Interview: Pedro Reyes Reclaims the Politics in Art

Pedro Reyes
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Mexican artist Pedro Reyes assumes a mantel that feels at once familiar and utterly unique. In a contemporary-art moment that is pronounced for its lateral reach across non-art-related fields (its liberal borrowing of adjacent disciplines and knowledge, its vague political claims), Reyes provides an example of the dubiously-termed genre of “social practice,” and yet he’s pronounced for activating actual social change. While he fingers vogue and protean spaces – like the interstices between architecture and sculpture (his “object” being, more often than not, manifest in social activation and game-theory experimentation) – he is, essentially, an artist invested in proposing solutions, not questions, to our troubled social state.

Reyes (b. 1972) trained as an architect in the early 1990s before shifting to the role of curator, founding Torre De Los Vientos, an experimental artist-run space that manifested in a concrete husk of modern architecture in Mexico City. Between 1996 and 2002, Reyes curated and installed more than forty exhibitions. Soon after the institution shuttered its doors, he assumed the role of artist himself.

Over the course of twelve years, Reyes has consistently produced work that reaches for social change through measures both chimeric and concretely utilitarian. In one of his most successful efforts he produced Palas por Pistolas (2008), a still-touring project that began as a campaign against Mexico’s trade of small weapons. Through a series of TV ads and radio announcements, Reyes encouraged the exchange of firearms for vouchers and electric appliances. The drive successfully broke the national record of voluntary firearm donations. These weapons were, in turn, crushed by a steamroller, melted, and re-moulded into over 1,500 gardening tools. They took, in part, the form of shovels that were utilized by art institutions and public schools, from Vancouver to San Francisco, Paris, and Marfa, to plant thousands of trees in a demonstration of how “an agent of death can become and [an] agent of life.”

Reyes’s social probing has since extended to more participant-based projects that pull from discourses including psychology, sociology, theater, Fluxus, and ritual. Sanatorium (2011-ongoing) presents, for example, a temporary clinic that offers its participants “short and unexpected” therapies. First installed in Brooklyn (with the support of the Guggenheim), Reyes’s utopian clinic tenders a salve of “topical treatments for inner-city afflictions,” such as stress, loneliness, and hyper-stimulation. The clinic was presented in dOCUMENTA (13), and – like much of his work – continues to tour.

On the occasion of Reyes’s recent residency and lecture at OCAD University, MOMUS sat down with Reyes to discuss the cliché of failed-modernism, the benefits of art over architecture, and the potential danger – or responsibility – of communicating a firm political position, amidst so much gesturing at change.

Your one-week residency at OCAD University has you developing a board-game with your students, in which the “game of life” is brought into concrete terms. Can you explain this work and how it functions?

It comes from the “goose game,” which was very popular in Medieval times right up until the early twentieth century, though it dates back to the Greeks. It’s basically a kind of spiral that shows the path of life. It has 63 squares which probably in ancient times was a high life-expectancy, though has now been extended. What I asked the students to do was draw a spiral with 63 squares and make a lottery, in which they draw-out certain numbers that represent certain ages. They had to recall an experience they had at that age – or if it was an age higher than their own, think of someone else’s story and visualize themselves at that age.

The game is a pretext or excuse for social activity that has to do with sharing personal stories. Your first black-out from drinking, say, or your experience of lying at the age of nine; your childhood blues. You’re playing a game of life. It presents people with not a script but an opportunity to share anecdotes. It creates a certain social dynamic that has to do with putting people in a situation where they have to talk to one another under a certain rouse. I told the students, “think of this as a group show on a piece of paper.” Come up with several drawings and small texts, and we’re going to build this together, as a group. It’s a way to be very personal about your own experiences, but also [presents] a collective process to talk about evolving in life. What does it mean to grow up, have a mental age versus a real age? To have goals? How do we change?

You mention group shows. Considering the collaborative tenets of your practice, when you’re positioned in a group show, do you find there to be elements of “collaboration” at play? I’m made to think of your presence in the Carnegie International (2013), where you were positioned next to Bidoun Library in the Hall of Sculptures. How do you regard these kinds of pairings, and the activity that’s produced in the space between?

Well in this case, I had created a kind of battlefield of sound. And positioned next to Bidoun, which is a magazine I like very much, I was worried at points that the sound would make it distracting for people trying to read their books. [laughs] There was a series of photographs, also, of utopias, in that same room. My project is also utopian, to a certain degree, suggesting that we should transform the defense sector to a kind of rescue force for humanitarian needs and managing environmental crises rather than waging conflict. That’s a very utopian idea and it was in tune with the others, for that. Definitely there was a dialogue between the works.

