Tania Bruguera: Cuban artist fights for free expression

How the internationally renowned dissident artist turned a performance piece into a fight for freedom of expression.

My Cuba - Tania Bruguera
[Eyder Peralta/NPR]

Havana, Cuba – It is December 17, 2014 and the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera is at Pope Francis’ weekly public mass at the Vatican. 

As a political artist, Bruguera has developed one of the most powerful bodies of work in installation and performance art in Latin America. She has come to Rome to present the pope with elements from her campaign, Dignity has no Nationality. It is part of her new project – a public political platform called the International Immigrants’ Movement.

On the train to Venice, where she’ll be participating in a performance art festival, Bruguera gets the news: after more than a year of secret negotiations, Cuba and the United States have announced the restoration of diplomatic relations.

“I became very anxious … fearful, hopeful, all at once,” she says. “An event like this marks a separation between the present and the past. You wonder, what’s to be done now?”

She continues: “In a way, something like this means everyone has a new role, as if the parts are being reshuffled; the old metaphors suddenly acquiring new meaning. Everything becomes re-contextualised.”

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Two days later, she publishes an open letter to Raul Castro on Facebook. It is the first action of Yo Tambien Exijo (YTE), which means I Also Demand, a civic platform made up of a group of friends and colleagues, with Bruguera as its main spokeswoman.

“I found it suspicious that the government would try to sell an image to the world that portrayed everyone in Cuba as being happy with the agreement with the US. The government has always felt entitled to the feelings of its citizens, and thus acted as Cubans’ only legitimate spokesperson. In my interpretation, people weren’t happy. People were shocked. They felt a certain hope, a hope that they hadn’t felt for years, the hope that something might change. But that’s not the same as happiness…,” Bruguera says.

“Cuba’s president simply informs us. He dictates new resolutions without us knowing what sort of external pressures or intentions lie behind them. That’s because in Cuba, there is no institutional transparency.

“A president should navigate with its people through a political process like this, because it is also an emotional one. I find it as much an act of violence to say something can’t be done as to say now everyone is obliged to do it.”

Bruguera announces on social media that she intends to restage her performance on free speech, Tatlin’s Whisper

In the piece, which was last performed in Havana at the 2009 Biennial, participants are given a microphone and one minute to speak about anything they choose. 

In a country where many believe the only microphone belongs to the state, the 2009 performance was an unprecedented event where even dissidents had a platform.

This time, however, Bruguera says she wants to bring the performance to a public space, preferably Plaza de la Revolucion or Revolution Square – the government’s symbolic bastion.

Visitors and mounted police officers participate in Bruguera's performance Tatlin's Whisper #5 at the National Museum Wales in Cardiff on November 26, 2012 [Getty Images]
Visitors and mounted police officers participate in Bruguera’s performance Tatlin’s Whisper #5 at the National Museum Wales in Cardiff on November 26, 2012 [Getty Images]

Revolution Square or ‘Censorship Square’? 

But it soon becomes evident that Bruguera’s proposal isn’t welcomed by the authorities.

Various government-run blogs, magazines and online newspapers begin to portray her as a peon serving those pushing for the US annexation of Cuba or as attempting to destabilise the government. 

Raul Capote, a former state security agent turned blogger, writes (link in Spanish): “They’re not interested in peace or freedom of expression, but in sparking confrontation, provoking confusion and instability, at a time when the fascist right in Miami is shaking before the end of its hegemony of terror.”

Her attempt at political intervention is framed as an act of political opposition.

When Bruguera arrives at Havana airport on December 26 she is met by the political police who start filming her. Her every step is scrutinised.

In such moments, one lives in the present, Bruguera says.

“You enter this state, this state in which you are very much alert, trying to understand the semantic consequences of your actions, and how they are interpreted,” she says. “You are trying to keep them from sequestering your own story.”

A symptom, which will dictate the events to come, begins to emerge.

