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
Yvonne Rainer, 1990
Monika Bernold
Shirley Tate
These conversations are meant to open up spaces for thought between the authors and the ways they relate to the reference text. The editors pose a number of questions, which the authors may address or reject. It is up to the authors to answer, not to answer, or to introduce their own topics.

Conversations Belinda Kazeem / Anna Kowalska

Belinda Kazeem /

In your piece, you talk about an episode from Adrian Piper’s video in which a Black woman says that she, too, can use Piper’s My Calling (Cards) in her everyday life. You then write that her explicit mention of this and the audience’s amusement show that “her idea is a creative appropriation of an originally different concept.” I interpret this scene differently, as the audience affirming and showing amusement at the fact that white people, even in the presence of Black people, don’t get that they are being or acting racist. By which I also mean those people who perceive themselves as liberal and as certainly not racist. In the end, such situations really are absurd.

Anna Kowalska /

Perhaps it was me who “creatively appropriated an originally different concept.” It’s difficult to interpret laughter. Humor has a lot to do with crossing boundaries and breaking taboos, and it’s also highly culturally and historically specific. A joke can forge bonds and laughter can also be the beginning of establishing commonalities that weren’t there to start with—here, I’m thinking about the heterogeneous audience in Piper’s video. It’s also difficult to discuss a piece that not everyone has seen. [1] Aside from that, personally, the absurdity that white people are not even conscious of their racism doesn’t make me feel like laughing...

Conzepte /

Do you think Adrian Piper’s work can be transferred from the context of the United States? Can My Calling (Cards) be applied to the Austrian and / or German context? What potential do local adaptations have and which problems may arise?

Belinda Kazeem /

Just translating the cards is certainly not enough. The political, social and historical contexts are totally different. And if they were to be translated, the context would have to be taken into consideration accordingly. But that’s not what I wanted to talk about.

What was intriguing to me about Piper’s cards is that the moment the card is handed over is also an opportunity to “talk back,” in bell hooks’ terms, without actually talking. On a personal level, which I found important in the text, it’s also about the moment of confrontation. What would such a moment look like and how would it turn out? Would the outcome be different from a conventional verbal confrontation? Would I manage to waste less energy this way? To shake off the effects of the unsolicited contact more quickly?

Anna Kowalska /

My text doesn’t deal with the issue of translating the work into a specific locality—I was interested in transferring Piper’s cards to other identities and in examining how much her work relies on the author’s identity for it to be effective.

But I would like to ask you something, Belinda. Are you sure that using a card like that would really be less energy-consuming for you? Or did you also have other non-verbal forms of communication in mind for such situations?

Belinda Kazeem /

There are different ways of “talking back” and it can certainly also be done without the actual cards. But there is something about your question that made me prick up my ears. Maybe it’s that you are asking if things really are the way that I perceive them to be...

Both of our texts deal with the idea that My Calling (Cards) can be read as a way of talking back. What is interesting, however, are the two different perspectives we have on this form of communication. If you argue that the cards are distributed from a (supposedly) white position of solidarity, and go on to say that the exotic identity of artists often gives the white viewer a sense of relief, then I would like to ask if it is not precisely at this point, through this kind of reading, that white sensitivities become recentralized? And doesn’t this, in turn, tell us a lot about the existing necessity to confront viewers with a multiplicity of identities that are not conceived as static?

Anna Kowalska /

In my text, I write that it is the artist herself who acts from a white position the moment she hands over the card. This is the point where I begin to ask who is entitled to an active position in discussing racist statements or, more precisely, attacks. This performance potentially allows the viewer to feel the amount of energy that such discussions cost many people in their everyday lives. I wouldn’t underestimate this energy either, which is why I asked about “saving energy.”

Art can be a means for transforming energy. This reminds me of another piece by Adrian Piper, called “Cornered.” [2] The artist appears on a video screen situated in the corner and barricaded behind a table turned on its side. She starts speaking about her own identity: “I am black.” Her speaking also has an effect on the viewer, who is forced into confronting her own self-identification as Black or white. The energy is directly transmitted and multiplied through the video recording. The artist no longer needs to experience how the viewers muster the energy to emotionally and intellectually deal with the question of their own identity. She has managed to convey something of her own struggle in such a way that, in keeping with the principle of entropy, there is no turning back.

Conzepte /

Identity, and the question of how useful it is for political thought and action, is a central issue that you both bring up when you refer to Adrian Piper’s My Calling (Cards).

