“My main material is my library. I consider that a very big palette,” says Pedro Reyes, the Mexico City-based artist known for his politically charged participatory and performative installations and multimedia works. “I feed myself materials twice as fast as I produce.” The range of titles he was packing into boxes and suitcases during this interview—political philosophy, sociology, economics, history, poetry, among other genres—reflected his omnivorous reading habits.
You may be able to detect some of the books that have influenced him from such works as Baby Marx (2011), a fictional dialogue about communism and capitalism between Karl Marx and Adam Smith puppets who bump into each other at Occupy Wall Street; Doomocracy (2016), the 2016 US election-themed haunted house; Disarm (2013), instruments made from melted-down and reconfigured Mexican army weapons; and People’s United Nations (2013), an experimental conference that uses techniques from art, theater, social psychology and geopolitics.
Reyes is the inaugural Dasha Zhukova Distinguished Visiting Artist at the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST). At the start of this two-year residency in fall 2016, he co-taught a studio with designer Carla Fernández titled, The Reverse Engineering of Warfare: Challenging Techno-optimism and Reimagining the Defense Sector (an Opera for the End of Times), in the MIT Program in Art, Culture and Technology (ACT). The course explored the interplay of imperialism, armed interventions, the defense budget, the history of engineering and military technology, crisis management in environmental disasters, popular entertainment and the global imbalances created by the West’s fixation on technological advancement.
His residency continues into 2018, with several research trips scheduled during the upcoming year and a public event in the spring. In this interview, Reyes shares his thoughts on techno-optimism, conflict resolution, political art and the ideas he’s been ruminating on during his residency.
A CONVERSATION WITH PEDRO REYES
At MIT, it is probably fair to assume there are more technophiles than technophobes. Could you explain the idea of “challenging techno-optimism,” which you and Carla Fernández so beautifully explored in your 2016 class in ACT?
Technology has no inherent moral value, because technology can be used as a means of oppression—like when it’s used, say, to make a nuclear bomb, or as we see happening now with automation. Automation has a social cost, which is the massive destruction of labor. And if you look at the 2016 US presidential election, for instance, algorithms shifted the election in ways that we had not foreseen.
There are unintended impacts of technology that should be considered. While there are reasons why we may want self-driving cars, we should also consider 4 million truck drivers who will be out of a job in two years, and the many more millions of taxi drivers who will go next. It’s relevant to ask whether this is something that is worth doing. It’s only fair to question which things don’t necessarily improve with technology.
“Evolution always involves atrophy.”
While there have been a lot of social improvements brought about by the internet, for example, it has also caused another set of problems. Evolution always involves atrophy. For one thing to evolve, another will suffer atrophy. In the end, the car is a motorized wheelchair. We don’t think about it, but obviously it makes us sedentary, and it has a social cost on the environment. And that’s something as simple as a car. It’s foolish to think that any technology has only positive impacts.
With most innovation, it is taken as a given that it’s a good in itself. When experiments are taking place or a new technology is being developed, there’s rarely enough thought about how it will be used.
There are, of course, a lot of people who think about this. After the Second World War, for instance, many scientists were deeply concerned with the fact that some discoveries were being used to destructive ends. And MIT has been very invested in certain efforts toward nuclear de-escalation and solving other such problems.
Yes, alongside the story of technological innovation, there has been some effort to emphasize the human impact of technology at MIT. Is this something you’re investigating during your residency here?
Both technology and the humanities share a general intention to improve the world and to solve problems—and to do this hands-on. It’s about making and not so much about theorizing. So that is something that I find extremely inspiring about MIT. And I have loved every minute of being here.
The idea of challenging techno-optimism is different from challenging technology. I love technology, but what is important is to make sure that we’re using it carefully, because technology gives people unprecedented leverage. Algorithms can help you reach enormous populations. Nanotechnology or genetics can pose big risks of contaminating the molecular order of life on Earth.
The problem is that innovation often is in a very comfortable place with capital. And in this connection, it’s very easy to lose sight of the risks involved. That’s why I believe that it’s very important to exercise criticism and to ask certain questions in all undertakings, in hopes of ensuring that technological developments are targeted to solve injustice in the world, and not used to create more injustice.
CAST artist residencies are focused on research and development of new work. Could you give an example of the types of things you have been doing during your residency to fuel your process or your artistic research?
