The following essay is part of the Los Angeles Review of Books special series “No Crisis”: a look at the state of critical thinking and writing — literary interpretation, art history, and cultural studies — in the 21st century. Click here for the full series.
ADRIAN PIPER as critic? It seems an unlikely role to grant, even to as multifaceted a person as she. Artist, philosopher, and yogi, yes. But under which of these labels, if not some other, are we to understand her as also contributing to contemporary critical practice? The critic, Terry Eagleton informs us, began in struggle against the absolutist state.[i] The critic contributed to the creation of a bourgeois public sphere within which it would be possible for the rigorous exchange of reasons to occur. Today, as in the 18th century, the actually existing public sphere is a torrent of abuses, shock tactics, malicious lies, and horrifying executions. Neoliberal globalization is a crazed horse at furious gallop from which the bourgeoisie — who sought to steer it — has long since been thrown. Within the melee, Adrian Piper keeps her own compass, transforming without being transformed. If there is an oeuvre, it must be in the Idea of Adrian Piper herself, who sheds external appearances with the gentle exfoliant of time. One work of hers, currently on display, consists of glass jars containing her hair and toenail clippings; when it is complete, a final jar will be added with the ashes of the body of the artist herself.
“Everything will be taken away.” It is one possible translation of an imperious phrase from an angry king in a parable Jesus tells, punishing a distrustful servant who fails to invest a sum properly. It is also a phrase written in henna on the foreheads of participants in a durational performance by Piper in the summer of 2007 in New York City. Lettered in reverse so as to be readable in mirrors, the participants wore this stigmata/memento mori on their faces until it faded. The same message appears repeatedly on two chalkboards — written forward this time — in Piper’s contribution to this year’s Biennale in Venice. Bart Simpson is nowhere visible, but the piece unmistakably alludes to the miscreant schoolchild made to repeatedly write out a morally improving message on the chalkboard (surely the most Kantian of punishments). You will be changed; you will be dust; everything you have will be taken away. How is one to find any modicum of peace and equanimity — and a sense of personal direction — amongst this inner and outer turmoil?
Conceptual writing has been Piper’s métier since early adolescence (diaristic fragments from that age appear in her later adult work, and an early fascination with psychedelia and Alice in Wonderland survives in paintings on canvas that have recently resurfaced and been exhibited). Piper is certainly a copious writer, with artist’s writings extending to two volumes in print, with more on the way, and another two-volume philosophical treatise on Kant and Hume available for free download from her website. Much of her work — from Cornered to her famous Calling Cards — can be thought of as language-centered. But she is rarely one for games. A very serious and stern letter posted to her website lists all the various combinations of female, black, and African American that she requests other writers not append to her professional identity as philosopher and artist.[ii] The list is astonishing, and a bit irritating. Why bother correcting someone who opts to refer to you as “an artist who happens to be African American and a woman”? “I have earned the right to be called a philosopher and artist,” is Piper’s response. But perhaps in that earning, in that increase of philosophy and creativity, something has been lost. Everything will be taken away.
As befits the tradition of conceptual art she helped found, the sentence is a fundamental building block of her work. But, like Karl Marx before her, the purpose of her sentences is not to interpret the world, but to change it. She does not provide close readings of things so much as she alters the conditions under which any possible future close reading of those things could occur. Her best work takes a shape similar to the archaic sculpture that Rilke wrote of; it is in its very stillness that it moves you. “You must change your life.”[iii] It is the case however that her critical function is not addressed to the absolutist state but to you, here, in the “indexical present,” as she refers to it in her writings. The indexical present is the locus within which the speaking subject manifests within time and language, hence her sometime resistance to be defined as a “performance artist,” with its associated implications of the live presence of the artist. Piper’s live presence in her work is rarely necessary for a piece and never sufficient. She has ceased responding to requests for interviews about her work (she will gladly still conduct a seminar for you on yogic or Kantian philosophy) because she has seen that this calls too much attention to her, her private personality, history, motives, and so on. The indexical present — that which binds “I” to “you” as the presupposition to any kind of reference or signification — must rove much more restlessly through the socius, forward and perhaps even backward in time.
For example, consider her most recent catalytic action — her 2013 piece The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1-3, which won top honors at this year’s Venice Biennale. The piece centers on three sentences that her audience is invited to commit themselves to, by signing a contract with themselves to be deposited in perpetuity at the Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation in Berlin, where the artist currently resides. On her website, she declares that all interpretations of the work, such as this one, should be considered part of the work. On the day of my visit, I asked a woman facilitating the contract signing which vow was the most popular with the general public. She told me it was “I will always be too expensive to buy,” which made sense to me, since of the three it is the one that seems the most self-flattering and least counter to contemporary bourgeois mores. Who wants to think themselves cheap enough to buy, except the very humblest and most grounded among us?
