Adrian Piper has been producing and showing her Conceptual art since the late 1960s, but her exhibition late last year at the Emi Fontana Gallery in Milan was the first opportunity to see it in Italy. We talked just before the opening of her show. The exhibition at Emi Fontana is comprised of a series of photographs of friends as well as photographs of the artist's parents, who both succumbed to smoking-related ailments.
FS: This project with Emi Fontana, how long has it been in the works?
AP: I met Emi through John around 1992 and we wanted to do something a while ago but in that period dealing with my mom and then her death and the estate, I pretty much put everything on hold. So we postponed it a couple of times, so it's been five years but, here we are.
FS: How long have you been working on these photographs?
AP: I actually started taking these photographs in 1992 and really not with the idea of making a piece. But, my friends were really important to me during this period. And I just... I should go back a bit, my mom died in '94 and I took care of her for two years before she died, and she died of emphysema... she was very radically anti-smoking and my father also died of smoking related diseases. And when she was dying, she kept urging me to make art out of it because she was in so much pain and she didn't want for it to be for nothing. So my role was basically to give her death meaning... so I started taking all of these photographs and now I have thousands of photographs of her and somehow in the process of doing this, there was a reason for it and I was very motivated to do it but the result of it was that I didn't like when I was with friends of mine, who were basically there to give me support, I didn't like having to do the same thing, kind of objectifying them and thinking about them as objects, so all of the photographs... are about that. So I just... in a way it was kind of a spontaneous affirmation of my friendship with these people... you know we would just be together at some conference of something and kind of just wing it and do whatever) and of course some of them are really kind of silly... but that's part of it, so I just kept taking them, every time I would be away from Mom, when I was nursing her, I was also teaching and giving talks to make money so every time I would be away, I would take my camera with me and I would take these pictures. These people were there for me and kept me grounded in some other reality beside that which I was dealing with.
FS: "Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-1975" (Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, October 1995) caused a stir in part due to its perhaps ironic affiliation with Philip Morris as a sponsor (considering the loaded leftist-based political imagery on display), and your subsequent withdrawal from the show. When were you made aware of Philip Morris' sponsorship of the exhibition?
AP: Not until pretty late, there was a period when I was taking care of my mother and dealing with her estate afterward and I was basically not there. It was not until Hans Haacke faxed me some of the material and I just lost it so I faxed the head of the museum, saying "get me out of here" and actually they were really very good about it. They kind of got it, as to why it was important for me to pull out, but that would have been one to two months after the show opened and from what I understand from Hans is that they were not aware of the Philip Morris sponsorship until the opening of the show.
FS: Haacke and yourself have been outspoken in the discussion about corporate use of the arts for their own public-relations purposes. Tell me, how do you think corporations actually influence the production of visual art? Especially among younger artists?
AP: I think it's very, very scary. I think I finally realized why Philip Morris is so much behind Jesse Helms, because Helms is trying to get rid of the National Endowment for the Arts and of course without the NEA there would be basically no government funding. So everyone would have to go to Philip Morris, or something else like Philip Morris and the thing is, Philip Morris is one of the few corporations that is clearly and visibly and simply evil. It's not a complex moral issue here, it really is just killing people, and if it were not in control of all this art funding it would be such an easy target, but course, younger artists are right to think that they are not going to be able to get funding if they don't take advantage of these funds. Things are already difficult enough as it is, and of course we have postmodernist doubt but, then it makes things so much harder for people to see clearly when their self interest is at stake. I've actually heard really good, concerned, left-thinking friends of mine say, "Well, they haven't really proved a connection between smoking and cancer." So it's scary because the corporations have so much power and they really are able to silence younger artists from protesting in effective ways and also they cloud people's moral perceptions, which I think is very scary. So I think they are the devil.
FS: It seems like, when I think of your work, there's a conceptual framework that goes beyond merely formal issues. It seems to me that among a lot of younger artists in this decade, so far, I think there's a strong impulse for conceptualism but it seems much more concerned with formal issues and less concerned with the everyday, and the political issues, which I find almost ironic at this time where these issues are being discussed in so many formats all the time... the Internet, pop culture, etc.
AP: Well, it's a good question, let me think about that for a minute. Off the top of my head, I really think there is a connection between conceptual art and political content. I mean, it's the quality of the concept that makes the art exciting. So you have to deal with big issues and obviously the biggest issues are political issues.
It seems to me now that it's harder for younger people, the issues are more complicated, harder to define, harder to grasp, harder to isolate. Although there is attention to theory and analysis in the system now, I think for artists you're uncool if you talk about values, because that's not postmodern detachment. And the only people who can afford to be cool in that way are people who have nothing at stake politically. They can laugh everything away because it doesn't affect them. Artists who do have a lot at stake politically do tend to deal with political issues, but not always in a conceptualist format. I think David Hammons does and Howardena Pindell does. And I think that for very bad reasons conceptual art has been associated historically with being a white male. So there's a whole issue about what sorts of people can do it, can be successful at it, can make a living at it.
