The People's United Nations: A World In a City | KCET
The People's United Nations: A World In a City
Early this year, the Hammer Museum announced a bold initiative: to gather the world within a room for a weekend with the express purpose of solving our global problems. Called the People's United Nations, the movement is an art project conceived by Mexico-born artist Pedro Reyes for the Hammer Museum.
On a recent Saturday, 190 delegates currently in Los Angeles hailing from 140 countries around the world, joined together to engage in a cross-cultural conversation.
One of those delegates was me, representing the Philippines.
I signed up, blindly, knowing that at the very least I would get to see what I only glimpsed on trains and buses in Los Angeles, the diversity of faces that make up the mosaic we call this city. My wish came true.
The weekend session began as all conferences do, with a line. In that line, however, was a plethora of color reflected in the diverse clothing of the attendees. Cheerful Korean hanboks mixed with gorgeously printed textile cloth from Burkina Faso, as well as bespoke business suits.
"How rare it is to be in a room with this much diversity," says Anne Ellegood, Senior Curator at the Hammer Museum, during morning remarks, "It's rare in our culture nowadays." Though Los Angeles has become a beacon for diversity, Ellegood is right. Rare is the time when people from all corners of the world find themselves converging in one spot. The sight makes one heady, but at the same time aware.
"Help, help, help, help all you can," pleaded Prem Guragain, the representative from Nepal, who stressed the assistance his country needed after a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake shook his country and claimed the lives of more than 7,000 people. He came carrying the country's distinct red, two single-pennon flag stacked one upon the other. It's as if the world literally were at the doorstep. The world news headlines, which seemed so remote a few minutes ago, now seems immediate and pressing.
Such was artist Reyes's intention. "We often don't feel equipped to deal with issues, but these are things that really affect us all," says the artist. "The intent of this artwork is to provide access to subjects that would otherwise feel overwhelming, to facilitate activities that would allow us to speak."
First conceived for a show at Queen's Museum in 2013, the People's United Nations played on the area's diversity, but also the museum's historical role hosting the General Assembly from 1946 to 1950. "Los Angeles is the only other city that could host an event such as this," says Larissa Harris, curator at the Queens Museum of Art.
During the two-day sessions, various activities culled from social psychology, theater, art, and conflict resolution practices were employed on delegates, who tackled prickly subjects like climate change, food scarcity, gender equality, and nuclear disarmament. As we all spoke, debated, and talked collegially, a bright blue flag bearing the hamsa, an open-palm symbol of protection embedded with an eye, watched over us, as if blessing the proceedings.
In a session humorously called #pUN Times, delegates were called to break into small groups, point out their home country's most shameful realities and create a wild, implausible, but beautiful solution.
In that hour, I learned that Iceland valued their nature, yet its government has been slowly encroaching on it in the name of progress. I learned that despite what the law says, Nigerian women are still looked down on. I learned that South Korean beauty culture ran so amok that even teen girls are given plastic surgery as a present.
Responding to Reyes's challenge, Nancy Lee, who worked at the Hammer, but also represented South Korea that day came up with the simple statement, "Surgeons complain about popularity of #naturalface in Korea." Lee's made-up statement presented an elegant solution to a prevalent cultural problem. What if South Koreans could launch a social media campaign championing natural looks? What kind of cultural change could come about?
In another session dubbed Chemotherapy for Gaia, delegates were treated to a lecture on climate engineering, a largely mechanical process by which mankind can attempt to delay or blunt the effects of climate change through various engineering solutions.
Douglas MacMartin, California Institute of Technology researcher / professor for computing and mathematical sciences, took us through a verbal tour of the many methods available to mankind and what their possible repercussions were. We learned that the world could invest in adding more trees, but it would come at the cost of agricultural land. We could put money into building space reflectors that could reflect the heat of the sun back into space, but that would require a lot of time and money.
As MacMartin went on, I realized that decision-making at the world level was a delicate balancing act. One decision was a lever that could affect others. The world truly was a delicate system. At the end, we were all given stickers, to vote on what our preferred method was. I chose reforestation, despite the danger to the world's food supply. Still, I don't know if I made the right choice, but in this mock session (as in the real one), a choice had to be made to move forward.
The end of the weekend was marked with a cheerful round of a nuclear bomb piñata bashing, while signatures were collected for a petition to ban nuclear weapons worldwide. As the nuclear bomb piñata burst, rainbow streamers and candies from all over the world rained down on the joyful group--a sight I highly doubt could be found in a real UN General Assembly.
"People always ask me if this is a joke or if it's serious," says the artist with a strong hint of his Latin American accent, "I always say that we should allow the co-existence of both." Like many of the artist's works, the People's United Nations tries to champion openness and true understanding despite the naiveté of such a proposition. In his hands confiscated weapons from the Mexican government are re-imagined into musical instruments, drones become dove-like symbols for peace, and speech bubbles are fodder for an interlocking sculpture that champion dialog and communication.
All of Reyes's activities are easily accomplished and executed with an air of humor. The two-day event's moniker, pUN, is a clue to the session's spirit. Nevertheless, it doesn't take away the underlying gravity of having so many people from around the world converge in a single location.
At the end of the weekend, I doubt that the world changed radically, but at least for the 190 delegates in attendance, the world did get a little bit smaller. It reminded all of us that maybe decisions don't have to be left up to the career politicians. We could all play a part.
"None of the people had an agenda," said Nigerian representative Raymond Brown, who wanted to emphasize that these "delegates" were perhaps more able to represent their countries because they weren't mired in reputations and political maneuvering, "I was able to ask the Israeli representative about Palestine, Zimbabwe about land reform, and South Sudan about their government. I got to ask them the hard questions and got straight answers in return. That's what happens when people come together without agendas. Magic happens."
The People's United Nations is an event and an exhibition on view at the Hammer until May 24. More details here.
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