Between Activation and Activism – An interview with Pedro Reyes
In the works of Pedro Reyes, the focus is on human beings as members of a community. He specifically examines how group dynamics can stimulate communicative processes. And he also incorporates participatory approaches, encouraging visitors to directly become active themselves and meet other people. As a result, his work also embodies an unwavering utopian desire that’s hard to find anywhere else in Europe. In his efforts to transform society for the better, he repeatedly builds bridges to not only theater, sociology, and psychology, but also political activism.
For many years Pedro Reyes has rigorously addressed the subject of violence. He’s determined to transform adverse, destructive items like weapons into something positive and creative. For example, in an extensive project, he melted down guns to cast spades that can now be used to plant trees – including in the context of the exhibition “Sociatry” at museum Marta Herford. Since 2019, Pedro Reyes has also dealt with the nuclear threat – an issue that’s now back in the public consciousness due to the war in Ukraine. Accordingly, the works of art on display are more relevant than ever. In March 2022, the exhibition’s curator Friederike Fast spoke to Pedro Reyes about these sociopolitical aspects of his work.
Friederike Fast (FF): Many of your works have a distinct interpersonal dimension. Whether we share our secrets with each other in “Citileaks”, wish other people well with the help of the “Goodoos”, or discuss questions of life together at the “Museum of Hypothetical Lifetime” and “Philosophical Casino”, all these works are based on the active involvement of visitors and stimulate interaction between the participants. Why is this form of social experience such an important part of your work? And what role do group creativity and the term “collaboration” play in this context?
Pedro Reyes (PR): One of my dearest mentors, Antanas Mockus, a Colombian mathematician and former mayor of Bogotá, described to me a sculpture he’d imagined: a group composed of many human figures in the process of carving each other. Hammers and chisels in hand, this group was busy sculpting one another. This allegory represented how our own actions shape others. It seems like a very powerful metaphor to me, as here the “other” isn’t an isolated individual but instead is shaped by our intentions, while at the same time we’re also a byproduct of the actions that others have done to us.
FF: In his book “The Author as Producer,” Walter Benjamin formulated a plea for consumers to become producers in the Brechtian sense. Are you familiar with this approach? And how do you think these aspects of participation in the exhibition and participation in society relate to each other?
PR: If we look at society in the light of Mockus’s allegory, our interactions should be artistic. We ought to take pride in how well and how beautifully we can manage them. More importantly, they should have plasticity. Psychological change is hard if conducted only inside your mind. But if you engage in physical activity instead, such as working with your hands on an object, arranging physical elements inevitably leads to inner shifts. That’s why humans came up with rituals. This is at the core of social sculpture – the hardware is necessary to access the software.
Like in the allegory of the group sculpting each other, the good stuff comes from the combination of different voices, but there have to be filters. If there’s no structure to the game, if you just provide chalk and let people write whatever they want, you’re not going to get interesting input. If the question is “If you were mayor of your city, what would your first action be?”, it immediately sets a much richer process in motion.
You see, artists don’t break rules; they add more rules. A social experiment can both work as research and also be therapeutic (and fun) at the same time.
“Sanatorium” has been in operation for ten years, and the reason is the participants’ self-interest. This is a show you can’t visit without taking part in one of the therapies. Interestingly enough, it sets in motion a plethora of insights as well as a record of these epiphanies. “Citileaks” generates an encyclopedia of secrets, the “Philosophical Casino” a book of questions, and “The Amendment to the Amendment” a series of iterations for one piece of legislation. Instead of having to argue with someone about whether you’re right or wrong, what you get are all these iterations showing that multiple outcomes are possible.
FF: For “pUN”, you invited a large group of people to hold a conference modeled on the United Nations. But unlike the official UN, these were completely “normal” citizens debating important geopolitical issues. To what extent do you see art as a political tool? And where do you draw the line between play and seriousness, between fact and fiction?
PR: To those on the outside, “pUN” may seem like just a game. It is a game – that’s precisely the point – and you have to be part of the game. Here you have a rehearsal space where the panic of potential failure is suspended for a while. Games help us unfreeze the image we’ve created of ourselves and others. If you partake in them, they become as good as whatever you bring to the table, so they can wind up being really good, and therefore transformative – much more so than what can happen within the strictures of academia or diplomacy. While an event with 190 representatives from different countries like “pUN” is basically a large game, it’s also a real-life conference. In art, we perform these secular rituals which we still take extremely seriously.
