Interview with Tania BrugueraMarch 31, 2016
Bad At Sports is a weekly podcast about contemporary art. Founded in 2005, the series focuses on presenting the practices of artists, curators, critics, dealers, various other arts professionals through an online audio format.
On the afternoon of February 29, 2016, Jeanne Gerrity sat down with artist Tania Bruguera just a few hours before she delivered the lecture “Every Gesture Is a Political Act” as part of the Art and Social Criticism lecture series organized by Betti-Sue Hertz at Stanford University. Last summer Tania was appointed the first artist in residence by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. She was also recently nominated as a finalist for the Hugo Boss prize, awarded every two years by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation to an artist who has made a visionary contribution to contemporary art. Tania’s incredible and broad-reaching practice, which is often participatory, operates at the intersection of art and politics. What follows is an abridged excerpt from their conversation. The full conversation will be available as an upcoming podcast episode of Bad at Sports.
Jeanne Gerrity: You refer to yourself as an initiator rather than an artist. Can you talk about the implications of that term?
Tania Bruguera: With long-term projects and projects embedded in the social sphere, I feel that the participation of the audience becomes such an important part of the work that it almost completes it. In that sense I feel it’s only fair to not claim full authorship of the work, to understand your role as an artist to be somebody who has an idea and wants to share that idea with others. But in order for the idea to exist, it needs everybody to get on board, and not only participate in a classical sense of passive participation. It’s more about having projects that become part of your life. I think the artist has to leave the authorship of the work in order for the work to become stronger.
JG: Last year you finished up the five-year project Immigrant Movement International, which was essentially a community agency in Queens providing actual social services to immigrants, but at the same time an art project. Can you tell me what you see as your role in that project and the role of the participants? How does art operate in society in that context?
TB: Immigrant Movement International is a bigger project than just the piece in Queens. The piece in Queens was the headquarters, where I worked for around four years on the project, which I then passed on to the community. We had almost a full year of teaching people in the community about contemporary art, especially socially engaged art, and in traditional leadership, leading to the creation of a council. We actually tried to incorporate art into the community’s way of thinking.
At the same time, Immigrant Movement is a larger project, and it includes a piece in Mexico where we created a political party for immigrants that was actually registered as one of the fifty potential parties for the next election. It also includes the piece I did two years ago at the Guggenheim where I created a campaign to ask Pope Francis to give Vatican citizenship to immigrants around the world, and it includes what I’m doing with the city of New York.
JG: You do an amazing job of involving the community. It’s something that most artists operating in the social practice realm try to do, but it’s not always achieved.
TB: I’ve been asked many times what defines success for this kind of project, and for me a sign of success is when, instead of thinking of people as participants, you think of them as your friends. I literally left Immigrant Movement to the participants, and I haven’t been there actively for a year, but I still talk to them. They call me about things not related to the movement, about their life, and I do the same with them; we have become friends. For me that is the transformation that needs to happen when you do socially engaged art: You transform the audience into active citizens, and from artist citizens into collaborators, and then from collaborators to friends.
JG: That involves a real commitment, more than just a couple months. This aspect of the project was five years, and you lived there for the first year, correct?
TB: The first three years. One very important element of this type of project is trust. Everybody has different ways of showing trust and acquiring trust from the community. In my case, I’ve chosen conviviality, being there every time they need it. This community is very vulnerable, and they don’t trust people because they have been used by politicians and organizations so many times, and then when they need them, they say, “Oh sorry, we’re doing something else.” One way we instilled trust with this project was to make the participants leaders in the community.
JG: So did you have actual employees, or were they volunteers?
TB: The first year we had one project coordinator. We had three people who worked for a while as volunteers, but I feel horrible not paying people, so the second year we had three people actually on staff.
JG: Were those artists?
TB: We had one person from the community that became the project coordinator. We had one person who was a graduate of political science, and one person who was an artist (who studied socially engaged art) and an activist.
JG: Let’s talk more specifically about some of your recent activities and your role as a Cuban artist. On a personal note, as an idealistic, young, anti-capitalist college student, I traveled to Cuba in 2002 with the intention of interviewing artists about their work in the context of the political climate, and I was very lucky to be able to meet with a lot of artists in their studios, including you. I learned firsthand about what it meant to be an artist in Cuba at that time. But I quickly realized that along with the idealism of socialism comes the reality, which is much more nuanced. While artists enjoyed a great level of respect and admiration that had no parallel in the United States, I was shocked to see that most artists felt as though they couldn’t be critical at all of [Fidel] Castro or the regime without suffering consequences. I imagine that things are different now, but perhaps not as different as one might expect.