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Pablo Helguera, the director of adult academic programmes at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, MoMA, describes it on Facebook (link in Spanish): “It is impossible to think of a relevant artistic action in the second decade of the 21st century that hasn’t been mediatised – or in which such mediatisation isn’t part of the work itself.

“Tania’s work is precisely that – a campaign – and whatever occurs or doesn’t occur within it is part of the work. It’s no surprise that the government stumbled into it like one stumbles into a black hole.”

Others criticise Bruguera, saying she has allowed political dissident groups to usurp her performance.

Bruguera says that both government and dissident forces seized upon her work at some point, mostly without really understanding it, after discovering an element worth exploiting for their own political goals.

But, she tells herself, she has worked with dissidents and activists in Europe and the United States who have used her work for various ends, so why not let those in her own country do so?

Over the next few days, a struggle ensues between Bruguera and Cuba’s cultural bureaucracy.

She visits the Havana police and the national police to ask about the permits she needs for her performance. But no one knows the answer; a regulatory limbo is imposed. 

She has two meetings with Ruben del Valle, the president of the National Council of Plastic Arts (CNAP), who suggests alternative venues, like the National Museum of Fine Arts. For Bruguera, Revolution Square is vital to the performance, but she nevertheless accepts del Valle’s alternative and agrees to a reduced performance of 90 minutes.

But before they finalise a deal, del Valle says the museum must choose the show’s participants.

For Bruguera, this amounts to killing the performance.

She decides that the performance belongs in Revolution Square.

Revolution Square has become Censorship Square, she argues.

Revolution Square, the symbolic location where Bruguera planned to perform Tatlin's Whisper on December 30, 2014 [Getty Images]
Revolution Square, the symbolic location where Bruguera planned to perform Tatlin’s Whisper on December 30, 2014 [Getty Images]

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A first act of political rebellion

Forty-eight-year-old Bruguera grew up in the upmarket Havana neighbourhood of El Vedado. Her father, Miguel Brugueras, was an underground militant during the Batista dictatorship and became a diplomat after 1959. He was a trusted ally of the revolution’s senior leadership.

Miguel Brugueras’ family never knew what he did on his trips abroad. According to Bruguera, he rarely spoke. At 18, in reaction to her father, Bruguera dropped the last letter of her surname and along with it lost any possible inheritance, either material or symbolic. It was her first act of political rebellion.

Between 1980 and 1983, she studied at the Elementary School of Plastic Arts in Havana and later attended the San Alejandro Fine Arts Schoolwhere she was a student until 1987. In 1992 she graduated with a degree in painting from Cuba’s prestigious arts university, the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA). 

It was a time of upheaval in Cuban art.

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As Cuban essayist and intellectual Rafael Rojas argues (link in Spanish), “Between the 80s and 90s, a generation of plastic artists carried out a renovation of Cuba’s cultural life. This was a generation that, while pertaining to the Soviet bloc, was aware of the most groundbreaking movements taking place in Western art, and attempted to assimilate and adapt them into the Cuban context. Among the most emblematic artists in that transition was Tania Bruguera.”

Over the next two decades, Bruguera would maintain an influential presence in Cuba, mostly as a teacher at the ISA through her renowned Behaviour Art programme, which she established in 2002.

She simultaneously built a powerful international career. She has dealt with subjects such as migrants’ rights, the use and proliferation of weapons, drugs in Colombia and violence on the Mexican border. She taught at the University of Chicago, as well as at the National School of Fine Arts in Paris, and won distinctions like the Guggenheim Fellowship (1998) and the Prince Claus Award (2008). 

But around Christmas of 2014, things began to crumble.

“It was the first time Tania was doing a specifically political project in direct reference to Cuba,” Clara Astiasaran, an art critic, curator and YTE member, explains.

“Her work has always been political, but this time she was directly addressing the nation’s president regarding a foreign policy decision that was key to Cuba’s nation-building efforts over the past 60 years – the idea of anti-imperialism.”