The people who participate are playing a role. You’re not representing yourself as an individual, but your people, your nation. However, this doesn’t mean you have to endorse your country’s current administration. It’s therefore a form of direct diplomacy.
FF: With projects like “Palas por Pistolas”, you even go one step further. Here you express – as in other works – a clear political statement against gun violence. But you also step out of the museum into the public space – for example, when you broadcast a television campaign calling on people to hand in their weapons. The action of collecting 1,527 guns and turning them into the same number of spades to plant trees is a powerful symbolic act.
Thus, it not only recalls the work “7000 Oaks” by Joseph Beuys, but at the same time directly recollects the biblical quote “swords into plowshares,” which also became a catchphrase of the disarmament campaigns in East Germany as well as the Western peace movement. The posters for the “Disarm” piece also seem to deliberately imitate the aesthetics of activist leaflets. How is your work related to political activism, and what particular strengths do you see in art here?
PR: Practicing sculpture means giving shape to things, transforming matter. By turning guns into spades as in “Palas por Pistolas” or into musical instruments as in “Disarm,” I’m giving guns a different shape and also a different function – one that’s the opposite of their original purpose. From killing and instilling fear to making music and fostering trust. It’s a sort of alchemical transformation: the physical transformation of the metal also changes how the object performs in the world. It’s a catalyst. Its effect in the world is real, but it’s also a compelling image.
Moreover, it’s important that it can be replicated. I think that in social sculpture, these resources have to be shared and applied by others. Ideas are only useful if they’re later appropriated, as this means they resonate with a desire for change in the world. If you take activism seriously, the goal is to bring about change, and if you claim to bring about change, there has to be some way to measure it, for it to be accountable. This can happen in two ways: one is direct action, and the other is influence over public policy. I use direct action in, for instance, “Palas por Pistolas,” in which a number of guns is destroyed, and for each gun at least one tree will be planted. There’s a record of each planting and there’s measurable change. “Tlacuilo” is another project where change is measurable using direct action. The other projects that influence policymaking are pieces such as “Amendment to the Amendment” and “Amnesia Atómica,” where I support NGOs that are working to change the law and thus need visibility or a way to connect their message.
FF: In May this year, you’ll also be presenting your work “Stockpile” in New York to demonstrate against nuclear weapons. It consists of missile-shaped balloons. And once again, the quantity of these objects plays a key role: the 13,500 balloons represent the vast number of 13,500 missiles worldwide. What exactly is behind the decision to give away free multiples? Is it partly a desire to break down barriers between the public and your artworks, in contrast to the high-priced unique pieces in museums?
PR: We’ve found addressing nuclear disarmament very challenging because nobody cared. Although they’ve heard of nukes, millennials and Generation Z regarded them as something remote. Meanwhile, Generation X and Boomers, who grew up fearing the end of the world, didn’t want to recall this feeling. While it’s true that this cause was huge in the 1970s and 1980s, today it was probably one of the most unfashionable causes imaginable. Often, activism gets a boost when one group identifies with a cause and gets energized by it. I’ve heard that worrying about nuclear weapons is a sign of privilege because it means you don’t fall into a marginalized group in terms of gender, racial or sexual preference.
But in 2022, all nuclear powers are expanding their arsenals. We’re entering a silent new arms race with faster weapons that are easier to deploy. Today’s “small” nukes equal 1,000 Fukushimas. But most of this information has been hidden from the public eye.
“Stockpile” makes nukes visible. I imagine these balloons – 13,500 of them – deployed on the National Mall in Washington DC, for instance, or on Red Square in Moscow. It would be quite a large sculpture. But another idea would be to distribute them, so that if you’re holding one of the 13,500 balloons it means that – since no one’s really working on this – you can’t blame anyone but yourself for your own inaction. The point is to get people to think about the question “How does it feel to hold the world’s future in your hands?”
FF: Public libraries are, in a way, places of living democracy by giving everyone access to books. You take up this idea in your work “Tlacuilo”. Why are you inventing your own library at a time when the number of users of public libraries is declining?
PR: I think of “Tlacuilo” as a social sculpture. The model of the library is inspiring because it grants access to physical objects without being ruled by the market. I was frustrated because libraries in Mexico stopped lending books out of fear people wouldn’t return them. But a book, safely stored away forever, may as well not exist. You can take a book with you anywhere: on the bus, in line, to the bathroom, you even take one to bed with you. So then the idea of an app that works as a universal library card came to mind. I started on a domestic scale, lending out my own library and having my 14-year-old son develop the app. Now, there are six member libraries – which didn’t lend books before – and more than 500 regular users.
