Ernesto Oroza works and thinks through the potentials of what he calls the “vernacular production” of the periodo especial in Cuba—design works compelled by an extended economic depression following the collapse of the country’s Soviet Union–linked economy in the late 1980s. Having both been trained and taught in Havana’s schools of design, Oroza has also led student workshops examining themes in his work and lectured widely, most recently at the BMW Guggenheim Lab in Berlin and the Ecole Nationale Supérieur de Création Industrielle in Paris.
In this conversation with Joshua Zane Weiss, an ethnographer of emergent technological cultures in Havana, Oroza touches on his notions of “technological disobedience,” his focus on objects born out of necessity, and his interdisciplinary art practice that oscillates between design theorist, art practitioner, and pedagogue.
Born in Havana and based in Adventura, Florida, Oroza has had shown his work at the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the Groninger Museum (The Netherlands), LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial (Spain), Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Museo Rufino Tamayo (Mexico), and the Institut de Cultura La Virreina, Barcelona. His video work Aachen to Zurich (2005)—in which the word “revolución” cycles repeatedly on screen in more than 200 different typefaces—is featured in the exhibition Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950.
JOSHUA ZANE WEISS
How do you categorize yourself professionally or intellectually? There are degrees of curation, various artistic practice, design, and theory in your work. What takes priority? What are you best at?
Everything you’ve listed, from both a critical and, hopefully, conscientious perspective. I would add my efforts in pedagogy!
To use a common term today, I could say that I am a cultural critic/worker. But why try to restrict my practice by creating a precise framework? I believe in reuse and in the “potential object.” I side with not confining or limiting possibilities.
What most often draws your attention to an object for inclusion in your “Technological Disobedience” project/materioteca?
I intend to demonstrate there my thesis that there is an “object of necessity.” These are objects that are at the same time an understanding of a need and the answer to it. I am interested in the objects and solutions that most fit into this premise. “Architecture of Neccessity” is the term that best explains it: the object as a physical diagram, a structure that makes unity of understanding needs and the decisions of how to overcome them.
For some time I prioritized registering non-decorative objects—objects that were synthetic in their quality as a “statement.” I think there are surprising objects with decorative capacities, but I did not include these in order to avoid a critical discourse about “bad taste,” rather tending more toward something that seems more necessary—a discussion about need, popular creativity, and resistance.
Is “beauty” something which is considered or important to you?
Yes! It’s often thought that because I’m interested in objects of precarious and improvised composition I have no interest in beauty. I understand beauty in direct relation with imagination on the one hand and understanding on the other. I believe that the coincidental harmonic order, which Kant associates with “common sense,” is all part of this understanding of the necessary, synthetic order of an idea or thing. In this sense, many of these objects fulfill that premise of beauty.
Could you talk about how exactly you think of “need” and “necessity”? For you, where do these concept come from? Are the needs you’re attending to regarding material conditions, spiritual needs, a degree of affect, or some combination?
A few years after articulating my “Declaration of Necessity” concept, I understood that my approach was a dialectical approach to the philosophical problem of necessity and freedom, which goes from Spinoza to Marx, going through Hegel.
I don’t mean to say that the hunger and the lack of electric light gave me the lucidity of Spinoza, but in analyzing the Cuban objects of the Special Period I saw nothing else but this kind of dialectical synthesis.
With the “Declaration of Necessity” I wanted to describe that moment in which we are fully aware of need and face it. Freedom is the conscious need, Engels would say. Many believed that the declaration was a manifesto, but it was only the name I gave to that act.
I think that “need” has been stigmatized. The individual in need is considered weak and sanctioned as vulgar if he expresses his demands. No matter the degree of affection of the need, this alienation concerns both the needs of the body and the spiritual ones.
Thinking about Aachen to Zurich, your piece in Adíos Utopia, I had some questions about translation, about ideas moving and shaping from one place to another: Does your professional attention wander from project to project, or are many different disciplines and processes engaged all at once for you?
I work on several projects at the same time and rarely leave a topic. I understand it as a unique research, at the same time tendentious in ethical and political terms, crossed by different disciplinary approaches. The latter may be due to a practical inertia that comes from my training as a designer.
