Tania Bruguera: “Art Goes Beyond Them”

By Adonis Milan

HAVANA TIMES — In February, Cuban  artist Tania Bruguera inaugurated an exhibition at the Modern Art Museum in New York; she has established a solid international career in spite of the fact that three of her exhibitions abroad have been sabotaged by the Cuban government.

Bruguera continues to head and support cultural projects in Cuba, with her founding the Hannah Arendt Institute of Artivism particularly standing out. Nowadays, of the last months a series of workshops are being held at the institute, which different artists and humanists from all over the world are invited to. 

Her work as an activist is esteemed by those who seek freedom of speech. I held this interview with her, just days after we were both arrested at the end of last year along with other artists for trying to perform a theater piece I had directed, for the first time. Her workshop was on the line because she was involved, but her dignity, generosity, solidarity and deep convictions to do the right thing, defined her once again.

HT: What is the original idea behind these workshops?

TB: This is the second series we are holding. The first series was presented by Critic Art Ensemble and it was a workshop about the strategies this group of artists employs to stimulate subjects of protest and activists’ demands. The workshop that ended today was called “Questions for Cuba’s future” and it was given by two people, artist Greg Sholette and art curator Olga Kopenkina.

During these workshops, different activist groups created by artists gave their own presentations. The subjects we dealt with were the actions they have taken, the resources they have used, processes of legitimizing and delegitimizing when artists become activists. 

Today, we did an exercise which was what would happen if you take away a center of power and leave a power void? What questions would we ask people in Cuba in ten years’ time? 

HT: Is it one of the institute’s objectives to educate artists and unblock thoughts that institutionalism sets out to block?

TB: The Hannah Arendt Institute of Artivism has two ideal audiences, first, artists who are maybe conditioned by limits placed by institutions. There is a group of young artists who don’t identify with art movements or Cuban institutions’ process of legitimizing work. Here, they can find another alternative, a space for artistic growth and thought.

We have another ideal audience which is the ordinary Cuban who passes by and sees the project. The opinions of these people are an important part of what we debate, for example, today, we were talking about how consumerism ousts ideology in other countries and becomes an ideology itself. There are places where citizens don’t exist, but consumers, and this is a potential future for this country. We are a space where we can rethink our future and look at what has happened in other countries, about what interests us about these places and what doesn’t, and what interests us about our own country.

HT: Do you think that opposition groups just want to overthrow the Government; do you think they have a solid project for the country?

TB: I don’t want to make sweeping statements because there are many opposition projects. However, artists have an opportunity which an opponent maybe lacks and that is that a creator has the chance to dream about a system that isn’t predetermined. The artist/activist can provide resources so that in times of political and social chaos, people aren’t afraid, but feel a kind of incentive to get involved in the struggle.

Art works with the imagination, with political imagination in this case. I would like everyone to use art, not just artists, because I believe that art offers us a chance to incorporate many different points of view. The opposition has their own political project and they just work on increasing their political presence, it’s a path that has other congruency requirements, that’s why the artistic world can have the chance to be a little more flexible.

HT: Do you believe that this has to do with using art as a means to create change, in your position as an activist, and to change reality at the same time?

TB: I believe that art is an introductory tool for certain subjects that are hard for people to talk about, to share uncertainties and the undeterminable without having to follow a doctrine. It’s the opposite of a military response and is therefore necessary in a country where all discourse is military.

HT: Let’s talk about the repressive action that we received as a group of independent artists recently, at the hands of State Security… What was your position as an artist that took on the role as activist?

TB: I think a government having to exercise power on a micro level is a sign of weakness and fear, the fact that they have to go from door to door to make sure that no one is doing what they don’t agree with. A government isn’t there to stick its nose into people’s private business, but to have an administrative structure instead which ensures social justice and makes sure everyone is protected. 

This government is doing the complete opposite. We experienced an act that came out of their fear. They stopped us from entering a private home, which is illegal; they make laws and then constantly violate them. They don’t want you to have the slightest space to be free. It was just a play that a group of people were going to watch and State Security stopped it from happening.

They are working very badly and we will put on this play. The important thing for me right now is that art needs to be critical, it needs to oppose the status quo and dissent, and no matter what they do, we will do what we do. They won’t defeat us, even if they close down every space, arrest us all and defame us. They won’t win because art goes beyond them.

Now, they have rounded up all those who came to the workshop from abroad and have threatened to deport them and get them in trouble with the US Government. Even so, we still held the next three days of workshops.

HT: Did you try and negotiate with State Security, in this case with Lieutenant-colonel Kenia, in order to be allowed to have your workshop?

TB: Not at all, they spoke and told us it was illegal. I asked him, why is it that everyone else has their own cultural project, and I can’t have mine? They told me that’s because they are CR (Counter-Revolutionary), well I am also a CR. It was funny when they told me that the only people who can be political activists are themselves: the Government. I replied that that’s not the definition of activism, that they didn’t know what they were talking about. I even told them: come, you also need to learn a thing or two.

HT: At the first series of workshops, they tried to intimidate the panelists and they have just done it again. Have they raised the bar?

TB: The last time, I realized that there had been an incident for every day of the event, which could put the workshop in danger of being shut down. Nothing happened the first day because it was held in secret; on the second day, they arrested Luis Manuel Otero; on the third day, Immigration went to see the guests; on the fourth day, I was interrogated and they were doing something every day that would make us cancel it, but we never did. The idea is that it never gets canceled, no matter what they do.

They have raised the bar a little with guests during this second series of workshops, they threatened to deport them but they haven’t. The first day was a surprise, on the second day, people were arrested; the next day, Greg and Olga were summoned to go and see Immigration; they were interrogated and banned from entering my home which is the Institute’s base, and it’s illegal that State Security is doing this.

But, because we are creative and we are the answer to repression in this country, a strict, not very creative and repetitive repression; we had a plan B which was to hold a workshop on movie editing by Miguel Coyula and then to put on Lynn Cruz’s play Asi se hizo todo afterwards. While we were being interrogated, they were working, we decided we would carry on inviting foreign guests, but not to the Institute and this was worse for State Security because we did it in the street.

HT: Independent art in Cuba is proof of the resistance. What do you see in your future?

TB: For a few months now, I’ve really been enjoying seeing artists come together and criticize reality through theater, film, the visual arts, writing and dance, we are all united now. This is very special, maybe it doesn’t last very long, because State Security dedicate themselves to planting ticking bombs in every group, but it’s beautiful while it does last and we have a strengthened front while it persists, to use their military terms. We are feeding off each other all the time, which shows our mutual support. The workshop wasn’t canceled when we were being interrogated because there was a filmmaker and actress there. We have to defend this, we are experiencing a special time.

HT: What are your expectations for the institute and the future of Cuba?

TB: The institute is working in the long-term, but thinking in the present. Expectations in Cuba for projects and plans have been proven to be broken up and hopelessness might be the only card they leave you. I want to live in the moment and not wait for anything because you have very little control in this country. The only thing you can have control of is your faith in change. For me, it’s important to create a space where people feel free.