Doomocracy, 2016. House of horrors at the Brooklyn Army Terminal, detail of Lady Liberty as a Trojan horse. Photo: Will Star, Shooting Stars Pro, © Pedro Reyes, Courtesy Creative Time

Rage Against the Machines: A Conversation with Pedro Reyes

Pedro Reyes took a new direction in his recent exhibition at London’s Lisson Gallery, bringing the sociopolitical sensibility for which he is best known to an unexpected form—statuary. Many of these figures memorialize anonymous protesters. In other works, humans battle with robots and machines. Volcanic stone, marble, bronze, and steel come together in sci-fi dystopian scenarios that mirror everyday reality. While creating this body of work, Reyes was continuing his ongoing project to repurpose firearms. Earlier this year, his flutes made from rifles performed in Cincinnati at a March For Our Lives event advocating for stricter gun control laws in the aftermath of the Parkland high school shooting in February 2018. “Double Agents: Carla Fernández and Pedro Reyes” is on view at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art through January 27, 2019.

Robert Preece: Machines seem to be taking over all aspects of life—fast-food ordering machines, self-scanning checkouts at public libraries and supermarkets, smart cards, and smart gates are all eliminating human workers. What are your new works saying in regard to developing technological applications?
Pedro Reyes: They are connected to a class called “The Reverse Engineering of Warfare: Challenging Techno-optimism and Reimagining the Defense Sector–an Opera for the End of Time,” which I was teaching at MIT with my wife Carla Fernández in the fall of 2017. This was a critical take on MIT’s mentality. They are constantly thinking of new ways to replace humans with robots—self-driving cars, clerk-less grocery stores. The problem with automation, which is a clear example of job destruction, is that it’s creating a new class struggle. This is not a new problem, but it is accelerating, and I think that we will face a lot of conflict due to automation in the near future. So, I wanted to stage an allegory in which you had humanity victorious against the machine.

RP: Many of these works refer to historical sculpture. Is there a specific work behind Versus Machina (2018)?
PR: Versus Machina is based on a piece that I saw at the Victoria and Albert Museum—Giambologna’s Samson Slaying a Philistine. Paired figures in Baroque sculpture have extremely convoluted postures—it is almost impossible to imagine how they worked with models to figure out such complex positions. I rarely have access to models because I don’t do much figurative work, so I used this sculpture as a template to stage two conflicting figures. But before that, I had the subject itself. I wanted to do an allegory of humanity overcoming technology.

Versus Machina, 2018. Bronze, 154 x 119 x 90 cm. Photo: © Pedro Reyes, Courtesy Lisson Gallery

RP: A few years ago, a work like Machinic Phylum I (2017) would have appeared fun and cartoon-like. Now, it quickly becomes uncomfortable.
PR: The title refers to Manuel DeLanda’s first book, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, in which he describes the machinic phylum, which is at once a record of the evolution of machines and a taxonomy. The idea of a car with legs is connected to a startup that I began 10 years ago called, which was a carpooling Web site. The logo was a car with legs, so I made the three-dimensional version of it. Most of my sculptures have a story behind them that motivates me do to them.

RP: Do you think your protest figures on plinths would work as life-size public sculptures? If so, where would you site them?
PR: I haven’t intended them as public sculpture, and I don’t know if they would fit that program. However, I drew inspiration from the idea of the monument, and I wanted to have a new take on the role of statuary. Since most statues depict known heroes, mostly men, I wanted to do the opposite and use the anonymous protester as an allegory of the contemporary hero.

A lot of current social involvement happens on-line, so to go beyond electronic interaction and take yourself to the streets as an act of resistance has a pressing, heroic weight. I wanted to represent the spontaneous act of grabbing a piece of cardboard and writing a sign. These sculptures were made at the end of 2016, before the United States presidential election, so, in a way, they were a premonition of the Women’s March and other, later events.

RP: Could you walk me through Jaguar and Seer (both 2018)?
They are connected to an experiment that I did years ago as part of the first edition of Sanatorium in 2011. More than 200 participants were blindfolded, and they had to stick out their tongues, which were then exposed to lights covered with different colored filters. Their job was to describe the flavor. Light, in fact, has a taste, and each color is different. As I collected the answers, some patterns started to emerge. Blue, for instance, was often associated with a salty flavor. So, I made a logo of a tongue coming out of an eyelid, which led to Seer. And then I made the opposite, Jaguar, which is an eye coming out of a mouth. Both works are connected with synesthesia. They look like pretty obvious products of imagination; so far I haven’t found other representations of these “mutations.”

Seer, 2018. Volcanic stone, 65 x 74 x 52 cm. Photo: © Pedro Reyes, Courtesy Lisson Gallery

RP: You use bronze, concrete, steel, and volcanic stone. Do you make the works yourself? And if not, to what extent are you involved in the process?
I’m involved in all of the processes, but I don’t work alone. In my studio, I have a team of assistants. Some of them do welding, others do casting, carving, and sanding, which is how sculptors have always worked. In all periods of history, sculptors have had ateliers with a team of people. I focused more on doing the figurative carving because you have to make decisions every second. If I have to make a perfect cube out of marble, I can delegate; but if I am doing a portrait, for instance, I try to do most of it.