In terms of construction – both in terms of the identity and the presentation of a practice – at what point did you stop considering yourself an architect, foremost, and call yourself an artist?

It’s curious because when I finished architecture school, I started running an artist-run space, squatting in an abandoned concrete tower that was a kind of monument made in 1968. We used it as a laboratory for artist installations. I didn’t have an art education but somehow, in curating other artists’ shows, I realized that when you curate, you work as hard as the artist to get a show up. I realized that if I wanted to do art, I needed to put my energies into my own work. It was too difficult to do the other thing, at some point. I closed the space and began practising as an artist. The curating, curiously, was my transition between architecture and art.

That makes a certain kind of sense, since to curate is to implement a structure onto artistic practice and form networks. And so it carries something of architecture, in that sense. Is that how you see it?

Yes, yes. It’s curious because curators now study to become curators but it’s a recent phenomenon. It used to be more organic, a dilettante and an empirical thing you do. It was a practice, first, then you theorized. Now curators do a lot of theory before they plan a show.

I did it in a kind of wild way, asking people whose work I liked, to show, and asking them to do whatever they wanted. The conversation started there; not from an idea, but an attraction. It was helpful to have that one-on-one conversation, and then another, and then another. That was in the nineties, where it was an exciting moment for my generation. Everyone was running a space, a lot of alternative spaces. Museums have, since then, caught up [in Mexico City], with more than 25 museums now showing contemporary art. But twenty years ago, it was not the case.

What is art capable of doing that architecture isn’t, in your experience?

In architecture, you have a client, and the client has a series of needs that you need to build into a program, and from that program, build into a design. As an artist, you need to come up with that program yourself. What a collector or curator or museum asks the artist is, what is your wish list? In art you work with a curator who is a kind of midwife, who helps give birth to the idea. That doesn’t occur in architecture.

Sometimes I do sculptures that look like architecture, but I often think something so simple: if they don’t have plumbing, they’re sculpture; if they do have plumbing, they’re architecture. [laughs]

What about ideologically, what is the one capable of that the other isn’t?

Architecture is hardware, and art is software. Architecture is mainly built elements that create an environment. However what happens in that environment is art – a group dynamic, an idea. I think mostly about activating participation from the public, and in that sense I think of what I do as software. I set the rules for people to have a certain interaction but I’m but not certain about what the outcome will be. So I use the same metaphor for this – there’s hardware (sculpture, rules, perimeters) in what I do, and software, too.

I wouldn’t immediately think of you as an artist born of the relational aesthetics movement, but I wonder if you do. Are you including yourself in that camp or do you see yourself apart?

Well, I’ve never read [Nicolas] Bourriaud’s books, so I’m not sure what relational aesthetics means, exactly, but I’m often invited to conferences and shows that deal with social practice. The thing is that most of my resources don’t come from art but other fields that have studied group dynamics. I draw tools from theater, mainly rehearsal exercises for actors – what happens for the training of the actors, rather than on stage; and I draw from many schools of psychology, but mainly psycho-drama, Gestalt psychology, hypnosis, and exotic brands of therapy. And I draw many resources from anthropology, like rituals and folk. I draw a lot from game theory, experimental economics. So really, where my ideas come from is not art history but other fields that have studied and practised how we interact with one another.

You’re working within a generation of artists who are practising similarly democratic and lateral methods of research and demonstration, pulling from something adjacent and housing it within a thing whose aim is to be art. Its sources are fragmented and agitating, but nevertheless result in something like an artifact. How conscious are you of the “final product”? Are you truly unsure of how your experiments will manifest, or do you have some sense of the artifact, the object, you’re endeavoring to produce?

It’s a very good question. I think for the results to be interesting you have to start in the middle ground. If you have a scenario where you have a white wall and pencils and you ask your participants to draw what they want, the results are not going to be interesting. You have to create a certain number of constraints, because with no rules, it’s not a very interesting game. But you can’t have so many rules that you know what the result will be. That’s why the experimental factor has to be one where the emergence of the result brings something unpredicted.

The interesting part of problem-solving or conflict-resolution is not to have one answer but a spectrum of different answers, a contra-factual process where you have one “what if,” but you have many “what thens.”

