On Pedro Reyes’ The People’s United Nations (2013–2014)—Overlaps and Disjunctions Between Contemporary Art and International Affairs

Mafalda Dâmaso holds a PhD in Visual Culture from Goldsmiths, University of London. Dâmaso has lectured and worked for several European arts organisations and think tanks, namely as an expert in cultural and foreign policy for the German Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations (Institutfürauslandsbeziehungen). Her research looks at the overlaps between culture, international affairs and rhetoric.


This article discusses The People’s United Nations (2013–2014), a performance and exhibition by the artist Pedro Reyes. Its aim is to understand to what extent artistic practices may constitute a means of critically examining political narratives and hence harbour the potential for the emergence of different forms of responsiveness vis-à-vis international organisations such as the UN. In conversation with key references in political theory (such as Étienne Balibar) and aesthetics (such as Jacques Rancière) as well as a number of related artistic projects, I argue that The People’s United Nations (2013–2014), which referred to the structure of the General Assembly as its main inspiration, highlighted the limits of the rhetorical claims of the United Nations and the habitual position of the viewer in relation to the organisation, i.e. her lack of involvement. This stressed the hiatus between the UN’s official narrative and its modus operandi, foregrounding artistic practice as a possible mode of activated viewership vis-à-vis this international organisation. At the same time, the project’s inability to enact its suggestion of institutional reform of the UN also underlined the productive dimension of the partial disjunction between art and international affairs.


Introductory Remarks[1] 

Figure 1: Exhibition view. Courtesy Queens Museum, New York.

Art and culture scholars tend to agree with the idea that art practices can play a role in expanding ongoing political debates. However, detailed analyses of such a contribution remain rare, especially within the literature on art and international affairs. Indeed, while there are several academic studies of the intersection between art and politics focused on specific regions (e.g. Selz and Landauer 2006; Kane 2013), historical moments (e.g. Frascina 1999; Lobel 2009; Kidd 2014; Golan 1995) and specific types of art practices (e.g. as a form of political resistance in daily life, Clements 2016) or that consider the theoretical underpinnings of the two disciplines (e.g. Harris 2007; Gielen 2015), the overlaps between art and international affairs remain understudied. Among the exceptions to this are publications such as Designing UNESCO: Art, Architecture and International Politics at Mid-Century, a historiography of the headquarters of UNESCO (Pearson 2017), as well as discussions on and around soft power (e.g. Watanabe and McConnell 2008; Carles 2016; Nisbett 2016; Lord and Blankenberg 2015) and cultural diplomacy (e.g. Harper 2012; Mikkonen and Suutari 2015; Hampel 2017).

This article aims to contribute to expanding knowledge regarding the intersection between those two fields of knowledge. It does so in a way that is broadly aligned with the discipline of visual culture[2]—i.e. it considers the engagement by a contemporary artist, Pedro Reyes, with an international institution, the United Nations (UN) by means of the former’s appropriation of the latter’s visual signs and tropes. This allows me to identify and analyse a set of continuities and lack thereof between the mission of the UN, its institutional framework, the global circulation of its images via mass media, their reception, their artistic appropriation, and the viewership of the latter. The People’s United Nations (henceforth referred to as pUN, 2013–2014)[3] showed that these links are not direct. On the contrary, this art project appropriated and displaced the images and the rhetoric of the UN, inhabiting its inner tensions—namely, regarding the organisation’s foundational values of universality, equality and dialogue on the one hand, and its modus operandi on the other hand. This is an argument that I develop in conversation with authors whose understandings of mediation (Nick Couldry and Sonia Livingstone), citizenship (Étienne Balibar), aesthetics (Jacques Rancière) and participation (Claire Bishop), among others, pay attention to issues of power dynamics.

My analysis will be structured into five steps: first, a description of pUN; second, a reflection on the idea of mediation as a connector between international affairs and contemporary art practices; third, a discussion of the project as an examination of the UN’s rhetoric of democracy and deliberation; fourth, a reflection on the politics of representation of pUN, which inhabits the UN’s foundational contradictions; fifth, concluding thoughts regarding the project’s ability to foreground some of the UN’s internal exclusions. As I will suggest, the art project stresses that the UN’s rhetoric of democracy and deliberation is in tension with its modus operandi. However, rather than criticising the international organisation from an external position, pUN inhabited its contradictory symbols and rhetoric and used them as its subject, hence suggesting without prescribing the possibility of institutional reform. This said, the analysis will also emphasise the limits of the project to achieve what it implied, perhaps unintentionally—i.e. the possibility of UN reform—and hence the (partial) disjunction between the fields of art and international affairs.

