Artist and philosopher Adrian Piper has a longstanding interest in the connection between systems and the expression and manifestation of the self through language and performance. She suggests in “On Conceptual Art” (1988) that her early art practice had a unique relationship with language and information as the material of ideas, social fabric, and contexts or environments. She explains,
I turned to language (typescript, maps, audio tapes, etc.) in the 1960s because I wanted to explore objects that can refer both to concepts and ideas beyond themselves and their standard functions, as well as to themselves; objects that both refer to abstract ideas that situate those very objects in new conceptual and spatiotemporal matrices, and also draw attention to the spatiotemporal matrices in which they’re embedded.1
Piper’s works examine and explore the material formations of language, using the materiality or objecthood of language as a medium for visualizing the systems in which language functions by creating intentional boundaries to define systems within the confines of the work of art. Her artistic practice from the 1960s onward often centers on the very concept of objecthood as it concerns the relationship between the artwork and its viewership (and her body) as the focal point of many of her performance-based works, which became central to her interactive works. These ideas are connected to Piper’s investment in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, particularly in terms of the idea of autonomy, a form of agential freedom based in rationalism.2
For instance, performances such as Catalysis I (1970), wherein Piper participated in daily activities while covered in eggs, oil, and vinegar, draw out the ways that disrupting and upsetting systemic social norms resulted in the procurement of information about those very systems and norms. In these works, the interpretive paradigm of the artwork and its viewer and the socio-culturally constructed components of everyday life and personal agency become visible. The title “Catalysis” provides insight into the ways that the performance gains momentum from its context of production, interrupting the expected parameters of the art object as it relates to both interpretive norms and the systematic flows of everyday life. Non-linguistic aspects of these structuring systems are translated by means of the visceral and agential reactions they provoke. The struggle to grasp the meaning of these reactions in language in real time, as they unfold, becomes a particularized form of sociocultural information relevant to Piper’s broader project examining and analyzing relational forms of identity, and how these are refracted by means of social categories and categorization, again nodding to her engagement with philosophy and ideas of personal agency as it relates to thought. Of her art-making practice, Piper writes,
The strength of the work is a function of the viewer’s response to it. The work is a catalytic agent, in that it promotes a change in another entity (the viewer) without undergoing any permanent change itself. The value of the work may then be measured in terms of the strength of the change, rather than whether the change accords positively or negatively with some aesthetic standard. In this sense, the work as such is nonexistent except when it functions as a medium of change between the artist and the viewer.3
Works as “catalytic agents” inducing change and highly personalized examinations of forms of identity and their social refractions are further distilled in works such as those in her series My Calling (Card) #1 and #2 (1986–1990), which problematize the forcing of categories of identity – particularly those of race and gender – from within Piper’s private social milieu, while also drawing out the ways the notion of categorical imperatives figure into her identity as a marginalized artist.4
Drawing from these insights, I extend these observations to the ways that Piper expanded from methods related to the notions of catalysis and information to procedurally analyze and document her own realm of experience in and beyond language, as a particularized embodied informational enterprise. In this essay, I examine the ways that Piper’s procedural methods for both generating and processing information are reflected in specific artworks, such as the Catalysis performances (1970s) and the My Calling (Card) series. Further, I explore the interconnections between her interest in systematically experimenting with and subverting artistic paradigms and the ways that her work relates to her lived experience. Piper’s performance works and writings draw from a focused interest in thought, broadly, but importantly, extend these interests to address a need to situate herself, as a thinking and embodied entity, in the art world and in the world in general. She seeks to establish her position despite her marginalized identity by developing her work as a kind of broader informational, archival project – a project enhanced by the creation of her own physical and digital archive. Considering Julietta Singh’s proposition that “the archive is a stimulus between myself and myself,”5 I attend particularly to how these artworks foreground questions about subjectivity and agency within Piper’s life and practice as modes that represent the entanglement of philosophical inquiry and art making.
Treating language and her body as a linguistic, informational entity, as “objects that both refer to abstract ideas that situate those very objects in new conceptual and spatiotemporal matrices, and also draw attention to the spatiotemporal matrices in which they’re embedded,”6 Piper uses language and embodiment in her work as a procedural means for generating social and cultural data related to her subjectivity and subject position, both of which Piper reveals to be relational and transmutable over the duration of her practice. Piper’s eventual rejection of racial categories as applied to her sense of self and her body complicate her narratives – complications she explores and foregrounds in her artistic praxis. Her body and race are thus cast as kinds of objects to be reconceived in new contexts as matter for critique and re-examination; her body, as a preliminary component of her work, is at once a catalytic agent, a medium for change, and a repository of information reflecting her unique subjectivity. As such, her artworks reveal how procedurality, as a systematized means for acquiring information, can draw out agential relations and subjecthood while also calling attention to the limits of (gendered, racialized, classed) embodiment as they relate to bodies of information.
Although Piper is prominently associated with performance-based conceptualism, her creative practice is primarily rooted in linguistic conceptualism – conceptual art premised in language. Conceptualism was initially described as being “dematerialized” by Lucy R. Lippard and John Chandler in their pivotal 1968 article, “The Dematerialization of Art,” but conceptualism’s linguistic and related institutional concerns have always been intimately linked to the material world, including to the materiality of language. Christian Berger writes, “Conceptualism’s critique of objecthood often took the form of a turn to language. Yet language also has its own materiality, ranging from its manifestation as written text or printed matter to the traces of its past uses,” pointing to the conceptual art movement’s engagement with cybernetics as well as the social context of language.7 Such engagements also reflect conceptual art’s investment in the exploration of language as it relates to the concept of information.
