Berlin

Adrian Piper at Hamburger Bahnhof

Upon entering the grand central hall within Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof museum, the visitor views Adrian Piper’s exhibition from a distance. From this vantage point, The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1–3, an installation and performance piece, resembles the sparsely furnished lobby of a prosperous but unidentifiable corporate institution. Deceptively simple at first glance, The Probable Trust Registry is in fact a total mind-bender.

Adrian Piper. The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1–3, 2013–17 (exhibition view); installation and performance (3 grey walls reaching from floor to the ceiling, 3 golden circular desks, golden embossed letters, 3 standing desks, 3 lean stools, computer system, 3 receptionists); dimensions variable. Courtesy of Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie. Photo: David von Becker.

Adrian Piper. The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1–3, 2013–17 (exhibition view); installation and performance (3 gray walls reaching from floor to the ceiling, 3 golden circular desks, golden embossed letters, 3 standing desks, 3 lean stools, computer system, 3 receptionists); dimensions variable. Courtesy of Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie. Photo: David von Becker.

From a distance, visitors can see that the installation consists of three circular, golden reception desks in front of three ceiling-high gray-colored walls staggered along the hall. Behind each desk is an attendant dressed head to toe in black. Upon each desk rests a computer monitor that faces the visitor. After one approaches the desks, it becomes apparent that the walls are adorned with golden, uppercase embossed letters that form declarative statements, the eponymous Rules of the Game:

  • I will always be too expensive to buy.
  • I will always mean what I say.
  • I will always do what I say I am going to do.

Adrian Piper. The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1–3, 2013–17 (exhibition view); installation and performance (3 grey walls reaching from floor to the ceiling, 3 golden circular desks, golden embossed letters, 3 standing desks, 3 lean stools, computer system, 3 receptionists); dimensions variable. Courtesy of Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie. Photo: Thomas Bruns.

Adrian Piper. The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1–3, 2013–17 (exhibition view); installation and performance (3 gray walls reaching from floor to the ceiling, 3 golden circular desks, golden embossed letters, 3 standing desks, 3 lean stools, computer system, 3 receptionists); dimensions variable. Courtesy of Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie. Photo: Thomas Bruns.

A music stand to the side of each desk holds a sheet of “Performance Instructions” that purports to offer more information. Written in a dry, official tone, the list of eleven instructions begins: “1. Each Signatory signs and dates the digital Personal Declaration on the Receptionist’s desk screen.” After the viewer signs the digital contract, acknowledging her lifelong commitment to the declaration on the wall, the “Receptionist prints out for the Signatory a hard copy of the signed Personal Declaration plus the Performance Instructions of the Rules of the Game respectively.” These Personal Declarations are written in the style of binding legal contracts. For example, the Personal Declaration in The Rules of the Game #3 reads: “I, the undersigned, hereby certify that I will always (absent uncontrollable Acts of God) do what I say I am going to do.”

The Performance Instructions go on to explain that the signatory inputs his or her name and email address in the computer on the receptionist’s desk and that this information will be kept in a confidential registry held by the Berlin State Museums and sealed from the public for 100 years. After the exhibition, each signatory will receive a full list of the names, but not email addresses, of the other signatories. Should one signatory wish to contact another, she would request the contact information from the Berlin State Museums, which would only supply the information after receiving explicit written permission by the proposed respondent.

Adrian Piper. The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1–3, 2013–17 (exhibition view); installation and performance (3 grey walls reaching from floor to the ceiling, 3 golden circular desks, golden embossed letters, 3 standing desks, 3 lean stools, computer system, 3 receptionists); dimensions variable. Courtesy of Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie. Photo: Shahrzade Ehya.

Adrian Piper. The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1–3, 2013–17 (exhibition view); installation and performance (3 gray walls reaching from floor to the ceiling, 3 golden circular desks, golden embossed letters, 3 standing desks, 3 lean stools, computer system, 3 receptionists); dimensions variable. Courtesy of Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie. Photo: Shahrzade Ehya.

On a recent Saturday at the museum, I watched some people walk up to the screens, swiftly sign the digital contract, receive their printed copy, and leave. A few visitors appeared totally confused throughout their time in the exhibit. Others lingered to speak with the receptionists, discussing further details before deciding whether to sign the Personal Declaration.

Although people can choose to sign one, two, three, or none of the contracts, one receptionist I spoke with said a number of visitors had been infuriated by the show, feeling coerced into signing the documents. Some parents have dragged unwilling children to sign the declaration, committing signatories to “…always do what I say I am going to do.” At the other end of the spectrum of responses to the work, many visitors expressed feelings of self-empowerment upon signing and seemed eager to embody their ethical vows. At least one person wept as she signed, explaining that she was so moved by her commitment. Clearly, the exhibition’s attendees demonstrated a broad range of motives as well as understanding and intention.

Adrian Piper. The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1–3, 2013–17 (exhibition view); installation and performance (3 grey walls reaching from floor to the ceiling, 3 golden circular desks, golden embossed letters, 3 standing desks, 3 lean stools, computer system, 3 receptionists); dimensions variable. Courtesy of Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie. Photo: Shahrzade Ehya.

Adrian Piper. The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1–3, 2013–17 (exhibition view); installation and performance (3 grey walls reaching from floor to the ceiling, 3 golden circular desks, golden embossed letters, 3 standing desks, 3 lean stools, computer system, 3 receptionists); dimensions variable. Courtesy of Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie. Photo: Shahrzade Ehya.

In a recent interview, Piper described The Probable Trust Registry as offering a solution to the problem of individual self-interest by giving “everyone the opportunity to develop trust in themselves and at the same time show themselves to be trustworthy in a community of other trustworthy people. The process begins with the individual, spreads among other individuals who build a society, and even further among other societies that together form an international association.”[1] In this view, The Probable Trust Registry represents a utopian gesture that works toward the cultivation of a society built on relations of mutual trust. As such, Piper explains the title as a repository of names of individuals who are likely to be trustworthy: a community of ethical people on whom one can probably rely.[2] Yet this view seems insufficient, neglecting too many of the show’s physical aspects, including the legalese of the Performance Instructions and contracts, and the mystifying corporate presentation of the installation, set within a vast space that dwarfs the viewer.

One might argue that the show’s title could equally be interpreted to refer to a database of private information that will likely, but not necessarily, be kept safe. In this view, The Probable Trust Registry reflects on the role of institutions in people’s lives, drawing attention to all of the institutions—social, corporate, political—that demand our participation and to which we willingly or unthinkingly submit. The title of Jean Renoir’s 1939 film, The Rules of the Game, refers to the inescapable codes of conduct to which the characters must adhere in order to participate in the social sphere. Similarly, in a 2016 “Interim Report” on The Probable Trust Registry, Piper asserts that the work consumes anyone who encounters it, “forc[ing]” all viewers into a relation with it, no matter whether they choose to participate or not.[3] The choice of whether or not to sign The Probable Trust Registry is a pretense; we all internalize its terms and thereby participate in the rules of Piper’s game.

The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1–3 will be on view through September 3, 2017.

[1] Agata Waleczek, “Interview with Adrian Piper,” (author’s translation from the German), http://www.adrianpiperinberlin.de/index.php?id=2586&L=0.

[2] Adrian Piper, The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1–3 (Berlin: Hamburger Bahnhof—Museum für Gegenwart, 2017), exhibition brochure.

[3]The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1–3. The Destiny and Interpretations of the Work are Part of the Work. Interim Report of 31 May 2016,” http://adrianpiper.com/art/docs/Piper2016TPTR_InterimReport-1.pdf.

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