Tania Bruguera: 'In Cuba We Have Learned Our Duties Very Well but Not Our Rights'

02/06/2015 12:21 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2015

Tania Bruguera (14ymedio)
Tania Bruguera (14ymedio)

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14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 4 February 2015 - This coming February 22 Tania Bruguera should be in Madrid to present one of her works at the ARCO International Contemporary Art Fair, but she knows she isn't going to make it. Trapped by Cuban justice since last December 30, when she was arrested during her performance #YoTambienExijo (I Too Demand), the artist remains in Havana hoping to resolve her legal situation. We talked with her about this, her artivism, and the future of Cuba.

Sanchéz. What is your current legal and immigration situation?

Bruguera. I am waiting for a prosecutor to reduce the charges against me. I have been advised by several attorneys, such as Laritza Diversent from Cubalex, and also René Gómez Manzano, from Corriente Agramontista [both independent legal groups]. They have told me that in this case there are at least three possible outcomes: one is the dismissal of the case, which could be temporary or permanent. Another is that they could impose an administrative measure, which carries a fine. The detail with this option is that I would have to recognize my guilt and accept the charges and accusations they've made against me, and I don't think this variation is just. The third possibility is that it will be taken to trial, although that seems unlikely to me.

Sanchéz. You are trapped in the intricate mechanisms of Cuban justice...

Bruguera. Throughout this process, I've come to realize that there is a very strong vulnerability for citizens who find themselves in similar situations. For example, it has been very difficult for me to find a lawyer who wants to take on my defense. They only allow attorneys "in the system" to represent a defendant, so the independent lawyers can advise me but they can't represent me.

The few who have agreed to represent me have warned me, as of now, that the solution is to accept everything because the situation is over and to try not to go to trial, because the day that we get in front of a court, the sentence will have been decided before the first word is said. We will have lost before we start the defense.

Sanchéz. Among the worst nightmares of many Cuban emigrants is that of visiting the island and then their not letting you leave. Do you experience this?

Bruguera. For me it's the opposite. My nightmare is that they let me leave but they don't let me return. Indeed, if tomorrow they return my passport, which they confiscated, I will not go. I need to be completely sure that there will be no bitter surprises like not being able to return.

Beyond that, what I have experienced in the last weeks has changed my life. I will never stop being an artist, but maybe now I have to be here. They have to understand that they cannot throw out of the country everyone who bothers them.

Sanchéz. Can you say Tatlin's Whisper # 6, both in its first version in Cuba in 2009 as well as in this attempt now, is it a work that has marked your life?

Bruguera. The performance of December 30 had its antecedent in Tatlin's Whisper #6 realized in 2009 at the Wilfredo Lam Center, which also profoundly marked my professional life. I didn't know at first, because it wasn't public, but I was banned from exhibiting in Cuba.

I began to realize it because no one called me to explain here, which I assume was because they were trying to protect... something natural in the system. However, the same people who censored me at the time a posteriori, and who are censoring me now, want to use the realization of that performance as an example of tolerance... and it wasn't.

Sanchéz. Why do you think that at that time it was possible to open the microphones to the public?

Bruguera. What happened at that opportunity at the Wilfredo Lam Center was because of the particular conditions that came together. It was during the Havana Biennial, a space which in itself is more tolerant, there were a lot of press and foreigners present, I was the guest of Guillermo Gómez Peña, the special guest of the Biennial, plus it was within an art space with an audience the majority of whom are intellectuals. Afterwards, there indeed was a punishment.

I propose projects to Cuban cultural institutions and they always tell me no. Something very unfortunate happened, which was a trip I made with my students from the French École des Beaux-Arts during which we wanted to visit the Superior Art Institute (ISA).

Then from ISA they sent a pretty clear and direct letter to the director of the school in Paris saying they couldn't accept this visit if I would be leading the group and they should send another professor, because I was a person with whom they had no professional relationship, ignoring of course that I graduated from this school and was a professor there for a few years.

On this same trip, when I got to the airport, I was met by a representative from the National Arts Council and a person dressed in civilian clothes who never identified himself. Both let me know that I wouldn't be able to do anything with the institutions and tried to tell me that there were problems with my passport, with the permit, trying to block my entry to the country, but I was able to prove it was all in good standing under the new travel and immigration law.

On a subsequent trip to Cuba, I asked for an appointment with the Deputy Minister of Culture, Fernando Rojas, to deal with my case. Also attending this meeting were Rubén del Valle, president of the National Arts Council, and Jorge Fernández, the director of the Havana Biennial.

