By BARBARA MASEDA
HAVANA TIMES, March 19 -One of the first things that capture your attention in Havana is the complete absence of huge billboards that advertise multinational commercial products. There is a total lack of ads for Coca Cola, Nike, American Airlines, Sony, Wal-Mart, or you name it. Can you imagine? – not a single advertisement!
Havana residents of the 1950s could not have imagined this either. At that time, the city was a more magnificent vacation paradise than Las Vegas. It seemed to be shooting off the chart toward a spectacular commercial future.
However, that exuberance reached its end with the revolution of 1959. Once known as the “Paris of the Caribbean,” Havana became a political pariah in the Caribbean, where the transnationals and their advertisers turned into a “sin.”
This peculiarity caught the attention of two Cuban artists who are participating in 10th Havana Biennial, an international exhibition of contemporary art set to take place from March 27 to April 30, 2009, with the participation of more than 200 artists from 40 countries.
The billboard-free city -a joy to some, distressing for others- the 1950s dream of how Havana would have been, but is not, is the point of departure for the work titled “Hotel Havana.” Its creators, the married couple Liudmila Velsco and Nelson Ramírez, gave a sneak preview to Havana Times about their participation in 10th Havana Art Biennial.
HAVANA TIMES: How was the work “Hotel Havana” born and what is its concept?
Liudmila and Nelson: Aided by luck we found a promotional film produced in the 1950s on Havana. In it, you can clearly see the grandiloquent expectations for a modern city that many people wanted to be like New York City.
A little more than 50 years later, at a time in which many believe they are seeing a change in the future of Havana, we found this to be the ideal moment to produce a work that discuses the relationship between future possibilities and the evolution of concrete reality.
HAVANA TIMES: Where did the title “Hotel Havana” come from?
L&N: In the relationship between those two words, Hotel Havana seeks to express a sort of time capsule from which the city builds its expectations of the future, not only from the present, but also from the past.
We owe the title to a Brazilian curator friend of ours, Fernanda Ceravolo, with whom a couple of years ago we began to organize a collective exhibition in an abandoned hotel in Sao Paulo. We wanted to turn it into an exhibition center representing Havana, thanks to the works of a wide selection of important Cuban artists. That’s when we started to think about a piece for this exhibition, and the work Hotel Havana emerged.
HAVANA TIMES: Could you describe the work a little for our readers, like how it’s structured?
L&N: Hotel Havana has as its center a video-installation in which two screens face each other in such a way that the spectator cannot see both of the images at the same time. In one of them runs the Havana promotional film produced in the 1950s, and on the other screen is a remake of that film, which we videoed shot by shot to feature the same subject matter – only 50 years later. The two projections run simultaneously, sharing the same sound track from the original material, so that when you observe either of the films you hear the same voice discussing the future expectations that were held for the city back then.
To accompany this video installation, we created images that can be appreciated covering various moments of the past, present and diverse fantasies about the future of the city.
In some of these scenes, we made images of the 1950s coincide with present shots taken from the same places. We then added billboards, advertising and electric signs that do not presently exist in Havana but that are common in many cities around the world.
In this way, we’ve come closer to some of the fantasies that threaten the future of Havana.
These images are essentially manipulated photographs. For our work in the Biennial, we have printed them in a translucent material so that the light in each one of them comes from the same image and doesn’t compete with the illumination of the video projections.
HAVANA TIMES: Can you cite some examples of advertisements and products that do not currently exist in Havana but that are included in the work?
L&N: In almost all cities of the world you can find advertisements for Coca Cola, H&M, Zara, IKEA, Samsung, etc. Havana is, among other things, a unique city given the absence of these signs of globalization.
HAVANA TIMES: What is your opinion of advertising in other cities of the world?
L&N: On occasions, the accumulation of ads [banners and billboards] ends up becoming so great that the city becomes invisible, and authorities have been forced to prohibit these advertisements. In cities like Sao Paulo, where you can now see its Paulista Avenue cleansed of visual contamination, a few years ago it was almost impossible to appreciate the buildings, despite their enormous heights. However, for many people, the presence of advertisements continues to be synonymous with development and economic splendor.
A few years ago in Vienna, some artists covered up the advertisements on one of the most important commercial streets of the city for a week. What was most interesting was the sense of depersonalization experienced during that week by the inhabitants, who at the same time felt freed of the weight of the publicity that overshadowed the character of their buildings.
HAVANA TIMES: How do you see cities sustaining themselves (or being undermined) in the face of the dynamics of globalization?
L&N: All these phenomena are in themselves like yin and yang, the absence and the presence of some of these dynamics of globalization, which can be negative and positive at the same time, depending on the point of view that one looks at them.
On the one hand, this sole fact of the almost universal presence of these elements of the global landscape proves aggressive, impersonal and in certain way imperialistic. In many places, this seriously affects the identity and even the development of local populations.
A few years ago in Berlin, the community of artists and intellectuals flatly refused to patronize the new Wal-Mart. Their reasons were mainly political, since Wal-Mart keeps its prices low by exploiting youths who work long hours for low wages. On the other hand, in many places there are people who would like to have a Wal-Mart, since they can save money on their purchases and receive quality products.
HAVANA TIMES: What areas of the city of the Havana are reflected in this work?
L&N: In this work, up to now we have limited ourselves to the areas of the city of Havana that are the most well known, although we have made efforts to incorporate other areas into the project. In the end, the areas of Vedado, Central Havana and Old Havana were favored for their value in representing the essence of the city.
HAVANA TIMES: What is your personal relationship with the city? Are you natives of Havana?
L&N: We were both born outside of Havana. (Nelson in Berlin, Germany, and Liudmila in Moscow, Russia). However, we have lived in Havana since we were very small children, and we have produced countless works related to the city. We can say that we’ve maintained an intense relationship with the city for many years.
HAVANA TIMES: Could you give some examples of your works inspired by the city?
L&N: We have Todos los caminos conducen al mar (All roads lead to the sea) (1997-2007), in which we explore the relationship of the city to the sea. Some of the works of our most well-known project, “Absolute Revolution,” were created in connection with the city. Other works, such as Los que ya no están (Those who are no longer here) (2006-2008), are a sort of inventory of our memory of the city based on emotional references to the homes of our friends who no longer live in Havana. Their houses, despite their absence, continue to be reference points for us.
HAVANA TIMES: Where will the public be able to view your work, and what expectations do you have regarding this Biennial?
L&N: The work will be presented at the San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress (a colonial structure that overlooks the city), where most of the main exhibits of the Biennial will also be featured. Regarding our expectations, the Biennial is an opportunity to display our work, to exchange ideas with other artists and curators. There also exits the possibility of engendering new projects; we believe that this is the overall expectation of all of the artists who participate in these types of events.