An Eyewitness Report
On Sunday afternoon May 24, 2015 as Cuban artist Tania Bruguera brought a close to a 100-hour performance—an open-studio reading of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)—the artist was intercepted by Cuban authorities. She was whisked away in a police car as locals and international visitors to the 12th Bienal de la Habana looked on. I was among the small group of visiting curators, accompanied by the respected Cuban art critic and curator Gerardo Mosquera, who witnessed the disturbing and confusing moment.
As Bruguera was removed from the street outside her apartment in Old Havana, a small group of people chanted revolutionary epithets. While it was upsetting to witness clear psychological intimidation in action, this curious “performance” seemed undeniably “staged.” I commented later to a colleague that the hollow chorus of the citizen’s brigade felt more like extras on a movie set than authentic protectors of Cuba’s revolutionary ethic. In the days that followed (in which my hotel email and phone access were never quite the same), I came to learn that my instincts were valid. This was a classic piece of “revolutionary theater” staged by the Cuban government for the benefit of visiting art world tourists. It was also part of the ongoing strategy of intimidation and repudiation of the artist by Cuban officials as her case awaits judicial action.
Since then I have struggled to make sense of what I witnessed, an experience that is suffused by my own personal history and heightened sensibility as a child of Cuban émigré parents who left the island in the wake of the 1959 revolution. As I reflect on my recent time in Havana, I’m struck by how apropos the Bienal’s overarching theme—“entre la idea y la experiencia”—really is. There is no question that the seismic gaps between the idea(s) of Cuba and the experience(s) of Cuba, both for citizens and tourists, can be radically and perversely in conflict. Indeed, this territory has been a rich one that artists have effectively mined for decades.
Subsequent conversations with colleagues have surfaced a multitude of divergent perspectives, and many have been published online. Tania’s situation and actions in Cuba since she attempted to restage Tatlin’s Whisper #6 in Havana’s Revolutionary Plaza last December have been met with mixed responses from the US and Cuban intellectual communities. And the limited US media coverage offers little else than second-hand reports, often with inaccurate information.
This is why I invited Gerardo Mosquera to share his perspective as an eyewitness to the same events I experienced—and as someone living in Cuba and in regular communication with the artist. The article that follows examines Bruguera’s recent actions in Cuba in the context of her broader artistic practice and eloquently captures the inevitable and necessary frictions between art and activism that her work sharply elucidates.
—Olga Viso, Executive Director, Walker Art Center
Tania Bruguera has been arrested several times in Havana in recent months as a result of her intention to reenact her performance Tatlin’s Whisper #6 (Havana Version) in the public space at Plaza de la Revolución on December 30, 2014. The work’s core was to set a simple stage with a PA to allow any person to speak freely for one minute. The performance was initially presented at the Wifredo Lam Center during the 10th Havana Biennial in 2009 and was a historic event in Cuba: for the first time in half a century a free public forum was allowed for people to speak their minds.1
Bruguera had managed to use art’s permissive environment to create a space for freedom in a totalitarian context. Art’s “weakness” as a minority practice paradoxically empowered it to attain something that has remained impossible for social activism in Cuba due to harsh repression. It was a limited action, but one with major symbolic impact: it incited and helped people to overcome their fear and offered a clear demonstration of Cubans’ feelings and opinions. Although this 2009 performance was authorized by the biennial organizers, the results—people crying for freedom and democracy—seemed to have surpassed these officials’ miscalculations about self-censorship’s strength in curbing people desire to freely express themselves. The next day the Biennial Organization Committee issued a statement condemning the performance in very harsh terms, while Bruguera was admonished, closing a semantic circle that completed the work’s message.
Although many censorship events have occurred, since the 1980s the Cuban government has been tolerant, to some degree, of social and political criticism in the reduced milieu of the arts, while keeping absolute control over the media and street demonstrations. Many Cuban artists have been very critical of the political situation in Cuba, but—with the exception of José Ángel Vincench and very few others—they have kept no links with the organized opposition, that is, the pacifist activists, bloggers, etc., who receive harsh treatment and are officially labeled as “dissidents”—a term that, strictly speaking, can be also applied to many critical artists, writers, playwrights, musicians, and filmmakers. The problem with Bruguera’s performances in Cuba is that they break these boundaries and mix things up.
