Ever had a lot to say but neither the time nor courage to say it directly? Ever come up with a quick retort only after hanging up the phone? Ever walked away from a conversation offended but without an argument to explain why? Adrian Piper presents the perfect solution in her retrospective, “A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016” at the Museum of Modern Art – write it down and hand it out.
From 1986 to 1990 Piper would hand out a series of business cards wherever she was that day. So far nothing special, except in this case their content was tailored to specific situations. The white cards fend off unwanted propositions from strangers at bars. The brown card makes people aware of, and hopefully apologize for, any casual racist comment they may have made.
Like many of her artworks, “My Calling (Card)” is about performance and participation, demanding the viewer take and use a few cards themselves. The act is less about asserting one’s moral superiority or “winning” a conversation, and more about bringing awareness to our behavior and biases.
A week after visiting Piper’s MOMA retrospective, ThoughtMatter Design Director Jee-Eun Lee spotted a similar social experiment going on at Madison Square Park. Double-sided cards labelled “Zipless Chat” were being handed out to the public at random. The card serves as a visual cue: Place it with the YES side up if you’re open to chatting, or with the NO side up if you don’t want to be disturbed.
If art is meant to be provocative, why not use the provocation to help develop strategies for real communication? In a time of digital dating apps and endless texting threads, Adrian Piper and Zipless Chat’s printed ice-breakers could potentially be trailblazing. Brands seeking new ways to lift heads buried deep in phones would do well to heed the power of personal notes. Handing out these cards is a simple yet profound gesture, evoking the same excitement as receiving a handwritten postcard or being passed a note in class. That’s what Piper can teach businesses about social mindfulness.