Adrian Piper’s The Probable Trust Registry (The Rules of the Game #1–3) (2013–17), the sole work occupying the central hall of Hamburger Bahnhof, centres on a simple-seeming experiment. Visitors are invited to sign contracts committing themselves to statements of reliability, honesty and dignity. After signing one, they receive a paper printout confirming their admission to the Probable Trust Registry: a database of signatories that will be held securely by the museum for a century. After the exhibition closes in September, a copy of this list will be released exclusively to the participants.
Other details seem less essential: you sign electronically on a screen with instructions in German or English; the statements, English-only, are displayed on slate-coloured walls in a large, stern-looking serif font; there’s a thin-feeling detail about how participants can elect to contact one another at a later date. At each of three circular reception desks stands a helpful, human receptionist: an interface of personal and institutional authority that seems under-explored. But let’s start with what Piper intends to say with this piece.
We are continuously exercising contracts, without always meaning to. Promises (another word for contracts) bind us to one another, and persist in all of our institutions (‘selfhood’ and ‘art’ are two such institutions tacitly activated in Piper’s piece). Contracts are future-oriented: because any promise implies a future, it must be guarded against corrosion or amnesia. Yet contracts – like words, money and other ledgers of value – only work when we all agree they will: my trust in your trust that those deeds are reliable and shared. Who is this ‘we’? Foundational to the social contract is that it can include everyone. Piper’s is a careful inclusiveness that seems daring and much needed now.
For all the work’s philosophical limpidity, a teasing pleasure arises in the behavioural and cognitive contradictions that Piper’s work elicits. The first of her contracts invites an assessment of pricelessness (‘I will always be too expensive to buy’) while The Rules of the Game #2 is a declaration of honesty in word (‘I will always mean what I say’) – an impossible commitment, since true ‘honesty’ would meansallowing for one’s potential failings. If you don’t sign, do you then miss out of the transactional self-consistency of the third contract, ‘I will always do what I say I am going to do’?
In the first contract: the word ‘expensive’ seems dependent on the notion of ‘price’ that is being quashed. If by ‘too expensive’ Piper is suggesting that human life is dignified by being ‘priceless’, then it is her presupposition to elide the two values. Still, the sentence has substance: ‘contract’ means ‘bargain’; ‘pricelessness’ and ‘worthlessness’ are strange, false friends.
We use the caveat ‘I feel like …’ in order to express experiences that are difficult to demonstrate, such as pain caused by others. Others can argue facts, but not our feelings, the reasoning goes. Whereas such formulations purport to communicate inner experience, they do so through a shielded, defensive individualism. Accordingly, when we say that ‘feelings are facts’, we corrode our trust in the interpersonal task of correlating personal experience with a shared, externalizable one (another synonym for truth). Today’s assaults on truth and appeals to feeling are a denial of this ‘we’ of shared experience.
The Probable Trust Registry debuted at Elizabeth Dee Gallery in New York in 2013; in 2015, it saw Piper awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale. To what extent has its meaning changed in that short period? Can history redeem philosophy? Over the last three decades, Piper’s main theoretical project has been Rationality and the Structure of the Self (2008). The work, a two-volume book of Kantian meta-ethical theory, attempts to combat the utilitarian conception of human selfhood (‘egocentric rationality’), which sees nothing beyond the maximization of individual gain. Steeped as much in game theory and the constitutional German Basic Law as it is in Kant, it aims to compose and expose the complex social contracts we establish simply by virtue of being human.
In 2008, while in Germany, Piper learned she was on the US government’s Suspicious Traveller watchlist. Her protest – a refusal to return to the US – saw her stripped of her philosophy tenure at Wellesley College. In the introduction to her book’s second volume (which was republished in 2013, but remains open-source), Piper writes of being ‘gently eased out of the United States, gently eased out of my tenured full professorship […] or any remaining status in that professional hierarchy’. In 2017 at Hamburger Bahnhof, Piper’s work represents another form of publishing, in that rich, civic sense of ‘making public’. In its quiet deception and transpersonal acuity, the work should be interpreted within a tradition of civil disobedience: a tradition that must trust there is a future to invest in. it’s a trust that’s worth rebuilding.
First published in Issue 187