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Exchange and Dissent at the 2015 Havana Biennial

05/28/2015 05:37 pm ET | Updated May 29, 2016

With a program emphasizing performance and interventions in public space, the 12th Havana Biennial opened on May 22, with festivities ranging from opera, to theatre, to dance parties. This year's Biennial takes the entire city as its exhibition space, spreading out and away from the Biennial's traditional center, the Wilfredo Lam Contemporary Art Center, and spilling into the streets and into disparate venues city-wide, from artists' studios in the Romerillo neighborhood, to an old abandoned bicycle factory in Vedado. The first Havana Biennale to be staged after the reopening of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States, a tempered sense of optimism in the country feels tangible. This optimism remains restrained, however, as another, darker, situation casts its shadow over the Biennial's proceedings.

Gerardo Mosquera taking part in Tania Bruguera's Working Session of 'Hannah Arendt' International Institute of Artivism, Havana, May 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Plataform Yo También Exijo. Photo: Claudio Fuentes.

Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, known for her political performances that intentionally blur the line between art and social activism, spent the days in the run up to the Biennial with a gathering of intellectuals and artists, including prominent Cuban art critic and curator Gerardo Mosquera and artist Levi Orta (whose project for the Biennial, Cultura=Capital, imagines what a Cuban stock market might be like), at her Havana home, reading aloud from Hannah Arendt's 1951 book, The Origin of Totalitarianism. The performance was unaffiliated with the Havana Biennial. It was, rather, staged under the auspices of an educational institute devised by Bruguera, entitled the 'Hannah Arendt' International Institute of Artivism. The approximately 100-hour collective reading and discussion that took place at "the Institute," just one block away from the Museum of Fine Arts, was open to all visitors, with a public announcement system opening up the reading to the neighborhood outside. It was interrupted only by a crew of workers (conveniently) dispatched to dig up the street outside the house.

The reading of Hannah Arendt is postponed temporarily due to construction work on the street outside. Courtesy of the artist and Plataform Yo También Exijo. Photo: Henry Constatin Ferreiro.

It's a remarkable irony that while actors at the Venice Biennale read all three volumes of Karl Marx's Das Kapital for curatorial effect, Bruguera reads Arendt in protest of a repressive regime. Currently without a passport or a lawyer, Bruguera has been detained in Cuba, accused of dissidence and counter-revolutionary actions. The accusations were provoked by her attempt to stage a free-speech performance in Havana in December, a performance she planned in the wake of the historic announcement on December 17, 2014 of the restored diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Cuba. In that historic moment, Bruguera recalls, "the impossible was made possible"; her proposed performance, in which ordinary Cubans were invited to speak for one minute freely about their own opinions and visions of their country in a public forum, was born out of a hopefulness for the future of the country and the possibility of free expression, for all. Her arrest and detainment has been highly publicized in the international art press, particularly as the Havana Biennial approached, and even prompted a call for a boycott of the Havana Biennial in protest of censorship and the regime's treatment of Bruguera's case.

Levi Orta, Capital=Cultura, 2015. Photo: Rafael Matsunaga.

It's a sensitive time, for Cuba and for its art scene, as the Biennial brings heightened international attention and scores of visitors (and money) to the country. Coverage and discussion of the Biennial in the press is dominated by these two opposing stories -- the promise of U.S.-Cuba exchange, and the issue of Cuban censorship. "[Bruguera]'s the sand in the oyster," remarked one art museum director. The issue is met with silence, however, from many others, who are powerless to condemn Bruguera's situation for fear of endangering their own. And as a self-described "daughter of the biennial" herself, Bruguera has expressed that she does not wish to disparage her fellow artists during the most important art event in Cuba.

Rigoberto Torres, Daze, 1998. Courtesy of the Bronx Museum of the Arts.

For many years, the Havana Biennial was known as the "biennial of the Third World," actively promoting works by underrepresented and non-Western artists. With the announcement of diplomatic negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba, at this year's Biennial the excitement is palpable as new commercial and collaborative opportunities arise. "We are at the threshold of a new kind of relationship between Cuba and the U.S. -- both politically and artistically," pronounced Executive Director of the Bronx Museum of the Arts, Holly Block, in a press release earlier this year announcing the exhibition "Wild Noise." The exhibition opens concurrently with the Havana Biennial, the product of a groundbreaking visual arts exchange between the Bronx Museum in New York and Havana's Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (MNBA). "Wild Noise" gathers over 100 artworks from the Bronx Museum collection -- including prints from Tseng Kwong Chi's East Meets West project, and life-casts of South Bronx residents made by John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres in the 1980s, an incipient form of social practice art -- along with a new installation by Mary Mattingly for the show at the MNBA. In the spring of next year, the MNBA will present an exhibition of its permanent collection at the Bronx Museum. These types of initiatives that "build the cultural dialogue between our two countries," as Block put it, could be on the rise as Cuba becomes more accessible to the U.S.

Kwong Chi Tseng, Disneyland, California, 1979. Courtesy of the Bronx Museum of the Arts.

"I think that the Biennial will open up to the world more and more," says Fernández, speaking in a recent interview of the Biennial as a platform for underrepresented artists to work with artists "who have a certain amount of international legitimacy." This year's Biennial program features several major international artists, including Joseph Kosuth, Daniel Buren, and Tino Sehgal. Sehgal, another practitioner, like Bruguera, of socially engaged performance, will stage his 2003 piece This is Exchange at the Havana Biennial, wherein the performer offers a commercial exchange to the audience member: money in exchange for the audience member's "opinion on the market economy." Curator Merly Knoerle Left contextualizes Sehgal's constructed situation as a comment on the cycles of production and consumption. Another interpretation could point out that money and economic exchange can provide a platform for the expression of opinions, but it does not inherently provide protection to those who express those opinions -- particularly dissenting ones.

Nikhil Chopra, La Perla Negra, 2015. Courtesy of Galleria Continua. Photo: Sara Beltrán.

On the morning of May 22nd, Indian performance artist Nikhil Chopra began to enact a familiar series of actions, following a narrative reminiscent of many of his other durational performances. Trapped in a cage in the Plaza de Armas, the artist, embodying the persona of "la Perla Negra," begins to draw, continuously. For 60 hours, Chopra makes these drawings, until, eventually, the artist is freed from the cage. In effect, the creation of art triumphs over imprisonment, the power of expression making its own freedom.

Detail of Tania Bruguera, Working Session of 'Hannah Arendt' International Institute of Artivism, Havana, May 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Plataform Yo También Exijo. Photo: Claudio Fuentes.

At the conclusion of Tania Bruguera's reading of Hannah Arendt on May 24, the artist reported to me in an email that she stepped outside and attempted to walk down the street, as two agents of the state police forces approached, told her to stop and insisted that she come with them. Bruguera released a white dove, and threw the book into the air. Surrounded then by a crowd of protestors and State Security forces, Bruguera was taken away by a government car, and held for a few hours before being released again at her mother's house. Three activists from the Union Patriotica de Cuba (UNPACU), who were filming the event, were also detained.