I explained everything that had happened to me and they responded that none of this would have occurred if I hadn't been provocative in the 2009 Biennial and they weren't going to forget about and I wouldn't have any more expositions in Cuban institutions.

I could see then that there was a clear double-standard policy against me; if some foreigner asked about me, I was a valued artist, but if I proposed to do something in the institutions they wouldn't allow me to.

On that occasion, I remember that the deputy minister told me that the fact that I was there meeting with them indicated that they wanted to redefine my relationship with the institution and I told him I could see that, but I was an artist who dissented and criticized what didn't seem right to me, and I had done it here and wherever I did my work and that wasn't going to change.

Well, today we know the result of that cultural policy with those who return: bring us your money and your prestige but not your criticisms.

Interview: Yoani Sanchez and Tania Bruguera (14ymedio)
Interview: Yoani Sanchez and Tania Bruguera (14ymedio)

Sanchéz. How did you get the idea of repeating the performance, this time in the Plaza of the Revolution?

Bruguera. I was in Italy, at a performance festival I'd been invited to, and on Wednesday, 17 December, I traveled from Venice to Rome to participate in a Mass of Pope Francis.

When it was over, I returned on the train and my sister called to ask me if I had seen the news about the announcement made by the governments of Cuba and the United States. It was very powerful news emotionally, as it was for any Cuban. It was a surprise that shook the foundations underlying the entire Cuban identity. The answer to this emotion was to write a letter.

I wanted to look him in the face, Raúl Castro, and ask how he could explain so many years of confrontation. While I was writing the letter, a phrase started to emerge, "as a Cuban I demand that..." And in that I was putting all my doubts, all my unanswered questions, about a future that wasn't clear, about an idea of a nation that was redefined without a good look at where it was going.

Then I sent it to my sister and a friend who answered, "I also demand." So I also sent it to the newspaper Granma and this paper [14ymedio] where it was finally published. It was a very nice experience, because it was something I did spontaneously... I'd never published anything like that, but immediately many people started to say "I also demand" and even created a hashtag on social networks. I was very excited to see so many people get involved and I must confess that I remembered my time with Occupy Wall Street.

Sanchéz. The energy of spontaneity?

Bruguera. Yes, the strength that comes from the enthusiasm that something can generate. Here the cultural and political institutions want to own the enthusiasm of Cubans, they believe that enthusiasm is only legitimate if it is something that is consistent with the interests of the State.

Sanchéz. Did you expect the reaction from the cultural and official institutions?

Bruguera. I never thought it would generate such a disproportionate response. Most significant was that of the president of the National Council of Arts himself, Ruben del Valle, who told me after two lengthy meetings that he washed his hands of what might happen to me legally... or anything else.

On the other hand, the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC) published a rather aggressive statement, and I am a member of that organization, and they didn't even call a meeting with me beforehand, without inquiring or investigating. They simply judged me and questioned that what I tried to do was art.

The Cuban cultural institutions judge instead of creating a space for collective debate about the culture, when things like this happen. Because of this I returned my National Culture Award and resigned my membership in UNEAC.

Sanchéz. Some artists in the country have supported you in the past few weeks, as is the case with the painter Pedro Pablo Oliva, while others like Lázaro Saavedra criticized aspects of the performance, and the great majority have remained silent. How do you view the attitude of the Cuban intellectual and artistic world toward what happened?

Bruguera. First it is important to say that everyone has the right to react however they want and not to be judged for it. Now, well in Cuba we know that there is a cultural policy of many years with certain invisible boundaries that people know they should not cross because there will be consequences, and it is also true that in a place where they pressure you to define yourself, at times silence is the most articulate argument. I have had a very warm response and support from many artists and people on the street whom I don't even know.

Sanchéz. Were you willing, at some point, to change the location of the performance and not to hold it at the Plaza of the Revolution?

Bruguera. Even for me, the location in the Plaza was problematic from an aesthetic point of view. I had problems with the Plaza of the Revolution because on a symbolic level it's exhausted, it is a symbol that has been overused... that doesn't even represent ordinary Cubans, but rather the great powers of the government. Doing it in the Plaza, I wrote in the letter addressed to Raúl and published in 14ymedio on 18 December, was more like a metaphor.

I also imagined a place like Old Havana where there is every type of person, where the people are. I proposed other locations, like the street in front of the universal art of the Art Museum and the space between the National Belles Artes Museum and the Museum of the Revolution, but they weren't accepted.

Sanchéz. What was the proposal of the National Arts Council?

Bruguera. They proposed to do it inside the Belles Artes Museum in the Cuban Art Building. I told Rubén del Valle no, in the first place because of the aesthetic problem. I didn't want to repeat the same work from 2009, so I said that five years later it wouldn't be inside the institution where something like this has been done, rather it had to conquer the streets.

