Inside a bar in the neighborhood of Old Havana, on the corner of Tejadillo and Aguacate Street, a bartender pours out glasses of rum. The thick sound of a microphone echoes from afar, blending with the hideous sound of street drills coming from an apparent destruction, or “reconstruction” of the street. The bar and the bartender are, perhaps, an ode to the daily life of such a corner in the innards of Old Havana, but the rest of the elements around are perceived as action and reaction regarding social unrest, evident in the micro-scenario of this space, revealing the isolated struggles for and against freedom of speech.
The microphone emits Hannah Arendt’s words, proclaimed by Cuban artist Tania Bruguera who, sitting on a rocking chair inside her home, reads aloud from “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” A brigade of workers drill on Tejadillo Street, emitting noise as a means of intimidation; it is the Cuban government’s reaction to Bruguera’s performance, in another effort to censor—or at least come over the words of—a determined Bruguera.
It is important to place this scene within a wider context. Last December, during the diplomatic and political exchange between Washington and Havana, Tania Bruguera returned to Cuba to stage her performance “Tatlin’s Whisper No. 6,” in the famous Plaza de la Revolución in downtown Havana, in which she provided an open microphone for Cuban people to speak freely about their country, enforcing the right to dissent. Once the performance was over, Bruguera was arrested. Despite her being released, she is not permitted to leave Cuba, and remains in a bizarre sort of house arrest.
Parallel to the Havana Biennale and from her home, Bruguera carried on with her discourse through concepts of her own creation such as arte útil (which could be translated as useful art), arte de conducta (behavior art), and est-ética (aesth-ethics), with the goal of using art as a medium for social change.
“Tatlin’s Whisper No. 6” and the artist’s imprisonment last December attracted worldwide attention, creating massive manifestations under the slogan “Free Tania” and “Tania Libre,” alluding to the revolutionary slogan “Cuba Libre.” Five months later, Bruguera continues to question the limits of freedom of speech in Cuba, and above all, push the current state of creative and artistic freedom. During the performance reading of Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Lucia Hinojosa, Diego Gerard, and Dennise Abush interviewed Tania Bruguera in order to expand on her concepts of research and investigation (like artivism) and how these can play a crucial role for Cuban artists and their people. When the performance reading was over, Tania was arrested and shortly freed. She remains in Havana, under a heavy sense of uncertainty.
Rail: As an introduction, could you explain the differences between arte útil and arte de conducta? Would you say they are predecessors of artivism?
Tania Bruguera: To begin with, I don’t consider myself the predecessor of anything, because activism is a practice of the ’60s. But I do think that arte útil and arte de conducta intend to dialogue with artivism. Arte de conducta (behavior art) is a technique in which social conduct is a medium and a mechanism of symbolic communication and signification. Various methods can come into play. One of them is to juxtapose learned behaviors in a situation where we do not know how to behave. The goal is to play with behavior and conduct as a medium of communication to generate new semantics regarding things around us, in order to understand social dynamics.
Arte útil (useful art) is a research proposal to evaluate the traditions of art—that perhaps can’t be found in art history books—in which artists and non-artists have understood and used art as a tool for social change. We can consider actions, research projects, and other manifestations as artistic, and as useful art, even though they come from non-artistic fields, because they use art as a means for social transformation. All this is based in a concept that I call aesth-ethics, which means that, in these kinds of productions the ethical is considered something aesthetic, not only in the sense of contemplation, but of motivation. It is about reinventing the concept of the beautiful, and this becomes an ethical action. To be more specific, arte útil is seen, or experienced, in manifestations that reposition art from the consumerist concept (in which artists produce objects that are appropriated or consumed by someone) to something that has cultural and social significance.
I’m interested in art that intervenes with other spheres of knowledge, especially social knowledge and political knowledge. Artivism, although the term can seem complicated—yes, it is art and activism together, the relationship is obvious—the problem is how people have appropriated the term in a superficial way. There are actions and situations that are neither art nor activism, therefore it’s important to be cautious about what people call artivism. I think that in the art world and the world in general—but in the art world specifically—there is a very dangerous formalism.