As a design student you get used to jumping from one cultural field to another, seeking to understand the internal logic of those fields. If you have to design a telephone you have to study telephony and its technical principles, then everything related to communicative aspects and ergonomics, among many others. It was precisely these intellectual incursions that attracted me to design, because I came to the discipline without a defined vocation, neither by design nor by anything else.
The constants in my projects are: ethics, critical thinking, and a need to understand my position in relation to cultural production. Aspects that were formerly just a component have become the subject.
There’s a longer history of different types of media sharing (magazines, books) in Cuba than simply the recent digital iterations, but broadly, would you say the recent ease of media reproduction impacted Cuban design or art worlds?
For many decades, reproduction was an exclusive right of the state. The reproduction of printed media is still very closely monitored by the government. Digital culture weakened that control.
Unexpected propagation channels appeared. Some of these channels or protocols were created by the government but ended up exceeding their own control. For example, in the 1980s the first satellite dish was brought to Cuba. This antenna was brought to the island as part of an operation of the Ministry of the Interior. The antenna and dozens of video recorders were installed in a house in the Miramar neighborhood. The plan was to copy American movies and TV shows. Every Friday three video cassettes were prepared, multiplied and distributed for the weekend entertainment of senior government and military officials.
This instance could be as the oldest antecedent of what is now known as the Paquete Semanal (Weekly Package). The drivers and the people who worked for these high officials made their own copies and circulated them among their families and neighbors.
A more recent phenomenon is S-net, a wireless network that has thousands of users. S-net grew spontaneously because of the desire of many young people to play online. When they were detected they chose to accept the demands of the police and assumed an inviolable internal regulation that has as one of its first commandments the prohibition of talking about politics. In S-net there is a lot of pirated information, as in the Paquete Semanal.
How do you interpret the widespread contemporary interest in Cuban making and Cuban design? Does the topic translate well to some audiences better than others?
I know there is a romantic perception of Cuban production even when it is associated with the economic crisis. In some circles I am considered pessimistic because I reject this production as an alternative. It may be that I contribute to this romantic reading because I am a defender of the transgressive character of the tactics developed to survive the crisis.
When I led workshops with students in Europe I noticed that there was a tendency to produce objects that seemed to emerge from the crisis. It is not easy to insert a European student into a contingency environment.
I remember that in 2002, following terrorist attacks in Paris, I found that all the trashcans in the city had been replaced by transparent bags. The people in Paris wanted to see the garbage; it did not matter if the exposed debris spoiled the city. The terrorists had placed the bombs in pressure cookers and put them inside the traditional metal baskets. On my way to school I took one of these new bags and took it to the space where we held the workshop; I told them: this is an “object of necessity.”
Do you find certain audiences come to your work with prior notions of Cubanismo or their own ideas about what these particular Cuban contexts might mean? Is there any desire on your part to reinforce, to play with, or to refute how folks may arrive at your work?
Is there any desire on your part to reinforce, to play with, or to refute what folks may come to your work with?
There are narratives that have hijacked the gaze and the analysis of essential problems. The narrative of the ruined Cuban city is one of them. The rhetoric of the dust of ruins is useful to tourism promoters because it stimulates the nostalgia of Western tourists. It is useful to the Cubans of Miami because the city represents the inefficiency of the island’s government; and it serves the government because it represents the defeated bourgeois city.
The photos of bourgeois mansions destroyed, fragmented, painted by their tenants are read only from the perspective of the picturesque. Many Cuban and foreign academics and intellectuals oppose this reading radically, but in doing so they assume that these architectures do not exist.
The two approaches—those that capitalize these images of ruin and those that oppose it radically—remove the individual who inhabits those dwellings and transforms them in order to attend to the needs of his family.
I think that in their opposition to the picturesque, these Puritans have been kidnapped by the same force and do not pay attention to vital processes as, in my opinion, what I have called “Architecture of Necessity.” The dust of a destroyed building for a citizen living under the urgency only has physical qualities and will mix it with water and cement to build his bathroom or to expand a room.