Nicola Lauré al-Samarai
Reference text Piper
|Reflections on a performance of the third kind
Anna Kowalska, 2012
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.  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.  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. 
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.” 
At the end of the interview in the video The Mythic Being,  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  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.
So 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.
Such attentiveness might also be brought to bear on the many contradictions and conflicts highlighted by Piper’s work. An interesting recent piece in this context is to be found on the Black Visual Archive website,  where Meg Onli discusses Piper’s “Passing for White, Passing for Black.”  In this text, Piper describes the complex issue of “passing” and rejects this option for herself while not clearly identifying herself as belonging to the black community. Using literary examples and her own history, she describes how difficult it is to escape the dynamic of racial attribution—a dynamic that permits only silent defection to the white camp or an existence that conforms to the norm within a predefined framework as a black person.
In Piper’s work, Onli sees the counter-model of a subject who mediates between estranged communities rather than locking itself into alienation.
Asked in an interview whether or not she integrates her separate “identities” as an artist, philosopher, and yogini, Piper answered that these elements are all facets of her personality: “There are no discrete selves to separate or integrate. My variety of professional activities are all different, equally essential expressions of one self.”  This answer could also be understood as a reference to the possibility of existing with a multiplicity of identities and not just oscillating between them.
The artist passes this “splitting of identity” on to her audience, whose members can and should think about whether they identify themselves as white or black and why, discovering in the process how far they have already interiorized racism. It is not Piper’s identity that is “split” or unclear, but the notions and concepts it must confront.
When mainstream society calls on “minorities” to participate in the discourse on identity, this can become a subtle form of racist violence. Those who are supposedly “different” are caught up in endless “occupational therapy” and held at arm’s length from the center of society. For all the political importance of identity discourses for the groups in question, it is regrettable that they should in themselves create a dynamic of exclusion.
Instead of this, Piper keeps her audience occupied. Her Calling Cards were born out of the pain that resulted from repeated experiences of—mostly verbal—racist violence. This pain made it impossible for her to go on casually and cheerfully informing those around her of their racism. Piper has said on several occasions that not only the experience of violence itself is painful, but also the act of resisting it.
Can a situation of racist violence be productively resolved by using a “Calling Card”? Probably not. This is precisely where the card’s power ends. And this is also the disappointment faced by the artist: rather than serving as a catalyst for communication, the card breaks it off.
In a later work, Piper pursues the method of personal confrontation by other means. This time it is a video installation entitled Cornered,  made a few years after My Calling (Card) #1 and #2. The artist is seen on a screen that is placed in a corner and barricaded behind an overturned table. She starts talking about her own identity: “I am black.” But her speech also touches the viewer, who is obliged to address her own self-identification as black or white. The artist no longer needs to be present in person when the viewer questions herself emotionally and intellectually concerning her own identity. She has managed to pass on something of her own analysis and her own struggle in such a way that—in accordance with the principle of entropy—there is no returning to the initial state of unknowing.
Anna Kowalska lives as a writer in Paris. She translated Artur Żmijewski’s book Drżące ciała (Trembling Bodies) into German as Körper in Aufruhr (2011).
Edited by Sabine Rohlf & Jo Schmeiser
Translated from the German by Nicholas Grindell, copyedited by Harold Otto
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) Since almost all of the texts referred to here, even the most recent, use the concept of “race,” I consider it important to point out that the existence of different “races” of human beings was (only!) scientifically disproved in the 1990s, thanks to genetic research: the genetic differences between individuals—whatever their origins—are greater than the differences between members of supposedly different “races.” This fact still possesses novelty value, as shown, for example, by Deborah Orr’s article “The myth of ‘race’ was invented by racism, and racism keeps it growing,” in: The Guardian, February 17, 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/comm...
4) 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.
5) In: Édouard Glissant, Introduction à une poetique du Divers, Paris 1995 (this passage translated from the German edition).
6) The Mythic Being, video (1973, 00:08:00)
7) Behaviorism views the individual as a black box whose behavior can only be decoded on the basis of its interaction with its surroundings.
8) This site documents and discusses cultural representation of blackness. It features essays, interviews, reviews, and videos. It is written by Meg Onli and edited by Gracen Brilmyer.
9) Meg Onli, “Passing, Passing,” http://blackvisualarchive.com/...
10) Andrew Blackley, “On Behavior,” http://blackvisualarchive.com/...
11) Adrian Piper, Cornered, video installation, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago 1988