Rail: Do you mean institutional formalism?
Bruguera: Yes, an institutional formalism that has been appropriated by artists. This is dangerous because when something becomes purely formal, it’s an easy way to avoid commitment. Everything revolves around how something looks or how something is seen.
Rail: Does this hybrid (art and activism) act in favor of people going towards an interest in social change? Or is it important to separate the terms?
Bruguera: Activists, in general, have many negative prejudices about artists. When I started working around the theme of migrants in New York, the first clash I had while working with activists was realizing that there is a strong professional prejudice and prejudices of class towards artists. I had to raise awareness, and express that there are branches of art that are committed and interested in what happens to societies. I had to force them to understand that the language and articulation of speech used by activists is tired and worn out. Activists must know how to renew their language so they can reach people in a more sensible way.
Activists think that artists are people who are politically reactionary, vain, bourgeois, irresponsible, and egotistical. Artists on the other hand, spend their lives looking for new ways to express the same things, and them [activists], they follow the pragmatism, they must repeat the same tirelessly to obtain results. So, when we speak about artivism, we must ask both sides to be proactive in their respective realms.
Rail: To place this discussion in a specific context, is artivism currently at a favorable point for Cuban society?
Bruguera: Artivism in Cuba is crucial at this point, which means that we must raise awareness among people, especially the government and its cultural institutions that can’t understand or can’t acknowledge this type of art. This happens because since the turn of the century, there has been a cultural policy where the free market is slowly being introduced into Cuba, which is making Cubans believe in the lifestyle that it might bring along. Even artists are slowly drifting away from the daily realities of Cuba and beginning to live in a promise of a reality that wants to establish elites. I have nothing against elites, but this shouldn’t be the only possibility of an artist. Artists—or some artists—should be interested with what happens to their neighbors, their friends, their penniless grandmothers; all these things should be a major concern for artists. This is why raising awareness is of utmost importance, making this clear to cultural institutions who refuse any sort of dialogue at present in Cuba. They wouldn’t want us to ruin their 10-year program.
A friend told me a couple days ago that the situation I’m going through is a way of teaching dissidents a lesson, using me as a guinea pig. Everything that has happened to me in the past months up until today is very disproportionate. It is fascinating.
Rail: Will this encourage the Cuban artistic community towards artivism? Or, will they restrain and stick to the formalism you speak of?
Bruguera: I’m not quite sure. Something happened today that brought about a lot of disgust. The method used by our cultural institutions when something bothers them on a political or social level, is one in which they claim that “the artwork isn’t good because it’s not good on an aesthetic level.” They turn to the aesthetic side of things to devaluate or discredit an artwork that is critical towards the system or a given person.
What happened today was unexpected. I was invited to go to the Fine Arts Museum by an artist friend who was one of the exhibitors, and as I’m walking towards the museum, two women dressed as civilians walk up to me and tell me that they advise me not to go into the museum. I asked why, if I was invited.
Rail: Who were these people?
Bruguera: Two women dressed as civilians, who are obviously state security, who were obviously waiting for me. I asked what were their criteria for not letting me in, and I didn’t get a straight answer. I asked because maybe their criteria were not convenient for me either. But they wouldn’t tell me.
I’m part of the permanent collection of the museum; this injustice was handled with extraordinary ineptitude and obstinacy by the state. I think that my project really bothered them, the one I did in December, and the whole thing became a power struggle. It went from the rational plane to something to do with power, as though saying, “you will not overtake us.”
Some artist friends who came over today—who had kept a distance these couple of months—were disgusted by today’s actions. They agreed it was completely disproportionate, stupid, and unfair that I was not admitted into the museum to see an art exhibition. When the two women intercepted me, I even asked if I could talk to someone of a higher rank, but nobody showed up in over an hour. Humiliation has a limit, and so I returned here. I think that what they have done is something that can stir people, wake them up. I pleaded my artist friends to come here tomorrow when I’m done with the performance reading. When I finish I will walk out—walk out and nothing more, I’m not going anywhere specific—and so I asked them to walk for their own sake, not for supporting me, but also for their own struggle and commitment. Today it is me who is immersed in this, but tomorrow it may be them.
