One Sunday this June, I found myself on the floor of an exhibition space in downtown Brooklyn with a balloon between my legs. The lights were low; there were twelve of us lying in a circle, attempting to move with a “spastic motion” derived from the energy pulsing from our belly buttons. A bespectacled man with a Mexican accent instructed us to breathe only through our noses while we envisioned ourselves traveling to a specific point in time or space.

This was the first of four urban therapies I underwent at the “Sanatorium.”

At the entrance to the temporary clinic at One Metrotech Center, several volunteers in lab coats greeted visitors. A severe-looking woman at the front desk asked, “Do you have any stress, anxiety, fatigue?” I replied, “Yes, all of those, all of the time.” She thought for a moment, circled some numbers on this form. Walking into the waiting room, I saw about ten other “patients,” an international crew of mostly women in their twenties.

I had been looking forward to the event both to see what Sanatorium’s creator, artist Pedro Reyes, was up to, and as a chance to actually engage in something therapeutic. I first encountered Reyes one year ago in his native Mexico City, where he presented some of his projects as part of Postopolis 2010. Then, his socially engaged, diverse body of work impressed me in its scope and breadth. A trained architect, Reyes’s recent work has ranged from architectural interventions to innovative pedagogy (The Urban Genome Project, The Atlas for Civic Innovation,) to a TV show featuring puppets of Marx and Adam Smith.

In 2008, his “Palas por Pistolas” project addressed gun violence in Culiacán, Mexico. Working with local municipal entities, Reyes launched a campaign that invited citizens to trade in their guns for coupons good for home appliances. With the metal from the melted guns, Reyes created shovels used to plant trees everywhere he took the show.

Last month Reyes took on another issue entirely: the artist offered some relief to self-obsessed and neurotic New Yorkers by offering cheap, experimental therapy. Sanatorium is the first installment of stillspotting nyc, a two-year initiative put on by the Guggenheim’s Architecture and Design curator, David van der Leer. The prompt for this series is New York City’s constant attacks on the senses. Sanatorium is Reyes’s response to the notion of a stillspot—a physical place unearthed, repurposed, or created in the metropolis where at least one of the senses finds respite from the usual attacks.

When I first entered the Sanatorium and saw the “clinicians” pacing about in white lab coats, clutching clipboards, I was immediately suspicious of the costumes and feared the show would be too gimmicky; a straight parody or something trying way too hard to be an “out of museum” experience. In the end I felt I had traded my fifteen dollars for two hours of thoughtful, engaged therapy. Not a bad deal, especially considering that I found something resembling real solace in the exercises.

Emerging from the group therapy described above, I went to the next station assigned to me, the Philosophical Casino. The activity went like this: (1) Write down a burning question. (2) Pick a box to put it in. Each box corresponds with one of four giant dice, with answers from various historical philosophers. I asked, “To find real love, is it more important to be vulnerable or to be true to your own needs?” I chose a die with symbols, not words, and got this answer: “%.” Reyes himself stepped up to help me process, seeming genuinely invested in my discovering meaning in my answer. Given the percent sign and Reyes’s encouragement, I came to the conclusion that my question could not be answered definitively. Vulnerability and self-reliance are not mutually exclusive states, but must be balanced with some unknown percentage in order for love to work.

A bell rang, and I moved on. The next station was called Cityleaks. There were two metal buckets full of glass bottles: one dry, one wet. A volunteer directed me to write down my deepest secret on a slip of paper, roll it up tightly, and place it in a bottle. She corked it, and I placed my secret in the dry bucket. I then reached into the other bin, and chose one from a handful of strangers’ deepest secrets, bobbing lightly in the water. I hope I’m not breaching trust in revealing that someone I’ll never meet used to distribute his or her father’s Playboys to their sixth grade class for three times the price.

Finally, I got to do an arts and crafts project. The “clinician,” a nice guy from Holland who seemed in awe of the whole project, showed me several books about medieval coats of arms. He pointed to a gigantic stack of magazines, handed me scissors, paper, and glue, and sat back while I searched for symbols representing my family contained in National Geographic, Seventeen, and The New Yorker. Through cutting, pasting, and re-appropriation, I now know that death, masks, and female voodoo power are central to my understanding of my family.

Other “therapies”? A compatibility test for couples using juice making, anger management involving drawing a head of the person who has hurt you most on a balloon, then attacking it, the “Goodoo” exercise where patients create a helpful voodoo doll. The project only ran two weekends in June, not enough time for all the targets perhaps of some people’s anger management needs.

A question emerges: is Reyes’s project simply following a trend and bringing a marketable experience of health, cleansing, and self-reflection into the realm of art? In a word: no. In the Sanatorium Manifesto, Reyes draws on several influences including: the Occam’s razor of algebra, sorcery, oracles, game theory, meditation, 12-step programs, shamanism, curatorial practice, self-help, and practical jokes. In an interview in ARTINFO, Reyes claims he drew inspiration for the project from a 1934 text on psychotherapy.

With “Sanatorium,” Reyes is working in the long-established practice of relational art. Relational (or participatory) art relies on the audience for the completion and collective interpretation of each piece. In “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics”, Claire Bishop asks, “If relational art produces human relations, then the next logical question to ask is what types of relations are being produced, for whom, and why?”

The art world has seen a fair share of irresponsible, exploitative relational art. For example, take Santiago Sierra’s “250 cm Line Tattooed on 6 Paid People” (1999), in which he hired six unemployed Cubans, for thirty dollars apiece, to stand shoulder to shoulder and get a single line tattooed across all of their backs.

However, even with all of the bumpiness inherent in a short-lived, experimental therapy-art project relying on volunteer clinicians, strangers, and participants coming together to create a “still spot,” I can say with certainty that Reyes’s project provided (at least for me) some real reflection and calm. We make money not art notes simply: “Pedro Reyes does the most thoughtful, honest, socially-engaged works.” I agree.

It’s July. New York is hot, smelly, and loud. Contemplating the politics of relational art can be confusing, and I kind of want to check myself back in to the Sanatorium.

Instead, I’ll divulge my Cityleaks secret. I printed that I eavesdrop on strangers to an unhealthy degree and I enjoy it a lot… There, I said it.

Kaye Cain-Nielsen

Kaye Cain-Nielsen is an editorial assistant at Guernica.

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