Pedro Reyes and The People’s United Nations
If recent headlines are a reliable barometer of the state of the world— “43 Missing Students, a Mass Grave and a Suspect: Mexico’s Police”; “Egyptian Judges Drop All Charges against Mubarak”; “Boehner Says Obama’s Immigration Action Damages Presidency”; “U.N. Panel Issues Its Starkest Warning Yet on Global Warming”— then it seems that we are living in an age of intense violence, unbridled corruption, purposeful gridlock, and such persistent environmental degradation that frequent drought, flooding, and hurricanes have become the new normal. Citizens of countries around the world—even those founded on the ideals of democracy and governments of, by, and for the people—feel increasingly powerless in today’s political climate. Another headline (from 2013 and backed up by a Gallup poll) indicates that the root of this malaise—at least in the context of American life—is the government: “Fewer Americans Than Ever Trust Gov’t to Handle Problems.” Given this stark reality, perhaps it is time to consider alternatives to our standard political and diplomatic processes. What if solving even our most challenging and sometimes seemingly insurmountable problems was put in the hands—and the rains—of the public for whom government is supposed to work? If the United Nations remains the best role model for cooperative efforts to maintain peace internationally, protect human rights, and provide humanitarian aid, then what if we established a United Nations made up of ordinary people rather than diplomats? This is the proposal put forward by the Mexican artist Pedro Reyes in his project The People’s United Nations (pUN). pUN consists of both an exhibition and a performance in the form of a two-day gathering of delegates— everyday citizens connected by birth or family ties to the 195 member and observer states of the United Nations who volunteer their time as participants and come together to experiment with peaceful problem-solving. Reyes’s project embraces nontraditional conflict resolution techniques rooted in creativity to test the idea that they might be useful in conjunction with more standard diplomatic procedures to help advance humanitarian efforts and social reform.
It is fitting that the acronym for The People’s United Nations is pUN, as humor and role-playing have long been central to Reyes’s work, which has for the past fifteen years taken up intense, overwhelming, and even dire subjects but with a decided and deliberate sense of optimism. Reyes taps into specific exercises and theoretical practices in which play and humor are considered both therapeutic and productive, and the pUN delegate gathering uses avant-garde theater games, group therapy, and conflict resolution techniques to grapple with and propose solutions for several critical issues affecting our world today. Indeed, Reyes’s pUN, like all puns, can be understood to have two meanings (or two positions): a lighthearted interpretation of the notion of the global conference, which ultimately functions as a gathering of local communities, and an overtly political action intended to remind the public that we have the power to create change and to teach tools for the potential radical liberation of citizens.