TB: The only difference is those artists have more money now. Another market is actually guiding a lot of that self-censorship. Cuban art is no longer art for the Cuban people; it is now produced for the American collectors.
JG: In December 2014 Obama announced that Cuba and the U.S. would resume full relations after almost fifty years of sanctions. You immediately went down to Cuba to restage your work Tatlin’s Whisper #6, originally created for the 2009 Havana Biennial. The work, called #YoTambienExijo (or I Also Demand in English) in this iteration, allowed people to speak freely for one minute at a time in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución. It led to your arrest and detention for several months, but it also led to a great deal of exposure not only for you, but also for the current situation of Cuban citizens. Can you tell me more about that experience?
TB: I have always believed that art should be part of social change. I don’t mean that one artist can change the world; I don’t think that’s possible. But I work with this concept of political timing, meaning that our work is done at a specific political moment and is shaped by the political situation and not the desire of the artist himself. In that sense #YoTambienExijo is the perfect example of that concept, because I reacted as a citizen, not as an artist. I wrote a letter to Raúl [Castro] and [Barack] Obama, saying that I demand, as a Cuban, to understand this, and I have a lot of questions. The questions were not for Obama, the questions were for Raúl. They were not questions where I tried to criticize or overturn the government, as they accused me, it was just one person asking questions. But in Cuba you cannot ask questions if you’re not invited to ask questions. Politically it was a very delicate moment because they were negotiating a lot of stuff, although I didn’t know any of this because we don’t have access to that information. This is something I learned later. The piece was about censorship and the fact that you cannot say what you want in Cuba without consequences. Although it was not my original intention, it became a performance done by the Cuban government using me. A lot of people saw the mechanism of the system.
JG: Did you have a feeling that you would be arrested? Was that intended to be part of the piece?
TB: A lot of people ask me that. I’m always pushing boundaries, and I know how to negotiate. In this case, though, there was no opportunity to negotiate. I didn’t expect that the dialogue was going to be with the Minister of the Interior and with an interrogator twice a week. I thought the conversation was going to be kept around the art and involve the Ministry of Culture. That was very unexpected.
JG: So the Ministry of Culture washed their hands of it?
TB: The head of the Arts Council actually said he washed his hands of it. He literally said, “It’s not my fault, whatever happens to you.” I did not know what he was saying at the time, but I realized later they had already had meetings with the Ministry of the Interior, and he knew I was going to go to prison. What made the piece strong and important to me is that the framework of art was removed, so I was not protected anymore.
JG: Do you think it was the nature of the work itself or the fact that the Arts Council refused—
TB: It was the moment, it was a political moment. They were too afraid. They were so afraid, and they had to act quickly. I think they made a lot of mistakes because they didn’t have the time to think too much about it. That’s why I think they arrested me, that’s why they used the hammers in front of my house to break the street, that’s why they did a lot of things. I was used as an example for other artists, but it didn’t work. Other artists came after me, like one in theater who did this piece about “the king is dead.”
JG: Do you think your work emboldened him?
TB: That’s what he told me. I don’t know. I went to see him when he was expelled from everything too; he also became a pariah.
JG: Following your arrest and detention, there was an international uproar, at least in the arts community—
TB: And I want to thank everybody now that I have the chance, because thanks to them, I’m here now. The people that think Facebook doesn’t work, it does. I mean, in my case it worked.
JG: The project was then restaged in solidarity. Creative Time restaged it in Times Square, and we also had a small restaging in San Francisco and in other locations around the world.
TB: Even in Venezuela, which was amazing because they have the same conditions as Cuba, so that was pretty brave too. The gesture was about solidarity but also about freedom of expression. It was not about me. Freedom of expression is something that can be lost very easily. I remember people here in the United States lost it after 9/11 too.
JG: Who do you see as the intended participants in that work, both in Cuba and as it has spread outside of your own reach across the world?