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Bruguera stands in front of her house in Old Havana before her 100-hour open studio reading of Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism [Courtesy of INSTAR]
Bruguera stands in front of her house in Old Havana before her 100-hour open studio reading of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism [Courtesy of INSTAR]


On the evening of December 29, Bruguera feels scared for the first time.

She goes for a walk, feeling confused. The performance has been announced for 3pm the next day, but friends have warned her that she won’t be allowed to attend.

She contemplates her options: she could sleep at someone else’s house, dress up as a homeless person and show up unannounced at the square, or she could wander around town until the show starts.

Instead, she walks to her mother’s house in Vedado and starts making phone calls, inviting artists and friends, trying her best to make the situation appear as ordinary as possible.

The next morning at 5.30am there’s a knock on the door. 

From her balcony, Bruguera can see the political police surround her building. Certain of what’s about to happen, she sits down with her mother and 94-year-old aunt and asks them to stay calm, no matter what.

It’s not until noon – after picturing the reaction at Revolution Square when people realise that she’s not there and fearing a breakout of violence – that Bruguera takes off her glasses and jewellery and opens the door.

She doesn’t see anyone so she calls out and a couple of officers appear. Bruguera has already tried contacting her sister in Italy to ask her to announce the performance’s cancellation, but ETECSA, the state-run telecommunications company, has cut off her landline and mobile phone.

She is charged with incitement to break the law, inciting public unrest and resisting the authorities, which is later dropped when it becomes apparent that she never resisted. Her Cuban passport is confiscated.

Bruguera is driven to the first of more than 30 interrogations she will be subjected to. 

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Detention and interrogation

At 3pm, a calm hangs over Revolution Square. It is hard to believe that it is at the centre of such turbulent events.

There are some international reporters, carrying their credentials, and a few cameras on tripods, along with the usual symbols: the statue of Jose Marti, the silhouette sculpture of Che Guevara on the facade of the Ministry of Interior building and of Camilo Cienfuegos on the Communications Ministry building, the Jose Marti National Library and the National Theatre.

There are also dozens of curious bystanders, standing in groups waiting for Bruguera to arrive. They watch the side streets and try to divine who among them is an undercover agent. Cars and buses drive up and down Boyeros Avenue, just as on any other afternoon. An hour later, people start to leave. 

A few days earlier, graffiti artist Danilo Maldonado Machado, known as El Sexto, had spray painted the names of Fidel and Raul on two pigs. He was arrested as he tried to release them on to the street and sent to prison.

An antenna, which according to INSTAR, was set up on the roof of Bruguera’s mother’s building in the lead up to Tatlin’s Whisper to snoop on the conversations in her home [Courtesy of Studio Bruguera and the YTE platform]

As Bruguera is driven to a police station, several other activists and well known political dissidents are arrested. Some weren’t even planning on participating in Bruguera’s performance.

Earlier that day, CNAP had issued an official statement: “In light of the circumstances, it is unacceptable to carry out the performance in the symbolic venue of Plaza de la Revolucion, particularly given the widespread coverage and manipulation the counterrevolutionary media have been doing of this.”

At the police station, Bruguera is given an inmate’s uniform to wear. She is locked in a cell with another woman, who, she concludes, must be a government informant because of all the questions she asks about political dissidents.

“It was at that moment,” Bruguera says, “I learned that injustice has a way of manifesting itself physically and isn’t just a concept. I stopped eating, not out of courage, but because I thought what was being done to me was unfair, and I had no other way of making that clear.”

A few officers interrogate her. Some are persuasive; others just shout. She is then handed over to a psychologist who asks questions such as: “What kind of television shows do you watch?”

She can’t tell whether this is supposed to push her to the point of desperation or to help pass the time.

Back in her windowless cell, exhausted from so much conversation, she tries to get some sleep. The next day she is released.