Piper’s work is deeply influenced by the conceptualist interest in the ways that various forms of information were used as a way of manifesting and reflecting institutional systems of power and subjectivity.8 Her 2018 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, A Synthesis of Intuitions, prominently featured the personal aspects of her pursuit to frame her creative practice as a means for accessing what the curatorial statement calls “the potential of Conceptual Art … to challenge our assumptions about the social structures that shape the world around us.” The statement opens with a citation of Piper’s 1996 explanation that, “It seemed that the more clearly and abstractly I learned to think, the more clearly I was able to hear my gut telling me what I needed to do, and the more pressing it became to do it.”9 The retrospective’s title underlines the idea that her work functions by means of synthesizing the intuitive. Information garnered by a combination of affect, embodiment, and personal rationalization is key to their interpretation of her practice.
That said, the exhibition title also lends itself to a related, parallel interpretation acknowledging the strong role of Piper’s investment in Kantian thought; a “synthesis of intuitions” in this context implies a process of bringing together “intuitions,” singular cognitive representations,10 to achieve “the conceptual expression of a given manifold,”11 which is to say that it speaks to Piper’s desire to use performance as a method for thinking predicated in unique, ambiguous situations and provocations between herself, as the art object, and the viewer. In these ways, the title invites viewers to understand Piper’s work as multiplicitous, lending itself to a variety of interrelated potential readings that draw together conceptions of the body, process, and the material, social, and political conditions of the art world and the institution of art.
This reading her work as a combination of embodied practice and as an exercise in thought is echoed in other prominent scholarship about Piper, such as Cherise Smith’s examination of the personal and public role of the artist’s body in Piper’s gender-bending performance The Mythic Being: Cruising White Women (1973-75), wherein Piper dressed as a working-class man and gazed upon women in public places and documented these acts in photographs, then distributed some of these images in newspaper ads, including in The Village Voice. While Piper’s performances themselves enacted a form of gender, racial, and class critique, Smith argues that “in publishing the ad-works in the Voice, Piper used strategies that approximate contemporary marketing practices as a way to subvert and critique commercial institutionalization of her art. The artist’s implementation of mass-media and marketing tactics had another effect as well: it increased her artistic capital.”12 This interpretation speaks to the ways that Piper played with and deployed ideas that mitigate the spaces between the personal and the manufactured persona. The idea of sharing and generating ‘personal’ information in public spaces becomes her mode of production. Similarly, John Bowles writes that, “While [Piper] uses ‘personal content’—stories about her own experiences – in some of her work, these anecdotes are carefully chosen and presented tools used to make ideas concrete rather than to make her personal life and emotions the subject of her art,”13 again illustrating the ways Piper sought to straddle the divide between the private and public aspects of her practice. Piper’s use of the personal as a tool is tactical; she is ultimately curating a version of herself in individual works to focalize specific ideas as forms of information necessary to the cognitive goals of her work.
The conceptual art movement broadly was concerned with the idea of information – but information of a specific kind, engaged with mass audiences and reflecting current social and political realities. Contextualizing this informational concern, Berger explains, “The notion of ‘information,’ in the context of the 1960s, must … be understood in connection with the contemporary political climate, but also against the backdrop of the important technical developments and the theoretical debates of the time, especially of communication theory, cybernetics, and systems theory.”14 “Information” is thus here defined in flexible-but-historicized terms, as being related to and concerned with mass audiences, politics and culture, mass communications, and the ways that ideas are distributed, received, and processed in increasingly oversaturated contemporary realities. In other words, art about information in this context extends beyond the rarified world of the art museum – and of the traditional interpretive frame for art – and this presented a major historical shift in the ways that art was made, shown, and understood. In short, the framework for the production and reception of art became much more self-reflexive, and very little was off-limits, including, if not especially, the very contexts of art’s production and reception.
In 1970, curator Kynaston McShine published Information, the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition of the same name; importantly, the exhibition is credited as being one of the primary shows that introduced the conceptual art movement to the public. In his catalogue essay, McShine wrote, “Many of the highly intellectual and serious young artists represented here have addressed themselves to the question of how to create an art that reaches out to an audience larger than that which has been interested in contemporary art in the last few decades. Their attempt to be poetic and imaginative, without being aloof or condescending has led them into the communications eras that Information reflects.”15 Pointing to the genre of work Piper produced, he noted, “In the reevaluation of their situation, some artists have attempted to extend themselves into their environment and to work with its problems and events. Some have become aware of their own bodies, in a way that has nothing to do with the accepted idea of the self-portrait, but more with the questioning and observing of sensations. Others have embraced natural phenomena in ways that are at times romantic and at times bordering on scientific.”16 McShine’s differentiation between the tradition of the self-portrait and the use of the self-as-body-as-information in conceptualist work points to the ways Piper harnessed the tension between her art practice and her biographical reality as a provocative and compelling method for addressing her subjectivity as an artist in the context of art production at this time.
Piper, whose work was featured in Information, was interested in the informational aspects of conceptualist art, though she sought to manufacture her own kind personal information as a form of data and experiential knowledge. She prioritized information specific to her own life and identity, choosing to trouble the ideas of the objectivity and the hierarchization of information by focalizing her own relationships and relational interactions within her work. Essentially, she devised thought experiments that extended conceptual artistic practice into the realm of Kantian philosophical inquiry as a method for transforming the relationship between artist, art object, and the viewer or audience that extended the frame even of the communications-focused conceptual art being made at that time to eliminate the discrete art object entirely.17 She explains in a 1971 essay,
I can no longer see discrete forms or objects in art as viable reflections or expressions of what seems to me to be going on in this society: They refer back to conditions of separateness, order, exclusivity, and the stability of easily accepted functional identities that no longer exist. For what a posteriori seems to be this reason, the elimination of the discrete form as art object (including communications media objects) as a thing in itself, with its isolated internal relationships and self-determining aesthetic standards, really interests me. I’ve been doing pieces the significance and experience of which is defined as completely as possible by the viewer’s reaction and interpretation. Ideally the work has no meaning or independent existence outside of its function as a medium of change.18
This relational, simultaneously externally- and self-focused method for inquiry that combines the constraints of the material world and her navigation of its complexities developed an intimate aesthetics of procedurality implicating Piper’s body as both an object and as a kind of archive as a means for inquiry. She describes her process and approach to art making as “making artificial and nonfunctional plastic alterations of my own bodily presence of the same kind as those I formerly made on inanimate or nonart materials” to produce forms of immediacy that meaningfully incorporate the viewer as an active agent in the work.19 Noting how she inhabits the work internally by identifying as both “the artist and the work,” Piper explains, “I define the work as the viewer’s reaction to it. The strongest, most complex, and most aesthetically interesting catalysis is the one that occurs in uncategorized, undefined, nonpragmatic human confrontation.”20 The collapsing of bodily presence, artwork, and viewership and the grammatic conjoining of process and product describes the ways that Piper uses embodiment in her practice: as another tool and strategy in the execution of the idea as an end goal. The definition of her work, “as the viewer’s reaction to it,” also speaks to the importance of the concept of catalysis in her wider practice, while also revealing how she integrates her subject position – as a form of information – into the generative processes of this practice.
