Let's try this again: I posted this video of Adrian Piper's 1988 installation Cornered in Morning News this morning, but that's just burying it.
The video's long; it's 17 minutes. Yeah, I still recommend you watch it. Do it and then we'll talk.
So the context is that this piece is currently installed—borrowed from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago—at Seattle Art Museum, as part of Elles: SAM, through January 13. (So if you didn't actually watch it just now, you totally have time to make your first viewing of it in person, which is how it's best done anyway.) It's, appropriately enough, in the Gwendolyn Knight & Jacob Lawrence Gallery, the only space at the museum that feels like POC space, where whiteness and non-whiteness are always acknowledged and regularly put into conversation.
Cornered is the only thing in the Lawrence Gallery. You can sort of see in the start of the video what it is: a pyramid of chairs, some lit and some in shadow, where you can sit and watch the TV in front of you, set behind an overturned table with its legs facing you as if the speaker needs protection though she speaks (laboriously) calmly, only breaking occasionally, about the fact that you're probably black. She deliberately assumes a white audience, and she treats the audience as if it were receiving this news for the first time about blackness and the mixed bloodlines of American history.
Then she asks, "What are you going to do about it?" Are you going to start telling people you're black like she does?
- This is Piper, too, in a performance from the '70s as "Mythic Being." That was her name for dressing up and acting like a badass mofo (her words: a "third world, working class, overtly hostile male") to see how people responded.
Actually, ultimately, this work of art is like a phone bank call. Piper asks specifically that you not relegate the experience to the realm of "interesting art experiences that bear no relation to your personal life." She continues, "It may not be penetrating as you're watching this that you do really have some serious choices to make." And that now that you know what she's just told you, anything you do is a choice, even doing nothing.
So Cornered is also an initiation rite, which is why it ends with these words flashed on the screen: "WELCOME TO THE STRUGGLE." In this context, they're eerie, because they're intended to make the point that you, this audience she's addressing, didn't volunteer—you've been drafted. Which was also part of the point. (Imagine a draft for armies of social change. Grrl Army, have you considered drafting?)
Another event this week posing the same questions is the first-ever Arts & Social Change Symposium at Seattle Center. I'm going to be taking part in a panel at 3:30 on Friday in the Rainier Room. It's not the best time, but there's a whole great schedule of talks and presentations, and maybe you can make it to some part of the two days of events. Piper's last words are "What are you going to do?" What are we going to do?