New ‘Manufacturing Mischief’ features Chomsky, Rand, and Tiny Trump
It’s Noam Chomsky vs. Ayn Rand in a new show from multimedia artist Pedro Reyes — and just to be clear, it’s a comedy, and they’re puppets.
“Manufacturing Mischief,” based in part on the writings of Chomsky, debuts at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Simmons Hall in Cambridge on Thursday and Friday, and all seats are already fully reserved. It’s just the latest provocative work from Reyes, a Mexican artist whose past projects include “Palas por Pistolas” (2008), in which 1,527 guns were melted down and made into shovels that were then used to plant an equal number of trees, and “Imagine” (2012) and “Disarm” (2013), both featuring musical instruments fabricated from guns. Reyes also recently had a sculpture show at Lisson Gallery in London.
For “Manufacturing Mischief,” Reyes teamed up with director Meghan Finn and writer Paul Hufker. The trio are following up their last project together, a haunted house/art installation called “Doomocracy,” staged at the Brooklyn Army Terminal shortly before the 2016 election. The puppets used in “Manufacturing Mischief” are made in Japan by puppet designer Chihiro Takahashi, based on the traditional Bunraku form.
Reyes is returning to MIT after serving as the school’s inaugural Dasha Zhukova Distinguished Visiting Artist, a program launched with a $1 million gift to the school by the noted art collector and founder of Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art. This month Harvard University Press also published “Pedro Reyes: Ad Usum/To Be Used,” a handsome career-long survey accompanied by scholarly responses to the work.
Reyes spoke with the Globe on the phone from Mexico City International Airport before boarding a flight to Boston. The conversation has been condensed and edited.
Q. Your puppet play “The Permanent Revolution” (2014) used Leon Trotsky as a main character, and your series of web shorts begins with puppets based on Adam Smith and Karl Marx bumping into each other at Occupy Wall Street. Did your residency at MIT lead to featuring Noam Chomsky, who’s been associated with the school for many decades?
A. I’ve been a fan of Chomsky for a long time. Before I got to Boston, I attended two lectures that he gave at MIT. It was the height of the Iraq war, so a very political moment with a lot of unrest. It was very inspiring and very powerful that even as a part of MIT, he was keeping these political beliefs, and saying that it’s important to be aware of the [unexpected] uses of technology. When I was invited to the residency at MIT, I thought I may be just one more person that would like to meet Chomsky. He was very generous to invite me to his office, and I talked to him about the idea of making a puppet show. I thought it would be an opportunity to go deeper into reading his material and also to put his writing in contrast with other ideas. In the play there are other antagonists to him who are also very popular. I wanted to stage a debate in an entertaining way. It’s about a staging a conflict between opposing worldviews and opposing ideologies.
Q. What other characters are in the piece?
A. Chomsky is in this play to sort through ideas that people are reading that present worldviews that are a bit dangerous. Like in the case of Ayn Rand. In academia, no one takes her seriously. It’s almost an embarrassment to even mention her name. But a lot of people believe in her philosophy.
I was totally surprised that very influential people like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk [who are also characters in “Manufacturing Mischief”] praise her. I feel that there’s a theme of people who are visionaries in the realm of science and technology but that nevertheless lack a philosophical and moral framework to use those advancements of technology for the betterment of all of society, not only a few. Translated to the comedy format, it has a lot of potential. Because Ayn Rand is such a sociopath, it was so funny to put her in contrast with the very benevolent and generous character of Noam Chomsky. I also have a character called Tiny Trump.
Q. Tell me about him.
A. Trump is a nice entertainer, no question about it. And all of the extreme behavior that the people have learned so well, the kind of — how to say it? Obscenity? It almost plays into creating this puppet character. In puppetry, there’s usually some characters who are comparatively foolish, but in the case of Trump it’s someone who happens to also be dangerous, in real life.
Q. What does the show have to say about technology?
A. We’re not against technology, but we’re against the idea that whatever the problem is, the solution is technology. Sometimes it seems that everyone is thinking of how to make a robot like a person. For instance, if you go to the cafeteria, it has no clerk. What would happen if all the pubs and restaurants follow that trend? When you’re developing that technology, are you thinking about that? No. There’s no discussion about what is going to happen with all the people that lose their jobs.
Automation and artificial intelligence are subjects that we deal with in the play, technological developments that happened with only having profit in mind. That is a very dangerous worldview.
At MIT’s Simmons Hall, Thursday and Friday evening. Tickets are free but fully reserved. arts.mit.edu.