A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about Taryn Simon’s recent Park Avenue Armory exhibition An Occupation of Loss which was meant to be the first in a short series. I took a brief pause from this series to write about the emotional backlash I was feeling after the election. I am taking up the series idea again and this time I’m writing about Pedro Reyes’ recent exhibition Doomocracy, which was put on by Creative Time at (and in conjunction with) the Brooklyn Army Terminal. As a reminder, I have re-posted the introduction to the previous post and the series:
In most art spaces today, be it a museum, gallery, or auction house, you walk into a square, white room. It is climate controlled, clean, and quiet. The works of art hang on the walls or sit on pedestals like fetishes and the viewer gazes upon them like sacred works that have the power to impart knowledge and culture. You are not a part of this space; you are an interloper who tries to understand.
This is not how art was always displayed and it is not how art will always be displayed. Before the mid-1900s art was hung in a manner called “salon style” where it basically wall-papered the surface from floor to ceiling. Tightly hung, the curators of Europe’s great salons would fit as much art as possible on the wall because it was meant to be viewed, judged, and sold. There was no concept of “breathing room” and an artist’s position on the wall was dictated by talent, political maneuvering, and luck. It was something to be fought over and widely discussed.
Lately, I have been seeing a shift which I have been expecting for years. Moving away from a pure viewing of art, many new exhibitions are site-specific, interactive, and visceral. In my mind, this is the future of art. It speaks to the current culture of boundless information sharing, global communication, and immediate gratification. Viewers inhabit an art space and, through their actions, activate it. The best versions of this utilize a space in a unique way, encourage play, and pull from both history and contemporary culture. I have recently had the pleasure of experiencing three successful iterations of the new art space: Taryn Simon’s An Occupation of Loss, Ann Hamilton’s Habitus, and Pedro Reyes’ Doomocracy. Each show tackled a different subject, a different space, and a different medium, but each successfully created an exhibition that led to a vivid experience of humans interacting with, and thus giving life to, things. People have been animating objects since the beginning of recorded history, but the interesting aspect of these shows is that they draw attention to this fact and allow an active viewing environment that is based as much on physicality as it is on intellectualism.
Pedro Reyes: Doomocracy. Brooklyn Army Terminal, Brooklyn, New York; October 7 – November 6, 2016.
Initially, I was planning on saving Doomocracy for last because, out of the three, it was the one I had been most critical of. My criticism did not necessarily stem from it being worse than the other two, instead it was because I had been expecting more from it. I went into Taryn Simon’s space with only images and reviews in mind and few expectations. I was blown away, but it would have met higher expectations with equal success. I went into Ann Hamilton’s exhibition with slightly higher expectations because I was already a fan of her work. However, I was aware that the space was more dependent on my activating it. Once again it met my expectations. With Doomocracy, I wasn’t previously aware of Pedro Reyes’ work, but it had been sold to me conceptually as a politically-themed haunted house with a structure similar to Sleep No More. Shrouded in mystery in regards to the specifics, my imagination went wild and I was ready for a truly immersive, physical, visceral experience that pushed boundaries and hopefully scared me. Unfortunately, it did not meet these high expectations. I understand that there were probably concerns with liability issues, fear of someone getting hurt or sexually harassed, and the need to limit the actors and space in order to protect both the guests and the cast. Regardless, I think they could have taken everything further. They had a captive audience of consensual adults that they were herding through an empty, many-storied building manned by professional actors inhabiting created and controlled sets. In my mind, they played it safe and did not take it far enough.
At the time, pre-election, when I was certain that there was no way in hell Trump would win, the dystopian scenes and horror-themed political and social settings felt tongue-in-cheek. A light forewarning of a potential future based on the issues of today that everyone seemed to agree couldn’t actually happen. By the end, it felt like they were preaching to the choir, only reaching an audience that was already in agreement. I mean, really, the people who had made it to the few performances of this show way down in South Brooklyn, the people who even knew it was happening, were almost all left-leaning liberals who were interested in continuing to fund the arts, believed in climate change as a real threat, and were aware that racism, sexism, and classism are legitimate threats to many people in America, if not necessarily themselves. However, with the rapid spread of hate-crimes, the “alt-right,” and the frightening back and forth of Trump’s picks for powerful government positions since he became the most recent President-elect, my trip through Reyes’ house of horrors (in hindsight) is developing a strong sense of foreboding. It is beginning to feel like a wake-up call, especially considering the way I initially viewed it. Clearly, the bubble that I inhabit in the New York City art world has blinded me to the possibilities that we face as a country and as a species, despite my growing up in rural and conservative Upstate New York. This exhibition was not the “preaching to the choir that didn’t go far enough” that I experienced pre-election. Instead, it was an ominous warning of the potential dystopian future that we can expect if we don’t all wake up to the real state of things in both our country and our world. It is now clear that it is no longer enough to admit that racism, sexism, and classism still exist; we need to actively speak out against these acts and beliefs and reiterate that hate is never acceptable. It is not enough to shake our heads when we hear someone deny the impending threat of climate change and call them ignorant; we need to listen to them and make intelligent arguments in return. It is not enough to listen and speak with like-minded people in the cities or towns that we live in and participate in the globalized world solely through the internet, tuning out those who disagree with us. We need to all wake up and hear the cacophony of voices and opinions. We need to educate ourselves on why we believe what we believe so we can make intelligent and forceful arguments to support these beliefs. We can no longer afford to call people with differing opinions stupid or ignorant or wrong; this behavior will not change their minds nor will it reflect positively on our arguments. The only way forward is with intelligence, empathy, and activity.