Having learned that other dissidents are still in prison, she heads to El Maine monument, on Havana’s Malecon, where she makes a public appeal for people to return to Revolution Square. She is again detained.

This time, she has another female cellmate.

“[She] looked like an undercover informant that had been planted there to watch me,” Bruguera says.

“I didn’t want to speak with anyone, and she stayed relatively quiet and polite. We didn’t talk about anything, other than her asking me whether I was planning on eating, and me telling her, No, I’m not. At some point, she started doing her hair and I ended up helping braid her hair in silence.”

Three national security officers take turns to interrogate her: Agents Andrea, Javier and Kenia, the lead investigator in her case. Bruguera doesn’t know whether these are their real names.

Andrea is younger and the least experienced. Javier seems more seasoned. He knows a lot about Cuban art in the 1980s, Bruguera’s career and even tries to play mind games with her by reminding her about her father. With Kenia, whose interrogation technique involves giving revolutionary spiels while mixing in talk about personal things, she establishes a more systematic interaction. 

“There’s something interesting about Kenia; she seems like an honest person,” Bruguera says. “I don’t know whether she is truly honest. Things are not what they appear to be during interrogations.”

On New Year’s Eve, Bruguera is again released. 

She welcomes 2015 with a court case against her, no passport, and unable to leave town.

“The performance turned out to be not so much what didn’t happen at Plaza de la Revolucion,” wrote Helguera (link in Spanish), “but the display of hysteria and arrogance that ensued on the part of the Cuban authorities … Cuba lives in a perpetual state of hysterical manipulation, and any person – whether an artist or not – who manages to break that balance will of course be viewed with terror and indignation.”

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The line between empowerment and disengagement

In one of the few instances in which a Cuban artist or critic publicly criticised Bruguera’s work, National Plastic Arts Award laureate Lazaro Saavedra wrote in an essay(link in Spanish), “Just like with Tatlin’s Whisper, in 2009, Tania will be leaving Cuba having scored yet another ‘goal’ for her artistic resume and amassed thousands of anecdotes.

“She will be criticised, and also celebrated for her braveness and rebellious spirit in social media – both real and digital – and some curator or critic will fittingly mention her in their writings about contemporary art, etc. When she goes, she will be leaving behind her thousands of Cubans fighting for our civil rights, and as always there will be hundreds or thousands abroad pushing them. He who pushes doesn’t get hurt.”

According to him, “There is more provocation in Tania Bruguera’s YTE than success or progress in regards to civil rights beyond what’s obvious and has been said over and over: the government will not allow open microphones or all voices to be heard.”

That is precisely the point some scholars might have made without the risk of arrest: What happens when political art works within a society but then gets recognition outside of it? What’s the line between empowerment and disengagement?

Though many critics I spoke to disagreed with Bruguera’s work, they would not publicly debate it, partly out of concern that they might be seen as condoning the government’s actions.

Some critics say that had Bruguera carried out her performance inside a museum she would have managed to mount a challenge to the high bureaucrats of Cuban culture. But by taking it outside, she left culture unchallenged and undisturbed, while her work was insubstantial from a political standpoint, receiving scant public attention.

“As a creator,” Saavedra wrote, “Tania should have found an intelligent way to circumvent censorship and formal structures of social control and created a temporary autonomous zone where it would be possible to ‘open microphones’ and let ‘all voices’ be heard. But she failed, and the voices are still waiting to be heard.”

What began as a plan to perform Tatlin's Whisper at Revolution Square, pictured, became the 2014-15 performance #YoTambienExijo (#IAlsoDemand).  Here, individuals are gathered on December 30, 2014, the day the free speech performance was meant to take place [Courtesy of Studio Bruguera and the YTE platform]
What began as a plan to perform Tatlin’s Whisper at Revolution Square, pictured, became the 2014-15 performance #YoTambienExijo (#IAlsoDemand).  Here, individuals are gathered on December 30, 2014, the day the free speech performance was meant to take place [Courtesy of Studio Bruguera and the YTE platform]

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The performance continues

In early January 2015, more than 2,000 figures in the international art scene begin demanding that Bruguera’s documents be returned to her after her third arrest in 72 hours. On January 5, Bruguera returns her National Culture Award and renounces her membership of the national union of writers and artists. Two weeks later, she receives a case number: No 25 for the year 2015.

