In 2008, Mexican artist Pedro Reyes took the concept of turning swords into plowshares literally and created an art campaign called Palas por Pistolas. People voluntarily gave up more than 1500 weapons, which he first melted down to turn into the same number of shovels, then used them to plant a corresponding number of trees.
Shortly after that, government officials pointed out there was a similar gun return policy in the city of Juarez and asked Reyes if he wanted to use those weapons in his art. He said yes, and in return, received more than 6700 firearms.
But instead of shovels, this time Reyes broke them down and turned their components into musical instruments.
“Same as a shovel plants a tree, a musical instrument is also something that is alive," Reyes says. "Every time you use it, you generate a new sound, a new event and people can gather around the music and I believe that just instruments are kind of the diametrically opposite to what a gun is - like, the guns are the rule of fear and music is the rule of trust.”
The instruments have also been used in a number of musical performances around the world, where professional musicians play everything from improvisational, free-form jazz and rock music to intriguing versions of "message" songs likes John Lennon's "Imagine."
“It’s almost like being a caveman because when you start to scratch and bang and blow and try to extract sounds out of these things that weren’t intended to produce music but now they produce, you can play Mozart or Bach with these instruments,” Reyes said in an interview for WUSF's University Beat.
“The interesting thing is precisely to have that surprise element because even if the instruments are the same every time that they’re played, a new composition is created.”
USF School of Music faculty and students will show what they can do with these instruments at a performance this Thursday night.
Amendment to the Amendment/(under)stand your ground combines that musical performance with a two act play developed by Reyes and USF Theatre professor Dora Arreola through a series of workshops with students from USF and the Community Stepping Stones, a Sulphur Springs youth art education program.
“Definitely our work, it has an intention, and the intention is to create this bridge between art and community," Arreola says. "We are definitely depending on feedback of the community, I think art and community should be one.”
Audience members will be encouraged to interact with the performers in what Arreola calls "legislative theater."
“There will be a dialogue with the audience, so the audience becomes an active person, another actor," she says. "Not in the sense that the audience will perform, not at all, but in the sense that the audience will come with proposals.
"And at the end of the event, we should write down all the proposals from the audience. So in this sense, what we are trying to get from the audience is an amendment to the Second Amendment.”
And while Arreola feels Florida is the perfect place to debate the issue of guns, particularly in light of such incidents as the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the death of a man in a Wesley Chapel movie theater last week, Reyes is pushing more for an open dialogue.
Admitting that he doesn't have the answers, he says that “the discussion is always about what is the right interpretation of the Second Amendment, because the Second Amendment is something that is written in language that leads to a lot of confusion. And also, it was written in a context which is a different historical context to what we live now.”
So what his efforts are designed to do, Reyes says, is ask people on all sides of the debate the same question: “How do you save more lives?”
“It’s as simple as that. Do we need more guns? That’s what you believe? Well, how would you do it?" Reyes says. "There may be people who would like to have a more pro-gun Second Amendment; they’re welcome to say so.”
Amendment to Amendment/(under)stand your ground is at the USF Theatre 2 Thursday, January 23 at 7 p.m. Tickets are free, but reservations are encouraged. Contact the USF College of the Arts Box Office at 813-974-2323.
And Imagine, an exhibition of some of the weapons Reyes turned into musical instruments, is on display at the USF Contemporary Art Museum through March 7th.