Adrian Piper has straddled the worlds of academe and avant-garde art with unexpected ease--a tenured professorship in philosophy at Wellesley College on one hand, a three-decade career of politically charged art-making on the other. For her, these preoccupations are complementary, not contradictory.
So what do racism and racial relationships, the subject of much of her artistic exploration, have to do with Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher who is her other obsession? "Kant was the one who said that in order to have coherent experience and a coherent sense of self, we have to categorize things," Piper, 51, patiently explains. "The good side is that then everything makes sense; the bad news is that we have to impose categories even when they don't fit quite right."
In other words, the presumptions we make about other people, especially those different from ourselves, may be erroneous if not downright prejudicial.
A major area of her art-making is being surveyed at an exhibition that just opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art. "MEDI(t)Ations: Adrian Piper's Videos, Installations, Performances, and Soundworks 1968-1992" is all about not fitting, not feeling comfortable in the mainstream, and about our presumptions and the need to question them. Traveling here from stops in Baltimore and Chicago, the show is the first survey of Piper's media art. Here the sound works--monologues, conversations and pieces that are harder to categorize (in one, Piper says the word "now" at shorter and shorter intervals)--are presented at six listening stations.
But most of the attention will focus on a dozen video pieces, especially since MOCA has gone the distance to show three of these as full installations, the way they were meant to be shown but rarely are. (For example, the Piper retrospective that opens at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York this fall will not present "The Big Four-Oh" and "What It's Like, What It Is #3" in full.)
Political consciousness didn't come automatically to Piper. She grew up in Harlem, in a family she calls "pretty poor," but she ended up going to a privileged, private school on scholarship.
"It's strange to say this--I grew up in Harlem--but I really think I grew up in a very protected environment," she recalls in a telephone interview from Massachusetts. "As I started going out in the world and learning about society and my place in it and how other people saw me and what human interactions were like--it just got curiouser and curiouser."
At 18, she entered the School of Visual Arts, then later City College of New York, where she got a bachelor's degree in philosophy. At the same time, there were a series of odd jobs, continuing exposure to contemporary art and artists (Sol LeWitt is one of her inspirations) and a decision to begin making her own Conceptual works, using audio recording, photography and performance.
It was in 1970, the year she entered City College, that Piper felt compelled to make herself an "art object," as she terms it. It was a reaction to what she saw as the irrelevance of traditional art in the face of such shattering events as the killing of students at Kent State and Jackson State, the U.S. invasion of Cambodia and the rise of the women's movement. For her, "art had become so neutralized and so arcane." She did not intend to share that fate.
The latter years of college proved a rude awakening. That was when, she says, she really began feeling the effects of racism. At that time and during the beginning of her graduate work at Harvard, she devised "The Mythic Being." She transformed herself from a light-skinned black woman to a black man--wearing a large Afro wig and covering her face with big, dark glasses and a mustache. She was interested in reactions to her persona, and she also learned from it. One performance from 1973 recorded on video is being shown at MOCA, but in fact she did these performances over an extended period of time, often going into situations like attending an opera or art opening where she might be the only person of color.
She noticed that others would make room for her on the bus and subway--not only, she says, out of respect for her "maleness" but because they found her threatening. "It was unbelievably liberating, but it was also incredibly painful," she says. "It brought home a taste of what it is like to move through the day and for people to respond to you as though you were a monster."
In a way, this line of inquiry culminates in a 1992 work "What It's Like, What It Is #3." In a stark white room lined with bleachers, a column rises from the center with a monitor mounted on each side. Each monitor shows the head of a black man, a different angle on each screen, who repeats, "I'm not sneaky, I'm not lazy, I'm not noisy. . . ." The image of the man on the screens turns, and then he begins another litany of denials.