Hashtags: House of Horrors

#privatization #gentrification #immigration #violence #history #freedom

At the time of this writing, Pedro Reyes’ Doomocracy installation at the Brooklyn Army Terminal feels like a relic of a bygone era. Just one week after the project’s close, it is difficult for this writer to remember what it felt like to laugh at a funhouse of political horrors, featuring privatized national parks, designer oxygen boutiques, anti-abortion pep rallies, and severe global warming conditions. In the interim, the worst-case scenario has become our grim reality.

Pedro Reyes. Doomocracy (Voting Room), 2016.

Pedro Reyes. Doomocracy (Voting Room), 2016.

Doomocracy, billed as “a maze of near apocalyptic torments, from climate change to pandemic gun violence to GMOs,” ran for five weekends in October and November in the lead-up to the twin horrors of Halloween and the national election. Reyes took over a multi-story building at the Brooklyn Army Terminal (BAT) to create his haunted house. Like other Brooklyn sites that project producer Creative Time has utilized for temporary public artworks in the past, BAT is a post-industrial conversion site presently being developed for residential and commercial uses. Around 200 people per night were permitted to enter the event, which ran for fifteen nights, and quickly sold out. Visitors were admitted in groups of twelve, approximately every ten minutes.

Each group of visitors was seated inside a van and driven a short distance from the queuing area to the installation. As we drove, we listened to conservative talk-radio hosts discuss immigration restrictions on Muslims and Mexicans. Our approach was stopped by riot police, multi-ethnic but uniformly aggressive. After frisking us, they led us into another room where we were invited to cast a ballot—promptly shredded—then another where we met a ladies’ club of gun aficionados promoting color-coordinated armaments.

The next room was a clinic where two members of our group were admitted into the doctor’s office. The rest of us watched from the waiting room, while a middle-aged woman begged for help in obtaining a false prescription (whether for reasons of addiction or deprivation was unclear). Following this, we were ushered into seats around a conference table, given a shareholder report to read, and asked to vote in either the public interest or our own self-interest. The self-interested voter in our party, a young white man, was led to a waiting elevator. The rest of us—mostly women and people of color—had to climb four flights of stairs to the next attraction.

Pedro Reyes. Doomocracy, 2016.

Pedro Reyes. Doomocracy, 2016.

Upstairs, the stair-climbers were given aprons and trays and made to perform as servers at an art collector’s party. Those who took the elevator were treated as guests. We traveled through an airshaft into a classroom, taught remotely by a CGI model that recalibrated from a black woman to a white man in the middle of a lesson about how to survive a school shooting. A pair of high school cheerleaders led us through a song-and-dance routine villainizing their pregnant classmate, whom they had tied to a stake. What seemed a too-broad parody at the time feels, in retrospect, like a boot camp for our future.

Further on, we took a walk through a virtual reality forest brought to us by park privatization, in which the simulation of a natural experience was augmented by a rustling underfoot (revealed to be plastic waste). A quiet tableau of a Muslim-American couple drinking tea (terror!) led onto a set of doors marked “Trump,” “Clinton,” and “Other.” Chastened by the stairwell experience, I chose capitalist self-interest and entered through the first door. Clinton voters were given a mask of her face. The rest of us got Trump. We played a game of soccer with large, inflatable globe, and I scored the winning goal. I cheered. How fitting that the last level was a descent into global warming hell.

Reyes’ vision of America is of a society doomed by civility. Nearly every interaction in Doomocracy was characterized by the same soothing, corporate tone, as if America is fundamentally a sales pitch. Perhaps for the artist, who lives in Mexico, this is borne out by experience. However for Americans, the comfortable tone of moral rectitude that Doomocracy reinforces is in sharp contrast to the dangerous world we must now recognize and face. The pitch has shifted from a soft sell to a hard one.

US armed forces personnel with wooden clubs during the Zoot Suit Riots in 1943. Photo courtesy of Visual Materials from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Records/Library of Congress.

US armed forces personnel with wooden clubs during the Zoot Suit Riots in 1943. Photo from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Records/Library of Congress.

The ascension of Trump was hardly unforeseeable given global political trends over the past several years. As we grasp anxiously for some idea of what to expect, we can look to countries like Turkey, Poland, Brazil, India, and of course, Russia, for current parallels. We can also look to the not-so-distant past for clues. The Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College offers some insights in the important exhibition Tastemakers and Earthshakers: Notes from Los Angeles Youth Culture 1943-2016. It begins with the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, when white enlisted men stationed in Southern California attacked the city’s Chicano, Black, and Filipino teenagers, whose subcultures they considered a threat to American patriotism. In the intervening years, little has changed rhetorically. Connecting LA to international trends in Britain and elsewhere, the show offers an instructive take on the importance of youth movements to social progress and individual freedom. The contributions of contemporary LA artists including Alex Donis, Dino Dinco, Shizu Saldamando, Salomon Huerta, Nery Gabriel Lemus, and Slanguage collective members Mario Ybarra, Jr., Karla Diaz, and Marlene Tafoya, powerfully relate these historical narratives to present-day concerns. This vision of resistance as tied to Latino perspectives on America seems crisper and more of the moment than Reyes’, underscoring how radically our paradigm has changed.

Notable throughout Doomocracy was the multicultural casting of the project, which capitalized on the broad array of non-white performers available in a city like New York. The assembled audience appeared equally multicultural, though another commonality between performers and audience were that participants over fifty were overwhelmingly white—statistics that mirror the demographics of the nation as a whole. Privatization of parks, schools, and even oxygen was a target, but not the rampant property speculation that drives ventures like the Brooklyn Army Terminal and undergirds the Trump brand (with support from Democratic leaders like the mayors of New York and Los Angeles). Poverty and economic uncertainty remains a bigger driver for climate change and sectarian violence than any of the middle-class value clashes that Reyes satirized. This is a system that artists perpetuate to the same extent as they oppose it. Now that the soft-power economic approach that underpinned Obama’s era at the head of the Empire is likely to cede wholesale to violence, it is questionable whether an equivocal approach is either ethical or relevant.

Pedro Reyes: Doomocracy was on view at the Brooklyn Army Terminal from October 7 to November 5, 2016. Tastemakers and Earthshakers is on view at the Vincent Price Art Museum in Monterey Park, CA, through February 25, 2017.

#Hashtags is a series exploring the intersection of art, social issues, and global politics.