Bruguera has stated that “art is a safe platform from which to have a dialogue about political ideas and even try new political structures”2 and “something that must be considered disposable, a means for other things, a protection layer.”3 Nevertheless, she has also emphasized that artists’ privileged position can only exist if bearers of real power allow it,4 for their own reasons. Testing these limits is a form of arm wrestling that political art has to undertake against established real and symbolic power, and Bruguera’s art often tries out “illegal” border crossings across customary definitions, expectations, and authoritative rules.
In Cuba’s repressive context it would have been naive to think that Cuban authorities would allow a repeat of Tatlin’s Whisper # 6 in a public space, and even more in one with such symbolic political connotations as the Plaza de la Revolución. The point about Bruguera reenacting the performance was less about the hope of creating a space for free expression and more an act defying the repression of freedom of expression in situ, by an “artivistic” gesture. This challenge was good both for art and for politics in Cuba: it succeeded in creating awareness about the situation and was very healthy within a current art scene that’s immersed in wild commercialism focused on selling out works to American collectors. The event also showed, both symbolically and in reality, that the Cuba-USA détente will not mean progress in human rights on the island, at least not in the short term.
There have been some scholastic reflections online and through email about whether Bruguera’s action should be considered art—or an accomplished art piece—as in three open emails sent by artist Lázaro Saavedra, who articulated the opinion of many Cuban artists against Bruguera’s performance.5 It would be fruitful to introduce into these considerations Guy Debord’s radical notion of suppression and realization of art as two inseparable conditions for surpassing it.6 Bruguera considers that the political artist’s position is problematic by definition: it is “one of dissatisfaction” because of only being able to be between art and politics.7 From its inception, her art has tried to go beyond representation towards concrete social action.8 An early example was Memory of the Postwar (1993), an independent cultural newspaper published by the artist in Cuba until it was confiscated and banned by the authorities. Her Behavior Art School, implemented in Havana from 2002 to 2009, was a foremost and fruitful effort for art education in Cuba that fostered a new generation of artists at a critical moment. A most recent example is the Migrant People Party founded by Bruguera in Mexico City in 2010.
Are these works art? Do they just use art for other purposes? Do they expand art’s reach and boundaries? Are these discussions pertinent? Perhaps the designation and notion of artivism is the best way to name these works and to describe their hybrid character. Many artists work today in this direction, and sometimes artworks escape away into the social following their own artistic process, even if this was not its original aim—and vice versa, as we can see in some political actions that incorporate aesthetic, theatrical, and symbolic means to increase their force. Anyhow, it is telling that, far away from scholarly definitions, the Cuban regime is avoiding the word “artist” to refer to Bruguera: an official Cuban blog recently published an article titled “Tania Bruguera, from visual artist to provocative mercenary.”9
If Tatlin’s Whisper #6 intended reenactment was art, Cuban authorities reacted by an extreme practice of art criticism, which, on the other hand–and as it has happened before—closed Bruguera’s artworks’ semantic circle by being an active element for the piece to create its message. Saavedra has even said ironically that “the provocateur artist put the idea, and the State Security made the work.”10 After her work was aborted/completed by the police/co-author, Bruguera’s passport and her laptop computer were confiscated and are being held while she is arraigned by a prosecutor for allegedly committing three felonies: “incitement to public disorder,” “resistance to police,” and “incitement to break the law”—charges for which she will likely receive a jail sentence. There is a precedent: artist Ángel Delgado was put in trial because of a performance and spent six months in prison after been sentenced in 1990 under similar accusations. Artist Danilo Maldonado (aka El Sexto) has been under arrest for several months, also for an aborted performance. Bruguera is free in Cuba while waiting for what has been a long indictment process. She remains so most probably because she is an internationally well-known artist and due to the international media impact of her case, although for nearly six months she has been frequently subjected to interrogation by a lieutenant colonel of the Interior Ministry, a woman, and other agents, and has been menaced by police.
