Memoir

Signing up to the social contract

Adrian Piper and the art of inclusion

AMONG THE MOST lovely and quirky of the books I own is a hardback compendium called The Book of Human Emotions: An Encyclopedia of Feeling from Anger to Wanderlust (Profile Books) by British cultural historian Tiffany Watt Smith. Published in 2015, the work offers reflections on almost everything we humans hold dearest and weirdest. There’s Apathy, Broodiness, Compassion, Curiosity, Disgust, Envy, feeling like a Fraud, Grief, Homesickness, Joy, Love, a bit Miffed, Pity, Road Rage, Schadenfreude, Technostress, Uncertainty and Wonder. This A–Z ends with the crashing finality of Żal, the melancholy felt at an irretrievable loss – an untranslatable Polish word said to underpin the genius of pianist and composer Frédéric Chopin, who died aged thirty-nine in 1849 after a wild trajectory of exile, turbulent love, social withdrawal, delirium and consumption.

Surprisingly, in this collation of more than 150 of the top emotional hits that really make us human – or feel as though we truly are – there is no entry for Trust. This may mean trust is not as much about feelings as we often presume – and this, in turn, could inspire an encouraging reset in those of us who (still, still) stubbornly incline towards trust in others rather than an attitude of defensive suspicion, or of asset-stripping transaction. Could there be something quite drily rational in a proclivity for trust?

 

A MAJESTIC WORK, The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1–3, by conceptual artist and analytical philosopher Adrian Piper – who addresses questions around otherness, approaches to race and ostracism – points in that direction. I tripped over the artwork, which won its maker the Golden Lion Award for Best Artist at the Venice Biennale in 2015, at Hamburger Bahnhof contemporary art museum while visiting Berlin in early 2017. On arrival, I have to confess that my emotion was remote from Joy. My previous stop on Berlin’s cultural line had been Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum, a place shadowed by the Holocaust and and its profoundly violent ruptures of trust, and one of the most chillingly silent curated spaces on the planet. More prosaically, I’d landed at Hamburger Bahnhof to kill time. The appointment I’d travelled for had dissolved at the last minute and I’d felt a pinch of Irritation kicking in.

I found myself in a stunningly large, echoing chamber that evoked a secular cathedral. The ceilings were high (Hamburger Bahnhof was originally one of Germany’s first major train stations, built in the neoclassical style in the nineteenth century) and the walls were undecorated. Three grey walls stretched to the ceiling, each with a single sentence emblazoned in golden letters ten centimetres tall. They read:

I WILL ALWAYS BE TOO EXPENSIVE TO BUY.

I WILL ALWAYS MEAN WHAT I SAY.

I WILL ALWAYS DO WHAT I SAY I AM GOING TO DO.

In front of each statement stood a reception desk, and behind each reception desk stood a highly personable young German who invited me to sign up to Piper’s The Probable Trust Registry. Signing up involved a decision and discussion about signing – or, indeed, declining to sign – a declaration that would entail my named personal commitment to any or all of the statements above. And here was the deal: should I sign up, I would be entered on a list of fellow signatories held by the sponsor of the exhibition, the Nationalgalerie-Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. At the conclusion of the exhibition at Hamburger Bahnhof, I would be sent a list of the names of all other signatories of each personal declaration. After that, should I wish to contact any other signatory of the declaration in question, I would need to approach the Nationalgalerie, who could only provide that contact information with the explicit written permission of the other signatory. Beyond this consensual sharing of contacts, the information about signatories would remain confidential to the museum and be sealed to the public for a hundred years following the closure of the exhibition.

