Photo: Berlin, 2005, from Wikipedia
Adrian Piper (b. 1948 in Bronx) is a conceptual artist, author, and philosopher. Her work addresses gender identity, ostracism, otherness, racial "passing," and racism. Although I didn’t find sites describing her explicitly as a performance artist (I’m not sure why, perhaps it’s due to her own preference), I would characterize much of her work loosely as “performance art” for lack of a better term. Nevertheless, I feel she is a change agent and an awareness seeker.
I would also argue that not only is Piper unorthodox and provocative in her artistic expression, but back in the 70s when she focused more exclusively on a kind of performance art, she even neglected to follow the unspoken rules of the performance art community. Her “performances” were not announced (as this would produce an audience vs. performer separation that she was against) and she didn’t perform within actual galleries or museums either. She felt these structures where infiltrated by political, social, psychological, and economic influence. Instead, she performed in public places and spaces. Here, viewers were put into direction confrontation with Piper, and not knowing she was an artist, they had immediate reactions towards her—an experience intentionally sought after by Piper.
For example, in Piper’s Catalysis series from 1972-73, she staged a number of public performances on the subway and city streets that forced a confrontation between viewers and the artist’s body in various abject states. In Catalysis III (1970), she walked through the streets of Manhattan with the inscription “wet paint” written on a white sweater. For Catalysis IV (1971), she stuffed a large piece of cloth into her mouth, allowing one end to hang down in front of herself while riding on the bus, subway, and Empire State Building elevator. In the performance series The Mythic Being (1973–1975), Piper created an alter ego in the form of a black man wearing an afro, a moustache, and work clothes. Piper wished to present herself as an object witnessed by the viewing public’s confusion, disgust, and fear at the scene of ambiguity, ‘racial’ and otherwise.
Piper describes the “indexical present” as a “directed attentional focus on the immediate here and now; basically mindfulness that is pointed to a particular moment, a moment of contact.” (Art21) She wrote, “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. It exists only as a catalytic agent between myself and the viewer.” (Generali Foundation)
Being a very light-skinned African American and by her own admission, having facial features that are less identifiable as black, she could often “pass” as white. Thus, in Piper’s 1986-1990 Calling Card performances, she would hand a card to people she encountered in everyday life who made racist comments in front of her at dinners and cocktail parties. Later, she would write about the extreme discomfort she experienced in various other ways of handling the recognition/non-recognition of her blackness.
One of my strongest reactions to Adrian Piper is a feeling that this woman, this artist, this African American artist is so deeply layered, so rich and complex, so thoughtful and intentional about her creations and actions that it would take a lifetime or more to peel back those layers and give them all the attention and consideration they deserve.
Lastly, an important enough note to mention: Although I’m not discussing her prestigious academic career here—Piper taught at Wellesley, Harvard, Stanford, Georgetown, and Univ. of CA, San Diego—in 1991, she became the first female African American philosophy professor to receive academic tenure in the United States. A monumental achievement in and of itself.
Adrian Piper is African American artist #7 of 25 in my project “Have You Heard Of…?”
“Catalysis III” 1970
From Catalysis series from 1972-73
“Catalysis IV” 1971
From Catalysis series from 1972-73
“The Mythic Being” 1975
“Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features” 1981
“Vanilla Nightmares #9” 1986
sheet 22 × 13.75 × inches
charcoal, oil crayon on newspaper
A group black figures superimposed surrounding a white man under the headling “Affirmative Action Upheld by High Court as a Remedy for Pas Job Discrimination” New York Times July 3, 1986
“My Calling (Card) #1” 1986
Calling Card performances, 1986-1990