Sunday, February 6, 2011

Take a Drag: Adrian Piper

Adrian Piper would be your typical kind of New York City girl riding the D train during rush hour and browsing through stores on a Saturday night if it weren’t for her choice of ready-to-wear clothes saturated with vinegar, eggs, milk, and cod liver oil. She would be just another face riding the bus, the subway, and the Empire State Building elevator if she didn’t have a fat white bath towel stuffed in her cheeks and flapping from her mouth. She might even be someone you’d like to get to know if she weren’t wearing a painted set of clothing with the sign “Wet Paint” tacked onto her body. So then, who is Adrian Piper?

Mythic Being advertisement, 1972-1975

Starting off her career as an artist and philosopher in her late teens and early twenties, Piper experimented with her identity by exploring xenophobia, which she described as the “fear of the other considered as an alien -- Someone who does not look the way one is used to having people look.” She came up with the concept of her Catalyses series of social interventions in the early 1970s, for which she actually did ride public transportation with a towel stuffed in her mouth, another time with clothing covered in paint, and another time with clothing soaked in foul substances.

Piper earned her PhD from Harvard University for academic work on German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Reflecting on her Catalyses series, Piper acknowledges that the people around her often assumed that she was insane, treated her as such, or completely ignored her. In order to understand the world in which we live, she agrees with Kant, we need to be able to categorize things to accept them. If she was to interfere with social norms, she wanted to remain uncategorizable through shaking people up and performing as a literal catalytic agent, “promoting change in another entity (the viewer).” She felt her work was most successful if it forced the viewer to self-reflect.

Inevitable issues regarding her gender and race prompted Piper to delve deeper into the oppression she felt as a black, female artist. In the mid-1970s, Piper created an alter-ego she named the Mythic Being, who strutted the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts. She donned an afro wig, fake glasses, men’s clothing and a mean macho-masculine persona. She forced herself to exude an aggressive presence in public and even staged a fake mugging of her male friend. Eventually, she created a series of Mythic Being advertisements from 1972 to 1975 that she published in the Village Voice. In her notes on the Mythic Being, Piper writes:

“...the obsessions expressed by the Mythic Being have you, the audience, as an object; and in eliciting unease, discomfort or anger from you, he in turn becomes the object of your obsessions. He is thus both victim and victor, subject and object of the violence he embodies: He is a catalyst for the violences of our world -- an alien presence in the art world, but a familiar presence in the rest of the world.”

Piper’s reasoning behind her Catalyses series seems a bit convoluted, but her primary focuses, enacting social change and self-reflection, are actually accomplished through these inane acts. I think her courage and wit deserve respect if not praise. She's still an active artist and scholar, so you can see what she's up to at

The Mythic Being

Catalysis III, 1970

Catalysis IV, 1970

Further reading:

Catalysis: An Interview with Adrian Piper, Lucy Lippard and Adrian Piper

Government Support for Unconventional Works of Art, Adrian Piper

Out of Order, Out of Sight Vol. 1 & 2, Adrian Piper (quotes taken from Volume 2)

Passing for White, Passing for Black, Adrian Piper

Philip Morris’s Artworld Fix, Adrian Piper

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