“Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965-2016,” which was first shown at the Museum of Modern Art from March-July 2018, is an expansive and exhaustive retrospective of the artist and philosopher’s prolific body of work. Piper, who now lives in Berlin, was the first tenured African American woman professor in philosophy, and an intense attention to detail and masterful analysis is reflected in her work. The exhibition is mounted chronologically, and as such, you see Piper interrogate a variety of subjects over the course of her life: psychedelia and minimalism, time and space, meditations on philosophy, race, gender and abject embodiment, of social perceptions, of the death of both systems and people. Equally impressive is Piper’s command of media. Her works range from drawings and paintings, to sculpture, to photographs and essays, to performance. What unites her vast and masterful body of work is her attention to detail and a rigorous approach to the concepts she interrogates—and best of all, she has a sense of humor.
Piper’s works have been written about extensively, especially those that deal with race, which are numerous and particularly topical in our current climate. Though this is a powerful lens through which to consider her work, I’ve been thinking about the retrospective through two different lenses, which I have personally found particularly useful. (A bit of disclosure from my end: my day job is in politics, organizing, and movement work; and while race and identity at large are of course omnipresent questions in these fields, I find the manner in which they are invoked to all too often be reductive and reifying of the problems which these analytical and emotive tools are attempting to name and solve. I spend a lot of my own time ruminating on how to meaningfully transform systems.)
I think that is why Piper’s relentless confrontation and engagement with the viewers of her work struck me. This was apparent to me from the first piece I encountered, Vote/Emote (1990). To the left of the entrance of the exhibition proper were four semi-private voting booths, each with an illuminated image of black American and South African people staring confrontationally at the viewer from behind a framed window. In each of the booths sat a binder filled with pages, each with a short prompt inviting the viewer to list fears, and pens with which to write an answer.
I loved this work and the curation, because it set the tone for the entirety of the show. It emphasized that one was to relate to Piper’s work conceptually and emotionally, and immediately moved the body of Piper’s work into meta territory. Many of the anxieties viewers expressed were familiar to me: gentrification, racism, privilege, capitalism, the future, Facebook.
I also encountered fears I’ve never really considered, especially in regard to the ways the question was posed: that a child might disappoint you. Thus this work very literally brought its social commentary on voting into the realm of the social by having people write their fears and make them visible to the other viewers of the work.
I left with the affirmation of an observation from my own work, and for me, the work raised the question: What does it tell us about voting that even when people are clearly prompted to reflect on the racialized dimensions of the institution, they nonetheless bring up irrelevant topics? “Vote/emote” as title takes on an especially sinister, and, frankly, incredibly cutting meaning given the current political climate, something pundits may attempt to characterize as new but which Piper ensures to remind you has long been there.
This interrogation of systems that order our lives is present throughout the show, and this brings me to the second lens through which I have been viewing Piper’s work, which is through understanding boycott as a form of art. As Tori Abernathy describes it,
“One of the primary ways to distinguish the boycott from the strike is the boycott’s emphasis on embarrassment and the use of social pressure. Often, a boycott is a tactic employed when there is no possibility to strike in the traditional sense, or when a strike would otherwise be ineffective. The boycott makes use of collective power in a kind of performative social campaign, often with media attention playing a crucial role, to call attention to the scorned subject.”
Given that Piper is very good at using media attention to draw attention to scorned subjects, I think it’s appropriate to attempt to make sense of some of her work as boycott. Piper herself has famously refused to enter the United States since 2008, when she was listed as a “Suspicious Traveler” on the U.S. Transportation Security Administration Watch List, an arguable boycott of the United States and its racist regulatory oversights for the sake of national “safety”. So committed to the boycott was Piper that she even refused to attend the opening of her own show, a truly monumental act given that having an entire floor of MoMA dedicated to one’s work is about the highest achievement an artist can have. While Piper’s refusal to attend the opening of her show does not constitute a boycott per se, I can’t help but see this refusal to engage with the US at large as a means to “call attention to the scorned subject”.
As such, I think a fair amount of Piper’s oeuvre can be made sense of as a boycott of the regulatory systems derived from what is ultimately a slave-dependent settler colonial nation. What comes to mind in particular is the work in which Piper announces her retirement from blackness. Thwarted Projects, Dashed Hopes, A Moment of Embarrassment, 2012, which consists of a darkened photo of a smiling Piper with overlaid text, reads:
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% greta, honoring my 1/18th African heritage. And my new nationality designation will not be African American but rather Anglo-German American, reflecting my preponderantly English and German ancestry. Please join me in celebrating this exciting new adventure in pointless administrative precision and futile institutional control!”
Though she can renounce and boycott through art, Piper, of course, is not able to fully transcend these categories and the violence they inflict—that’s precisely why she left the United States. But her show left me at a crossroads: These things are socially constructed. They are real. The institutions are crumbling. What now? Do we continue to work within them to uphold them? Or do we work within them to ultimately expose them?