Guns become instruments and other artistic surprises fuel Flux Night


The organizing theme was undeniable for organizers of Flux Night when they selected the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, which wraps around the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, as the location for this year’s free, one-night-only extravaganza of site-specific visual and performance art on Oct. 3.

MLK had one, and Flux Night pays homage to the dreamer by embracing and expanding on the idea in the neighborhood that nurtured the Atlanta civil rights leader through his boyhood. It’s the first time the happening has been staged outside Castleberry Hill, where it attracted more than 20,000 people in 2013 before organizers skipped a year to retool.

While talking up the “Dream” theme and his lineup of 10 American and international artists, curator Nato Thompson said he didn’t want to force the concept.

“I tried to encourage everyone to be really open, like, ‘Think ‘dream,’” said Thompson, chief curator of Creative Time, the New York-based outfit known for producing temporary public art in the U.S. and around the world. “But I didn’t want a tight, constraining thematic. I wanted something that’s as wild and dreamy as the world you want to live in.”

Thompson didn’t have to persuade one of the creatives he selected, Pedro Reyes of Mexico City, whose ideas about a world improved by stricter gun control would appear to dovetail organically with ideas King espoused.

The sculptor’s projects have included “Palas Por Pistolas,” in which he transformed confiscated firearms into shovels intended for tree-planting, and “Imagine” and “Disarm,” in which weapons were retooled into musical instruments. Some of these will be played by Atlanta musicians during “Flux Night 2015: Dream.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution interviewed Reyes, 43, by email from Japan, where an exhibition of his work opened last weekend.

Q: Can you discuss how the idea of transforming guns into constructive objects came to you?

A: I think that artists have a responsibility toward guns, because some art forms help to hype guns, so its a cultural war, too. People who make movies, TV and video games don’t theorize much about this, but they are fully aware of the appeal of violence. This is precisely why most movies end with a half-hour of a stupid car chase or a gunfight. A scriptwriter will always be tempted to rely on a gun when trying to spice up a weak plot. And gun manufacturers use Hollywood to hype their products. In 2011, Brandchannel, a website that spots product placement, gave Glock a lifetime achievement award after their guns appeared in (nearly half of 2010’s) box-office-topping films.

Q: How does the sound coming out of these converted revolvers, shotguns and machine guns compare with the conventional instruments they are modeled upon?

A: Collaboration and participation are central to this work. The instruments were designed by musicians and musical experts. I provided them with the material and they created wonders with it that I could never have dreamed of. Once the instruments are made, there is the element of interpretation and how different musicians make use of the instruments. The result — the music — is never the same twice.

In the end, it is about sculpture. Sound is a very concrete way to occupy a space, and every object will reveal something about its nature when percussed. Each piece of metal had to be examined for its musical potential. For example, to make the xylophone, we had to sort through barrels of guns that had been cut from the bodies of the weapons. Each one made a different sound and had to be tested to see which note it could make on the three-octave scale.

Just as some sculptors feel that the forms they eventually reveal were already present in the stone, we were carving out these sculptures from the piles of scrap metal.

Q: How do you feel your work connects to MLK and his philosophy of non-violence?

A: I think that the legacy of MLK goes far beyond the struggle of the black movement. One example is how important it was for Cesar Chavez since he was inspired by the events in Selma and used it as an example to show how important it was to stick to non-violence in order to succeed.

Q: Is it daunting as an individual artist to try to bring about social change? How do you measure success?

A: Several of my projects have the potential to be replicated built into their DNA, so to speak. I recently received a grant from the U.S.-Mexico Foundation to organize the tree plantings, and we have just completed a bi-national planting across 10 cities in the U.S. and Mexico. So there are some accountable achievements. The artistic side of that project happened several years ago, but the social aspect of it is different. If you want a project to produce real change, you have to stick to it for life.

Q: Do you have additional ideas you plan to pursue in response to guns?

A: I recently made an event called “Amendment to the Amendment,” an exercise that tried to avoid constraining the discussion of the Second Amendment (giving individuals the right to bear arms) to what would be its “correct” interpretation and instead gave the public the radical task of rewriting the amendment itself.

Over 200 people participated in this event in which they were organized into small groups that internally debated and proposed changes to the Second Amendment. This took place at the University of South Florida in Tampa, a region that witnessed the appalling murder of Trayvon Martin and the shootings at the Wesley Chapel movie theater. As Florida is a state with a long-standing love for guns, the challenge was interesting.

Q: Finally, a logistical question: Is it a bureaucratic nightmare to ship these instruments internationally?

A: It is indeed, which is ironic given the ease with which weapons are traded around the world!

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