Although the article’s focus lies on an art project that engaged with the UN, its findings are potentially transferable to other international organisations—namely, to a reflection on the tensions between the viewership position that they demand and their openness (or lack therein) to regular forms of participation. Its conclusions also contribute to existing research on the overlaps between discussions of spectatorship and ongoing debates around citizenship. Indeed, the value of studying artworks that refer to official imagery and narratives for examining broader political and international questions will become clear throughout the article: artistic appropriation and dislocation can be understood as a type of feature-by-feature analysis, which compares and contrasts the institutional narratives of international organisations with their modes of work as well as art projects about such organisations. The ability to make explicit contradictions and blind spots in these subjects and surrounding discussions is the main strength of this approach.

Nonetheless, one must also acknowledge the main difficulty of studying this type of evidence: ascertaining whether there is a link between its scholarly analysis and the impact of the project, namely regarding how it was perceived by participants. While this would be an interesting focus for future research, I must stress that this relatively common critique of visual culture and art historical analysis derives from a mistaken conflation. This point confuses the fields’ indebtedness to methods such as phenomenology and ethnography on the one hand, which allow them to take into consideration perception and embodied experience in their analyses of social phenomena, with the goal of the disciplines on the other hand: in the case of visual culture (the field with which I align this chapter), understanding the manifold meanings that images acquire as they emerge, circulate and change. This is made possible by the equal influence of other methods in the development of the discipline, such as semiotics and communication studies (Mitchell 1994, 2005). That is, although it would have been interesting to consider the response to pUN—in this case, how it was understood by its participants and viewers—, doing so isn’t required to validate an analysis of the project inspired in visual culture scholarship. This differentiation is clear when one looks at pUN: whether participants and viewers saw it as a reflection on the UN’s rhetoric (both textual and visual) or not does not change the fact that its participatory form enacted such a critique.


The People’s United Nations (pUN) 

Let us then consider the project in detail. As I will be arguing throughout the chapter, pUN foregrounded a set of fundamental contradictions of the UN.

Perusing several websites, databases and catalogues makes evident that the involvement of artists with the UN is only occasional and mostly indirect. Indeed, the number of artworks that can be found dealing explicitly with it is very low—which perhaps reflects the complexity of the organisation.[4] PUN, developed by the Mexican artist Pedro Reyes, is among the rare examples of an artistic engagement with this international organisation. It was presented at Performa 13, a biannual performance art festival staged in the Queens Museum, New York, and comprised an exhibition (on view from 9 November, 2013 to 30 March, 2014) and a performance (taking place at midday 23–24 November, 2013) (Reyes, 2013b). Reyes, born in 1972, lives and works in Mexico, and has participated in group exhibitions such as dOCUMENTA(13) in Kassel. He has risen to international attention with projects such as Palas por Pistolas (Guns for Shovels) (2008), in which the artist took guns from the Mexican drugs war, melted them down and re-cast the metal as shovels. A prolific artist, Reyes has had solo exhibitions namely at Creative Time, New York, USA (2016); Dallas Contemporary, Texas, USA (2016); The Power Plant, Toronto, Canada (2014); Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN, USA (2011); Guggenheim Museum, New York, USA (2011) and his group exhibitions include The National Museum of XXI Century Arts (MAXXI), Rome (2015); Beijing Biennale, China (2014); dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, Germany (2012); Liverpool Biennial, UK (2012); Gwangju Biennial, South Korea (2012) and the 50th Venice Biennale, Italy (2003).

The project originated from an invitation from Larissa Harris, curator of the Queens Museum, and marked the reopening of the building following extensive renovation. Two important facts about the museum informed the work. First, it had housed the UN General Assembly from 1946 to 1950 (before the move to the purpose-built UN headquarters). Second, the New York district of Queens, where the museum is situated, is one of the neighbourhoods in the world with the highest diversity per square mile. This led to the idea of developing two performances with a 193-member mock delegation comprising New York immigrants and their family members: all were either immigrants from the 195 members and observer states that currently make up the UN or had family connections to them. Under the official motto of the project—“hands-on with a vision” (see Figure 1)—the participants discussed issues ranging from gun controls to climate change. As is stated in the pUN Workbook:

The seal of pUN is inspired by the hamsa (literally, “five” in Arabic). This open right hand with an eye at the center of the palm has been a symbol of protection across cultures and millennia. Originating in Africa, the hamsa predates Christianity and Islam. Workers’ and peoples’ movements have often been represented by a hand, sometimes holding a tool or closed in a fist. Here, the hand is open […]. This benignant hand placed over an orb is meant to signal our mission to protect the planet. And here, its five fingers represent the world’s five populated continents (Queens Museum. 2013b:3).

Figure 2: View of the performance. Courtesy Queens Museum, New York.

Drawing on a wide variety of conflict resolution techniques—including the Theatre of the Oppressed, a technique used for conflict resolution developed in the 1960s by Augusto Boal, a Brazilian stage-director; Force Field Analysis, a social science technique developed by Kurt Lewin; and techniques from couples therapy, to name but three—pUN sought alternative ways of confronting, discussing and resolving problems such as global poverty, food scarcity, drone attacks and weapons proliferation. Organised according to the structure of speed dating events, a bell rang to signal to the delegates that they should move to the next table and discuss a different subject. The programme of events included lectures by experts, which were followed by a vote from the delegates (see Figure 2). Provocatively, the project suggested that these techniques are potentially more productive than the deliberation methods employed by the UN, a forceful criticism of the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of traditional global diplomacy.