Piper’s personalized methodology emerged early in the development of her creative practice and has permeated her career. Important to her method is the idea that not only was she actively questioning the interpretation of “uncategorized, undefined, nonpragmatic” information, but she was also producing information to address a void in data reflecting her lived experience as a woman of mixed Black and Caucasian descent. Further to the ways that her methods engage with her racial identity are the ways that Piper framed her racial identity, which moved between identifying as Black, biracial, and – key to this analysis – “retired” from being Black, or as she posits in a later artwork, “the artist formerly known as African American.”21 This complication of categories adds political weight to her explorations of conceptualist practice and procedurality in that it navigates and challenges the expectations of conceptual art from this period. Piper’s interest in identity – including in the negation of certain forms of identity – is reflected in and augmented by her personalized archival method, wherein she accumulates information to build a prominently public representation of her unique experience and embodied situation. In presenting herself as the object for interpretation as a mode for subverting the expected categories of art, her presence and her body itself become a source and kind of information.
While everyday life can seem to have a notably procedural quality for many people, Piper is deeply attuned to the ways that the procedurality inherent to the quotidian experience has a cumulative impact on not only the interpretation of the art object but also of subjectivity, rationality and thought, and lived reality. This interest is reflected in her performance practice. Day-to-day activities and interactions, personal and bureaucratic, involve the repetition of a series of discrete social and political acts and procedures, each of which was enmeshed with the textures of broader social and political systems. Her performances were constructed as a means to elucidate the relationships between individual actions and systems, and between self and other, although she highlighted these relationships by means of the manufacture of uncertainty and suspicion. In her performances, the only variable under Piper’s control was herself – her accoutrements and actions, and the procedures by which she conducted herself in the spaces of performance – most often, public or semi-private civic or commercial spaces. Her performances thus hinged on a specific form of relationality: between her body as a de-personalized, objectified presence and her subject position, her audience, and the conditions and contexts in which she chose to operate.22
In a 1968 essay, Piper describes an interest in developing a personal system for testing ideas based in the implementation of chosen constraints, or what she called “formal limits”:
I am presently interested in the construction of finite systems, that is, systems that serve to contain an idea within certain formal limits and to exhaust the possibilities of the idea set by those limits. This appears to me to be the best way of preventing the potentialities of an idea from extending into infinity […] What appears to be a general pattern in my formulative process is, first, the emergence of a kind of intuition which somehow derives from whatever I have just completed; second, a subconscious focusing of elements in the intuition which results in my being presented with that one which seems to contain the most concrete implications; third, an analysis of this particular idea determining the possibilities. At this point, I usually begin to evolve a kind of static, idealized form in my mind and can begin to delineate more exactly the explorable potential of the idea within the limits set by this conceptual form-ideal.23
The application of “formal limits” or constraints to ideas or “conceptual form-ideals” extends into Piper’s artistic practice; the construction of a finite system that permits flows between intuition, a focusing process, and analysis corresponds to the way she premises her artmaking primarily on enacting change in her viewer by building her performances around specific formal parameters. Catalysis, a series of discrete, radical performances in which Piper used her presence, reimagined as an art object, to undertake what she categorized as “uncategorized, undefined, nonpragmatic human confrontation” in a way that challenged existing interpretive paradigms.24 By default, the artist’s performance also tested public perception, using her body, costuming and props, and unusual but calmly executed behaviours to challenge social norms. The performances, as artistic “process/product,” took place in the 1970s during a time of mass upheaval, in terms of massive political and social shifts and a turn to social sciences that manifested in mainstream culture.25 The performances of Catalysis relied on social and political contrasts between self (the artist, Piper) and the shifting contexts and conditions of the urban environment. The performances were completely malleable and could be imported to different spaces and places to produce new effects, and new information about self and context, while remaining consistent in the ways that the procedural elements of the works helped to emphasize these contrasts.
Catalysis, like other performances, tested the limits and parameters of the linguistic, instead relying on immediacy and experience to deliver their effect. Spectators and passers-by seem uncomfortable and ill-equipped to process and classify what is going on as the performances unfolded because Piper’s actions and activities seemed both anomalous but also, simultaneously natural and inconsequential, in that the calm demeanor she maintains during her performance helps her blend in with her environs in the busy urban environment. The struggle to put the strange encounters into words and language drew attention to the failure of conventional interpretive modes to arrest and categorize the performances. Her fascination with the ways that language “objects” could both stand alone and point to their own “spatiotemporal matrices” or “finite systems” speaks to the ways she adopted a practice of exploring both the indexicality and the referentiality of matter in her work, as an artistic and philosophical process, and as a means of retrieving different forms of indeterminate, agential information by way of predetermined procedure. Procedure was the operation for acquiring information; most often this information pertained to external perception of Piper’s self as a (multiracial, Black, female) body interacting with other bodies in space.
