, in the first place.) She did not attend the opening of this retrospective because she no longer enters the United States of America. Piper is not a joiner. What does it mean, then, that she always asks us to place ourselves in her work? I see this continuous implication as both a challenge and an invitation, extending to an audience a particular minority position: the dangerous dual vantage point of both knowing how you’re seen and seeing how your visibility affects others.

Adrian Piper, "The Mythic Being: I Embody Everything You Most Hate and Fear" (1975), oil crayon on gelatin silver print, 8 x 10 in, collection Thomas Erben, New York (© Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin)
Adrian Piper, “The Mythic Being: I Embody Everything You Most Hate and Fear” (1975), oil crayon on gelatin silver print, 8 x 10 in, collection Thomas Erben, New York (© Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin)

This means that the work is always personal: from early architectural drawings that diagram space as a potential choreography for bodies (“Parallel Grid Proposal for Dugway Proving Grounds Headquarters,” 1968) to the beautiful pieces honoring and reinventing Piper’s parents (“Ashes to Ashes,” 1995) and grandmother (“A Tale of Avarice and Poverty,” 1985). Even the exhibition’s title, A Synthesis of Intuitions, points back to the importance of the self: only an individual can intuit; it’s a realm, like feeling, best left to a person rather than to a society.

Photo of the author at Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016 at the Museum of Modern Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Photo of the author at Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016 at the Museum of Modern Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

In the context of centering personhood (both her own and her audience’s) within Piper’s work, let me say a few things about myself. Like Piper, I am a conceptual artist. My own work focuses on scales of intimacy, a subject not at all unrelated to her oeuvre. Like Piper, I have an unreasonable ability to fixate on a single sentence or phrase: one of hers, in the Everything series (2003–13), is: “Everything will be taken away”; one of mine, drawn from my project The Book of Everyday Instruction (2015–18), is: “In the end, I invented you one by one.” Like Piper, I am of mixed Black and Jewish descent. Like Piper, I am an only child, a native New Yorker, and spent notable time in my very early life writing and illustrating my own stories. I am not a devoted yoga practitioner, a particularly good dancer (too bad), or prone to bouts of physical collapse (thankfully). Perhaps these are surface comparisons, perhaps not. I mention them not to beg false connections, but to situate myself in response to this show and, as is perhaps non-standard for an arts writer, to situate you in relationship to me. Piper’s practice and life paved the way for an artist like me, or even a person like me, to exist. I have openly referred to A Synthesis of Intuitions as “Art World Christmas” on Instagram. My reading, therefore, is quite biased. I don’t see myself in the implied white and perhaps male position of the viewer that many of Piper’s works, such as “My Calling (Card) #1” (1986–90), assume or even force. I see myself in the position of the artist. Am I an audience that these works ever imagined?

Adrian Piper, "Funk Lessons" (1983–84), documentation of the group performance at University of California, Berkeley, November 6, 1983; color photograph, collection Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin (© Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin; photo courtesy of the University of California at Berkeley)
Adrian Piper, “Funk Lessons” (1983–84), documentation of the group performance at University of California, Berkeley, November 6, 1983; color photograph, collection Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin (© Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin; photo courtesy of the University of California at Berkeley)
The author holding a copy of Adrian Piper's "My Calling (Card) #1" (1986–90) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
The author holding a copy of Adrian Piper’s “My Calling (Card) #1” (1986–90) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Leaving the Museum of Modern Art after Glenn Lowry, Christophe Cherix, and Cornelia Butler’s curatorial comments at the exhibition’s press preview, I overhead an unrelated snippet of conversation between three men standing on the street: “That’s the problem. Everyone has their own fucking preferences of how they want to see things.” Indeed. Piper’s work, in spite of the simplicity assumed by critic Ken Johnson in a 2000 New York Times review (he called it “abrasive, didactic, and aesthetically blunt”), doesn’t actually offer a solution to this issue of multiple visions. This is where the personal becomes quite tricky. A Synthesis of Intuitions presents the work of someone who has concerned herself so much with the perception and education of others, and yet presents herself as so deeply alone: always at odds, swimming upstream, divorced from her marriage, her institutions, and finally, her country. Yet she never truly lets us go: from illuminating us in interrogation to reminding us that nothing, even for the most powerful, can be held forever, Piper asks us to reconsider our daily lives within the fabric of the inescapable. She makes visible the ways in which we are held in place by other people and their perceptions, and how their perceptions lead to the politics and philosophies that make up our world. Her most recent works, including “Probable Trust Registry,” remind us that uncovering alone is not sufficient. Far from being didactic, she begins to ask us what we’re going to do. What commitments, even just in thought, can we make to change the ways in which we live?

In 2011, during the period when Piper was getting sued by the former director of the Adrian Piper Research Association, losing several yoga poses from her practice, and losing and then regaining the hearing in her right ear (among other highlights listed in the “Personal Chronology” section of her exhibition’s catalogue), I fostered a cat and renamed him Piper, after Adrian. (He was a great deal more than 6.25% gray.) After a few weeks, I returned him to the foster service, citing his personal (feline?) inability to live in my home without ruining it as the reason. The truth was, I simply couldn’t take the responsibility. Like all challenges to assumed daily truth and one’s own place within it, Piper the cat was tiny, beautiful, and impossible. The pressure to change was too great, and my ability, in the end, too small.

Adrian Piper, "Everything #2.8" (2003), photocopied photograph on graph paper, sanded with sandpaper, overprinted with inkjet text, 8 1/2 x 11, private Collection (© Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin)
Adrian Piper, “Everything #2.8” (2003), photocopied photograph on graph paper, sanded with sandpaper, overprinted with inkjet text, 8 1/2 x 11, private Collection (© Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin)

Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016 continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through July 22. Chloë Bass: The Book of Everyday Instruction is on view at the Knockdown Center (52-19 Flushing Avenue, Maspeth, Queens) through June 17.

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