While I still believe that Pedro Reyes, Creative Time, and the Brooklyn Army Terminal could have pushed further with this exhibition, it remains a strong visual account of the legitimate fears of a dark impending future. Like Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, which to this day are quoted as examples of what the world could easily become, Doomocracy created fantastical scenes that seemed like a joke until I realized just how close they are to many of the horrors we are witnessing today. As Nato Thompson, Creative Time’s artistic director, sid in the NY Times review: “It seems like a joke but the joke is really not funny at all.”
Doomocracy began with ticket holders being separated into small groups who would experience the show together. My group, once called, was sat down and given a general set of guidelines and warnings about the upcoming exhibition to both prepare the viewers and protect the cast. Rules like no cell phone activity of any kind, no touching of the actors unless invited to do so, and the introduction of a safety word in case a viewer felt things had gone too far were all smart stipulations that allowed an environment of trust to be created. We were then herded into a large van and the exhibition began in earnest. Not long into our drive, we were stopped by what looked like military personnel. They claimed we were in a restricted zone and ordered us out of the van. Yelling, carrying guns, and masked, they pushed us into a room, ordered us against a wall, and made as if to frisk us. We were all giggling slightly at the absurdity of the situation, assured in our minds of the clear fakeness of the frisk and guns. No one seemed to be considering the fact that this has been a real-life situation for many Americans. Perhaps it will become one for many more in the not-too-distant future, a fear for many Americans who are innocent of everything but being the “wrong” color or religion.
We were then herded through a door and there was an abrupt change. Suddenly, we were in a dreary room with flickering lights and a very kind, very old woman dressed in a nauseating shade of green to match the walls and with a small dog on her lap. We were encouraged to vote and to do it in a timely manner! From there, we were quickly shepherded through several different rooms which included document shredding in the name of Trump, a prescription-happy doctor who was more than willing to write me a note for the highly addictive synthetic opioid Fentanyl at my request, and a funeral director who had created brilliant candy-shaped coffins for the children who had died, presumably at the hands of their favorite trash foods which they could then be buried in. Donuts, Twinkies, Diabetes, oh my! After that, it was a blur of rooms and scenarios that no one took terribly seriously. There were conservative housewives in sweater-sets selling guns like Tupperware. When one accidentally went off and “injured” an actress, we were ushered out. Then, there was a boardroom for a company that had gone under and we were given the option to take a buy-out or work towards fixing our mistakes and improving the shattered economy. Those of us who chose the buyout saved ourselves and went on to attend a swanky art party, those who chose to make the “hard decision” and help those our company had harmed were suddenly working the event. A stray piece of dialogue stuck in my mind from when we were waiting to serve those attending the party: “I thought they all spoke Spanish or something.” Moving on, we were sold bottled air from a calm-voiced actress in prototypical futuristic silver clothing. Only the best air for the highest price for the most discerning (i.e. wealthy) buyer. Teenage cheerleaders cheered anti-abortion while a pregnant teen burned at the stake. The post-practice discussion was the most disturbing part as the clearly queen-bee-type girl chastised her team with a valley-girl accent before they had to run off to class: “It was ok, not great.” The finale was a soccer match between people who had chosen to go through Trump’s door (those who were undecided were lumped into the Trump team) and those who went through Hillary’s, with a blow-up globe being the ball.
The part that struck me the most, though, was towards the end. We were given virtual reality glasses (a novelty by itself since many people haven’t had the opportunity to try these glasses yet) and told to put them on. We were led about in a row, connected and guided by a rope we all held onto. The glasses showed us a familiar scene of peaceful woods with deer and gently falling leaves. As you looked around, the three-dimensional scene was perfect and you were alone. There were bird noises and rustling sounds. Even the floor had been strewed with something that felt like gravel or acorns, something that made it feel like you were walking across a forest floor. All that connected you to reality was the rope grasped in one hand and the voice of your guide: a park ranger for the newly privatized national parks. Suddenly, there was a motorized noise and the guide freaked out, pleading with us to run and save ourselves, that they would kill us or harvest our organs or something equally gruesome. As we all pulled off our glasses we were met by actors on Segways in Mad Max-esque garb and brandishing weapons. We were pushed through the “real” scene which was a hallway or alleyway strewn with refuse and trash. Having grown up in the country, with acres of woods for a backyard, this scene was the most relatable for me. I shifted from being transported to a scene that reminded me of home to being yanked back into the old army terminal that was grey, dirty, and mechanized. I realized, even then, how close we are to a world where nature and greenery can only be manufactured in virtual reality. I was aware of how delicate our situation is.
As I walked out of the space, still unaware of the level of foreboding I was going to associate with the show as I write about it now, I was still aware of the attempt to make this a wake-up call of sorts. It may have been intended to wake up the people who still believe that climate change isn’t real, or those who are still convinced that we live in a post-race/post-gender/post-class society, or those who aren’t aware of the delicate system we all live in. Regardless of what it was meant to be, Doomocracy for me has become a wake-up call to how easily our future can become this dystopian thing that has, up to now, been no more than a source of inspiration for movies, books, and morality lessons. It is a wake-up call to how many people do not think the way that I think, do not agree with me, and who hold different things to be dear and important and worth fighting for. In my mind, the things that are important to me are right and objectively important, but it is easy to forget just how subjective our lives and opinions truly are. The things I have read about over the past several weeks and months have begun to sound familiar, they remind me a little of much of the years leading up to WWII and I am scared. If we are not careful, Doomocracy could legitimately become our future. As I walked out of the Brooklyn Army Terminal, into the chill night air with my friends, I couldn’t help but hear the over-dramatic refrain of “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah” as sung by Madeline Kahn in Mel Brook’s movie Young Frankenstein.