Mirroring what takes place in the UN’s headquarters, museum visitors could experience the pUN activities through half-hour guided tours which included attendance of the sessions, the history of the UN and a tour of Reyes’ exhibition inspired by the pUN’s underlying themes of dialogue and peace. PUN also overlapped with an event in which Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal, the then UN Under-Secretary-General for Communication and Public information, unveiled a plaque at the Museum with the following text engraved: “On this site, from 1946 to 1950, The United Nations General Assembly convened” (UN Blogs 2013). At this unveiling, Reyes presented Launsky-Tieffenthal with a petition from the General Assembly of pUN demanding arms disarmament on a global scale.

Figure 3: Exhibition view. Courtesy Queens Museum, New York.

The pUN meetings and tours took place within an exhibition, which was composed of several sculptures created by Reyes for the atrium of the museum: namely, a miniature cityscape composed of seating cubes; the Drone Dove—merging the forms of a drone and a dove of peace (see Figures 2 and 3) and described as resembling both the United States Air Force Predator Drone, currently used for drone attacks, as well as the simple beauty of modern sculptures that depict doves in the postwar twentieth century, as seen in the work of Pablo Picasso and Isamu Noguchi. As a symbol, Drone Dove is a silent protest urging all governments to stop the use of unmanned vehicles in warfare (Reyes 2013a:266).

The atrium also included the Colloquium, a white sculpture of interlocking marble panels shaped like a blank cartoon speech-bubble; and Disarm/Clock, a weapon-clock made from gun parts which made a sound every quarter hour, which Reyes had made earlier in the context of the project Disarm (2012). These elements remained in the atrium of the museum until March 30, 2014. The sculptures were described on the website of the Queens Museum in the following way: with their frank embrace of symbolism, these sculptures provide a poetic and inspiring backdrop for the pUN convening and representing its sincere optimism, serious and playful at once, to the Museum visitor after the event is over (Queens Museum 2013a).

However, by no means should this playfulness be seen as denying the seriousness of the issues discussed by the project. Rather, as the artist himself explained in an interview, “it is precisely the lighthearted spirit of play that allows the participants to engage in subjects whose magnitude would otherwise overwhelm us” (UN News Centre 2013). The difference between playing a game and the spirit of play was fundamental in this context. The performance (titled pUN General Assembly) functioned not as a self-contained game, in which only one participant can win to the detriment of his opponents, but as a playful platform. This allowed the participants to identify, even if provocatively, with the representatives of their nation state at the UN (taking the role of “citizen-delegates”) as well as to speculate on the form that the institution would take if it served its mission without being influenced by politics and other constraints. As the artist stated, one of the main differences between pUN and the UN is that delegates at the UN represent their government. And governments have an agenda which is, first, their national interest; second, the interest of the [sic] their people; and third, the interest of the planet. In pUN, I think that the delegates are not concerned with representing their governments—they represent their nation-states, their people […]. So they can take a stand with [sic] having a more global perspective. But I don’t think pUN is in itself a critique of the UN. (Brooks and Reyes 2013)


Mediation: Linking International Affairs and Contemporary Art

I will discuss this idea (i.e. to what extent pUN can be understood as a critique of the UN) later in this article. Before doing so, I want to briefly reflect on the idea of visual mediation as a connector between international affairs and contemporary art that makes possible a focused reflection on the structuring consequences of mediating devices. Reyes’ references to the UN took the form of visual references and tropes associated with the organisation, rather than direct references to specific deliberations, resolutions, treaty ratifications or to the UN’s work on the ground. pUN can hence be understood as an artwork that is broadly aligned with discussions of visual mediation[5] and its role in legitimising the current geopolitical order. Indeed, as international relations scholars François Debrix and Cynthia Weber define it in Rituals Of Mediation: International Politics And Social Meaning (2003), mediation “is a site of representation, transformation, and pluralization where cultural and international rituals are performed. These rituals, in turn, perform what are taken to be culturals and internationals” (2003:vii). As we will see, by appropriating its images, pUN made the case that there are several breakages in the processes of mediation between the peoples in whose name the UN was founded, the functioning of the UN as an institution, its images, and the artistic appropriation of the latter.

In doing so, pUN confirmed the relevance of Nick Couldry’s questioning of the assumption of symmetry that is present in Roger Silverstone’s definition of mediation. The latter author describes it as concerning “the fundamentally, but unevenly, dialectical process in which institutionalised media of communication […], are involved in the general circulation of symbols in social life” (Silverstone 2002:762). However, Couldry finds Silverstone’s definition “too friendly” (2008:8) towards the media. Rather, the former author also identifies two possibilities only hinted at in Silverstone’s definition of mediation: first, that what we might call ‘the space of media’ is structured in important ways, durably and partly beyond the intervention of particular agents; and second that, because of that structuring, certain interactions, or ‘dialectics’—between particular sites or agents—are closed off, isolating some pockets of mediation from the wider flow. (2008:8).

