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Art on the Borderline

Without a doubt, these figures are street-smart characters who may be gesturing in either derogatory or playful fashion, suggesting our complicity in the drama -- whatever the meaning, whatever the outcome. Golub believes that there are so many messages on our computers, TVs and newspapers that we've become a society over-rich in information. The transmissions conflict with rather than reinforce each other. Nobody, it seems, can be totally clear what the message is.

The urgency of Golub's concerns is in direct contrast to Piper's beguiling, if coolly authoritarian, voice, which emanates from the side gallery. Piper senses that the real function of racism and xenophobia is to separate the haves from the have-nots. Moreover, since overt displays of bigotry are no longer generally accepted in our society, racism has assumed subtler, less readily obvious -- if still destructive -- forms.

An African-American woman of light complexion, Piper occupies a middle ground between black and white. Given America's history and habits, this means a zone full of hurtful misunderstandings, one fraught with the psychological burden that being a "hybrid" has forced her to bear. For more than two decades, Piper has worked to uncover ways that racism operates subliminally in the minds of well-meaning liberals. As such, Piper mixes politics, art and philosophy to address the ever-treacherous gap between appearance and reality, reflex response and reasoned conclusions. Pitting logically determined misconduct against illogical decorum, her performance is less an example of anarchism or aesthetic speculation than of a trained philosopher (she's a professor at Wellesley College) testing a hypothesis.

The formal elements of "Cornered" -- a video monitor situated in the corner of the gallery and an overturned table faced by rows of chairs -- emphasize the psychological obstacles laid bare by the artist. On the walls above the table are her father's birth certificates -- one describes his color as white, the other as octoroon. Conservatively coifed and dressed in teal sweater with a single strand of pearls, Piper is seen on the monitor sitting behind a desk in the corner of a white room, from which she directs a monologue at the viewer. The important thing about her self-presentation is that she doesn't appear to be black -- she has neither the skin color nor the characteristic facial features of someone of obvious African descent. Yet she begins by announcing, "I'm black." Then in a persuasive, didactic tone she suggests, "Now let's deal with this social fact and the fact of my stating it together."

Giving the audience a lesson in logic, Piper proceeds in a bemused but vaguely scolding manner to explain that if you, the viewer, have a problem with a person who appears not to be black making the fact that she is black known to you -- if you are offended or embarrassed -- then you must be a racist in spite of how you may prefer to think of yourself. Piper, however, would rather not make an issue out of racial identity. "I really would prefer not to disturb you," she says. "But, you see, I have no choice. I'm cornered .... If I don't tell you who I am, then I have to pass for white ...."

Later, Piper shifts gears and argues that since researchers have shown that most white people have some black ancestry, then probably you, too, are actually black according to American legal conventions that have defined anyone with a trace of African blood as black. "If I choose to identify myself as black, whereas you do not, that's not just a special personal fact about me. It's a fact about us," she says. "It's our problem to solve. So how do you propose to solve it? What are you going to do?"

Piper's long, legalistic attack is manipulative, and as propaganda her lecture seems bent on shaping our response toward eager acquiescence with her premise. But Piper offers no political programs, no broad solutions. For Golub and Piper, identity, perhaps, will always hang in the balance between hard-lived fact and oppressive fiction.

New work by Leon Golub and "Cornered," a video installation by Adrian Piper, will show through March 3 atRice University Art Gallery, ground floor of Sewall Hall, 527-6069.

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