February 24 - September 3
When speaking with former residents of East Germany, it’s not uncommon to hear stories of deceit, such as family and friends spying on one another in service to the state. Given that history, knotty questions are raised when an American artist’s installation asks visitors to question their trust in oneself and others. This is the provocation made by The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1–3, 2013–, an installation from Adrian Piper, who has lived in Berlin since 2005, after being placed on the United States’ list of “suspicious travelers.”
In this museum’s cavernous main hall, three towering walls have been installed, each footed by a curved desk. Here sit museum attendants, who guide visitors through electronic contracts demanding nearly impossible commitments: “I will always mean what I say,” “I will always be too expensive to buy,” “I will always do what I say I am going to do.” Following the show, a list of the signatories will be kept by the institution, as well as distributed to the participants. While Piper’s early work used public performances to disturb common expectations of propriety, this piece converts the audience into a collective performer, tasked with self-scrutiny.
Though her work is grounded in extensive philosophical study, this piece cuts into the gap between ideals and reality. Most people would love to be “too expensive to buy.” Unfortunately, economic pressure and normalized state surveillance often make such integrity untenable. Piper’s gesture thus tangles a fantasy––solidarity between the righteous––with a more realistic picture of a kinship based in ethical compromise. As a social experiment, this work is a little didactic, even patronizing. But its implications are crucial. Within late capitalism, the boundary between choice and coercion is at best elusive, and at worst an illusion.