An interest in the specific ways, in which such a “closing off” takes place through the visual mediation of the UN, underlies the understanding of mediation that was in operation in my doctoral thesis[6], in which I discussed, namely, images of the UN such as its flag, photographs of its New York headquarters, the General Assembly and the Security Council as making the rhetorical argument regarding the continued relevance and legitimacy of the UN. That said, that is not the goal of this article. Rather, the next pages aim to demonstrate that the dialectical process that is identified by Silverstone can be activated—namely, through artistic appropriation.

In any case, two key discoveries of my analysis of the visual rhetoric of the UN are pertinent in the context of this article. First, the literature on aesthetics and the politics of representation often discusses the difficulty of representing violence and horror; rather, my analysis demonstrated that the attempt by the UN to visibly represent ideas such as peace, universality and inclusivity also remains unrealised. The institutional failure of the UN to fully enact such promises lied at the core of Reyes’ project. Second, I discovered that the images of the UN perform rhetorically the change of threshold from the national to the international level as a focus of attention, debate and political action. In doing so, they contribute to legitimising the existence of the UN itself. It could be said that, paradoxically, pUN made a related case—not through scholarly analysis but by means of artistic appropriation and recombination. However, by asking participants to represent specific nation states in a performance based on the structure of the General Assembly, pUN also suggested the difficulty of fully enacting the movement from the national to the international unless the UN’s structure is itself questioned.


The UN’s Rhetoric of Democracy and Deliberation

Indeed, I will now argue that pUN can be seen as reflecting upon the tension between the rhetoric of deliberation and universality of the UN, its cosmopolitan values and aspirations, and its modus operandi—an argument that brings me to Étienne Balibar’s discussion of equality.

The performance (titled, as I mentioned before, pUN General Assembly) referred to the modus operandi of the UN’s General Assembly as its main inspiration, although the modular structure of the cubes in which the participants sat (which could be rearranged whenever necessary) also brought to mind the circular structure of the Security Council table. Before advancing, it is important to stress that the General Assembly’s stated goal and priority is to reach either consensus or broad majorities. Each of its members (now 193, following the admission of Montenegro in 2006 and South Sudan in 2011) has one vote (article 18, 1) and important issues such as the election of members to councils[7] and recommendations concerning “international peace and security” can only be taken if a two-thirds majority of the members is involved (UN 1945, Article 18, 2). That is, its supranational focus is accompanied by a modus operandi organised around the historical model of the nation state—extending membership to preexisting political communities to which it accords equal formal power.

As for the central goal of the Security Council, that is the maintenance of peace and security—as is described in Chapter V of the Charter. In particular, points 1 and 2 of article 24 affirm that

  1. In order to ensure prompt and effective action by the United Nations, its Members confer on the Security Council primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security […].
  2. In discharging these duties the Security Council shall act in accordance with the Purposes and Principles of the United Nations (UN 1945 [original emphasis]).

However, the modus operandi of the Security Council is also in tension with these principles. The forum is composed of five permanent members (China, France, Russian Federation, United Kingdom and United States) and ten non-permanent members who are elected by the General Assembly for two-year terms. Each Council member has one vote and an affirmative vote of at least nine of the 15 members is needed to pass an action. Additionally, in the case of fundamental issues, nine votes, including the five of the permanent members holding veto power, are required for an action to proceed. This is particularly important since the Security Council has the power to establish peace enforcement operations, including international sanctions, and to authorise military action. Moreover, of all the organs of the UN, only the Council can take decisions that are enforceable under the Charter.

The flexibility of pUN’s seating cubes can be interpreted as highlighting the rigidity of the Council’s membership structure (that is, its five permanent members, reproducing the geopolitical order of the post-war period). Additionally, the sculpture Drone Dove, combining references to the UN’s mission (to maintain and sustain understanding among different peoples) and to new and yet-to-be-regulated forms of warfare (the reference to the drone) suggested the shortcomings of the organisation to face emerging global challenges. Finally, I must mention the redesigned UN flag, which implicitly opposed the focus on the northern hemisphere of the official image. This is why, despite the artist’s statement (mentioned earlier), it is difficult not to see Reyes’ decision to combine traditional and experimental decision-making techniques as an indirect criticism of the UN. Indeed, the performance implicitly asked a question about the ideal form that the organisation would take if it were explicitly designed to fulfil its mission: building understanding and responding to global challenges in light of the long-term interests of the global population.

Figure 4: View of the performance. Courtesy Queens Museum, New York.

In this context, it is crucial to mention that the performance included individuals who, whether in representation of the countries from which they had immigrated or with family connections to the member state that they represented within pUN, lived in New York (see Figure 4). This suggests that some of them may have had American citizenship. In any case, the fact that most participants lived beyond the countries that they represented in the context of pUN demonstrated the insufficiency of the framework of the nation state to reflect mobility fluxes.

