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Pedro Reyes on Disarming North America’s Gun Problem

Amid debates and hot takes over firearms, Pedro Reyes uses medium as message to subvert the objects polarized by politics and borders.

Born in Mexico City in 1972, Reyes uses his formal training as an architect to engineer large-scale works about social justice. He was one of 35 artists from 19 countries in the 2013 Carnegie International exhibition, where he showed his orchestra of firearms turned mechanized musical instruments. Titled Disarm, the gunmetal instruments perform precomposed compositions via computer programs. Still resembling their original components, Reyes writes on his website that the instruments lose their threat of physical harm but retain the sheer might of their original purpose.

“Overall in history, there’s been a lot of engineering and talent put into the design of weapons, as well as the design of musical instruments,” Reyes said. “I collaborated with musicians that have worked in a shop with smiths and finding ways to extract sounds from different kinds of weapons—guns, rifles, shotguns, machine guns—and it’s out of that I’ve made guitars, flutes, percussion, etc.”

Reyes views the transformation from firearm to art and instrument as a kind of alchemy procedure, “turning an agent of death into an agent of life,” while retaining a pacifist purpose to avoid glorifying the object in a “redemption of the metal.”

“I think about Disarm as a form of exorcism, expelling a demon that has overtaken the body. In the United States, demons of war and violence possess the social body,” Reyes wrote for Creative Time Reports. “In the instruments I’ve built from guns, the weaponry appears intact—though, of course, it is no longer functional—so that people still have to deal with this demon.”

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Detail of wind chime piece in Pedro Reyes’ Disarm installation in the Hall of Sculpture during the 2013 Carnegie International. (Bryan Conley/Carnegie Museum of Art)

Efforts to combat illegal gunrunning from the United States to Mexico have largely failed, according to a report from the US Accountability Office. Seventy percent of the nearly 105,000 guns seized in Mexico from 2009 to 2014 were traced back to the United States, the majority of which were purchased through the small time sellers President Obama is attempting to better regulate.

“Firearm trafficking organizations also frequently obtain firearms from unlicensed private sellers in secondary markets, particularly at gun shows and flea markets or through classified ads or private-party Internet postings,” the report found.

While Mexico is eager to rid itself of the weapons purchased during Felipe Calderon’s presidential term, Reyes thinks that real change isn’t possible until the country stops the flow of guns from the United States.

“As it stands now, the United States is an extremely dangerous neighbor,” Reyes wrote for Creative Time Reports.

Reyes said it is time to curb projection of weapons, as there is no “cultural projection against weapon manufacturers,” but there aren’t enough “tools to counter the omnipresence of weapons.”

“They don’t have that ability both in the US and Mexico and around the world, so I’m basically using music and art, sculpture, etc., and taking almost—it’s kind of like an alchemical process—something that has been made for killing into something that is meant for sharing, which is music,” Reyes said.

Reyes began working with reclaimed weapons in 2007 under commission for Palas por Pistolas, a project that offered residents in Culiacán, Mexico, coupons for home goods in exchange for their guns. Reyes collected and steamrolled 1,527 guns, transforming the raw material into the same number of shovels to plant the same number of trees.

Reyes’ work reclaimed and sublimated the guns in Culiacán, a major drug trafficking center and the city with the highest rate of gun violence in Mexico. Palas por Pistolas led to Disarm, after Reyes heard the Mexican government had seized 6,700 firearms from criminal organizations and planned to dismantle and bury the remains. The first generation of the exhibition garnered instruments that others could play, while the second generation produced an orchestra of mechanized instruments which haunt through compositions arranged beforehand by a team at COCOLAB studio in Mexico City.

“In that sense, the work is not complete until the public or other participants infuse life into it,” Reyes said.

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Pedro Reyes’ Disarm installation in the Hall of Sculpture during the 2013 Carnegie International. (Bryan Conley/Carnegie Museum of Art)

Since its inception in 1896, the Carnegie International has been Carnegie Museum of Art’s signature survey series, the preeminent exhibition of new international art in the United States. To learn more about the artists and artworks showcased throughout the history of this celebrated exhibition, please visit the archives.

Since its inception in 1896, the Carnegie International has been Carnegie Museum of Art’s signature survey series, the preeminent exhibition of new international art in the United States.