This article was originally published in Domus 962 / October 2012
It was almost a year ago when my cousin, who works at the National Commission of Human Rights in Mexico, told me the story of a Black Hawk helicopter that was shot from the ground by the Michoacán-based drug cartel La Familia. One of the pilots got hit. The helicopter, she explained, was given to Mexico's federal police by the United States government as part of the Merida Initiative, which is a transnational agreement signed in 2008 between the United States, Mexico and Central American countries to combat drug trafficking by the supply of American war equipment and military training.
"What is striking and contradictory about this story," my cousin said, "is that upon analysing the helicopter's perforations, it showed that the weapon used was a Barrett .50 calibre firearm, which is an extremely difficult machine to operate." She then explained how a series of Barrett .50 firearms entered Mexico illegally through another US initiative, Operation Fast and Furious, which ran from late 2009 to early 2011. This controversial government strategy "purposely allowed licensed firearms dealers to sell weapons to illegal 'straw buyers', hoping to track the guns to Mexican drug cartel leaders." 
"It's gun politics," my cousin said. We discussed how this particular subject doesn't really figure in the political discourse of Mexico's current drug war. There's such an obvious link between weapons and violence, and yet, it's all about drugs. 
It is this particular subject that the Mexico City–based artist
Pedro Reyes attempts to address in his most recent work
Imagine, which is being presented at the recently inaugurated
Gwangju Biennale in South Korea. This performance-based
work consists of more than 500 altered pieces of artillery, which
were confiscated by Mexico's Secretary of National Defense,
and donated to Pedro for artistic purposes only. This halftonne
weapon bundle was then morphed into a set of about 50
functioning musical instruments. Through concert-like events,
Imagine uses the universal medium of music to direct our
attention to the madness of gun policies.
In 2008, Pedro launched another project that followed a similar
principle: Palas por Pistolas (Shovels for guns). As described in
the project's website, it is "a campaign to curb the trade of small
weapons." In this sense, Palas por Pistolas is a participatory
project, a campaign: upon the donation of 1,527 guns from the
city of Culiacán, 1,527 shovels to plant 1,527 trees were made. The
project is still ongoing, and it's certainly a precedent to Pedro's
most recent work.
"It was actually meant to be a bell," said Pedro when discussing Imagine in a recent phone interview. (He was in Gwangju, preparing Imagine's second performance, which was to occur at the opening of the Biennale with a group of local musicians who would be playing the instruments.) "You know how bells are sometimes used as an alarm instrument?" he continued. "Like a rape whistle?" I asked. "Exactly," he said.
Unsure of the direction in which the bell idea was leading, a
cab-ride conversation in Mexico City with former Bogota mayor
Antanas Mockus — who is known for his unorthodox tactics to
resolve conflict; someone with whom Pedro often discusses his
projects — encouraged him to take the "music" rather than the
"alarm" approach to the bell. He toyed with the idea and decided
to create instruments for a fully functioning musical band.
"These weapons were all used, and many people died because
of them," said Pedro. "The causes of violence involve a complex
international network, and I'm interested in uncovering the
circuits of production and trafficking of small weapons, because
it is obvious that they're all fabricated in different countries,
and most of the companies that produce them are listed on the
stock market. You find them in Austria, Sweden, Belgium, the
United States, etc. There is a whole industry and international
market that we normally don't see, that is only made visible
when the weapons are used."
"I wanted to liberate these objects from their demons rather than perpetuating their association to death. When the instruments are played, it is as if some sort of exorcism is performed on them, and the negativity they inherently posses turns into something positive."
Earlier this summer, I attended the first presentation of
Imagine at Alumnos47, a new art foundation in Mexico City
that commissioned and produced the piece. I arrived late, but
heard sounds from a distance, and slowly, as I was making my
way into the venue, I realized the distorted tunes I heard were
from John Lennon's legendary song, Imagine. In Mexico, Pedro's
Imagine makes the air heavy, as everybody there is aware of the
+60,000 drug-related deaths that have occurred in the 6-year
tenure of outgoing president Felipe Calderón, who notoriously
declared "war on drugs". John Lennon's Imagine is a globally
recognised peace anthem that calls for a borderless unified
world. For Pedro, this utopian world is one without weapons.
He noted how he wasn't fully convinced about Imagine's title,
but after thinking about the ambitions of his piece, I believe
it has a purpose. Pedro's work tends to have an optimistic
message, which sometimes can erroneously be understood as
naïve. Rather, his always rigorous and research-based projects
engage with the audience in almost therapeutic ways, aiming
to get into the visitor's conscience.
Our conversation left me wondering why the subject of gun control only seems to enter the public discourse when punctual events occur. We are reminded of this subject every so often by insane mass murders in the most unthinkable places: a Batman premiere in Aurora, Colorado; a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin; a summer camp on Utøya Island, Oslo. In Mexico, this happens all year round, but it's only about drugs. So why wait for another horrific murder to engage with this subject and put it in the forefront of the international agenda? Pedro Reyes' gun-tune performance aims to do exactly that. José Esparza Chong Cuy (@JoseEsparza)
1. Richard A. Serrano, "Emails show top Justice Department officials knew of ATF gun program," Los Angeles Times, October 3, 2011
2. Our conversation was based on an article by Víctor Hugo Michel titled "El francotirador del narco II" for Milenio