This tension leads me to an essay by philosopher Étienne Balibar (2016), in which he argues, influenced by Derrida, that the figure of the citizen is instituted in her naming as such. At the same time, the influence of Marxism in Balibar’s work leads him to consider how this performative process is related to global power imbalances (most evident in the figure of the refugee). Discussing the difference between symbolic and formal equality in “A Hyperbolic Proposition” (2016), the author writes that “civic equality is indissociable from universality but separates it from community” (Balibar 2016). Indeed, either equality is “symbolic,” which means that each individual, whatever his [sic] strengths, his power, and his property, is reputed to be equivalent to every individual in his capacity as citizen […]. Or equality is “real,” which means that citizenship will not exist unless the conditions of all individuals are equal. (Balibar 2016)

This highlights the existence of a problem within representative international politics, which not only is in tension with the idea of citizenship as a universal promise (as Balibar suggests) but also hasn’t sufficiently expanded to reflect global changes in mobility and lifestyle (as pUN demonstrates). Additionally, and most crucially, this issue brings me to the tension between the UN’s promise of equality and the separation of the global population according to political entities through which it acquires its rights. As the philosopher writes, “equality in fact cannot be limited […]. In order to speak of “all citizens,” it is necessary that somebody not be a citizen of said polity” (Balibar 2016). In light of Balibar’s analysis, it becomes clear that, in exchange for being given a voice in pUN’s performance, the participants had to represent only one UN member state, which may have come at a symbolic cost to some of them—foregrounding as well the tension between the cosmopolitan values and aspirations of the UN and its modus operandi, which does not give permanent institutional representation to those who are refugees and stateless. Indeed, as is well known, the political ideal of cosmopolitanism (a form of belonging that does not assume the nation state as the bearer of rights and obligations) originated in Immanuel Kant’s seminal essay “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch” (1795). Among the several principles identified by Kant as necessary to achieve such global peace, the third definitive article states that “the law of world citizenship shall be limited to conditions of universal hospitality” (1795:105). The latter is here to be understood as the right of a stranger not to be treated as an enemy in a land that isn’t her own. The nation-centric nature of the United Nations, which treats as equals states that welcome and respect the human rights of refugees and those that don’t, reveals the organisation’s limited enactment of this ideal. 

Additionally, the opposition between the rigidity of the UN and the difficulty of accessing its fora on the one hand, and the open call for participants on the other hand, can be seen as highlighting the limits of the rhetorical claims of the UN—that is, the tension between its promise (to represent all individuals—“We, the People”) and its structures (an organisation in which the member states are represented by individuals who are politically nominated, not elected—leading to debates that, like the blank speech-bubbles of the Colloquium sculpture, are not always characterised by the exchange of ideas). In doing so, the installation stressed the habitual position of the viewer vis-à-vis the UN: her lack of involvement.


The Politics of Representation

This leads me to the relation between pUN’s form and subject. I will argue that the combination of playfulness and shared action allowed the project to inhabit—rather than to criticise from a distant position—the UN’s foundational antagonisms and exclusions.

As an exhibition and a participatory, cheerful practice that aimed to suggest, in a playful manner, alternative institutional and global possibilities, pUN was similar to the type of practices that are described by Nicolas Bourriaud in Relational Aesthetics (1998:13). However, central to the latter’s argument is the idea that artists aim to elaborate meaning “collectively rather than in the privatised space of individual consumption” (Bishop 2005:116) as a way to respond to the Marxist critique of the reproduction of hegemonic ideology. That is, underlying Bourriaud’s theory lies a belief in the emancipatory power of art as a site of (seemingly) equal, democratic relations. On the contrary, pUN did not share such an emancipatory intention. Rather, it aimed to playfully expand the political space (i.e. the debates that take place within the UN and its institutional framework—with which it experimented), which it did by stressing that which it usually excludes. This said, despite this fundamental difference, both Bourriaud and Reyes are united by their interest in nurturing the transition between the individual visitor and a shared symbolic space.

To better understand how this movement was at play in pUN, it is helpful to consider in more detail the significance of pUN’s appropriation of the emblem/flag of the UN. I will do so through a brief comparative discussion of the reception of Reyes’ work and Dread Scott’s What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag? (1989). Doing so reveals that, although seemingly unremarkable, the absence of an overly negative reception to pUN’s appropriation of the UN flag is revealing of a crucial difference between its symbolic power and that of the flags of nation states. Scott’s installation (1989) consisted of a shelf with an open book in which the visitors were invited to write, a montage of photographs of American flags draping the coffins of military personnel combined with protestors burning an American flag in response to the Vietnam War, and another flag in which the viewers could stand as they expressed their thoughts. Its reception was characterised by widespread criticism (see Scott, no date). The fact that the appropriation of one of the key symbols of the UN by Reyes was uncontested (to the best of my knowledge) is significant to an extent that cannot be explained by the difference between standing on or modifying a flag. Indeed, one can induce that a similar appropriation of the UN flag would have been unlikely to lead to the same level of criticism as Scott’s. Conversely, one can imagine that an art piece based on a similar formal strategy to that of pUN but, rather, about the American democratic system would be the object of public debate. This analysis is confirmed by the widespread media coverage (Kennedy 2016; Rayner 2016) received by Reyes’ subsequent project: Doomocracy (2016), an immersive installation in an abandoned terminal that asked viewers to reflect on the state of American politics. Altogether, this suggests the low-intensity symbolic (and affective) engagement of viewers with the UN and, conversely, the strong degree of attachment felt by many individuals vis-à-vis their nation states.

