(Won‘t you take me to) Frankytown

David Velasco teaching Adrian Piper’s Funk Lessons at Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt am Main, Germany

February 15, 2020

On Rundgang weekend this past February, the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt am Main restaged Adrian Piper’s Funk Lessons, in which she educates an audience about funk and how to dance to it. While a documentary video version of it has been screened and exhibited frequently in recent years, this was the first performance of the piece since its original 1982 to 1984 run at seven academic and art institutions throughout North America. At the time, its intent to loosen up people’s biases toward this branch of black popular music was met with some reservations. Today, post hip-hop and R&B, it is perhaps her best known and best liked work, not least because it literally moves you to transcend notions of ethnicity, class, and self by collectively dancing a world beyond.

A room full of people dancing. A disco bowl turns above their heads, reflecting turquoise and green light.
At MMK, facing a very white and very willingly participating crowd, the course was led by Artforum’s David Velasco, who had been nominated by Piper to sub for her and contributed a queer addendum to the curriculum of classic songs and dance moves. Stepping to the beat of Amerie’s “1 Thing” and finger wagging as instructed, I wondered: After Haus der Kunst’s cancelation of Piper’s Munich retrospective last year in order to replace it with that of a reactionary German painter, why restage a work of hers that can be so easily consumed by liberal feel-good multiculturalism? Why risk it turning into an exercise in innocuous relational aesthetics? As Piper herself has made clear in the uncomfortable confrontations she rendered necessary in works such as Aspects of the Liberal Dilemma (1978) or Black Box/White Box (1992), nostalgically mining the old playbooks of solidarity and tolerance is not enough anymore.