Myself, I wavered between signing the other two — “I will always mean what I say” and “I will always do what I say I am going to do.” All three bind the signer in a manner that befits the Kantian rationality to which Piper is committed. In this worldview there is no moral enforcer higher than the rational self, but the price of rational choice is adherence to a code of self-consistency. There are currents of Stoicism and yogic self-discipline in this worldview as well. The presence of that word “always” binds the speaking subject to itself in a manner that scorns the tempting transformations, intoxications, and metamorphoses of the modern flux. The Probable Trust Registry (whose name subtly ironizes the earnest commitments it nevertheless archives) invites us to posit our entry into an anonymous collective of beings, each freely existing as means to their own ends, each in their own way seeking truthfulness and consistency in all their actions.
My best guess as to the meaning of this work is that it represents the artist’s personal conception of utopia (of course, personal meanings are to be abjured, but I always say what I mean). The Registry is thus both emancipatory and constrictive. Even though Piper is nowhere present in this work of delegated performance, it still conjures up for me an image of the artist as austere, unrelentingly logical sage, descending from her cloud-hidden retreat in Berlin to address us with sincere admonishment, granting us another chance to clean up our act, face up to the truth of our existence, and at last become what only we can choose to be. Is this an artwork for neoliberal times? It seems unkind to saddle Piper with the kind of baggage a critic like Žižek, for example, has weighed upon Zen, the New Age, ethically sourced coffee, and other contemporary self-improvements. For if Žižek is indeed a walking, expectorating caricature of the ego swollen beyond all proportion (something that is not hidden but only made more manifest by the self-mocking, obscene posture of ridicule he frequently retreats to in order to protect against the real dangers of such inflation), Piper is the kind of person who does indeed seem like she could disappear into a jar.
I have overstated Piper the disciplinarian if only to call more attention to what a striking figure she cuts in contemporary culture, with its prudish voyeurism and ethical laxity. How truly unexpected it is that she would win the coveted Golden Lion with so “minimalist” a work. Piper sometimes laments that people miss the humor in her work, which, it is true, is there. But it is also true that she did not come here to be the life of the party. As a young artist in New York City, she once responded to the hip downtown scene at Max’s Kansas City by wandering through the club in long gloves, earplugs, and a blindfold. Of this piece, she wrote:
Max’s was an Art Environment, replete with Art Consciousness and Self-Consciousness about Art Consciousness. To even walk into Max’s was to be absorbed into the collective Art Self-Conscious Consciousness, either as object or as collaborator. I didn’t want to be absorbed as a collaborator, because that would mean having my own consciousness co-opted and modified by that of others: It would mean allowing my consciousness to be influenced by their perceptions of art, and exposing my perceptions of art to their consciousness, and I didn’t want that. I have always had a very strong individualistic streak. My solution was to privatize my own consciousness as much as possible, by depriving it of sensory input from that environment; to isolate it from all tactile, aural, and visual feedback.[iv]
What Piper describes here as her individualism is also her essentialism, in the philosophical sense of that epithet. It is her essence, her “consciousness,” that she seeks to keep apart and unperturbed by her environment (really, our environment, as she cannot find enough ways to disavow it for us). Of course, she understands this particular attempt at becoming-monad to be a failed one — her attempt at withdrawal was read as extroverted aggression, and thus misunderstood;it was reincorporated into the self-consciousness about art consciousness. Distributing roles in her grand strategy to all of us, as she does in the Probable Trust Registry, is one answer to this double bind. As art consciousness disseminates into the rest of the world like a perfume floating in the breeze, its becoming indiscernible provides the occasion for each of us signatories to take up our stations in a subtle, social game.
Piper’s antagonism toward the social even surfaces in a piece such as Funk Lessons, which can be understood as a riposte to Louis Armstrong’s famous claim that if you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know. Defiantly reducing black social dance to a set of instructions any willing and able person can acquire over the course of a single lesson, Piper demystifies “cool” and confounds critics of cultural appropriation. Her conviction that black social dance is a set of procedures like any other is an implicit and explicit critique of the prevailing white habitus of both philosophy and art, which both tend to occupy the position of external and immobile observer of soulful black bodies in motion. Whether constructing herself as a closed plenum ambulating the frenetic disco, or performing as dance instructor — impishly reducing virtuosity to a two-step process of modular and improvised movement — in either case Piper takes aim at a conception of the self as delimited, on the one hand, by its appetites and, on the other, by its cultural identity. Awakening from her dream of going down the rabbit hole, Piper now seeks the proper measure.