This said, the work of Jacques Rancière reveals that the two interventions have something else in common. Like Étienne Balibar, he was a student of Louis Althusser; this is reflected in Rancière’s concern with equality. But while Balibar’s work considers its fulfilment or lack thereof in light of who is defined as a citizen, Rancière develops an analogous analysis in aesthetics and pedagogy, among other fields. In this framework, and as is well known, Rancière’s attempt to identify the fundamental modes of articulation between the political and the aesthetic in The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible (2000) leads him to conceive the distribution of the sensible as both the organisation of what can be said, seen, thought or heard, and as a distribution of images and places. In light of this statement, both Reyes’ and Scott’s interventions emerge as interested in expanding public conversations about the overlaps and disjunctions between the positions of the visitor of art museums, the citizen, the protester, the artist and, more broadly, of the politics of representation within the cultural and the political fields.

But there is another crucial dimension of pUN that is illuminated by Rancière’s work: the position of the participant in Reyes’ performance, which was aligned with the former’s understanding of the spectator (evident both in his earlier work, such as in The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, 1987, and in the argument developed in the well-known essay “The Emancipated Spectator” regarding the position of the spectator vis-à-vis the actor, 2009). The philosopher writes, we have not to turn spectators into actors. We have to acknowledge that any spectator already is an actor of his own story and that the actor also is the spectator of the same kind of story. We have not to turn the ignorant into learned persons, or, according to a mere scheme of overturn, make the student or the ignorant the master of his masters (2009:279).

That is, the French author is critical of art practices that aim to emancipate their participants, which presupposes the ignorance of the latter. Rather, he proposes an aesthetics that isn’t emancipatory (regarding, for example, the supposed domination of consumerism—an approach that Rancière sees as patronising) but, instead, offers viewers a possibility for active interpretation. This is why Rancière’s model is characterised by the blurring of the boundaries between looking and doing (2009:102). Reyes’ decision to place the participants (without whom there would be no performance) at the centre of his intervention highlights the similarity between his and Rancière’s views on spectatorship. This is foregrounded in Reyes’ description of the Theatre of the Oppressed as one of his main influences in pUN Workbook (2013).[8] As he states, theatre of the Oppressed stages situations that contain several social “errors.” At a certain point the play stops and you—the spectator—are invited to become an actor, or a “spect-actor.” [sic] […] Rather than describing a new situation, the spect-actor [sic] acts it out. There are no experts here – knowledge that results from this experiment will be the best we can attain. (2013:10).

This “acting out the situation” is evident in the fact that pUN’s events had no script—only broad guidelines such as their time, format and duration. That is, instead of being about the UN, the activities that composed the performance were joined by their echoing of the UN’s mission and rhetoric: fostering and maintaining peace and understanding among peoples (hence pUN’s focus on deliberation, relationship-building and the topics of the debates and other parts of the performance). This is why I see Reyes’ approach as fundamentally analogous to that of the artist Mark Wallinger in Oxymoron (1996)—another rare explicit artistic engagement with political iconography. This artwork, a flag combining the design of the Union Jack with the colours of the Irish tricolour, was a reminder of the continued sectarianism in Northern Ireland. As the artist and scholar Dave Beech states in a review of the piece, the artwork was also an emblem of politicisation not because it takes on one of the sharpest political conflicts of our time, but because it internalises those antagonisms in its very fabric […]. The first task of art’s politicisation is to struggle for struggle. (Beech 2001).

That is, both artists engaged with political entities through their forms of visual (re)presentation, which they appropriated and combined. Additionally, like Beech suggests, both highlighted the inner divisions that characterise those institutions or countries yet are not usually visible in their official imagery—an absence that the artists corrected. In this view, and considering the piece’s focus on the exclusionary character of citizenship (as I mentioned in relation to the work of Balibar), pUN can be seen as aligned with Laclau and Mouffe’s radical understanding of democracy and the political (1985), which emphasises the centrality of conflict.

