Ilse Aichinger, 1948
Lilly Axster
Katherine Klinger
Hannah Arendt, 1950
Hannah Fröhlich
Nicola Lauré al-Samarai
Simone de Beauvoir, 1949
Dagmar Fink
Tom Holert
Billie Holiday, 1939
Jamika Ajalon
Rúbia Salgado
Adrian Piper, 1983
Belinda Kazeem
Anna Kowalska
Long version
Short version
Reference text Piper
Yvonne Rainer, 1990
Monika Bernold
Shirley Tate
Reflections on a performance of the third kind
Anna Kowalska, 2011

Following a racist or sexist act or remark, a small card is handed over, without a word. Though Adrian Piper explains her decision to use this form of communication in many different ways, the emphasis is on her identity as an African-American woman who is perceived by those around her as white. American literature offers many descriptions of (light-skinned) black women who can “pass for white.” Nevertheless, even in literature, it is clear that—at least as long as society is divided along racial lines—this is not the basis for a single identity, but for oscillating between the two.

Piper is generally perceived as an artist whose work engages strongly with her own identity. Even in her early performances, she was shifting between various identities, and the same is true of her philosophy and her art. In her The Mythic Being series, for example, she adopted a male identity. She went into the street “in drag,” dressed as a man, repeatedly reciting a passage from her journal that she had learned by heart. The aim of this piece, as she has said in an interview, was to find out how society would react to someone with precisely her history but with a completely different outward appearance.

The Calling Cards made around 15 years later were intended as a “guerrilla performance” for private use: the first card was to be handed over at cocktail parties and receptions, the second in places like discotheques. [1] However much Piper wanted her cards to achieve more than is possible by directly confronting someone about their racist or sexist behavior (“which immediately ruins any party”), this new form of communication was also a failure, as she herself reports. She wanted to deliver her message discreetly so as not to spoil the overall mood or impose her concerns on the company at large. The individuals in question were not publicly exposed, but they still avoided her and certainly did not engage her in conversation.

Piper organized two public discussions with differently composed audiences, allowing her to comment on her performance. Footage of these events was used to make the video My Calling (Card) #1. Meta-Performance. [2] Anyone who watches this video is taking part in a third performance.

The Calling Cards were not only personally distributed by the artist, but were also left out for people to take with them as a way, the artist has said, of involving others in the fight against racism. Who could use these cards? For a black person, both the content of the first card and finding an opportunity to hand one over would pose a problem. This person could hardly claim to have witnessed a racist remark without being identified. Nonetheless, a member of the predominantly black audience at the Studio Museum in Harlem says she as a black woman could use such a card, since racist comments are often enough made in her presence, allegedly not aimed at her directly. However, the fact that this needs to be specifically pointed out, as well as the ensuing amusement in the audience, shows that her idea is a creative adaptation of an originally different concept.

In this text, I deal with the idea that My Calling (Card) #1 should and can be used above all by people who identify themselves as white or who are identified as white by others. Indeed, the card itself is already an appeal to question one’s own WHITE identity. The American anti-racism movement has a tradition of white people claiming to be black. In the 1960s, the Chicago Surrealist Group proclaimed the idea of “abolishing whiteness.” According to this model, being white could be done away with if EVERYONE declared themselves black. Once everyone becomes “black,” no one will be stigmatized as such any more. This idea is certainly very “American.” Questioning one’s own identity with regard to black ancestors has a long history in the United States. It is based on the “one-drop rule,” the notion that even the most distant family connection to a black person “blackens” a person’s “white” blood. [3]

I am white. I am black. It is not a matter of leveling these two statements, that is not the aim of the experiment. It is a matter of adopting a different identity in order to find out how society reacts. Adrian Piper does just that: though she outs herself in her work as black, she does so from a position that is white, at least to outsiders, from a position of solidarity that cannot tolerate the ongoing pervasiveness and acceptability of racism. She speaks of her dismay, her sense of involvement, and her need to find a form in which to express herself in such situations, but these are her inner motives. For an outsider, she is a white woman who suddenly confronts the other person with her “secret identity.” Her outer appearance remains the same, but she takes on a different history.

Don’t artworks that confront the audience with an (in many ways) exotic-artist identity often elicit a feeling of relief from their audience—relief that the whole thing has little to do with the audience members themselves?

Isn’t one reason for seeking out and examining the artist’s identity that it allows his / her actions to be explained and also classified, so that the status quo is not shaken up? Isn’t the interest in personal “history” so strong because it allows the position in question to be particularized and isolated?

Édouard Glissant, the Francophone writer and theorist of creolization, appeals in his writings for “the right to opacity.” “It is not necessary for me to ‘understand’ the other,” he writes, “that is to say reduce him to my own model of transparency, in order to live with this other or to build something with him.” [4]

At the end of the interview in the video The Mythic Being, [5] Piper says that an artist is just as much a product of society as everyone else. In this talk, recorded in 1988 at the Studio Museum, she also says it is not possible to look into the hearts of other people. One can only communicate via behavior, she says. We might also apply this behaviorist approach [6] to Piper herself, looking only at what she does and how she does it. The artist would then be a black box whose identity and inner motives would remain unknown to us.

Therefore, Piper says one can only communicate via behavior. Racism cannot be eliminated by “being nice” to one another, she admits, but that would be a good start. For her it is important to be in the here and now, a form of attentiveness that permits new insights to be gained through experience. Instead of “being nice,” one might also say “being attentive,” attentive towards one another, but also towards oneself.


Anna Kowalska lives as a writer in Berlin. She translated Artur Żmijewski’s book Drżące ciała (Trembling Bodies) into German as Körper in Aufruhr (2011).

Edited by Jo Schmeiser

Translated from the German by Nicholas Grindell, copyedited by Harold Otto

This text was published on October 10, 2011, in the international art magazine springerin.


1) In this text, I only deal with My Calling (Card) #1 because the material discussed here only mentions this part of the work.

2) My Calling (Card) #1. Meta-Performance (1987–1988, 00:58:00)

3) Adrian Piper, “Passing for White, Passing for Black.” Originally commissioned by Harper’s Magazine. First published in: Transitions 58, 1992, and reprinted in: Adrian Piper, Out of Order, Out of Sight, Volume I: Selected Essays in Meta-Art 1968-1992, Cambridge / Mass. 1996.

4) In: Édouard Glissant, Introduction à une poetique du Divers, Paris 1995 (this passage translated from the German edition).

5) The Mythic Being, video (1973, 00:08:00)

6) Behaviorism views the individual as a black box whose behavior can only be decoded on the basis of its interaction with its surroundings.