At the end of the 1990s, there were a lot of debates surrounding identity-based and anti-identitary approaches. Politically engaged migrants pointed out that it was always members of the white majority who ended up occupying anti-identitary speaker positions. Encarnación Gutiérrez Rodríguez insisted, for instance, that identity politics were necessary as long as the position of the “migrant woman” still existed and rights and resources continued to be unequally distributed. On the other hand, Hito Steyerl rejected both identity-based and anti-identitary approaches, claiming they were fully ineffective in combating racism, and invoked Hannah Arendt: “In politics: we must appear, see and be seen, hear and be heard, what we show are we, not vice versa. We cannot simply go and show ourselves as we are. What we are, is not important, it is private.[3]

How do you see identity-based and anti-identitary politics today? Belinda’s text develops a clearly identity-based position, while Anna’s text clearly takes an anti-identitary stance. Put provocatively, the question is: is it not a (white) majority privilege to even be able to choose not to position oneself? And vice versa, is it not a (Black) minority privilege to be able to insist on self-positioning?

Anna Kowalska /

I think that hierarchical dualisms—majority versus minority—aren’t all that productive. And why shouldn’t we make use of privileges, anyway? What matters, in the end, is what we do with them.

My text discusses a particular artistic piece and questions the work—not myself—in terms of its potential to hold substance beyond the identitary ascriptions of the actors. In doing this, I give up the minority privilege of insisting on self-positioning because, unfortunately, in most cases this also means casting oneself as a victim of “structures of violence.” In other words, I want to break out of this static dualism. I agree with Hito Steyerl here: discussions on identity don’t get us anywhere.

I found something in Adrian Piper’s work that confirmed what I was thinking: especially through destabilizing her own identity, she is able to gain further access to the consciousness of her conversation partners, which she would not have been able to do without the instrument of art. She doesn’t want the other person be able to turn away relieved and say: “Oh, that was just another one of those activists, feminists, communists...” Instead, she wants that other person to feel the effects: in this place, at this time, here and now.

Belinda Kazeem /

I agree with what you said about privileges, Anna. After all, we can also make constructive use of them. At the same time, I think reducing everything to a question of privileges is an oversimplification. I’m in a “constant movement of thought.” That’s why you’ll find several different approaches in my work. For me, Black is infinitely complex and different, non-essentialist and non-monolithic. Based on my understanding, no one person can say what Black is or isn’t for another person. So, I also don’t feel fixed in the position of a “victim of ‘structures of violence’” even if some may read that into my text. There are many things that grow out of this Black, but I don’t want to see it reduced to only that. And someday, hopefully, I will be able to reach a point beyond this dichotomy of identitary / anti-identitary and find a way of being that cannot be determined from the outside, because it’s never complete and it’s always on the move.

I would read Hito Steyerl’s statement that “deliberating over identities doesn’t get us anywhere,” in a more differentiated way. What do we do with the fact that we are always brought back to the issue of identity again and again? It’s actually more that deliberating over dominant conceptions of identity doesn’t get us anywhere. We have to try to conceive of new ways of understanding identity. That’s the only way we will ever be able to do away with identity as a one-dimensional, constricting and rigid corset.

Conzepte /

What is your relation to Adrian Piper’s work? Her work is extensive and diverse and includes video installations, theoretical texts, drawings, actions and large exhibitions. When did you first discover Piper’s work what did it mean to you at different times?

Anna Kowalska /

What I find interesting about Adrian Piper’s work is how she begins with purely conceptual ideas and then later finds ways to link them to political statements, and how she continues to develop her form of expression. For me, Piper’s elementary ideas from the 1970s are very important and illuminating for her later work. The series The Mythic Being made a particularly great impact on me because she addresses questions of identity in a performative way. Another important thing about Piper’s work, especially her early performances, is that it’s geared towards philosophical questions, which she uses to develop her theoretical basis.

Belinda Kazeem /

Engaging with Adrian Piper is a process for me. Like you said, her work is extensive and diverse and, I would also add, challenging. I saw My Calling (Cards) for the first time in 2005, when I was doing research on the ways that artists, such as Rotimi Fani Kayode, Ike Ude, María Magdalena Campos Pons or Yinka Shonibare, deal with (diasporic) identity. I am drawn to Piper’s work time and again—and here I don’t distinguish between artistic, theoretical, etc. What appeal to me are Piper’s complexity and political directness, and the interconnections between the different layers.

Conzepte /

Regarding the style of your texts: at first, Anna’s text is like a review, but then it turns into a research piece with questions addressed to the reader. Belinda’s text is circular and, in the end, it comes back to the starting point. That is a very cinematic approach. And while Belinda makes an autobiographical protagonist the actor in her text, Anna raises the question of the author and argues for a radical “non-occupying” of this position—in this way, the author turns into a “black box” with no known identity or history.

How did you come to decide on the style of your texts and how do you see your text and its stylistic elements now, with some distance? What kind of audience do you imagine for yourselves, or how would you define “audience” to begin with?

