Presidents of Cuba and the U.S. recently announced a rapprochement, but is the island country ready for free expression in the form of contemporary art activism? Recorded in Havana, this Fresh Talk episode features Cuban artist Tania Bruguera and her recent launch of a new initiative: the Hannah Arendt Institute for Artivism. Bruguera is moving ahead with her project despite the fact that she’s been under city arrest and subject to government reprisals after her unauthorized public art performance on December 30, 2014, landed her in jail for three days.
CATHY BYRD: This is Fresh Talk with Cuban artist, Tania Bruguera. The celebration you just heard took place on May Day 2009, when a sea of people gathered around President Fidel Castro in Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution. On December 30, 2014, Bruguera attempted an unauthorized public performance there. She was arrested and jailed for three days. She remains in Havana under city arrest. The incident took place just two weeks after US President, Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced a rapprochement between the two countries. I have been following Bruguera’s controversial activities on social media and through international press coverage. What she attempted was meant to be an open mic event – a reenactment of Tatlin’s Whisper #6, her free speech platform from the 2009 Havana Biennial. Requesting to set up a microphone and loudspeakers in the Plaza surrounded by key government buildings would be like asking to stage a public protest in front of the White House. Bruguera went ahead without permission. She invited Cubans to step up and express their views about their country’s future. That’s when police intervened. During her detention, Cuban officials took her passport. They offered to give it back, but only if she agreed to leave and not return to her home country. She stayed… It appears that tolerance of art activism in Cuba may be a long time coming. In fact, on the day we met, Bruguera said even after she kept silent for weeks following her first detention, the government openly denounced her.
TANIA BRUGUERA: For two weeks, I decided to be very calm, not writing anything on Facebook…nothing. I was being calm and quiet, not seeing anybody, in my house for two weeks without meeting, calling, nothing. They made an inflammatory video about me, and they sent it to all professors in the art school at ISA [Instituto Superior de Arte] explaining who I am and my counter-revolutionary means to take over the government. Which is why I am here alone this time.
CB: The day after my arrival in Cuba for the opening of the 12th Havana Biennial, I learned that the artist was staging a four-day performance in her home on Tejadillo Street in old Havana, despite her treatment by authorities. Her neighborhood is a few blocks from the National Museum of Fine Arts. As I was walking there, I heard through an open door the voice of Cuban curator Gerardo Mosquera reading from the political theorist Hannah Arendt’s book Origins of Totalitarianism. Bruguera says the performance is the beginning of her new art activism project, or “artivism,” as it is otherwise known.
TB: This is the opening session for a new project I am going to start, which is Hannah Arendt’s International Institute of Artivism in Cuba. Hopefully the police come and learn what artivism is.
CB: The artist launched her 100-hour ode to Hannah Arendt two days before the opening of the 2015 Biennial. Inviting volunteers to read from the book, she timed the performance to coincide with the 113th anniversary of Cuban Independence Day, May 20th. Authorities responded furtively to the opening of the Institute. Less than 48 hours after I first passed by the in- home performance sessions, I returned to find a devastated streetscape. A trench had been dug down the center of the block. Rubble and construction materials made it difficult to reach the doorway. It seems that public works employees had been instructed to make noise, to repair sections of the street on which electrical wiring repairs had already been completed. Still, Bruguera thought she was free to move about the city. On the day we recorded this conversation, she considered attending an exhibition opening at the National Museum. Unfortunately, security guards stopped Bruguera from entering the museum and since then authorities have arrested and detained her twice. It turns out that the video denouncing Bruguera was widely distributed. Her case made the local news. Though she had invited her network to participate via email and Facebook, the Cuban cultural community was largely absent—partly, I imagined, due to limited cell phone service and rare access to the internet on the island. Most who ventured to the space were members of the global art community in town for the Biennial opening. We had heard about the project by word of mouth. So, the performance started yesterday?
TB: We started yesterday at 10, and we have been ongoing uninterrupted reading The Origins of Totalitarianism. Something that I really like is the fact that it is for the street. It’s indoors, but the project is on the street and it still just is nice to have music as the background, you know…
CB: I agree.
TB: …and people listening to a little bit of this, little bit of that.
CB: Where would you position yourself with this new institute?
TB: For me, this is my answer to everything that happens. [Arendt’s book] is something people should read and think a lot about. We can learn a lot. It’s very interesting how she always understood that totalitarianism is not about left or right. It’s about the desire to be in power and to not let it go. It is a beautiful book.
CB: What do you hope to achieve with this project?
TB: I have understood that artivism is something needed in Cuba. It would be nice to have a place where people can exchange ideas about the future of Cuba, the prospect for social change and to give art a role in that discussion. So we’ll see.
CB: And you can’t leave Havana?
TB: No, no. Not Havana, not Cuba. That’s fine. I don’t care. At this point, I am beyond so many things. That is it. I trust my work. I know this is a great piece. I know the idea of the Institute is good, and I just need to believe it. I think right now it’s good to have artivism in Cuba…art in this moment is good for Cuba.