Piper and other conceptual artists were not working in a vacuum but were participating in major renovations to intellectual life and shifting social and cultural movements that affected the broader imaginary of the late twentieth century. Piper’s work in many ways reflected transitions in other areas of culture and thought. For instance, scholar Jacob Stewart-Halevy, observing the nature of the zeitgeist in the early 1970s era of conceptual art, notes how two of Piper’s performances from Catalysis, staged in various locations including departments of a Macy’s store in Midtown Manhattan in 1970 and 1971, coincide with the publication of a scientific paper, “The Social Stratifications of [r] in New York City Department Stores” by sociolinguist William Labov, noting how the performances and paper, as an exemplar indicative of scholarly and mainstream interests at that time, share a similar concern with new methods for analysis and a sense of renewed social-epistemological consciousness interrelated to the accumulation and investigation of information about everyday life.26 The notable coincidence of these interests also speaks to the ways Piper’s work was undertaken as a kind experimental, procedural social research: there are established behavioural gestures and structural contexts and conditions; the goal is, following Labov’s own methods for experimentation which investigated the everyday speech of department store employees, foreseeably deterministic in that the performances draw on phenomena that are causally shaped by these gestures, contexts, and conditions.27 Unlike Labov’s work, however, they are also, simultaneously, decidedly non-pragmatic (as Piper herself states) in that the performances are themselves challenging for viewers to immediately categorize or comprehend as they unfold in real time. Reflecting on the production and reception of the performance in real time, she reflects, “The immediacy of the artist’s presence in art work/catalysis confronts the viewer with a broader, more powerful, and more ambiguous situation than discrete forms or objects.”28
It is in creating a sense of generative ambiguity, this “uncategorized, undefined non pragmatic human confrontation,” that Piper expresses a form of agency related to the production of information: information that is difficult to qualify or quantify, thus manufacturing an intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically arresting social situation that captures the imagination while also, generally speaking, provoking viewers to conduct deeper interpersonal social analysis.29 Notably, this corresponds with ways that information about a self like Piper’s fails to be reflected in mainstream art, including in conceptual art, and the world in general. Women and racialized people are not centred in publicly available knowledge repositories; they are rarely acknowledged by mainstream culture and are decidedly not the default identity deferred to in such culture. While experimenting with the parameters of rationality and interpretation, Piper also tasks herself with generating information that reflects her unique experience. These exercises in provoking change in the viewer also establish or restate her agency and position in the context of the art-world and in broader social and political contexts. Although Piper initially sought to engage with art-world paradigms, in engaging with the generation of information specific to her bodily presence in public spaces, her practice also participates in the tradition of racialized women turning to other means, such as the production of auto-ethnographies and alternate archives, for amassing information about their lived experiences and the ways their subjectivities are shaped by these contexts.
The performances comprising Catalysis, like Piper’s other artistic works, have formal connections to her Kantian philosophical writings including her two-volume Rationality and the Structure of the Self (2008) in that they both draw on similar themes concerning the ascertainment of experience and the conception of self. As such, Piper is frequently called upon to make formal connections between her philosophical practice and her art-making. She has most often been disinclined from making explicit connections between the two, expressing that the relationship between her practices is at best oblique and indirect.
Shifts in Piper’s externalized sense of self-identification and self-conception and their direct relationship to her biography are indirectly disclosed in a 2012 post she published on her website, stating that, “Adrian Piper has decided to retire from being black. In the future, for professional utility, you may wish to refer to her as The Artist Formerly Known as African-American.”30 An image of Piper’s face accompanies the statement – a work titled Thwarted Projects, Dashed Hopes, A Moment of Embarrassment (2012). The photographic self-portrait’s distorted colour values suggest those of a photographic negative creating an effect self-consciously reminiscent of blackface, and is overlaid with text, including the following passage: “for my 64th birthday I have decided to change my racial and nationality designations. Henceforth, my new racial designation will be neither black nor white but rather 6,25% grey . . . Please join me in celebrating this exciting new adventure in pointless administrative precision and futile control.”31 Though this work reads as outwardly parodic and speaks, in an ironic way, to the ‘post-racial’ discourse of the early twenty-first century, it also appears as though Piper is critically examining, by means of a form of self-caricature, the ways her identification as a multiracial Black artist have affected the reception of her work and thinking – and her consequent marginalization in the art world. That her face becomes darker in the negative plays up the lightness of her skin tone, drawing attention to the tendency for others to confuse her racial identity and mistake her for a white woman. The guileless, polite smile she performs in the context of this image, which might otherwise resemble a professional academic headshot if not for the inversion of colour tones and values, seems ironic and vaguely threatening, and can be interpreted as part of a procedural method for evincing the ways that Black women are required to perform in professional environments. Piper uses and subverts recognizable informational cues (blackface; headshots) to encode the image with an oblique critique of the systems that have let her down.
On a surface level, her intention to speak only peripherally about her creative practice by means of an analysis of her philosophical work appears to be connected to her decision to assert more control over the public perception of her identity, work, and life following a series of traumatic professional incidents connected to the relationship between her academic position and racial identity. She writes in her self-published Escape to Berlin: A Travel Memoir (2018) of her willing expatriation from the U.S.: after learning that she was on a “watch list of suspicious travellers” maintained by the United States Transportation Security Administration, Piper left the United States to reside permanently in Berlin in 2005.32 While themes related to exile and suspicion are explored in works such as the Catalysis performances, the formalization of such suspicion seems, for Piper, to have resulted in a deeper, more visceral response, connected to her embodied experience. Although being named on this list is an incident frequently mentioned in terms of her self-exile, she suggests in her memoir that this ‘official’ form of suspicion only compounded other forms of being identified as a ‘suspicious person’ that she has involuntarily inhabited in relation to her ambiguous racial identity as a renowned academic and artist. She writes, “Would you like to know why I left the U.S. and refuse to return? This is why,” and lists, throughout the narrative, several interrelated instances of discrimination and abuse.33 For Piper, these events affected her agentic and bodily schema, rendering her disempowered and feeling silenced. The reasons for her exile are exacerbated by her treatment in everyday life and appear to fuel her determination in establishing boundaries around the ways she editorializes her philosophical and creative work. They also add context for the production and maintenance of her formal archival project, as a method for inserting herself and her work into conversations that might otherwise formally exclude or overlook her and her contributions.