RP: Among these materials, which do you like most to work with?
PR: What I enjoy most is stone carving because you are working directly on the final piece. I never thought I would do bronze, so it is still a guilty pleasure, and I am just learning to appreciate patinas.

RP: In Sanatorium (2011–present), you invited visitors to sign up for a “temporary clinic” that offered therapies, including trust-building games and hypnosis. What have you learned from the project’s different iterations?
PR: Sanatorium as a subject is very broad, but the specific role of sculpture within it is as a relational device. This has been the role of sculpture since very ancient times. In one therapy, Philosophical Casino, which works as an oracle, you ask a question, and then you have dice with sides featuring philosophical quotations. You take these giant dice and throw them to get an answer. The fact of using an object for this chance operation prepares the mind to put specific weight and relevance on the sentence that is given. In Goodoo, you have a doll to which you attach objects or charms intended to do good to a person. It’s a sort of white magic. Creating sculptures that are activated by the public is a big part of my work. The framework is a kind of secular ritual that allows the mind to enter a specific psychodynamic.

Philosophical Casino II, 2008. Corian, 72 x 51 x 52 cm. Photo: © Pedro Reyes, Courtesy Lisson Gallery

RP: Doomocracy (2016), sponsored by Creative Time at the Brooklyn Army Terminal, featured multiple room-size environments that conflated Halloween and the 2016 U.S. presidential election into a single house of horrors. The work used 31 actors and 40 volunteers. Were there any rooms that you particularly liked?
PR: You were welcomed by an effigy of the Statue of Liberty as a Trojan horse, which obviously addressed U.S. imperialism. The U.S. has spent 200 years waging war against other countries in the name of freedom, so I wanted to reveal the real face of this rhetoric.

There was another scenario that I had fun doing, called “Keeping up with the Shkrelis,” in which you play a part in a boardroom and you have to choose between getting a golden parachute of 50 million dollars or saving 5,000 jobs. Those who decided to help themselves were invited as guests to a ritzy apartment. The others were sent up the stairs to play the role of servants. The couple hosting the party had found excitement racing rockets, so they bragged about commissioning new rockets from Frank Gehry. Meanwhile, in a corner, a 3D printer was printing small chocolates shaped like rockets. Because this was a farcical play, I was able to mock the excesses of star architects.

RP: Were there any unexpected surprises?
I thought people would be offended to see the Statue of Liberty, the icon
of the city and the country, mocked in this way. Surprisingly, people ended up taking selfies next to it. I don’t know if they liked the allegory or didn’t get it.

RP: It takes a team to produce something on such a large scale. Did you see yourself as the conductor of an orchestra?
PR: Theater obviously involves a large production team, and this immersive installation had to run like clockwork. We had 16 rooms, which had to be perfectly synchronized. Before the play started, everyone had to set their clocks; an alarm went off every 10 minutes, which signaled when it was time to finish the scene and start over. In that way, we could keep up with a theater piece that was catering to a dozen people coming in every five minutes. I love working on complex projects such as this. Theater is up for a few weeks then gone forever, so it is a miracle to witness it.

Gun Flute, 2018. Deconstructed shotguns and rifle barrels, dimensions variable. Photo: Calcagno Cullen

RP: In Disarm (Mechanized) (2012), you used approximately 6,700 illegal firearms, crushed by tanks and steamrollers, as base material to make musical instruments. This project continued Palas por Pistolas (2007–present) in which you transformed guns into shovels and used them to plant trees. Are these works enabling a wider dialogue?
PR: The focus of these pieces is not so much on illegal or legal firearms, as on weapons manufacturing itself. My goal is to draw attention to the fact that we often place the blame on those who pull the trigger, while the manufacturers get off the hook. Sixty-four percent of all weapons sold worldwide are bought by civilians in the U.S. That is why the NRA spends so much on lobbying in Washington—because if the civilian market were to dwindle it would be a major blow to the military industrial complex. It’s inspiring that the Florida students now leading a campaign against the NRA have understood their power; it is urgent for this critical mass to grow if change is to come.

This is an ongoing project. I recently did an edition in Cincinnati, where we turned rifles into flutes—17 of them to honor the 17 fatalities of the Parkland school shooting. The flutes performed at the March For Our Lives. Also, for a show that I am doing at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA) in Arizona, we’re creating a new version of a workshop called “Amendment to the Amendment” in which the public will be invited to do iterations of the Second Amendment. We’re welcoming everyone, even those who would like to do a more pro-gun Second Amendment. The goal is to put the fact that laws can be rewritten into the public imagination. The Second Amendment is the Achilles’s heel of the NRA, and if you create enough momentum so that people become aware that this amendment can be rewritten, it could lead to real change.

Robert Preece is a Contributing Editor for Sculpture.