The shadows grow longer as the harvest moon rises above a glittering skyline, signaling the approach of fall, a time of civic rituals that have become synonymous with life in New York—Fashion Week, Little Italy’s San Gennaro Festival, the Columbus Day Parade, culminating in the jewel in the crown of our city’s autumn bacchanalia: Halloween. Let’s admit it, we’ve taken a minor rural tradition and exploded it into a billion-dollar industry blown out with a week of partying that ends in an over-the-top-wear-anything-you want parade that showcases our city’s flamboyance, creativity, and we-don’t-give-a-shit attitude. You may have Mardi Gras, New Orleans, good for you. But we own Halloween.
This season’s spooky shadows will take on a particularly ghoulish shape, no doubt, as another fall tradition promises to haunt our collective consciousness: Election Day. As the hangover from our Halloween mischief wears off, we must face the reckoning of the year’s events which have produced the most bizarre—and frankly horrifying—campaign in recent memory (worse than 2000, which I never thought possible). That has been the scariest part of hitting rock bottom in American politics; it turns out that rock bottom has trap doors. Lower still, we fall.
Multidisciplinary artist Pedro Reyes dials up this fall’s fear factor with his latest work—and no, it doesn’t involve eating bugs (although his 2013 piece The Grass-whopper did). Teaming up with public art presenter Creative Time, the organization behind Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, Reyes delivers a Typhon-sized road-side attraction of his own, dedicated as a monument to American politics. Titled Doomocracy, the mammoth installation/performance is a haunted house, but instead of frightening us with the monsters of make-believe, Reyes and his collaborators hit us with something scarier: reality. “Monsters are somehow subliminal, a way to speak about our fears. At the core [of Doomocracy] is a twist. The scary thing is what is in the news. When you exit the haunted house, the monsters are still out there,” says Reyes, his assessment spoken with the evenness of eerie clarity.
Born in Mexico City, Reyes has produced a panoply of renderings that spans the gamut of sculpture, design, video, puppetry, performance, and installation. The impressive diversity of his work matches its discursive dexterity. Since 2000, these playful and entertaining pieces have addressed issues ranging from environmentalism, geopolitics, drug trafficking, the proliferation of guns, the Occupy movement, architecture, and the list goes on. A common thread throughout is the humor with which Reyes addresses such socially relevant topics. “There is an expectation of what reality is supposed to be,” he says, “and what it actually is. Humor cautions that collision.”
Doomocracy, as the title suggests, cautions our collective collision with a hell of our own making also known as Tuesday, November 8, 2016. Pardon the hyperbole, but it may be fitting. “The democratic process itself is a scary thing. People are brainwashed by media, and there is a moral bankruptcy to political discourse,” Reyes says with the steely composure of a surgeon holding his scalpel after the first incision. And yes, that includes the reality television hallucination that is Trump, but he is only indicative of something bigger, worse. Reyes adds, “obviously we [Mexico] have been the target of bigotry, but it’s an embarrassment to the American people. [Mexico’s] President is a kind of embarrassment too.”
On September 15, 2016, before Mexican Independence Day, thousands took to the street in the nation’s capital to protest President Enrique Peña Nieto, demanding his resignation for poor performance, corruption, and mounting economic crisis. “From Brazil to Brexit, this a global phenomenon. These people have risen to power, supported by private interest,” says Reyes. The fact that we have chosen them becomes the joke Reyes wants to hold us to.
Taking over 50,000 square feet of the whopping 4.1 million square feet of Brooklyn Army Terminal in the Sunset Park waterfront, Doomocracy engulfs its visitors with a ghastly visual experience mixed with theatrical effects. Director Meghan Finn and writer Paul Hufker collaborate with Reyes to fashion vignettes riffing on Reyes’s sculptural landscapes inspired by some of current event’s most haunting nightmares.
Audiences will gather in small groups to navigate the industrial gargantua, each room dedicated to another feature of contemporary life. Finn, reluctant to give away too much of the piece’s surprise, will venture to describe some of the topics engaged: “gun obsession, Big Pharma, toxic food, obesity, social inequity.”
Doomocracy is at once theater, with scripted dialogue and a cast of thirty-four actors, and large scale sculpture, without fully being either. Finn, whose past credits as a director include 3 2’s or Afar by Mac Wellman and The Downtown Loop by Ben Gassman, is excited by the prospect of a slightly different audience than she is accustomed to. A visual art audience is more “self-motivated, with their own prerogative of perspective,” she says. The design of the piece guides people throughout the haunted house for about two hours. Reyes refers to viewers as “spectators,” borrowing from Augusto Boal, explaining that “they are less passive as in a theater. You are there, with the actors, in a very intimate setting.”
The statement of the piece is punctuated by its location. The Brooklyn Army Terminal, built in 1918, served as a military outpost until the 1970s, and, as Reyes puts it, “this is where the bombs used to destroy Europe were built.” As if to recall the location’s history, Reyes has erected a twenty-four foot effigy of the Statue of Liberty to confront you as you enter the atrium. Finn calls it “a Trojan horse depicting the militarization that has happened in the name of democracy.”
Creative Time’s artistic director, Nato Thompson, describes Doomocracy as “Hieronymous Bosch meets Fox News,” and it doesn’t let up. “Sometimes, in this life, the problems pile up and we have to take a look at the sheer psychic madness of how many there are and show it for what it is, instead of trying to ameliorate it,” says Thompson, who is decidedly all in for making impossible artistic visions come to life.
Calling exhibiting public art “a guerilla maneuver” and a “team effort,” Thompson and his staff figured out how to attach LED lights to pigeons for Duke Riley’s Fly by Night (2016) at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, construct a massive sugar coated sphinx inside Williamsburg’s doomed Domino Sugar Factory, A Subtlety (2014), and exhume the Essex Street Market for Mike Nelson’s Psychic Vacuum (2007). Each of these locations is a piece of the story of a changing New York, where abandoned and defunct shells of a once thriving manufacturing sector are slowly being reclaimed and re-purposed. Essex Market, once abandoned, is now home to gourmet food vendors. The Domino Sugar Factory is currently being renovated for office space and apartments by Two Trees Management under the leadership of Jed Walentas, who is also known for orchestrating the transformation of Dumbo.
The Brooklyn Army Terminal, managed by the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), has been renovated for the purpose of bringing light manufacturing back to Sunset Park amid an ongoing and contentious redevelopment of South Brooklyn’s waterfront. NYCEDC is a civic organization whose mission is to improve the life of New Yorkers by increasing economic growth and strengthening neighborhoods. By partnering with Creative Time to stage this epic haunted house, the NYCEDC will no doubt bring hordes of art lovers to Sunset Park. Its impact on the neighborhood, however, may not be seen immediately.
About Doomocracy, Thompson concludes: “The project taps into a deep, global frustration with the ruling order. Everyone is cynical. There are no more shining beacons to progress. This in the 100th anniversary of Dada and its rejection of Modernism. There is a momentous historical synchronicity that is happening with then and now.”
Doomocracy, presented by Creative Time and Pedro Reyes, curated by Nato Thompson, and directed by Meghan Finn, will be presented Friday, Saturday, Sunday from October 7 – November 6 with timed entries from 6pm to midnight at the Brooklyn Army Terminal. The event is free and open to the public, although tickets are limited and must be reserved in advance at www.creativetime.org.