I proposed then that we do it on the stairs at the entrance to the museum, but he insisted it has to be inside and that the right of admission had to be controlled, so they wouldn't let in "the dissidents and the mercenaries."

He boasted that the opposition only represented 0.0001% of the Cuban population, to which I responded that I was often 0.0001% of something and it was very good, because it is also necessary that there be minorities.

Sanchéz. They are waiting for you in Madrid to present a work in ARCO 2015, but you probably won't arrive in time. What will you show there?

Bruguera. It is like so many projects that are now halted and won't be realized, something that was coordinated over many months, almost a year. It is a work I did in Cuba when I saw myself like a Nkisi, an African religious icon that people put nails into to make a wish. In return, they promise something to the icon and they have to keep their promise, if not the spirit will collect on the promise. People have a lot of respect, because they feel that it is a very strong spirit.

In 1998, dressed like that, I went out into the streets of Old Havana and it created a kind of procession. I wanted to represent, then, the idea of promises made to the people and never kept. The suit ended up with residue on it and there is a gallery in Madrid that I had planned to have repair it, before the show, because it was damaged in transit. But I know now that I won't get there, I have asked the organizers to invite the spectators to the show and they themselves can repair it, putting nails into it and making their requests.

Sanchéz. ¿Artist or artivista ?

Bruguera. I make political art. For me there is a clear division in art, on one side that which is a representation because it comments, and on the other, art that works from the political because it wants to change something. I make art that appropriates the tools of the political and tries to generate political moments, an art through which one speaks directly to power and in its own language.

For example, I had a school (Cátedra Arte de Conducta / Behavior Art School) for seven years because education is one of the long-term pillars of politics, and I also did a newspaper twenty years ago (Memoria de la Postguerra / Postwar Memory) to "take" the media like they do, and now I take to the streets, the plazas and the places they create that belong exclusively to power.

"Artivisim" is a variant of political art which I ascribe to that tries to change things, not satisfied with denouncing, but rather trying to find solutions to change, a little bit, the political reality in which we live.

Sanchéz. Do you think that after December 30 Cuba is closer to an Occupy Wall Street?

Bruguera. That is what they fear most. Even in the various meetings I had with the cultural authorities and officials they told me I wanted to do here the same thing that had happened in the streets of Ukraine. That's their great obsession.

The irony is that they felt Occupy Wall Street was nice when it happened over there, in the United States, but they make clear that they will not allow the use of plazas for something like that here.

Sanchéz. Some saw in your call to the Plaza an act that could impede the restoration of relations between Cuba and the United States. Did you feel that? What do you think of this process?

Bruguera. It is very contradictory, because on one hand the authorities here tell me that what I do does not matter to anyone, and on the other hand they accuse me that my actions will ruin the country's future. They make you feel like you don't matter, but also that you carry the weight of the blame for what happens.

It is very naïve to think that some negotiations between two governments for 18 months, with so many interests involved, are going to be ruined by a performance... I don't have such a disproportionate ego.

Personally, I think all that is peace is welcome. The problem is just making political headlines in the short-term and not legislative policy in the long-term. Everyone wonders whether the "blockade" will be removed and that is very complex process in which many details, and techniques, need to be negotiated.

For me, what is important are the possibilities that exist today, because they have started to restore diplomatic relations and there is a serious debate about the "blockade," to rethink the project of the nation from a collective space where all Cubans participate, and that is what #YoTambienExijo is about.

It is time to ask for a decriminalization of opinion differences, to create another policy with the press and the media, to legalize civic associations and political parties, to revise the Constitution, to allow Cubans to be active citizens and not just aspire to be passive consumers.

And we must also ensure that the benefits reach everyone. Cubans are very defenseless, especially those who remained in Cuba. Without revising and changing the laws, without a civic literacy program, without institutions beginning to respond not to the government but to the interests of the members of their organizations, without non-institutional critical spaces... it is not possible to prevent the coming, for example, of a huge transnational that mistreats the workers, that doesn't pay a decent wage, and that doesn't allow unions to protect them.

It is the government's responsibility to prepare citizens for what is coming and to provide laws that protects them, but they seem so focused on keeping themselves in power that they can't see how important it is to empower ordinary Cubans. In Cuba we have learned our duties very well, but not our rights. The time has come for ordinary Cubans to demand their rights.

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14ymedio, Cuba's first independent daily digital news outlet, published directly from the island, is available in Spanish here. Translations of selected articles in English are here.