One of the participating libraries, the Carrillo-Gil Museum library in Mexico City, also lends out vinyl records and artworks. But more importantly, app users create their own profiles and become librarians, lending their own collections to fellow users.
I see this as just the beginning of an alternative economy where we lend each other not only books, but all kinds of objects. Our possessions have all this excess capacity which can also foster meaningful social interactions. By making them available to others, we can find people with similar interests and show our trust in them, which is a rewarding feeling for both parties.
The ultimate utopia is to move from owning stuff to being a custodian or steward of goods, making them available to others. By using technology, we can measure how much stuff you put in circulation and how much stuff you have access to without having to spend a cent. The amounts are registered, so it’s granular, but it’s the opposite of capitalism: the more you access, the more you save. The more you lend, the more you gain, as the app keeps a score of your generosity. Your “capital” is the measure of how trustworthy you are. I think of this as the nemesis of the crypto-world.
FF: With your artistic attitude, you’re building on the tradition of the modern avant-garde with its social utopias, which continued in Europe after the Second World War with the Situationists as well as Joseph Beuys, who coined the term “social sculpture”. How do you see yourself in this line of tradition? And what equivalent points of reference are there for your work in Latin American art?
PR: In Latin America, especially in Mexico, we have a tradition of expecting art to perform a social role. This was felt most strongly in the era of Mexican Muralism, which started in post-revolutionary Mexico in the 1920s and remained strong until the 1960s. Indeed, it’s still relevant today, and can also be found in literature, music, and architecture. The way we’ve been referring to social sculpture implies participation, so my approach has been strongly informed by Latin American artists and activists such as Augusto Boal and his “Theater of the Oppressed,” as well as other key thinkers such as Colombian philosopher, mathematician, and politician Antanas Mockus, Austrian-US author, philosopher, and theologian Ivan Illich, Mexican theater director and performance artist Jesusa Rodríguez, and Brazilian educator and author Paulo Freire.
But I’d like to stress that I also believe in the social role of traditional art forms. Sculpture or painting, in the classical sense, can also crystalize important social causes without being the result of a participatory process. Sometimes, the artist has to work alone. Many times, in fact, especially in the case of a permanent public artwork, you’re responsible for bringing to the world a resilient, fully crafted, compelling piece, and this often requires freedom for the artist to work and take care of the smallest details. Most art can’t be made via a democratic process.
I hope I’m making myself clear. Some of my work has participation at its core, and many other works are the result of individual reflection, but their political relevance isn’t determined by the medium.
FF: One of your first works to receive wide attention was “La torre de los vientos” – the Tower of the Winds. You transformed an experimental, tower-shaped building by Gonzalo Fonseca into a lab-like exhibition space where different people came together to activate unexpected processes. Is your open-ended approach also a fundamental criticism of institutions? And what would be the ideal museum for you?
PR: My theory about museums is that they can work as fridges or ovens. Fridges have controlled temperatures and the conditions are perfect for preserving something for a long time, for posterity. Museums are ovens when they “cook” a new reality, when the museum is also a production space. Many of my boldest projects wouldn’t have been possible without the fantastic kitchen for art provided by a museum. I’m not especially fond of institutional criticism. I usually think in terms of institutional agency. I’m interested in creating change inside institutions. Institutions aren’t that different from individuals.
Criticism isn’t the best way to inspire change. These days, cancel culture can come dangerously close to bullying. Criticism is too often a form of complaint, and complaint is a sneaky way used by people to shift responsibility away from themselves. You’ll never see critics busy finding ways to improve a given situation. It’s almost a cognitive condition: either you focus on the problem, or you focus on the solution. If you focus on the solution, you’re already acknowledging the problem, but without putting people down.
That’s why it’s always important to find the positives instead. For instance, in the example I mentioned of the Carrillo-Gil Museum, I could have criticized the fact that their library hadn’t been used in 50 years, since its creation. But what good would that do? Instead, we said we opened Mexico’s first art lending library. Artworks are even rarer – not to mention more expensive – than most books, so we knew when they started lending art, books would follow. In this case, we were able to play to an institution’s strengths and improve upon its weaknesses.