Anna Kowalska /

I developed the idea of seeing the author as a “black box” from the way I view Piper’s work. The artist’s message—that it is not possible to look inside a person, but that it is only possible to communicate through behavior—refers to the concept of behaviorism that was quite popular at the time. From today’s perspective, I wanted to examine how significant Piper’s identity is for the reception of her work, and how people with different identities could take her performance further. But I wanted to avoid writing about my own personal history or experiences. So the form I chose for my text is based on the way I read Piper’s work, but with a guideline I set myself from the outset.

Belinda Kazeem /

I didn’t want to write a review. I had a hard time starting. Which raised the question of why that was. I didn’t want to explain myself anymore—actually, I didn’t want to explain anything at all anymore. But I still wanted to be part of the text and to talk about the effects of these unsolicited attempts at contact. That’s a totally different aim to the one pursued by Anna in her text. First, I wrote to a sister who was a fiction but whose traits were real. The first version of the text was called “A letter to a sista friend,” after a song by Ursula Rucker. [4] It mainly set out to reflect on the reasons for my discomfort and, at the same time, to wrestle this discomfort to the ground through my writing. And once again, I realized how important the process of writing is for me.

With some distance to the text, I would say that the process through which it emerged was very interesting. But I didn’t succeed in not explaining myself. Not even a real-fictional sister could help with that. It has a lot to do with a (or my) identitary positioning, and with the will to engage personally and not write a “neutral” text.

As for the audience: the title “Save Energy!” could possibly also speak to people who might never have begun to read it if it had been called “A letter to a sista friend.” And it probably also has some sort of surprise effect, that sure would be something.

Anna Kowalska /

Looking at Piper’s example, you write that you would also like to design your own “My Calling (Cards)” that correspond more to your location and time. What would your cards look like? Would you change something about the text, would you want to convey another message? Or can you imagine that other, more modern kinds of media might be helpful for you?

Belinda Kazeem /

I would probably make several “(My) Calling Cards” for different occasions. One for the old white man last week at the tram stop who complained to me about how unreliable the trams were and, in the same breath, called out insults to two women walking by, and right after doing this he turned to me to explain: “It’s unbelievable what kind of lowlifes are living in Austria these days, they should all be [...]” You know how the rest of the sentence goes. In this situation, My Calling (Card) #1 would certainly work, although I think opening with “Dear friend” is difficult.

I would definitely also need a card for unsolicited questions about my origin, language, my hair, etc. I would use Piper’s My Calling (Card) #2 without changing it whatsoever.

Then, I would also need a card that deals with the issue of staring. A friend once told me about a Black man who was wearing a T-shirt that said, “Don’t watch me, watch television.” I think that’s genius. Yes, T-shirts with messages. It’s nothing new, but it still works.

Because all the public transportation is now equipped with screens, it would be possible to play the cards, not just one card for one certain situation, but as a general anti-racist, anti-heterosexist positioning, so to speak, in the service of “raising awareness.”

But if I really could imagine anything at all, then the epitome of “saving energy” would be not having to hand out the cards, but being able to push a button in the tram to play all the different “(My) Calling Cards” on the loudspeaker. Or an anti-discrimination task force with a theme song, like in Ghostbusters, when a racist-sexist incident happens, you just push a button on your mobile phone and the “Discrimination Busters” come and take care of the rest.


The conversation with Belinda Kazeem and Anna Kowalska on their texts about Adrian Piper’s work My Calling (Card) #1 and #2 (1986) took place via e-mail and has been shortened in the editing process. Jo Schmeiser asked the questions.

Translation from the German by Erika Doucette & Sam Osborn, copyediting by Nicholas Grindell


1) Adrian Piper, My Calling (Card) #1. Meta-Performance, 1987-1988. Part of the video is available online:

2) Adrian Piper, Cornered, video installation, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago 1988

3) Encarnación Gutiérrez Rodríguez, “Seiltänzerinnen und Jongleurinnen. Antirassistische Öffentlichkeiten von Frauen im Kontext von Diaspora, Exil und Migration,” pp. 9-12, and Hito Steyerl, “Murphy’s Law. Politik statt Ontologie,” in: Gabriele Marth, Jo Schmeiser (eds.), Vor der Information: Antirassistische Öffentlichkeiten. Feministische Perspektiven, Vienna 2000, pp. 18-21, here: p. 20; Hannah Arendt quoted from “Machiavelli” in History of Political Theory Lectures (1955), unpublished, p. 24, Library of Congress, Arendt Papers, Box 39.

4) Ursula Rucker, 2001, featuring Vicki Miles, „Letter To A Sister Friend“