Today, for instance, I’m meeting with Larry Susskind [professor of environmental and urban planning; co-head, Environmental Policy and Planning Group]. He’s a specialist on the legacy of Kurt Lewin, and Kurt Lewin is a fascinating part of MIT. He was a German-Jewish social scientist who came to the United States after the Second World War, and was trying to deal with post-conflict societies, such as Nazi Germany. He developed this theory of conflict resolution from working with physicists. In physics, there is an understanding that a thing exists in a certain state not because of its intrinsic nature, but because there is a set of forces acting upon that substance or situation. For instance, this bag is here [on this table] because the table prevents it from falling to the floor. So, there’s gravity versus the table that is keeping it in that position.
In the same way, a social situation is a byproduct of a set of forces acting upon it. The situation is a result of all the things around it. If you are able to modify the forces acting upon the situation, then change is produced. Kurt Lewin is a good example of someone in the humanities working with scientists not only to look at the production of social change in a scientific way, but also to achieve it through human interaction, like negotiating technique.
Larry Susskind has been working with that legacy and has been involved in peace negotiations around the world. When I was coming to MIT, I worked with CAST to identify who was working with the legacy of Kurt Lewin, and that’s how I got in touch with Larry. I think this is very important in the context of today’s political climate because you have a very divided society. People aren’t speaking to one another.
I’ve also been working with Gediminas Urbonas [director, MIT Program in Art, Culture and Technology; associate professor of architecture]. We’ve been talking about the issue of tyranny. How do you dismantle tyrannical powers currently expressed in society? You have to not only hope that change will come from the top, but also dismantle tyranny in the bases who support a tyrannical power. People ask, “How can people be supportive of Trump despite all the evidence that he’s controlled by the Russians, and he’s a total con man?”
To produce change in the perception of this large demographic often seems impossible. How do you change people’s minds? I believe that there are ways to change them, and there are techniques which have been around for nearly 80 years since Kurt Lewin was working. I’m very interested in recuperating these techniques to deal with the question of tyranny.
Do you have any words of caution or encouragement for artists who want to create politically motivated work?
Yes. The interesting thing about being an artist is that being an artist means coming up with your definition of what art is. Art is as elastic as you want it to be. Art doesn’t have to have a social role, but if you want it to have a social role, it should not be denied. I have to have a social gauge.
I don’t necessarily think that art has to change the world or even intend to change it. I think artists are often in very privileged positions, because their job is to follow their own intuition, asking the questions that they believe are important. And art offers to the broader culture that space of free exploration.
“We’re interested in art as a way to gain understanding, and that’s precisely because art is nondirected research. It’s not directed by industry, or by business or by the American political agenda. That’s why it is important.”
The reason why some people read a novel or see a movie or go to a museum is to somehow learn something about themselves. We’re interested in art as a way to gain understanding, and that’s precisely because art is nondirected research. It’s not directed by industry, or by business or by the American political agenda. That’s why it is important.
Art is useful because it is perhaps one of the least institutionalized activities, and it requires you to be critical. Sometimes it’s hard to convey why this is relevant, but it has to do with what makes us human. A lot of the art that I enjoy most has no intention to be political or social or participatory. I don’t think that art that is invested in politics is necessarily more important than a bucolic poem. It’s food for the soul. That’s what art is.
What is interesting, however, is to acknowledge that there are many fields of human activity that don’t necessarily improve with technology, for which maybe the opposite is true. For instance, food—the less technology the better. Literature—you don’t need technology. There are things that are thousands of years old, like yoga or drawing, which are valuable precisely because they offer us a moment where we don’t use technology. What we need now is to create anti-technological spaces, or a-technological spaces.
Primary education should be a computer-free zone. I grew up in the 1980s, and my parents sent me to every single computer class there was. I knew how to use COPAL and BASIC. Now, none of that is good for anything. I should have been sent to learn a musical instrument or to theater classes.
Blind enthusiasm for any technology is dangerous. I believe that one has to be aware that MIT sees the world from a very privileged place. While you may be excited about making a robot, you need to take into account the hundreds of thousands or millions of people that are going to lose their jobs because of this technology. There’s so much excitement about 3D printing and CNC routers, for example, but these things are incredibly wasteful. Maybe we’re trying to solve the wrong problems.
In this ongoing interview series, CAST Visiting Artists share aspects of their artistic processes and the ideas and stories behind the works they developed at MIT.