After everything that has happened to me here I have realized that the government is poorly prepared in regards to contemporary art, behavior art, and performance. The desire of many artists of being citizens first and foremost is necessary, this is why I consider important to create the Institute of Research and Artivism Hannah Arendt in Havana; and it won’t be created just to go out into the street shouting, but to attract people of every realm. I’m not interested in creating art residencies, I would rather think of the real necessities in Cuba. We can’t decide Cuba’s future if we keep procrastinating. We can’t wait 20 years, or even 10; it will be too late.
Rail: Is there hope for Cuba with this type of art that leaps towards the social? Can this type of art become the new nationalist art?
Bruguera: Everything that is seen as absolute is problematic for me. It is very important that there exists a little of everything, here and everywhere; people who make beautiful art, people who make decorative art to enhance the experience of entering a hotel; all this is important. But we must fight for artivism to have its own space, and for it to be respected in Cuba, and also for it not to be seen as a counter-revolutionary movement sponsored by the CIA. We are trapped in the 1950s in regards to this, which is what makes these initiatives even more important.
Speaking in terms of nation-state is very complicated as the world stands now. I, personally, don’t believe in nations—as a matter of fact, I have a tattoo of the Pangaea. I believe in local situations and local solutions that can be appropriated by other people in other places if the conditions permit it.
Rail: To conclude this interview, we would like to ask if you consider that poetics—as a concept, or even as a kind of power—is present in your work and where is it situated in relation to contemporary art today? Where is poetics located today?
Bruguera: I do believe that my work is quite poetic, although I never speak on that term specifically. In my opinion, poetics happen when someone is able to reveal the contradictions that exist in society, and is able to detect the spaces where one can seep in—either in the social realm, or the legal realm—to achieve something that hadn’t been done before or that was prohibited. A poetic act is the achievement of completing something that seemed like a dream, or seemed impossible, even though this reality is temporary. It is important for art as an entity to understand that perhaps it should act in micro-systems. Once you interact with a macro-system—even if it is completing a work in the public space, or painting a mural, it doesn’t have to be a political work—you enter a territory that has its own set of laws. Therefore it is important to perceive art as a laboratory for situations, in which the circumstances can be controlled to some extent. Poetics exists in these situations of awe and discovery. And yes, poetics are important. There are times when people speak of useful art asking if the rest of artistic creation is not useful. This is not so. It’s not that some sorts of art are not useful, it’s just that useful art is useful. It is important to understand that there are poetics in all of this, and that there are different sensibilities within distinct coordinates of perception. In this way we can also expand on the idea of the beautiful. The beautiful is not only that which is in harmony, or the sublime; the beautiful is also present in the moment when one realizes something—in oneself, in society, or in a system—that makes one reassess and reconsider everything.
Note: The Spanish text of this interview is forthcoming in print in the October 2015 issue of diSONARE magazine.
Arte Util aims to transform some aspects of society through the implementation of art, transcending symbolic representation or metaphor and proposing with their activity some solutions for deficits in reality. Most Arte Útil art is structured as a long-term project and the way it operates is dictated by the practical impact of their strategies. Arte Útil practices try to address the levels of disparities of engagement between informed audiences and the general public, as well as the historical gap between the language used in what is considered avant-garde and the language of urgent politics, science and other disciplines.
Arte de Conducta it is expressed in the use of social behavior (the language through which society communicates) taken by art as its work material for public and social art.In Cuba, Behavior Schools are institutions that intend to reform or rehabilitate minors with social conduct problems, that is, disability to respect and obey the norms and rules established by the social system.
LUCIA HINOJOSA (Mexico City, 1987) is a writer and visual artist. In 2013 she co-founded diSONARE, a bilingual arts publication.Diego Gerard
DIEGO GERARD is a writer and editor based in Mexico City. He is the co-founding editor of diSONARE Magazine.Dennise Abush
Dennise Abush (1986, Mexico City) is an editor, poet, and furniture designer. She wonders about the questions of the universe and is obsessed with time.