Finally, the significance of pUN’s appropriation of the UN’s images and narrative in this manner can be further understood if one considers the argument developed by Barbara Bolt. In Art Beyond Representation: The Performative Power of the Image (2004), and drawing on Heidegger’s counter-representationalist idea of handling first developed in Being and Time (1927), the artist and scholar proposes that artistic practice exemplifies a relation of care that brings about a different understanding of the world to that offered by Cartesian representation. In this view, art and world are in a relationship of mutual indebtedness, in which the artist, the materials used by her and the creative process bring into appearance something that cannot be predicted fully by the artist. To make this case, Bold discusses Derrida’s reading of Heidegger’s work, which stresses the existence of movement within the latter (see “Sending: On Representation” 1982). As she writes, “the process of translation necessarily involves corruption. It is this corruption that produces permutations and brings about metamorphosis” (2004:33–35).

To return to the initial part of my argument, Bolt’s argument confirms that pUN’s highlighting of the coexistence of contradictory elements within the UN’s rhetoric was made possible by its focus on mediation. That is, pUN not only used the UN as its topic; rather, it also considered the organisation’s representation both in terms of how it represents itself and of who is represented in it. In doing so, pUN foregrounded the political dimension (understood in light of Rancière’s work, that is, as a distribution of words and images, and hence of the sayable and the imaginable, 2000) of representation within and of an international organisation that presents itself as universal and inclusive. In this context, the performative aspect of the piece was crucial. As Reyes affirmed:

The performative aspect starts with the presence of one person from every country on Earth. […]. But it’s important that these activities actually happen. […]. It’s very playful, but very serious, and that’s the kind of ambiguity we want. And that’s precisely why it’s called pUN. You have these two ideas to interpret. A thin line between being serious and doing pranks. (Brooks and Reyes 2013).

That is, appropriating and performing the UN’s imagery and rhetoric, the artwork made visible the tension between the mission, values and ideas (such as universality) based on which the UN is discursively founded, and its modus operandi, which is exclusionary. pUN’s gesture can hence be understood as one not of critique but of criticality (Rogoff 2003) in that, instead of criticising the UN from an external position, it inhabited its contradictory symbols and rhetoric and used them as its subject, hence suggesting without prescribing the possibility of institutional reform (echoing similar calls for reform by UN experts, e.g. Slaughter 2005; Weiss and Thakur 2010).


Conclusion: Foregrounding the Instability Within the UN

Finally, the artwork revealed the impotence of the artistic realm—the latter can criticise the political sphere (here understood in a strict sense) but it cannot enact such ideas. This said, artistic forms of engagement with political debates may influence public discourse—by creating spaces for discussion and by considering issues that tend to be overlooked.

This becomes clear when one considers Sonia Livingstone’s work, which focuses namely on the relation between mediation and the possibility of political action. In “On the relation between audiences and publics” (2005), the media scholar argues that “we need an account of the formation of public opinion and of citizens—early expressions of interest, exploration of experience, tentative trying out of viewpoints” (Livingstone 2005:29). She suggests developing such an account by focusing on the realm of the civic, which is required by political action without, however, necessarily leading to the latter. This is key in the case of pUN—an artistic engagement with an international organisation that isn’t open to regular forms of participation from the global citizens in whose name it speaks. The author also argues that paying attention to the civic demands an expanded understanding of citizenship—one that includes those moments in which one is confused and unsure of where one stands on specific political issues, i.e. “a domain of pre-political consideration, of unease with states of being, rather than as a monument to specific rights, duties or identities” (Hermes and Stello 2000:219 cited in Livingstone 2005:35). As such, this understanding of citizenship is also accompanied by a redefinition of the notion of public as “an ongoing space of encounter for discourse […], a context of interaction” (2005:62). I see pUN as exemplifying the potential of art practices to embody such spaces of civic interaction and pre-political encounters.

In doing so, the intervention avoided the erroneous conflation of dialogue and equality that art historian and critic Claire Bishop identifies at being at play, for example, in the work of Rirkrit Tiravanija, in which “relations of conflict are erased rather than sustained” (2005:119). This is particularly evident when pUN suggested the limited enactment of the Habermasian discourse theory of deliberative democracy (1984, 1992) within the UN’s General Assembly. Additionally, pUN stressed the difference between the People (referring to the category through which one becomes a citizen and acquires rights) on the one hand, and the more mobile experience of western populations (and hence viewers) on the other. Indeed, as I mentioned earlier, the participants in pUN’s performance lived in New York, but they didn’t necessarily share a history or political identity.

This is why I see pUN as exemplifying the two ways how, according to Grant Kester, dialogical art practices are able to “[retain the] power of aesthetic dialogue without recourse to a universalising philosophical framework” (2004:14) such as that of Habermas. On the one hand, Kester writes, they reject claims of universality. That is, such practices are based on the generation of a local consensual knowledge that is only provisionally binding […]. It is possible to engage in communicative interaction across boundaries of difference without the legitimating framework of a universal discursive system because the necessary framework is established through the interaction itself. (Kester 2004:112)

Second, the art historian writes, dialogical practices assume that “subjectivity is formed through discourse and intersubjective exchange itself. Discourse […] is itself intended to model subjectivity” (Kester 2004:112). This idea (of discourse as key in avoiding the assumption and the reinforcement of preexisting identities) leads me to pUN’s own modelling of alternative modes of problem-solving within the UN—which it does, however, without questioning the centrality of the nation state as the institution’s organising principle.

