In Conversation with Pedro Reyes and Daniel Rajunov, One Step Ahead of the Revolution

In today’s contemporary art circuit it’s rare to encounter a creative discourse that addresses the intellect in a dynamic way. Known for his multi-didactic works that go from staging group therapies to theatre plays, Pedro Reyes is constantly renovating his creative oeuvre and exploring new ways of involving the audience in the artwork. The spirit of collaboration always seems to have a spotlight in Pedro Reyes’ work; Daniel Rajunov, the writer behind the renowned Baby Marx and Permanent Revolution projects, is included in this in-depth conversation. Addressing the development behind these renowned works allows audiences to glimpse into the engaging process between the writer and the artist, as well as the instructive failures that come from this relationship.

This conversation between Rodrigo Campuzano, Pedro Ryes and Daniel Rajunov took place in the artist’s home and studio in Coyoacán, Mexico City.

RC: What has been your approach to video? I know you’ve done video in the past but I’m talking more about developing a script and transforming an idea into a film.
PR: I would say that the only relevant work that I’ve done so far with video is regarding puppets, the Baby Marx series that was originally thought of as a T.V. show. Perhaps I’d like to explain first about failures, stumbling in the process. We were working based on a script that was performed by Japanese puppeteers, but they were working on an audio guide and not saying the words themselves. As we started to edit I realised that there was something missing. Laughter was missing. After that experience we tried to deliver all this political content but not achieving enough laughter. I tried a different approach which was working with U.S. puppeteers who were moving the puppets and delivering the words simultaneously and, instead of developing a script, what we were doing was shooting a lot of improvisations and then editing from there. Then you would find all these little accidents that when you put them together in the edit you got funny moments. That was a very interesting learning experience.

RC: I find it funny that you mention the word “failure” because John Dewey had a quote that said: “failure is instructive”. You were saying that through these accidents you were able to collect what you wanted to transmit.
PR: The other big failure was that Daniel and I made a script for an hour-long theatre play that was a super production with 25 puppets and 10 puppeteers, which was a huge success as a theatrical experience. We shot the whole performance with 3 cameras but once again something was missing in the editing process. That was another failure, learning that you can’t shoot a play and expect that it’s going to work well on the screen. A theatre play and a screenplay are completely different animals. So even in the Permanent Revolution, which is the theatre play, you can only experience the beauty of it in the theatre. Daniel can tell you about it, he worked on both ends.

DR: I’ve written both plays and screen plays and, like Pedro says, they’re completely different animals because the focus on theatre is that it’s a living and breathing experience. When you have a screenplay you’re manipulating the image through which the audience sees everything, you need to have perception accounted for at every single second. It was a learning experience for both of us, the video informed the theatre piece and vice versa.

RC: Were the theatre adaptations a natural progression from the “happenings” you’re used to commanding or making in your work?
The Permanent Revolution had a specific purpose which was to show to the 21st century audience the importance of Trotsky and his passage through Mexico. It’s interesting to convey to today’s audiences because even if people are familiar with the names they don’t necessarily understand why these historical figures represented so much at that moment in history. With the kind of freedom that puppets allow we decided to bring other characters from history and combine that with what would be the equivalent today of both the capitalist and socialist hero, a way to address the radical of today.

DR: It was very challenging for many reasons. It’s more than just a glimpse into the past; it’s trying to bring that into to the relevance of today. One of our guiding questions was: what does a revolution mean today? It’s a word that’s been thrown a lot, it’s become generic and it’s meaning has become elusive. We’re not pretending that we can bring a solid definition to the word but by putting it in contrast with the revolutionaries of the past it’s showing what we consider to be the revolutionaries of the present.

RC: What is ownership for Pedro Reyes? Seeing as a happening can’t actually be sold, what do you feel you own?
PR: In the rest of my work what often happens is that there are a lot of points that are experiences but the only thing that’s scripted is a set of instructions of how to conduct that game, therapy or action, but the outcome is always different because it’s the participant who brings the narrative into the work. You could say there’s an element that remains the same and an element that is always new. I don’t sell anything that is the instruction per se but rather the props that are involved in the process, like the sculptures that are used in the action.

RC: So your work as an artist is carried out until the act itself is realised?
PR: I think there’s a lot of works that become vehicles for other people’s creativity. For instance, if I produce a musical instrument someone will use that instrument and every time they perform with it they will create a new piece of music that belongs to the musician and not to me. My work is involved because I produced the instrument but I’m not concerned with the music itself, it becomes a collaboration between a musician and myself. So yeah, you could say the work only exists and also disappears the moment that the session ends.

RC: You mentioned the word failure, what does that represent to you?
PR: Right now I’m more concerned with failing faster. I’m working on a show for La Tallera, I can tell you right away what the failure was. I was mainly concerned with the subject of drug policy. I absorbed a huge amount of literature on the subject and I wanted to talk about what should be the drug reform for these 12 different substances. I had a run down agenda of what the show was about and all the work I was doing was illustrating the agenda; it was feeling like I was working for an idea and not the idea working for me. I trashed the concept and started working on independent pieces that produced me a lot of pleasure to do and many of them end up touching on the subject and now it’s a collection of 40 different works. Not having to adhere to an idea is very liberating. Enjoying the process is always a good thing.

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1. Photo by Manuel H. Marquez.