On May 20, during the 12th Havana Biennial’s opening week, Bruguera started the first session of the foundational process of the Hannah Arendt International Institute of Artivism. The date was a significant one: Cuba’s Independence Day, which has not been officially celebrated since the early 1960s (the celebration was shifted to July 26, a date marking the beginning of Fidel Castro’s armed struggle against dictator Fulgencio Batista). The sessions took place at Bruguera’s home in Tejadillo 214, located in a grassroots neighborhood in Old Havana, but just one block from the National Museum. Her place has been a significant site for Cuba’s recent art history, where the Behavior Art School and other artistic events have been held. For the Institute of Artivism’s first session she wide opened the doors to the street, as a storefront, as in her memorable 1997 performance The Burden of Guilt, also an independent event during the 6th Havana Biennial.11 Through an email release and flyers the artist announced that Hannah Arendt’s 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism would be read uninterruptedly until completion, and then a public action would take place. Her home stayed open the entire 24 hours, and anyone was welcome to participate in the reading and subsequent discussions. Before the opening, the police warned her that they would not allow her to perform in the street. Bruguera, in a clever move, managed to obtain a license as a private teacher, so it was perfectly legal for her to do the reading indoors.
The performance began as announced, a loudspeaker pointing out to the street through the open door. However, loud noise produced by workers who timely began to drill the street in front of the house—as part of works being undertaken in the neighborhood—went over the loudspeaker. Yet, as Luis Camnitzer has put it:
The power of the piece wasn’t derived from the content of the text, but rather from the choice of book, the setting, and the concentrated endurance of those involved in the marathon. […] a philosophical text, difficult to hear, and probably exceeding anyone’s conceivable attention span under the circumstances, was considered to be sufficiently threatening to the government (or at least some of its officials) that steps were taken to interfere with the performance. What they didn’t understand is that drilling made no difference. With or without the drilling noise, the piece was untouchable. Tania had identified a crack in the wall of official regulations and the authorities revealed themselves as one step short of the moral equivalent of book burners.
Camnitzer considered the piece “probably one of the most elegant and powerful of Tania’s works.”14
Among the readers were Bruguera’s friends, a few artists and curators who were visiting the biennial, members of the Ladies in White (wives of Cuban prisoners of conscience), and, as far as I know, only a few people from the Cuban art world. The number of visitors was much bigger, but still a lack of response prevailed in a city bursting with art events. Such indifference was eloquent when Bruguera was stopped by undercover agents from entering the National Museum on Saturday, May 23 for an opening by her friend, painter Tomás Sánchez, who invited her to attend. The gatekeepers claimed that the museum had the right to refuse admission–paradoxically, a work by Bruguera was on view as part of the museum’s permanent collection. This incident was witnessed by artists and visitors, and very few reactions happened at the spot or later on. All this is shameful for the institution and for the art world: regardless of the opinion that each one can have about Bruguera’s art and politics, she is a serious artist being harassed and in critical danger just for advocating freedom of expression, something crucial for art, crucial for all of us. We all can be Tania. Solidarity against censorship and repression is a general responsibility for intellectuals that should prevail beyond their differences and agendas.
On Sunday afternoon, after the reading of Arendt was completed, Bruguera walked out of her home to the street, holding a white dove in one hand and a copy of The Origins of Totalitarianism in the other, accompanied by a few friends and biennial visitors. She went out despite the menacing presence of rough-looking men all over the street. She walked to the right, toward the first intersection, followed by the group, and then, after we covered some 30 meters, another “performance” took place. As in a Hollywood thriller, three cars appeared, the first one stopping in front of Bruguera. Her two interrogators came out of the vehicle swiftly, the lieutenant colonel wearing her uniform—all others in the cars were undercover, as were the tough guys who surrounded the group. They confronted Bruguera in a dramatic way, the colonel shouting to her. They told her that she could not continue and that they would take her to her mother’s house, which is in a distant neighborhood. The artist talked with them. It was a moving and meaningful image to witness the tall, corpulent woman in uniform and the other interrogator confronting the artist as she held the white dove and the book in her hands. The whole scene looked like a straightforward allegory.
Later Bruguera told me that she thought to give the book to the police in a symbolic gesture. But then she decided that it would be better to free the dove, which she cast into the air. The bird flew free but, nervous and disoriented as it was, hit a house’s façade and went down to the pavement, where it remained, confused. Then the artist threw up the book very strongly. It happened to hit a façade too, in a very violent way, producing a loud, impressive sound—even if the place was crowded, a general silence prevailed in the street. It was as if that sound of the book’s blow against the wall would have compressed in one single bang all of the volume’s content, summarizing the 100-hour reading of the book that had just been performed.
