Organizers Report on the Alternative Havana Biennial

 

HAVANA TIMES – This is a summary of an open letter about the #00 Biennial delivered in recent days to several Cuban institutions. The text gives details on the process of successfully organizing the event in the face of numerous sabotage attempts. We include a selection of works that participated in the Alternative Havana Biennial.

Open Letter

To: Cuban Minister of Culture, Abel Prieto
To: The Board of Cuba’s Association of Young Artists (Hermanos Sainz)
To: The Board of the National Association of Writers and Artists (UNEAC)
To: The Board of the National Council of Visual Arts

In late September last year, we found out via Facebook that the 13th edition of the Havana Biennial, which was scheduled to take place between October 5th and November 5th 2018, was going to be postponed. Buscar link y agregar (…) Maybe the people behind such a decision couldn’t imagine how much sadness, annoyance and disappointment they were going to cause. Cuban artists (…) spend three years getting excited about sharing experiences with other artists and audiences; selling and making their work public; or “being discovered” at a cultural landmark which spontaneously breaks away from its own official limits to touch areas that are less privileged by Cuba’s Art Institutions.     

(…)

Faced of a collective fear that the Havana Biennial would be postponed indefinitely, like other important events have been in the past, and “with the intention of supporting cultural development, at a time when the country is experiencing a strong crisis of faith, when trivialities and helplessness are on the rise, we thought it was necessary not to delay this event and put it on with the minimum resources we had available.”[1]

Official Statements

Just a few days after artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara called upon Cuba’s artistic community via social media to come together and organize this alternative #00 Havana Biennial (#00BH), UNEAC and AHS issued a joint statement in which they accused the organizers of “distorting Cuba’s cultural policies” of being “unscrupulous”, prohibiting any kind of discussion about the 13th Biennial being suspended and the creation of the #00BH. 

The name they used in this statement wasn’t the only sad thing about this (which we appropriated and incorporated it into one of the #00 Biennial’s first slogans: “From official to unscrupulous”), there was also the terrible proof that cultural institutions, such as the AHS, who say that they motivate and defend the interests of young Cuban art, didn’t even take the time to sit and meet with the main organizers of this initiative, who are also members of that organization.  

However, this same association was more than willing to intimidate and threaten everyone who had decided to take part in the project with phone calls and emails.

Over the following months, these initial actions just became the tip of the iceberg of a violent campaign where arrests for “common causes”; slander via videos shown in academic spaces such as the Arts and Humanities Department, the San Alejandro Academy and scientific centers; the seizure of #00BH promotional materials and artworks; summons and fines from Physical Planning; cellphone tapping; international artists’ work being held at Customs; entry denied to the country, etc. only reinforced this image of the Ministry of Culture, CNAP, UNEAC, AHS, ETECSA, and many others, of being the Ministry of Interior’s repressive annexes. 

On May 3rd, two days before the Alternative Biennial began, a new statement from UNEAC and the AHS was published in the Communist Party’s official media platform, Granma newspaper (…) in which they accused us of using funds from the counter-revolution. This claim was completely absurd if you think about the fact that one of the most important donations we received came from Cuban artist Reynier Leyva Novo, as part of his participation proposal. El Chino Novo donated 3,800 CUC (=USD) which came from the sale of his work entitled “No me guardes si me muero” (Do not keep me if I die) to CNAP in December 2017. That’s to say, the 3,800 CUC which helped in organizing the #00 Havana Biennial came directly from Cuba’s National Council of Visual Arts.

We also managed to collect $5774 CAD from a gofundme campaign thanks to a Canadian friend who ran it and offered us her bank account.

And last but not least, as well as our individual financial resources which were used to put on the #00 Havana Biennial, we must also mention all of our participants’ collaborative efforts, something which supported every detail of the events we held.

(…)

We also mention the Biennial’s promotional platforms, because they are also mentioned in the official statement attacking the event:

Born from an alternative space, it took to alternative media from the very beginning: (legitimate) social media networks and the independent press, building a base for many articles to be published in important and specialist arts magazines such as hyperallergic, artishock, Artnet News, Terremoto, GAS TV, Artforum and E-flux. We always stressed the fact that the #00 Havana Biennial wanted to be an inclusive event, which didn’t oppose institutional management at all and wasn’t “boycotting activities that had been scheduled three years ago at the Wilfredo Lam Center, but was rather trying to create an event which belonged to the Cuban people.”[2]

(…)

After a long journey of agonizing work because of the Cuban government’s great pressure on anyone who came anywhere near this project, the #00 Havana Biennial was celebrated and proved that you can put on a top-quality cultural event with minimal resources. And that it’s time to get rid of every repressive act against those who break away from institutional policies in their quest to build a more civic, inclusive and free space.

(…)

The purpose of this open letter isn’t only to denounce every repressive control that the government used against the #00 Havana Biennial, and to tell intellectuals here in Cuba and abroad what the event really was, but also to ask our most important cultural institutions to publicly withdraw all of the insults they directed at #00BH artists and organizers and that they return creative licenses (a card which allows artists to not only sell and promote their work, but to also have legal status in Cuba) to those who were affected.

We are also urgently calling for a roundtable where we artists and agents of independent and alternative culture can enter into an open dialogue with the Ministry of Culture, the AHS, UNEAC, and other state institutions, where we can discuss cultural policies over upcoming years in Cuba, things we have no knowledge about and which concern us greatly.

Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara   
Yanelys Nunez Leyva
Iris Ruiz
Amaury Pacheco
Tania Bruguera

 
[1]     “Mission Statement” #00 Havana Biennial Organizing Team October 2017. Official Facebook page.
[2]     “Mission Statement” #00 Havana Biennial Organizing Team October 2017. Official Facebook page.

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