The artwork of Pedro Reyes’ has always held an optimistic tone, showing viewers how even the most destructive elements of our world can be transformed into something beautiful. His message has been one of resistance and defiance, like an unstoppable vessel in a storm of uncertainty and chaos. Reye’s most recent piece, Doomocracy, is a commission by New York–based non-profit Creative Time. Doomocracy is a social-political haunted house; a performance piece that brings participants intimately close to that same chaos and drags them across the room, down the hall, up the stairs, and agonizingly slowly down an elevator to where it drops you off right where you started, physically at least. In the past, I’ve left his work feeling accomplished and invigorated. Saddened but motivated—ready to challenge the systems that support the pillars of injustice in our country and in our world. And while Doomocracy is rich, ambitious, and complex in the sheer amount of terrifying issues our society needs to desperately address, it leaves participants with a distinctly different aftertaste than the last work Reyes has produced in our city.
Three years ago, in November of 2013, Pedro Reyes’ created his first iteration of People’s United Nations (pUN) that spanned two days at the Queens Museum of Art, located in Queens, NY. This brought together ‘delegates’ from over 200 nations for a weekend of discussing world issues and experimenting with social collaboration. I was invited to be a delegate for Syria, a nation in the midst of an ongoing civil war that continues to plague my family members abroad. While global politics can be a minefield of disagreement, People’s United Nations often felt like a celebration. We were creating this brilliant work of art in the very building that housed the actual United Nations from 1946-50. There seemed to be an internationally communal mindset that the leaders of our countries were absolute shit: squabbling over who could dominate the other in a race to see who could kill our planet the fastest. But the people who were living in those countries? Those same people that were now delegates in Reyes’ pUN? Amiable. Smart. Willing to compromise and even forgive. Reyes’ choice to include an Alien Auditor to settle disputes like war crimes, border crossings, and genocide was like rapidly zooming out from how our past disagreements had transformed into something beyond themselves. The motive seemed clear to me—we have to learn to apologize and accept apologies more often in order to realize the inter-cultural overlaps of our hopes and dreams for our planet.
Doomocracy is a major deviation in tone from Reyes’ past work, and at times feels as though the artist is embracing / unleashing his Id upon the world. Every ounce of his anger (and sadness) for the depressing state of our society is absorbed by the participants. Where the artist used to present alternatives and solutions to our local and global woes, Doomocracy holds up a cold and critical mirror. It does not forgive the fact that we’ve made a bed that’s riddled with disregard for others—we’ll be sleeping in it nonetheless. Moreover, Reyes will be
there to tell us a bedtime story, one that mocks us for being so optimistic and naïve that resolutions to our man-made dilemmas would simply present themselves.
On a physical level, Doomocracy abuses the senses of the audience, and shines light on how we’ve abused each other, our planet, ourselves. Each room you enter is teeming with mistrust for others and paranoia for the future. What may be most unsettling about the piece is the frank and unapologetic realism of it. There are few scenes that are beyond the imagination, merely representations of actual processes in our messed up world. A century ago, when the dust settled from World War I, artist Paul Klee came home from the fight and said “The more horrifying this world becomes, the more art becomes abstract; while a world at peace produces more realistic art.” This notion couldn’t be farther from the truth in Reyes’ work. And each performer sees fit to that. Rena Anakwe’s dual roles as classroom teacher awoke an all too familiar response in the audience. It was almost as if sitting at those school desks triggered all the tropes of classroom malaise and predictability that Americans are steeped in for the first two decades of their lives.
At another point, after leaving an absolutely miserable waiting room alongside a soccer mom addicted to prescription drugs, the audience is pushed into an intimate space and flanked on all sides by references to sugary treats, along with a large, sweaty organist who is all too comfortable to engage with direct eye contact. It’s here that Matthew Korahais’ performance as a ‘salesman’ in the religiously themed Sugar Coffin room brought the realism of a sad yet beautiful eulogy to a new level. Telling a story that is as somber as it is sarcastic, he invites you to join in a fleeting moment of sweetness on a plastic disposable spoon.
Unable to resist, I’ll admit: I joined in. As the sugar hit my tongue, for a brief moment I had escaped all this social and political horror; this unearthly pinkish-magenta frosting hijacked my senses and all the dread I was facing seemed like it was going to be okay. Korahais locked eyes with me this whole time, almost knowingly smiling at my brief escape from Reyes’ theater of the damned. “Oh it’s good, isn’t it?” he mused, before our group was swept into the next room. And the next room, and the next. As we exited, I looked back at the coffin salesman and he just kept smiling.
Reyes’ unstoppable inferno has far more than nine levels, and many rooms contain elements of deception, so I would rather not go into detail on the rest so that the experience can happen fully and without expectation. One suggestion: Silence your phone, put it in airplane mode, or just outright turn it off. You won’t need it. There will be no selfies to capture this FOMO event and your time will be better spent learning to deal and feel through the layers of precaution that Reyes will be sending your way...there will be plenty of it.
Walking away from The Army Terminal in Sunset Park proved more difficult than one could imagine. The participants of Doomocracy lingered around the entrance, unsure. Some conversed in huddled groups. Some smoked cigarettes. Upon my own exit, I sat in the October cold and thought back to the final day of the People’s United Nations in late November of 2013—leaving the Queens Museum along with delegates from Haiti, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Russia, and Austria. As we walked to catch the 7 train, I felt caught up in this moment, thinking that if more ordinary folks got involved in the decision making process, then we’d probably have less problems in the world. As I left, Doomocracy, I wondered if that was optimistic and naïve to think this way. Honestly, I’m still wondering that.
Though, it’s important to recognize that entering Doomocracy may be the last moment of innocence you’ll ever have when it comes to social and political discourse in our country. Recalling Alan Moore’s prescient writing from 1989, “How did this happen? Who's to blame? Well certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but truth be told, if you're looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror.” Upon your exit from this performance, you’ll (hopefully) suffer a responsibility of conscience: every time you enter a voting booth Reyes will be there to hold up the mirror; or the next time you throw away plastic rather than recycling it, the mirror will show itself; or in conversation with a coworker, friend or family member, perhaps you’ll be the one to hold up the mirror. There’s so much hanging in precarious balance as humanity begins to draw its next breath in what has now been dubbed the Anthropocene, a new geological age we are living in when one species dominates the state of the climate and environment. It is conclusively inevitable that our global temperatures will explode, water will be scarce, and species will continue die off at alarming rates. We, the humans of Earth, may in fact choose to throw down our plastic bottles of sugary drinks and raise our fists to say “Enough!” or we may meekly ask how our demise could have ever happened when we were at literally every part of the engineering process. I wonder for Pedro Reyes, will there be forgiveness when there is no future? Or is it possible that there will only be the doom that we created, nurtured, raised to adulthood, and then unleashed upon ourselves.
Go see Doomocracy and find out for yourself.