I’d be curious to know if your artworld audience typically produces a more determined response, by comparison to your more lay-person audience (like the emerging students who participated in this OCAD project). Have you witnessed any difference between the two?

I believe that if the instrument you’re using is good, it should work for every group. Often I’ve found that, at least with the techniques I use, they work best with high-school students or those with a degree, though regardless of nationality or context. I’ve done work in New York, Germany, London, Toronto, Miami, also in the Arab Emirates, Iran, Brazil, Mexico. The procedure was equally effective in all contexts. I think that must mean it’s successful.

Many interviewers and critics have linked your practice to the “failed project of modernism,” though I’m not sure I see it that way. Your work appears more as one linked to postmodernity, with all its associative meaning and borrowed disciplines. You’ve said, in this regard, “classics are those works that are often quoted, and the more they’re quoted, the safer it is to quote them.” I don’t see you doing something particularly safe. How do you regard the associations that are made between your work and modernism? Do you agitate against this connection?

Well I think [my work] does present a kind of reaction against the cliché of the failure of modernism, because I think that the modern project had a lot of successful moments. It created institutions like state-sponsored schools and hospitals aimed at the general good, things that have been dismantled and continue to be privatized in the second half of the twentieth-century and into the twenty-first. So this is what I mean by the cliché – it’s been too reduced.

There are many different modernisms. Talking about architecture, for instance, with modern architecture in Mexico, many of the iconic modern features were, at their time [of construction], anti-modern. In the golden years on modernism in the forties, for instance, there were already critical moments that were trying to create a more complex, sophisticated, contradictory fusion of modernity and tradition. In Mexico we’ve always had this fear of losing our identity, we’re terrified of it. So we’ve consistently tried to mix tradition and modernity – in music, dance, literature, architecture; it wasn’t an embracing of the modern project as an erasure of the past.

We have to be more sophisticated in avoiding generalizations when we talk about modernity. We say it like an automatic pilot and it means nothing.

But in many senses I am anti-modern, like in the sense that I’m very much fighting the enthusiasm for technology. Not in art, but in architecture and design, generally in society, an enthusiasm that is fetishistic. We need to have a critical position onto it.

That’s interesting, given that a lot of your work stems from machinations, technologies, or systems of a certain kind. Where do you draw the line between new and old technology?

I use technology where there’s a reason. What I’m interested in is creating non-technological spaces. We are attached to our screens that are highly addictive, but we need to create spaces that are interactive and not mediated. I believe that for everything that evolves, there’s another thing that’s atrophied. We need a rearview mirror for every new device we produce, because every new thing will render useless something existing. I think technology should be viewed as having a neutral value; not something inherently good.

I’d like to ask you about political pedantry. How do you create work that creates systems, commentaries, but falls just to one side of didactism, righteousness, heavy-handedness? I’m sure you’re negotiating this with some consciousness. Where is that line, in your opinion, and how do you work to stay clear of crossing it?

It’s suspected that all art has to be open-ended, no? That all art has to ask questions but not answer them. That if you take a position you are considered messianic, patronizing your audience. I think that’s a kind of cliché that is preventing a lot of artists from taking a stand. It limits the agency that cultural production has. It’s okay to have a position, and it’s okay to say you stand for this and you want it to change in a particular way. That’s part of the production of meaning. And if you’re not taking a position, you’re creating meaning anyway.

I don’t want to have an open position about gun control. I want to say that people who invest their money in companies that produce weapons should be culturally rejected like those who invest in child pornography. I think that there are many opportunities. That said, I don’t believe all art should serve a purpose. But if you want art to take a stand, there should be that option. If you want to take action, you should be allowed to do so.

Are there any upcoming projects you want to highlight?

The theater director Augusto Boal said something, once. He was discussing what he called the “Che Guevara syndrome,” how Che Guevara wanted to do a revolution and so he went to Cuba. And he succeeded, and within a relatively short time. So then he said “I’m going to continue doing this.” He goes to Angola, then Bolivia, where he eventually gets killed. Boal was saying, you have to be careful how many revolutions you undertake. There’s only a number of fights that you can pick.

Right now I have several projects that are touring, for instance the Sanatorium, and the Peoples’ United Nations, that was made at the Queens Museum and is now going to LA. There’s a sound project now in Brazil and soon Venice. The Permanent Revolution that is touring. And at the moment I am somehow asking myself whether I start another big project or whether I continue managing the existing ones. I am often asking myself about the Che Guevara syndrome. [laughs]

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