Adrian Piper

Adrian Piper, Catalysis III, 1970, performance documentation, silver gelatine print, 40.6 x 40.6 cm, © Generali Foundation Wien and Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation (APRAF) Berlin, photo: Rosemary Mayer (published in: Sigrid Gareis, Georg Schöllhammer, and Peter Weibel (eds.), Moments. Eine Geschichte der Performance in 10 Akten, ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, Walther König, Köln, 2013)

Adrian Piper is a conceptual artist, philosopher, and author whose work has focused on (gender) identity, racism, and xenophobia. In 1970, she became “politicized” as a result of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, the growth of the women’s movement, and the student protests against the war. In her Catalysis series, Adrian Piper physically transformed herself into an odd or repulsive person and went out in public in New York to experience the frequently disdainful responses of others. For Catalysis I (1970), she soaked a set of clothing in a mixture of vinegar, eggs, milk, and cod-liver oil for a week, then wore it on the train during evening rush hour. In Catalysis III (1970), she walked through the streets of Manhattan with the inscription “wet paint” written on a white sweater. For Catalysis IV (1971), she stuffed a large piece of cloth into her mouth, allowing one end to hang down in front of herself while riding on the bus, subway, and Empire State Building elevator. In the performance series The Mythic Being (1973–1975), Piper created an alter ego in the form of a black man wearing an afro, a moustache, and work clothes.
Piper questions identity construction and underscores the fact that bodies have always been products of cultural inscriptions. In her performances, she enters into direct confrontation with audiences on the streets, causing an immediate reaction in the viewer. With this expansion of the audience and the space of action, as well as with the expansion of a purely artistic to a political concern, she set an example for artistic activism in the following years.