I signed all three declarations. Not so much from an emotional imperative – the work certainly moved me, but in a specifically cool kind of way. Udo Kittelmann, the director of the Nationalgalerie, captured my own motivation in the slender blue and bilingual pamphlet accompanying the exhibition:

As a probing examination of fundamental political and social factors, it was important for the artist that [The Probable Trust Registry] finds its place in a museum at the heart of the German capital – Germany’s Basic Law is widely regarded as an exemplary constitution. And in this work the artist tries to do something similar to what our constitution intends: to establish a social contract… The Probable Trust Registry solicits the audience’s participation in an exploration of how trust – a value that I fear is in decline – is formed. Considered in a larger context, it raises philosophical as well as quite practical questions concerning democratic processes and personal responsibility. It challenges us to reflect on our actions and the consequences they entail. At a time of growing social divisions, we take a firm stand in support of a liberal and pluralistic society by presenting Adrian Piper’s work.[i]

Kittelmann makes crystal clear the contractual and constitutional dimensions of this placement of Piper’s cultural expression in one of the leading meaning-making institutions in Berlin – a city where urbane gravity tipped most foully last century, making it one of the world’s moral ground zeros in the Nazi era, and then an urban space cruelly divided as an ideological frontline throughout the Cold War. Germany’s Basic Law was introduced in Bonn in 1949 and now, post-reunification, applies to the whole nation. The Basic Law enshrines the principles of democracy, republicanism, social responsibility and federalism, and protects human rights and human dignity as core values. The flavour and structure of this constitution advance the imperative of ensuring Germany will never again become a dictatorship. As Kittelmann indicates, trust is a vital element of that compact. And, as he also intimates, on this front the personal is very much the political.

 

STANDING IN THE presence of these three monolithic walls, that phrase catapulted me back to a canon of second-wave feminist philosophy and practice of the 1960s and 1970s. At that time, the personalities holding the banner emblazoned with the line ‘the personal is the political’ included Carol Hanisch, Shulamith Firestone, Robin Morgan, Audre Lorde and Betty Friedan.

As a generational peer of those prominent women named above – all born in North America before the end of the 1940s – Piper completed her doctorate under John Rawls at Harvard University and also worked with Dieter Henrich at the University of Heidelberg, focusing on the work of Immanuel Kant. She became the first African-American woman to be granted academic tenure as a professor of philosophy in the United States, writing extensively on metaethics and generating a body of art that provokes a reimagining of the self in social and political contexts. In 2002, she established the Adrian Piper Research Archive in Berlin, which has morphed into a foundation that awards interdisciplinary fellowships and publishes The Berlin Journal of Philosophy.

Piper emigrated to Berlin in 2005, and in 2008 her tenured professorship was terminated by Wellesley College because she refused to return to the US at the institution’s request. She believed that she was, at the time, listed as a suspicious traveller on the US Transportation Security Administration’s watch list. Four years later, still living in Berlin in what may be seen as a kind of exile, Piper ‘publicly retired from being black’:

Dear Friends – For my sixty-fourth birthday, I have decided to change my racial and nationality designations. Henceforth, my new racial designation will be neither black nor white but rather 6.25 per cent grey, honouring my 1/18th African heritage. And my new nationality designation will be not African-American but rather Anglo-German American, reflecting my preponderantly English and German ancestry. Please join me in celebrating this exciting new adventure in pointless administrative precision and futile institutional control![ii]

Piper attributes her expulsion from Wellesley to her former identification as an African-American and her advocacy for the rights of African-American individuals and their community within that university – ‘all of which threatened [her colleagues’] own questionable racial affiliations.’

Their retaliation involved shunning, scapegoating, threats, discrimination and ultimately forcing me out of my job and out of the country… But I do not wish I hadn’t learned what I now know about people whose goodwill I had taken for granted. Yes, that discovery was traumatizing. Of course, it is unpleasant to find out you are hated. But it is always healthier to be anchored in reality, no matter how painful, and to learn from it.

And for Piper, part of that reality is ‘I still do believe they want me dead’, and indeed that the US is ‘a free-for-all; a perpetual milling-about of mobs looking for a scapegoat’.[iii]

I didn’t know any of this when I participated in The Probable Trust Registry in the Berlin spring of 2017. That was a year before Piper’s work was celebrated in a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a year before she became the first American to receive Germany’s Käthe Kollwitz Prize, and a year before she published a more fully fleshed, deeper dive into that backstory – her autobiographical Escape to Berlin: A Travel Memoir (APRA Foundation, 2018).