It is helpful to briefly return to the work of Jacques Derrida to clarify the significance of this point. As is well known, Derrida argues that both representation and meaning emerge through différance, a process of continuous reinscription and alteration. Specifically, in “The Parergon (1978), the French philosopher engages with a painting by Van Gogh, questioning the assumption developed by Kant in Critique of Judgment (1790) regarding the existence of an a priori essence of beauty. Particularly important for the analysis of pUN is Derrida’s examination of a footnote in the third Critique—in which Kant defines the “parerga” as that which lies outside the artistic work. While Kant defines it as an “ornament”, i.e. as a supplement to the “ergon” (the work), Derrida discusses the term as a “frame” or “edge” (Derrida 1978), i.e. as a supplement that is both outside and inside the work itself. In short, Derrida concludes that there is always an excess of meaning within any representational attempt. In this view, painting (as well as arguably all other artistic mediums) emerges as a manifestation of the notion of iterability or repetition with a difference.

I see Reyes’ intervention as not only appropriating such an excess, but as also doing so in a way that stressed that which the images and the official rhetoric of the UN reject: its lack of internal coherence, its exclusions, the tension between its cosmopolitan aspirations and the crucial role of the nation state within it. To put it clearly, the UN’s edge (to use Derrida’s term) is, in fact, internal to the organisation. This is why it is so significant that pUN didn’t reject the important role of the nation state within the UN’s modus operandi—rather, it foregrounded it as a process of exclusion.

To conclude, it is precisely because it placed at its centre the instability of the images and the rhetoric of the UN in an anti-exclusionary gesture that the artwork was able to suggest a conversation regarding its mission and modus operandi. That is, the intervention did more than simply manifesting the complexity of the rhetoric of the UN, which it appropriated or to which it referred. Rather, by inhabiting such a rhetoric, Reyes highlighted its exclusions and, consequently, the potentially dialectical character of mediation that, as I mentioned in the beginning of this article, is identified—albeit in different ways—by both Silverstone (2002) and Couldry (2008). In doing so, the project foregrounded possible forms of—not emancipated, but, rather—activated viewership vis-à-vis the UN.

At the same time, although pUN aimed to interrupt the model of involvement without interference of the viewers regarding the UN, its examination made evident the project’s inability to deliver the logical consequence of what it suggests: the need for institutional reform of the UN. And yet, paradoxically, pUN’s own impotence may have been one of its strongest characteristics as an artistic intervention. Despite suggesting the transition from the realm of individual spectatorship of the UN to that of collective action with political and institutional impact, pUN’s simultaneously semi-serious and semi-playful stance highlighted that such action can only happen when the visitor leaves the museum and begins to organise. By implicitly acknowledging the limits of the art world, pUN stressed the autonomy and the power of the visitor to achieve, as a citizen, what art can only suggest or demand.


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[1] I am thankful to the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology for financing my doctoral research, which included part of the analysis presented in this article (Dâmaso 2017). I must also thank Dr Jorella Andrews, Dr Bernadette Buckley, Dr Debbie Lisle and the anonymous reviewer for their insightful comments on an earlier version of this text as well as Pedro Reyes for providing me access to several documents related to pUN. Finally, I thank the Queens Museum for allowing me to use images of the project free of charge.

[2] For a summary of the origins and the history of the discipline, see Dikovitskaya (2005); for a discussion of the epistemological differences between visual culture and visual studies, see Moxey (2008).

[3] The project was subsequently displayed at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles from 31 January to 24 May 2015. My analysis focuses on its first iteration.

[4] For example, the visual culture scholar Gavin Grindon (2010) analyses the attempt by Copenhagen’s cultural institutions to engage with the United Nations 2009 Climate Change Summit. Grindon concludes that it ‘revealed another crisis in contemporary art’s capacity to tackle issues of social change […]. Instead, the art which most successfully engaged with the issues of climate change was that which had more affinity with extra-institutional activist practices’ (Grindon 2010:10–11).

[5] The concept of mediation (Roger Silverstone 2002, 2005) should not be confused with that of mediatisation. Nick Couldry discusses the differences between these two terms in detail in a piece that focuses on digital storytelling (2008, including their histories and definitions by key authors:4–9; see also Couldry and Hepp 2013). His argument is that mediatisation, in broad terms, refers to ‘an essentially linear transformation from “pre-media” […] to mediatized social states (2008:3) whilst mediation refers to the “heterogeneity of the transformations to which media give rise across a complex and divided social space rather than a single ‘media logic’ that is simultaneously transforming the whole of social space at once” (2008:3).

[6] I am currently transforming it into a monograph.

[7] For example, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council and the Security Council (non-permanent members).

[8] Which, I must note, mitigates the importance of emancipation as the original goal of these theatrical forms.