You know this is kind of an interesting period for conceptual art as well, because there's a lot more attention historically, and there's a certain party line mostly promoted by Joseph Kosuth and his friends which is now coming very much into question and I think the more that happens, the more it's going to open it up and there will be more political content coming in, at least I hope so.
FS: How do you think the art world has changed since when you were working 10 or 15 years ago? Do you see progress?
AP: Now, as opposed to around 1982, here's what I remember about 1982. Rappers Delight was about three years old, The Message was about a year old, there was a lot of attention in the art world to graffiti art and a fair amount of attention to hip-hop dance in the dance community and of course a lot of attention in the music industry and the only strand of that that has seriously survived is rap music. Graffiti was in and out the door of the art world in about two seasons. So that's not my idea of progress. I guess I see things looking a little bit better right now, because on the one hand, there are at least a handful of black artists who are starting to do stuff and get ahead. On the other hand, and I make a big fuss of this in the introduction to my books from MIT [Out of Order, Out of Sight: Selected Writings in Art Criticsm, Vol. I and II], is the fact that there are quite a few generations of black artists who are fantastic but have been treated as if they're invisible because of discrimination. I was lucky, I got my foot in the door and just stayed there. What angers me about this is that the art world is rightly ashamed of itself, and does not want to be reminded of its years of simply making these people invisible. But for my money, the new generation of black artists who are being successful is only a very, very small part of the story. It's going to take a whole lot more before I start getting happy.
FS: It's not time yet?
AP: It's just not time, there's a whole lot of work that needs to be done about responsibility and owning the past and all of that stuff. In general, I think American society is not ready to deal with this, but you would think, hope, that maybe in the art world, it could be done, and it's not happening yet, and I'm getting very impatient.
FS: With that in mind, what did you think about the "Black Male" exhibition at the Whitney Museum in 1995?
AP: I thought it was a really important show. I don't know enough about curatorial practice to know what could have been done to frame Thelma Golden's intentions in that show better than it was framed. Without the framing, it's obviously subject to a lot of misinterpretation. It's the kind of misinterpretation that I worry about in my work all the time because you know I'm dealing with a lot of racist imagery and I'm dealing with xenophobic images and texts, so I have to think all the time about whether I'm going to have some Klansman walk in and say, "Hey! That's right up my alley." I'm not sure what the strategy should be there. One of the pieces that I had in that show was the environment Four Intruders Plus Alarm Systems (1980), you know, I remember the first time I showed that, in the '80s, people were not able to distance themselves from the monologues and they kind of didn't get it, that this was a satirical part of the piece. People still have a problem with it, and every time someone has a problem with it and tells me they have a problem, that's something that I learn about the need to be even more up front about my intentions. For me it's a learning process, Thelma only had one shot. All in all, I think it was a very important show. I thought it caused a lot of important dialogue to happen. And I think she did a good job, I just don't know what she could have done to prevent a lot of the misunderstanding, I just don't know.
One of the nice things that came out of "Black Male" was the fact that it got people into the museum everyday from all over the place, old people, little kids, and that was great to me... and also it brought up some things within a "black art public" that kind of cut generations... and it created a dialogue between these generations.
FS: How does audience play a part in your work?
In a certain sense, it always does, and it always has because there's no reason for me to ever put the work out in the world unless I want someone else to receive it, so in a way, I'm always thinking about audience. There was a period before I got rehabilitated in the 1980s when I basically was working for kind of an ideal audience, people who understood exactly what I was doing and really appreciated it. And now that I'm kind of having my 15 minutes and I'm finding out... what I can expect from the real audience. It is a real education (laughs). But I guess I still feel the audience is important. I still work for the person who will receive my work and give it their full attention and monitor their own responses and be self-aware and all that good stuff. But I am starting to lose hope that I'm going to find very many of those people alive right now. And so I'm thinking well, in 200 hundred years or 500 years, if we don't all blow ourselves up, when people have some distance from this stuff, it'll be a lot easier to see the things that I'm trying to communicate in my work because I feel as though I try to be as simple and clear as humanly possible. Like totally clear, and it's just amazing how people's internal wiring can be so mashed up that they just go off in some weird direction, so I'm still thinking about the audience but ... I think about the real audience when I give talks and I show these images and I get feedback from the audience, and that's really interesting, I learn a huge amount by doing that. But when I actually make work, it's harder.
FS: Are you still showing at John Weber in New York?
AP: I decided to go independent. I still show with Paula Cooper in New York but the arrangement is non-exclusive, and I'm also showing with a bunch of other people, Thomas Erben (New York), Dan Bernier (Los Angeles), and uh... actually there's a lot going on. Curators really like dealing with my work. So, there are a few things of that sort. But, John, I really owe him everything. He took a chance on my work when I was persona non grata and I really think I'll always be indebted to him, but for now, I really need to have more control over my work.
FS: Do you think that's the best thing to do right now?
AP: I really think it was the right decision for me. And I talked with Sol LeWitt about this a lot, he's been independent for a long time, and what I now realize as the result of having done this, is that given the complexities of my particular situation, there is really no one gallery that could adequately represent me. I really need to have people who work only for me and dealing with my stuff. And it's working out very well.
FRANKLIN SIRMANS is U.S. editor of Flash Art magazine.