The fuller context adds poignancy to Piper’s own words in The Probable Trust Registry pamphlet, following Kittelmann:

Without [a] foundation of trust, human relationships and actions are shaped by fear, uncertainty and distrust. They are defensive rather than constructive, aggressive rather than co-operative. They cause states, banks, corporations, enterprises, projects and human relationships of all kinds to fail. This is the reality we have created together, by persistently violating [the three principles in The Probable Trust Registry] in pursuit of a deluded idea of self-interest… In order to build trust among ourselves, we must begin right now to train ourselves to become trustworthy.

In ways that continue to surprise me, and might remain private – if only to avoid those milling mobs, which do seem to be on the rise and on the march, tweeting and trolling entirely in their own self-interest – the opportunity to sign up to The Probable Trust Registry has helped me reimagine my self in a social and political context. It has changed how I approach my own professional practice, and how I frame the shades of grey in my own identity and perspective. It’s made me feel simultaneously more secure and more inclined toward risk. I’m hoping that proves contagious. A project I launched last July suggests so.

The setting was TransformArt Gallery in Belgrade, another city heavy with difficult and compelling history – ‘the poor man’s Berlin’, as locals sometimes joke. In #lavieenrose#changeonething, I invited people to spend an evening in conversation. The space was more intimate than Piper’s, more salon than cavernous. We lounged on black velvet cushions, sat cross-legged on handmade ´cilims, played on a giant swing made of ancient wood pulled from a glacial lake, were hypnotised by a video loop of sunflower fields and rivers with bulrushes, listened to Lady Gaga and Louis Armstrong and Grace Jones singing Edith Piaf’s famous French song in another digital loop, drank and ate and smelled the roses. Everyone chose a postcard with a photograph they found beautiful, and wrote down their name and snail-mail address – plus the one thing they’d most like to change in their life. We stuck them carefully on the wall like a mosaic of whispered secrets. At the end of the night, I collected them into a pile. A week later, I sat on a mountain and read this unbound book of astoundingly moving wishes (painful, optimistic, exuberant and vulnerable) entrusted to me, handwrote some suggestions and dropped them in the mailbox.

 

OVERALL, THE ROBUST and reflective reset provoked in me by The Probable Trust Registry has delivered immense affect. Now and then I do Wonder if the other signatories feel similarly. I have received all their names as promised, in emails from the Nationalgalerie – this self-selected cohort of individuals whom Piper considers to be ‘probably trustworthy’. I also have lingering Curiosity about a born-and-bred Berliner I met in Hamburger Bahnhof that day, who seemed to be a fan of the work but did not, as it turned out, sign up – or perhaps he did, but under a false name?

So the little blue book from Berlin isn’t light years from that volume by Watt Smith. Deliberately, they now sit together on my bookshelf. Fuller disclosure: I’ve tucked Piper’s pamphlet into the larger tome, precisely after the entry on Triumph (evoking friezes celebrating military conquests, people from invaded countries being dragged from their hiding places, and a cruel ‘desire to degrade the loser even further’) and before Umpty (‘a feeling of everything being “too-much” and all in the wrong way’).[iv]

Which is exactly where Trust may – and must – come back into its own.

 

REFERENCES

[i] Nationalgalerie Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Adrian Piper – The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1-3, Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, 2017 (exhibition booklet in English and German).

[ii] Piper, Adrian (2012). www.adrianpiper.com.

[iii] Waleczek, Agata (2018). ‘“I Still Do Believe They Want Me Dead”: An Interview with Adrian Piper,’ Frieze.com.

[iv] Watt Smith, Tiffany (2015). The Book of Human Emotions: An Encyclopedia of Feeling from Anger to Wanderlust (pp249–250). London: Profile Books and the Wellcome Collection.

Griffith Review