TB: I’m still analyzing the work. I think the piece was very complex because it was the first artwork that existed on the internet for Cuba. It was also a work that united a lot of people who have decided not to talk about Cuba anymore because they left the country, and for the first time they went back to being interested in having a dialogue about the new Cuba. The piece had multiple participants: the art community in Cuba, politicians both inside and outside Cuba, activists. Nobody was allowed to be different and everybody was part of it. It’s a piece where everybody has to take a stand. I want to make very, very clear it was not about whether you’re for or against Tania. It was about whether you’re for this romanticization of totalitarianism, or are you in favor of political art with consequences? It was not only one subject that people were discussing. From what I understand, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, outside of Cuba the art world started talking about the role of an artist and the function of a political work.
JG: Definitely, I think it was a much broader dialogue than just talking about you personally and your arrest. It was about this lack of freedom of speech and censorship that is still happening and what that means for the international art world.
TB: That’s why I think there are multiple audiences, and there are multiple receptors, and there are multiple emissaries. There are multiple people producing content as well. It was a collective piece.
JG: The hashtag in the title implies a desire to connect virtually. I know that for a while Cuba didn’t have great access to the internet. Is that changing? Are people now using Instagram, et cetera?
TB: One of the government’s accusations was that I was creating this work for foreigners because nobody in Cuba would know about the piece because there was no internet access. That was not true because until very recently, people outside of Cuba saw things on the internet and called their family in Cuba and described these things over the phone. So it’s a very weird world where the analog is together with the digital. In this case we had people who went to Revolution Square because their family and friends called them and told them to go there because at this time this is going to happen. There is access to internet, but not as we expect it.
JG: I heard you created quite a stir at the CAA conference a few weeks ago conducting a job interview onstage. I’m less interested in talking about the actual interview, and more about your plans to open an institute for arts and activism in Cuba.
TB: That’s my next project, which I hope to start in September. The Hannah Arendt International Institute of Artivism comes out of my recent experience in Cuba and my realization that the police have no knowledge of human rights. Cuba is currently going through a very complicated process of transition. It’s all very uncertain, and I feel like a lot of uncertainty can give space to violence. I want to create this art and activism institute to bring people to Cuba, not to go to beaches, not to have a photo with Fidel, but to try to think together with the Cubans to address Cuba’s problems and come up with possible solutions. Most people in Cuba are complaining, but very few people are trying to transform that complaining into action.
JG: So the institute would bring foreigners and Cubans together. Who do you envision participating?
TB: I cannot give you the names of the people we already invited for security reasons, but we have politicians, economists, philosophers, activists, policy makers, lawyers, artists. We will have three main categories: a think tank to consider the constitution, a “do” tank to use performance and arte útil as a way to communicate with people and to engage in a public conversation, and a wish tank for people’s expectations, dreams, and desires. We’ve launched a Kickstarter, running from March 3 through April 7. It’s a gesture to show that the first money for the project can come from anybody and can start as low as $1. It’s also a way to show the Cuban government that people are supporting this idea.
JG: So is the Cuban government aware of this project?
TB: They know, and I think they want to get ready to do two things: to create a response so they don’t look as bad as they did before, and to replicate the project to make it unnecessary.
JG: That’s very clever of them.
TB: They’re very clever. That’s why the game is so exciting.
JG: But other than the government trying to make you seem superfluous or irrelevant, are you worried at all?
TB: You know what, to be honest, there is a moment where you pass a line.
JG: Do you think that now Cuba is less isolated internationally?
TB: I’m very worried because Cuba has always been in fashion. I’m particularly worried because I see the Rolling Stones are going now, Rihanna went, Beyoncé went, all these celebrities are going, and they have not once contacted the people. They have not once made any attempt to go to places that are uncomfortable for the government, and they have not once tried to push any boundaries. You know what, we’ve had enough with respecting. It’s OK, be disrespectful. Go do something. Because those are the people that can push. Ironically and sadly, Cubans cannot push, but they can’t put Beyoncé in prison for saying what she thinks in public at this moment. But the government is very clever. Somebody told me that they make agreements with people that if you want to go to Cuba in an official way and meet Raúl and meet Fidel and all that, you have to promise you will not meet the dissidents, you will not meet the people critical to the system. That’s the cost of a photo with Fidel.
JG: Right, you have to make that choice.
Tania Bruguera is an interdisciplinary artist working primarily in behavior art, performance, installation and video. She has been a participant in Documenta 11 (Germany) as well as in several biennales such as Venice (Italy), Johannesburg (South Africa), Sao Paolo (Brazil), Shangai (China), Havana (Cuba), and Site Santa Fe (United States). Bruguera lives and works between New York and Havana. www.taniabruguera.com
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