Artist turns guns into music with a message

An artist's weapons-infused musical show creatively confronts "stand your ground."

Published January 22 2014
Updated January 23 2014


The xylophone and flute are the sliced and gouged barrels. The guitar and violin and harmonica are the clips and coils and triggers, and the cymbal is the melted metal of a weapon. They all work to create a new, wholly imperfect sound.

They are instruments made from guns. And in them, Mexican artist Pedro Reyes has continued to realize his vision: What scares people away can be reborn to draw them in.

The instruments are on display at the University of South Florida's Contemporary Art Museum through March 8. Tonight, USF music students will play them in a special performance designed to forge a conversation around gun violence.

"It's kind of a diametrically opposite operation," Reyes said of guns and instruments. "It's turning something that's a technology created for killing into a technology that becomes something to create life."

The project comes at a tense time in Florida's gun history. A man was shot and killed in a Wesley Chapel movie theater this month. The state's controversial "stand your ground" law has been thrust into public debate on the heels of Trayvon Martin's killing in 2012. And a state court ruling recently forced USF and other universities to let students keep guns in their cars.

While those issues may guide conversation here, Reyes comes with another perspective.

At home in Mexico, he said, he lost an uncle and a friend to gun violence. He calls gun availability in the U.S. an issue of national security for Mexico, where Mexicans cross the border and go to American gun shows.

"Perhaps if I hadn't been affected in Mexico, I would have no business in trying to give an opinion on what is going on here," he said. "But the problem is that we cannot solve the problem of gun violence alone in Mexico. We have to somehow tie in with the United States and say, 'Well, we have a shared problem.'

"It's like having a neighbor that decides to make a pool on top of your apartment, and it's leaking. But what it's leaking is guns."

Reyes, 41, has long focused his art around violence in work that has appeared all over the world. He visited USF several years ago with a project, inviting the audience to sing and smash guitars. Anger, he said, could be channeled into a cathartic act.

In 2007, he was invited to contribute to a public art project at a Mexican botanical garden. He organized a campaign, inviting people to bring firearms to city hall. Melted metal from 1,527 guns was used to make as many shovels and plant as many trees as possible.

After hearing about the tree project, Reyes said, the Mexican government offered him 6,700 guns seized from criminal groups. He accepted, but wanted to do something different.

His idea culminates this evening at USF in a performance called "Amendment to the Amendment/(under)stand your ground."

USF music students will play Reyes' instruments in a free concert. The musicians have been practicing on the creations, which are not perfectly technical instruments. The sounds they make are funky, slightly out of tune and raw.

"We knew we were going to have to do something a little more avant-garde," said USF graduate student and guitar player Teague Bechtel, 32. "There's a set of rules you have to follow, and in order to play these instruments, you kind of have to let those go. It's kind of a freeing experience."

The concert will follow what USF theater professor Dora Arreola calls "legislative theater," a technique derived from Brazilian director, writer and politician Augusto Boal's Theater of the Oppressed. It involves the audience, resulting in a production that's part play, part conversation.

"The actors are there to kind of create an artistic environment, in addition to the instruments," Arreola said.

If you go, expect to contribute ideas about the "stand your ground" law and the Second Amendment.

"We're not discussing what is the right interpretation," Reyes said. "We're just saying, 'If there were anything that you would change, what would that be?' And it's not like we have an answer. You will hear many voices. There may be people who say we need more guns …

"If you're not free to ask these questions, then you're not living in a free country."

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at or (813) 226-3394.