While this occurred, a group of women and men, many of them seniors, arrived almost in a line to surround us, preventing our group from taking photos and videos (this is why there is little visual material documenting the event). Bruguera finally entered the car, and the three vehicles abandoned the scene, driven in reverse. When this came about, in a synchronized way, the group of civilians began to shout Cold War–era political slogans, while Bruguera’s neighbors remained silent. In Cuba this type of organized action is called a “repudiation act” and has been staged over the years to intimidate dissidents and even people just looking to leave the country. Then, the participants in Bruguera’s march dispersed, escorted by the “Rambos.” The artist was driven around and finally left at her mother’s, where she spent the night. The next day she told me on the phone that more than 50 dissidents were arrested by the police while leaving their homes to participate in the performance’s culmination, all released after a few hours.
Why all this excess only to stop a solitary artist? Of course it was done to send the message that no opposition—not even an artistic one—will be tolerated in Cuba. Yet such a vast, well-planned and -coordinated police operation was also a symptom of fear and weakness. It shows that in situations where dissent is crushed by established powers, art recovers its sharpest critical edge, reloads its truly subversive competence. Was Bruguera’s performance aborted by the police raid? I think that I had the privilege of witnessing a unique case in art history: a street performance that was completed in response to its very repression. We don’t know what the artist was actually planning to execute in the street. What she did with the dove and the book was an improvised reaction that resulted in a most impressive performance: one that epitomized the confrontation between freedom and repression, knowledge and power, the individual subject and the State, in a symbolic action that went beyond representation to take place in harsh reality, and that was an immediate result of it. The performance’s artistic actions were generated by the very repression it experienced.
By the time the biennial’s inaugural week ended, Bruguera was bruised when temporarily arrested again by the police for attending a Ladies in White march following her ongoing research for a bill she plans to propose in Cuba on the right to free speech. The artist has decided to forge ahead with this and with the International Institute of Artivism. We do not know what will happen to her. As a participant at Tatlin’s Whisper #6 in 2009 exclaimed at the podium, let us wish that someday freedom of speech in Cuba will not have to be a performance.
1 Gerardo Mosquera, “Cuba in Tania Bruguera’s Work: The Body is the Social Body,” Tania Bruguera: On the Political Imaginary (Milan: Charta, 2009), p. 22–35.
2 Tania Bruguera (La Biennale di Venezia, 2005), p. 155.
3 Tania Bruguera, “Political Art Statement,” taniabruguera.com, 2010.
4 Bruguera, 2005, op. cit.
5 Lázaro A. Saavedra González, Galería I-MAIL (Tania gana, los derechos civiles continúan perdiendo), emailed on December 31, 2014; Galería I-MAIL (Libertad de expresión y espacio público), emailed on January 3, 2015; Galería I-MAIL (Arrestos ARTbirarios [notas]), emailed on January 6, 2015.
6 Guy Debord, La sociedad del espectáculo (Valencia: Pre-Textos, 2000), p. 158.
7 Bruguera, 2010, op. cit.
8 Gerardo Mosquera, “Reanimating Ana Mendieta”, Mexico City, Polyester 4, no. 11 (Winter 1995), p. 53–54.
9 M. H. Lagarde, “Tania Bruguera de artista plástica a mercenaria provocativa,” Cambios en Cuba, May 24, 2015.
10 Saavedra, January 1, 2015, op. cit.
11 Mosquera, “Cuba in Tania Bruguera…,” op. cit.
12 “A 100-consecutive-hours session opens the International Institute of Artivism Hannah Arendt,” Faebook event posted on May 17, 2015.
13 Luis Camnitzer, “Tania Bruguera’s Tatlin’s Whisper #6 and the Hannah Arendt International Institute for Artivism,” Art Agenda, May 28, 2015.
14 Camnitzer, op. cit.
15 See videos of Bruguera’s detention. For photos and information on Bruguera’s activities in Cuba visit Yo También Exijo.