Piper’s artistic practice is not primarily driven by a desire to record and reflect biographical information, but instead to use her own positionality to actively question extant paradigms in art as it has been institutionalized. In a 1988 interview with scholar Mildred Thompson, Piper makes explicit connections between her art and philosophy practices and her identity, though even here she notes how it can be difficult to describe her artistic practice with language. She observes that in developing her creative practice,
The [political philosophy and epistemology] skills helped tremendously: learning to think clearly about my own ideas and really practicing writing, just articulating some of what was going on in my work. I can’t overemphasize how extremely helpful it was to have training in philosophy. And then, also, my work was becoming more and more politically oriented. I was dealing with racism and racial stereotypes and found that studying social and political philosophy gave me a vocabulary within which to work as an artist. It isn’t as if I would not have found the words at all had I not been studying philosophy, but I think it would have been harder. I think it is hard for me to say in words what my work is about, because my work just does not come out of the same place as this kind of discursive, conceptual thinking.34
In explaining her creative work as coming from a different place than her philosophy, Piper gestures here to the ways that her artworks might be differentiated from her philosophy and should not be apprehended as one in the same practice. They partake, by nature, in a non- or para-linguistic means of the articulation of ideas that are themselves less direct and possibly nonlinear but emerge from a different set of concerns. While she agrees that her art practice is connected to her philosophical training; for instance, she states that she “found that studying social and political philosophy gave me a vocabulary within which to work as an artist,” she notes that does not necessarily see a direct relationship between the two and that their relationship cannot be reduced to a simplified one-to-one relation. Looking to her Catalysis works, there are ways that the work seems to express a philosophical vocabulary (she complicates the relationship between artist, work, and viewer, for example), but she is using this vocabulary to critique the concept that art exists as a discrete form, separated from other aspects of living.
Though Piper’s practices draw from a similar social and political vocabulary, they produce and deal with information in particularized ways, drawing from separate methodologies and epistemologies. Even though many of her artworks incorporate textual and linguistic elements, Piper employs procedurality and performance to communicate in a modality that is linguistically subversive and almost pre-verbal in her art practice. Immediacy and immanence play a key role in driving home her interest in the variable materiality of the art object and its context, and of the importance of relationality in establishing or forgoing agency in real time and space. Though both practices have linguistic elements, her performances attempt to both confront and challenge facile equations between production, object, and interpretation, thus provoking a form of critical recognition in her viewership.
Like Catalysis and Thwarted Projects, Dashed Hopes, A Moment of Embarrassment, many of Piper’s artworks also explore an identification with the concept of suspicion – of a being a suspicious person – and of the state of being apprehensive or skeptical and suspecting in relation to identity and positionality amidst outwardly oppositional context and conditions. The causal relationship between themes in Piper’s artworks and specific incidents is complex and thus difficult to determine, as tempting as it may be to structure a narrative about her art practice strictly around definitive and traceable events. That said, details and references in many of her works firmly suggest that they are connected to the realm of her experience and her desire to examine her unique position in the world – a hypothesis that is easily confirmed in her critical writings about her art practice. Piper’s My Calling (Card) #1 and #2 (1986-1990) are a series of small, offset lithographs as well as interconnected individual performances that involved handing pre-made “calling cards” to people who made racist remarks or unwelcome advances at social gatherings and events. While My Calling (Card) #1 (1986) informs the recipient of Piper’s identity as a Black person and explains in plain language how their overtly racist comment or complicity with casual racism might cause discomfort, the second piece in this series, developed over time, My Calling (Card) #2 (1990) states:
I am not here to pick anyone up, or to be picked up. I am here alone because I want to be here, ALONE.
This card is not intended as part of an extended flirtation.
Thank you for respecting my privacy.35
In a previously unpublished 1991 essay, Piper posits the My Calling (Card) series as “reactive guerrilla performances” intended as a method for “intervention in order to prevent co-optation.”36 Of My Calling (Card) #2 (for Bars and Disco) June 1986-1990, Piper explains how the delivery of the cards performs multiple, different and often complex social and political functions at once, observing how they disrupt and reprimand unwelcome behaviour in specific contexts. She clarifies that card #1 is meant to express appropriate “anger and pain” in the face of the “offending individual’s hostility in making the racist remark” and card #2 interrupts “a come-on in a bar” that “can be or masquerade as the paradigm of friendliness.”37 She notes how card #2 “takes longer to work” and that “it ruins my evening so completely to have to use it, and I have to use it so persistently in bars and discos in the States, that in fact I rarely go into these environments unaccompanied anymore,” outlining some of the intricate ways that her performance is integrated into her social interactions.38
The cards, with their brief, declarative texts, encapsulate many of Piper’s struggles as a white-passing multiracial Black woman artist working in the Western art-world of the late twentieth century, particularly in the context of the surprisingly conservative and highly masculine and white New York art-world, where audiences, curators, and gallerists alike would frequently misidentify Piper’s gender and race due to factors such as the ambiguity of the artist’s gender neutral first name, skin colour, and social position. Furthermore, the cards and the contextual information Piper provides point to the ways that aspects of her identity intersect and entangle in her public and private life. Her identity and self-identification seem to underlie her drive to procedurally experiment with viewer/audience reaction and at once to collect information related to her experience, contexts, and conditions. In passing out these “calling cards,” she would involve her unwitting audience as participants in the co-creation of her work, which functioned as a declaration of her otherwise ambiguous identity. When these works would eventually be shown, as simple cards displayed alongside a didactic, in galleries and museums far removed from the event of the performance work itself, they would be imbued with the force of these declarations of identity as markers or vectors for the artist’s seeming resolution of questions of her public self-identification and positionality.
