Grey Room

The Inductive Turn in Conceptual Art: Pragmatics in the 0–9 Circle

Jacob Stewart-Halevy


One day in 1970 the conceptual artist Adrian Piper, sporting a shirt streaked with sticky paint, walked into the Midtown Manhattan Macy’s, ostensibly to shop for gloves and sunglasses. The following year, she returned to the department store and entered the bathroom, where she pulled out a comb from a purse filled with ketchup. These “works” were part of her Catalysis Series, an intermittent project that involved wandering the city and engaging in all manner of situational improprieties. As outlandish as the routines may have seemed to passers-by, they would have resonated with an emerging field of dissident social-scientific inquiry: pragmatics. If Piper had walked through the same Macy’s in the summer of 1963, she might well have passed the sociolinguist William Labov on her way from the accessories department to the bathroom. What was he doing there? Not exactly shopping for sunglasses either. He was busy conducting interviews with employees for an ethnography of postvocalic distribution. Discovering how sales clerks pronounced r sounds provided the groundwork for his influential 1966 study, “The Social Stratification of (r) in New York City Department Stores,” an article that found its way into his foundational account of sociolinguistic patterns in 1972, shortly after Piper’s performances.