Her magnum opus, a defense of Kantian rationalism over Humean empiricism, takes special aim at what she sees as the prevailing Humean conception of human motivation as being grounded in beliefs and desires, and she instead champions a more universal model of the self as outlined in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, which in her view includes but transcends the Humean conception. She thus cuts a striking philosophical profile in a contemporary art discourse so powerfully shaped by our latter-day Humean, Gilles Deleuze. Deleuze never wants to leave the rabbit hole, and many of us would happily join him and Lewis Carroll and the Mad Hatter there for a tea party that never ends. For Piper, neither Deleuzian desiring-production nor the psychoanalytic theory of desire it sought to challenge satisfies the criteria for rationality and motivation that she outlines. This difference is both a problem and a spur to thought for contemporary criticism, which is indebted to psychoanalysis, Marxism, deconstruction, and post-structuralism. If Piper did not come to be the life of the party, she wants nothing to do with your art theory seminar either.
Not only does Piper roll the clocks back to philosophical controversies that were burning in the 18th century, rather than the 20th, a substantive portion of her asceticism can be attributed to her lifelong practice of yoga, bringing her into step with a praxis that has flourished for millennia. Her insistence that her innovations in conceptual art be taken up in relation to her philosophy and yogic practice may suggest, as Uri McMillan has noted in an important new work on her and other contemporary artists, that Piper is a contradictory figure.[v] Certainly, her creative and critical process display an uncompromising independence of thinking, a form of life that the Probable Trust Inventory offers to extend to any who would accept it. Indeed, part of the appeal of the inventory — an appeal it shares with Yoko Ono’s Promise pieces, or Shelley Jackson’s “novel” Skin — is the virtual collectivity it projects into the indefinite future. Something short of the rational telos that is a bit simplistically attributed to Enlightenment figures such as Kant, the probability of trust nonetheless constitutes a future that resists its reduction, under contemporary capitalism, to financial derivatives, or, under a Deleuzian philosophy of immanence, to open-ended becoming.
As I mentioned, Piper has recently announced that she will stop commenting upon her artwork, because the net effect of her writing about it, she fears, has been to exacerbate the tendency for critics to read it autobiographically rather than on its own terms. Two of her most famous works (Calling Cards and Cornered) begin with the statement, “I am black,” but she now asks that her work not be interpreted as that of a “black female artist,” and has officially “retired” from blackness in order to enter into a gray period. What are we to make of her consistent demurrals from both personal and collective identity? Is it a kind of vanishing act, where the elements that once so clearly delineated her work disappear, one by one, until we are left with just her ironical Cheshire grin?
A recent series of photos, also entitled Everything Will Be Taken Away, includes black-and-white snapshot photos of people smiling for the camera, with their eyes (and therefore their identities) scratched out. Philosophy may yet save us from surveillance and our ever-expanding data doubles. Another work places a bright red target around a faint grayscale image of Trayvon Martin, floating above text that asks us to “Imagine what it was like to be me.” There are a number of ways to receive this portrait of Martin, the teenager tragically slain by a Florida vigilante, a human being whose murder went unpunished and ignited the Black Lives Matter movement. This piece hardly seems the work of an artist who has abandoned her critique of racism, even as she rejects the routinized patterns through which race is habitually dealt with in public life. If mortality now seems to preoccupy the artist’s work in a new way, it is nonetheless a facet we might have chosen to see all along. In Stoic tradition (one possible affinity with Deleuze), Piper’s work conjures the specter of impending death not in order to paralyze us with anxiety, but to free us to live more fully in the here and now, in “the indexical present.”
The challenge she models for us, her critical instigation, is to live in this present experimentally, a challenge in unexpected accord with the Spinozist-Deleuzian ethics that Piper, as philosopher, may not personally champion, but that Piper, as artist, opens a new door onto.
[i] Terry Eagleton, The Function of Criticism. (London and New York, Verso: 2006).
[iii] Rilke, Collected Poetry.
[iv] Adrian Piper, Out of Order, Out of Sight: Selected Writings in Meta-Art, 1968-1992, p. 27.
[v] Uri McMillan, Embodied Avatars. NYU Press, 2015.
Tavia Nyong’o is a cultural critic and an Associate Professor in the Department of Performance Studies at New York University. His first book, The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory (Minnesota, 2009), won the Errol Hill Award for best book in African American theatre and performance studies.