Building from works like the calling cards and Catalysis series, Piper’s broader practice is highly interested in how identity reflects one’s position in the world. Looking at Piper’s place in the history of feminist conceptual art, American critic Lucy R. Lippard points to Stuart Hall’s statement that “identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past,” connecting Hall’s words to Piper’s gender exploration in her Mythic Being photo performance series, wherein Piper is photographed in gender-bending costume. In Mythic Being, Piper “changed gender and then mixed gender exploring androgyny,” a form of inquiry that was progressive at the work’s time of production.39 Lippard links this to the late twentieth century interest in identity politics in art broadly, and feminist art in particular, especially in the ways that identity was interpellated by critical theory and the body in the feminist art movement.40 Identity, too, has the capacity to generate new forms of information, and can be inhabited by means of conceptualist, procedural modes for the exploration and analysis of the information garnered from reactions to Piper’s guerrilla performances.
In the corpus of Piper’s work, identity is not necessarily always connected to her biographical experience. Often these themes are abstract and purely intellectual, making the connections between physical performance and immaterial thought quite complicated to describe in language. Misidentifications, or misapprehensions, underlie many aspects of Piper’s praxis as both an artist and a philosopher. In her scholarship on Kant, she differentiates the mechanics of apprehension from those of comprehension, explaining that “[u]nsynthesised intuitions are those collections of representations that are unified into appearances by the elementary operations of apprehension, but not further unified or classified into recognizable objects by the advanced operations of comprehension.”41 The interpretive response to the methodologies Piper employs in her performances, as a way of using these “elementary operations of apprehension” without relying on “the advanced operations of comprehension,” is driven by a form of “unsynthesized” intuition that cannot rely on the linear nature of language or formal systems of knowledge. Instead, it results in a form of information recognizable to and processed by the body and its viscera; it corresponds with the body’s knowledge of its position in the world and relies on a form of unprocessed, immaterial recognition to communicate.
In addition to exploring nonlinear informational modes for communicating her presence, Piper initiated the creation of her own formal archive. APRA, the Adrian Piper Research Archive, founded by Piper in 2002, is comprised of a comprehensive physical archive and a website that includes a digital archive of many of Piper’s written and creative works.42 Looking through the APRA website and its catalogue of Piper’s artworks (“Art”), exhibitions, and numerous writings including PDFs of both full volumes of Rationality and the Structure of the Self, it is clear how the assemblage of these materials informs the interconnections and dialogic relationships between her art making and philosophical thinking, and how and why they came to be created by the same author. Piper’s resistance to making summative comments on the corpus of her work, as she exemplifies and focalizes in her 2013 Empson lecture, is an important element of the unconcealment of this relationality.43 Her talk, titled “The Real Thing Strange” was published in the MoMA’s catalogue for A Synthesis of Intuitions, and borrowed language from Empson’s poem “Let It Go” (1949) namely the passage, “It is this deep blankness is the real thing/ strange./ The more things happen to you the more/ you can’t/ Tell or remember even what they were.”44 Later in her talk she explains, “I will be responding to the very generous request to address in this lecture the relationship between my art and my philosophy work. I am happy to rise to this challenge, even though I am not publicly discussing my art work at this time. This long-standing policy is fully consistent with the substance of Empson’s poem.”45 Piper’s reluctance to speak about her art and philosophical writing as an enmeshed practice reveals and even focalizes the intentionality underlying the decision not to put their relationship into language or speech as a deliberate choice, as an act of will.
This choice also underlines the way she relies on ambiguity as a method for foregrounding interpretive relations. Her practices, which draw from their historical and cultural contexts of production, implicate the generation and retrieval of information by indirect means to address and compensate for a void in information: that which reflects her lived experience and subjecthood. Her writings and procedural artworks are acts establishing agency, for herself and others, as a mode for examining thoughts. But they also function to communicate information about human actors like her, in a world that has demonstrated itself to be both discriminatory and oppressive. Moreover, in generating a corpus of work as multifarious and wide-ranging as hers, Piper also suggests that foregrounding the “deep blankness” to be found in the ineffable aspects of confronting unfamiliarity “through the intuitive presences it reveals,” her work produces forms of non-linguistic information that mirror the complexity of both thinking and lived experience.46 “Deep blankness” corresponds to the idea of casting herself as part of an indeterminate art object. It also serves to address the ambiguities inherent to Piper’s sense of herself by mirroring the indeterminacies she actively questions in her work. As a multiracial Black and Caucasian woman artist and philosopher who began working in a time of great social and political upheaval and when it was impossible to see herself reflected in either creative or academic contexts, “deep blankness” as an unstable form of knowledge, deduced by intuition (again meaning both the gut feeling and parts contributing to the conception of a whole), addresses a kind of recognizable informational ambiguity or absence created by a disparity between records and specific forms of racialized subjectivity and positionality.
Although her website puts her philosophy into conversation with her artwork by nature of having both available in a single resource, Piper’s own embrace of “deep blankness” and her resistance to simplifying the correspondence between her art and philosophy underlines the impossibility of doing justice to the breadth and intricacy of the whole of her work if it is indeed conceptualized as a serial oeuvre.47 There is a potential for complete misapprehension of the work and its intentions, as to describe the relationship between written philosophy and performance documentation would reduce and limit the interpretative possibilities for each practice, which each thrives on productive forms of ambiguity and capaciousness. To develop a taxonomy of her work could very well reduce these productive tensions. To attempt to compartmentalize the effects of her work seems, in these ways, incomprehensible. Julietta Singh, a writer and academic, engages with similar issues of race, identity, information, and embodiment in No Archive Will Restore You (2018). Singh confronts tensions between the idea of archives as dense, enigmatic bodies of information representing a form of collective history that is not representative of her experience, in her physical, racialized and feminine body, but also as a discrete, complex, and multifarious subject. She writes of her scholarly investigation of the archive, and the impossibility of recuperating the self by means of the archive as a kind of “inventory,” despite her desire to do so.
I came across a passage written by the Italian neo-Marxist political theorist, Antonio Gramsci:
The starting point of a critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is “knowing thyself” as a product of the historical processes to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory… Therefore it is imperative at the outset to complete such an inventory.
