Mexico City–based artist Pedro Reyes works within public contexts to address social and utopian concerns. At the Queens Museum in New York, Reyes will present “The People’s United Nations (pUN),” an exhibition of new sculpture, on view from November 9, 2013 through March 30, 2014, and a performance sharing the same title, which will be staged on November 23 and November 24, 2013. Here he speaks about the project, which simulates and dissolves the structure of the UN through various interactive and unconventional activities, such as games, jokes, and therapy, in order to reinvigorate person-to-person connectivity.
THE UNITED NATIONS is not a place where real decisions are made. It’s not the “world’s government,” but rather a symbolic entity that has only symbolic power. The failure of critical theory is that it spends too much time analyzing why things don’t work instead of determining new ways of making a pragmatic difference. Rather than creating a critique of the UN, The People’s United Nations is an experiment in using tools other than politicking to achieve resolution—for example, by capturing public imagination through humor. The real “world government” is really just a few guys having dinner somewhere in Zurich.
pUN is a gathering of a fictive organization made up of 195 delegates representing each of their respective governments. In the organization, they engage with each other in alternating groups, which become involved in different games or psychological scenarios. There are many techniques in this that come from theater-like improvisations, and the structure is akin to a large speed-dating session where people meet, shift seats, and meet another person. In one group, they could talk about something they dislike about how their country is run; in another, they could make a hilarious headline about their grievance in the style of The Onion as an exercise in radical optimism.
Another station will be structured as a couples-therapy session between two countries that have shared a complicated history. Take India and England, for example. The “psychologist” addresses the fact that England had exploited India for about a hundred years. As retribution, the Indian delegate could create a purely idealistic, itemized proposal of what their country could want as compensation, like an Oxford University franchise in every city in India with a population greater than one million. In this scenario, comedy is used as a pedagogical tool to bring up historical relations, the state of India’s educational system, and immigration. In another scenario, we invented the “grass-Whopper,” a burger made of ground grasshopper, which serves as a satirical way to solve the world’s reliance on oil; meat production wastes a lot of gas, using eleven times the amount of fuel it takes to harvest other types of protein.
Somehow we have lost new ways of associating because we exist so much online. Within technology, we’re always elsewhere. pUN creates exaggerations that serve as spectacles referencing the real issues around us in the present. But it also shows our current ineptitude at conversing in public—where we must tell sensational stories to get someone’s attention. I don’t see the point of being enthusiastic about that. Art is most useful when it allows for a certain group dynamic to exist that couldn’t in a different context.