An infinite history of traces without an inventory! An endless collection of yourself that is impossible to gather… I had no concrete idea of what it meant, or what currency it had in my own life, but I knew how it felt. It felt as though the broken thing I was might be restored, and it felt like an embodied idea I would never stop desiring for myself and for the world.48
Singh’s reflections on Gramsci’s well-known idea of “knowing thyself,” on what she interprets, for herself, as the feeling of undertaking an “infinite history of traces without an inventory” or “an endless collection of yourself that is impossible to gather,” and landing on the sensation of a feeling rather than a concrete idea recalls Piper’s process-based method, wherein she casts her presence as both an artwork and as a catalysis to enact a response, and reframes the viewer’s immediate and ephemeral reaction as the artwork. To “know thyself” by means of an “infinity of traces” when there is no stable inventory of information is an impossible undertaking, but one that is appealing to both Singh and Piper alike, as what Singh here describes as “an embodied idea I would never stop desiring for myself”.49 Notably, while The Prison Notebooks, the original context for Gramsci’s words, speak to the ways that intellectual and cultural life are embedded in history and aid in the development of his notion of hegemony, Piper’s Kantian method is premised in the specificity and directness of subjective experience. Thus, the idea of “an infinity of traces” must be read differently as a formulation for understanding Piper’s work: on the one hand, the information she produced, as “traces,” are not located in a conventional archival milieu, as a priori language objects, but instead as information garnered in a more immediate sense; on the other, the information remains after the fact, documented (as with the Catalysis works) or otherwise represented (as with the calling cards) and accumulated in Piper’s archive. Piper’s aim is at once serially singular but becomes cumulative as her works begin to demonstrate clear patterns connected to her positionality in both the art world and in public space more generally.
The idea of attempting to assemble traces when there is no extant inventory is reflected throughout Piper’s practice. An “infinity of traces,” as a Gramscian concept, might speak to the connections between history and cultural, intellectual life more generally as a kind of reality in the face of hegemony. Piper’s cumulative project fits within this paradigm as a fragment speaking to her physical and intellectual life. There is also a certain asymmetry to the connections between Singh’s interest in the archive and the sense of possessing an embodied history, as with that found between the epistemological and ontological methods occupied by Piper’s philosophical project and her performance practice and the ways it might correspond to a broader cumulative, reparative, and experimental project mining subjective analysis and encounters with external factors. For Singh and Piper alike, the space between tangible systems of knowledge and embodied ways of experiencing the world is mitigated by desire and mediated by limits of the shared imagination.
Looking again to the Catalysis performances and the ways that works such as Thwarted Projects, Dashed Hopes, A Moment of Embarrassment and the My Calling (Card) series draw out a relation between Piper’s exploration of self and context, it seems that Piper is seeking to accumulate a personal inventory by means of performative and visual traces that confound mainstream methods for the cataloguing of information. She is developing her own self-knowledge system as a means of addressing and intuitively classifying the phenomenon of “deep blankness” that she has experienced in both her professional and everyday life. Her philosophical work connects to her art practice to form a unified project in these ways, but in forming an archive of her work, she allows the immanent co-presence of the different forms of her creative and intellectual output to stand in for extensive descriptions or justifications. Although APRA is also a practical solution, co-opting the conventions of the archival structure as a method for organizing her work does the labour of verbally designating these relationships that are, to Piper, of a similar vocabulary of origin but also of a different experiential and immaterial phylum. Black life is here understood as being complex and ambiguous, as a kind of undefinable, multifarious object like the categorically-challenging performance objects Piper proposes in her work. APRA, too, becomes an object-based solution to the requests for Piper to explicate the relationships between her methods for thinking and self-expression, a laborious process she no longer entertains.
Catalysis, My Calling (Card), and other works of art draw out the ways that Piper seeks to apprehend information that is otherwise challenging to comprehend: how her artworks can confound the limits of the institutionalized art world and how she can communicate her marginalized position from within these constraints. Her broader project, imbued with Kantian ideas and an avid drive to painstakingly analyze the mechanisms of thought and subjectivity, explores her drive to foreground and examine the distinct positionality that she, as a woman artist with a complex relationship to racial identity occupies, and the amount of agency she personally holds in the contexts and conditions she inhabits. She draws from these contexts and conditions to configure performances as a method for both critique (of art; of her surroundings) and for amassing information about time, space, and self. As part of the group of artists of the conceptual art movement working in the 1960s and 1970s, she employs procedural methods that borrow from conceptual art, emergent conversations in the social sciences, and the politicized atmosphere of the time, shaping them to suit her intellectual curiosity about the art object and its interpretation. Her practice also engenders an increasingly urgent concern with the ways her identity and self-identifications are mirrored and often distorted by the art world and the world around her. In documenting her performances and accumulating information in her archive, she establishes a form of informational and intuitively apprehended agency in spite of the social and political forces that seem to attempt to inhibit this kind of project. Recalling Smith’s and Bowles’ characterizations of her work as being simultaneously about the self and about other-than-the-self, namely, about a form of public, contextual critique, Piper’s work, as a working archive, can be imagined as a resource and repository of information about her as an individual artist and about the framework for the production and reception of her work. Comparable to the way that Piper positions herself in her work, the reaction or change her work enacts is indeed the object of her broader, procedural praxis.
Adrian Piper, “On Conceptual Art,” in Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1999), 424. ↩
One of Immanuel Kant’s key arguments is that a person determines their own morality and judgment independently, on the basis of individual experience. For further details, see Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, in Immanuel Kant, Ethical Philosophy, trans. James W. Ellington (Indianapolis, IA: Hackett, 1785 ). ↩
Adrian Piper, “Talking to Myself: The Ongoing Autobiography of an Art Object,” in Out of Order, Out of Sight, Volume I: Selected Writings in Meta-Art 1968—1992 (Cambridge, MA; London, MIT Press), 32-33. ↩
Of her marginalization, Piper writes, “[M]y ostracism and flight from the art world, and subsequent battles in the real world, were without question the best and most important events I could have experienced for the enrichment of my work” They gradually taught me who I am and brought me to a bounded sense of self, from the undifferentiated esoteric realm of pure form.” Published in “Some Very FORWARD Remarks,” in Out of Order, Out of Sight, Volume I: Selected Writings in Meta-Art 1968—1992 (Cambridge, MA; London, MIT Press), xxxviii. ↩
Julietta Singh, No Archive Will Restore You (Goleta, CA, Punctum, 2018), 26. ↩
Adrian Piper, “On Conceptual Art,” 424. ↩
Christian Berger, “Introduction: Conceptualism and Materiality: Matters of Art and Politics,” in Conceptualism and Materiality: Matters of Art and Politics, ed. Christian Berger (Leiden; Boston, Brill, 2019), 6. ↩
Nizan Shaked, The Synthetic Proposition: Conceptualism and the political referent in contemporary art” (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2017), 2. ↩
Kirk Dallas Wilson, “Kant on Intuition,” The Philosophical Quarterly, 1975, vol. 25, no. 100, 247. ↩
Wilson, “Kant on Intuition,” 256. ↩
Cherise Smith, “Re-Member the Audience: Adrian Piper’s Mythic Being Advertisements,” Art Journal, 2007, vol. 66, no. 1, 48. ↩
John Bowles, “Adrian Piper as African American Artist,” American Art, 2006, vol. 20, no. 3, 108. ↩
Christian Berger, “Wholly Obsolete or Always a Possibility? Past and Present Trajectories of a ‘Dematerialization’ of Art,” in Conceptualism and Materiality: Matters of Art and Politics, ed. Christian Berger (Leiden; Boston, Brill, 2019), 43. ↩
Kynaston L. McShine, Information (The Museum of Modern Art, 1970), 139. ↩
McShine, Information, 139. ↩
Of course, as Lucy R. Lippard would later observe in Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 published in 1997, the object was never truly eliminated, as the ephemera and documentation of pieces and performances that were intended to transcend the objecthood of art remained and were imbued with the significance of the works they represented. ↩
Adrian Piper, “Concretized Ideas I’ve Been Working Around,” in Out of Order, Out of Sight, Volume I: Selected Writings in Meta-Art 1968—1992 (Cambridge, MA; London, MIT Press), 42. ↩
Piper, “Concretized Ideas I’ve Been Working Around,” 42. ↩
Piper, “Concretized Ideas I’ve Been Working Around,” 42. ↩
RosaLee Goldberg, “Adrian Piper: Some Reflective Surfaces,” in Adrian Piper: Some Performing Objects I Have Been, ed. Rhea Anastas (Amsterdam, If I Can’t Dance, 2021), 21. ↩
Adrian Piper, “My Art Education,” in Out of Order, Out of Sight, Volume I: Selected Writings in Meta-Art 1968—1992 (Cambridge, MA; London, MIT Press), 5. ↩
Piper, “Concretized Ideas I’ve Been Working Around,” 42. ↩
Piper, “Concretized Ideas I’ve Been Working Around,” 42. ↩
Jacob Stewart-Halevy, “The Inductive Turn in Conceptual Art: Pragmatics in the 0-9 Circle,” Grey Room vol. 68 (2017), 61. ↩
William Labov, “The Social Stratification of (r) in New York City Department Stores” in The Social Stratification of English in New York City (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006), 40. ↩
Piper, “Catalysis IV.” ↩
Piper, “Catalysis IV.” ↩
Piper, “News.” ↩
Adrian Piper, Escape to Berlin: A Travel Memoir / Flucht Nach Berlin, (Berlin, APRA Foundation Berlin, 2018), 8. Piper has stated that she will consider returning to the U.S. if her name is removed from this list. ↩
Adrian Piper, Escape to Berlin: A Travel Memoir / Flucht Nach Berlin, 8. ↩
Adrian Piper, My Calling Card #2 (Reactive Guerrilla Performance for Dinners and Cocktail Parties), 1990, performance prop / printed card, 5 x 9 cm, Davis Museum and Cultural Centre, Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA. ↩
Adrian Piper, “My Calling (Cards) #1 and #2 (1986—1990), in Out of Order, Out of Sight, Volume I: Selected Writings in Meta-Art 1968—1992 (Cambridge, MA; London, MIT Press), 219. ↩
Piper, “My Calling (Cards),” 221. ↩
Piper, “My Calling (Cards),” 221. ↩
Lucy R. Lippard, “In the Flesh: Looking Back and Talking Back,” Women’s Art Magazine 54 (1993), 7. ↩
Lippard, “In the Flesh,” 7. ↩
Adrian Piper, “The Real Thing Strange” in A Synthesis of Intuitions, eds. Chrisophe Cherix, Cornelia Butler, and David Platzker (New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 2018), 86. ↩
Piper founded the Adrian Piper Research Archive (APRA) after learning of a terminal medical condition, which later “vanished,” though she decided to continue developing the archive as a “personal and public resource” (adrianpiper.com, n.p.); the personal context for the archive seems to inform the collection in that it is unique to Piper. ↩
Piper delivered the annual Empson Lecture at the 2013 British Society for Aesthetics Annual Conference held at Cambridge University, she delivered the annual Empson Lecture, and expounded on the reasons she prefers not to collapse her artistic and philosophical practice. ↩
Adrian Piper, “The Real Thing Strange” in A Synthesis of Intuitions, eds. Christophe Cherix, Cornelia Butler, and David Platzker (New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 2018), 75. ↩
Piper, “The Real Thing Strange,” 74. ↩
Piper, “The Real Thing Strange,” 89. ↩
The website suggests that “Art professionals will find [Piper’s books] to be equally useful for understanding Piper’s unique contribution to Conceptual art and to art theory more generally.” http://www.adrianpiper.com/rss/ ↩
Julietta Singh, No Archive Will Restore You, 17-18. ↩
Singh, No Archive Will Restore You, 17-18 ↩