Over the next month, police interrogations and citations follow. Bruguera has to show up at the police station in Vedado, from where she is driven around the city to various “interrogation sites”. 

Some question why she always seems so willing to go and be interrogated.

“In order for it to work, the performance had to stick to the law,” she says. “Since it’s dealing with the issue of tolerance, the work had to show the control mechanisms the system has and all the legal contradictions which exist in Cuba.”

At the end of January, YTE sends a letter to Raul Castro and Maria Esther Reus Gonzalez, the justice minister, demanding they decriminalise free expression and remove all charges against Bruguera.

In response, Kenia, the investigator, tells Bruguera that the prosecutor hasn’t yet made a decision about her case and she will have to wait for another 60 days.

Over the following months, the wave of international solidarity grows. Renowned artists such as Anish Kapoor and Jeremy Deller sign an open letter published in The Guardian. 

She chronicles her experiences on social media. In one piece called The Eyes of Power, she writes: “I have looked into the eyes of power for four months now and throughout this time, I held my gaze, beginning a journey into another Cuba, a Cuba that belongs to those fighting for their right to free expression.

“Today, I’m in a Cuba that neither the tourists nor the businesspeople calculating the risks of their investments on the island will see, nor will the artists attending the Havana Biennial, because they will be safely inside the bubble of the art world.”

On May 20, just before the Havana Biennial opens, Bruguera begins an open-studio performance, a 100-hour reading of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism at her home in Old Havana. 

This reading is the first undertaking of the Institute of Artivism Hannah Arendt (INSTAR), founded by Bruguera.

Although Bruguera thinks her performance has several endings and may not yet have ended, the reading could be considered the culmination of her work: what began as Tatlin’s Whisper and has continued with everything that has happened since, the performance she has now titled #YoTambienExijo, also the name of the platform, YTE, which she considers part of the work. 

“I think this work was quite a success, because I was able to try out different theories I had about political art, which I had written about, discussed at conferences, carried out separately in one or another work, but here managed to lay out in a very clear way,” she says. “For instance, one of the concepts that is present is what I call ‘doing work for a specific political moment’. That is, when works don’t emerge out of the artist’s personal, intimate desire but rather the political conditions where they will be developed. That was very clearly the case.

“The other thing that was at play was the investigation I have been doing for over 20 years about the limits between art and life, the creation of moments during which those limits force you to ask a very fruitful question – is that art you are being exposed to?

“Finally, I was able to experiment with the concept of behavioural art in which the work becomes complete through the reaction of the audience – their behaviour generates new content and meaning. This means there are no right or wrong answers to the work, just honest answers.”

Astiasaran, the art critic and YTE member, believes the project was successful at the time for two reasons. “It brought alliances from the art world into politics,” she says, “and showed the path for different agendas to become sovereign as well as politically and ideologically independent.”

On June 29, 2015, after a lengthy bureaucratic feud, the public prosecutor’s office dictates that the case against her be discontinued. Bruguera gets her passport back and on August 21, after taking part in several marches with the dissident group the Ladies in White, she flies out of Cuba.

Bruguera reads from Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism [Courtesy of INSTAR]
Bruguera reads from Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism [Courtesy of INSTAR]

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Following months of organisation overseas through YTE, and after a successful Kickstarter campaign raising more than $100,000, INSTAR is formally launched on April 8, 2016.

In May, Bruguera returns to Cuba.

Her house now serves as INSTAR’s headquarters. 

“This time of polarised feelings, of the lack of citizens’ resources to change the course of things, calls for us to reclaim public space as a civic space rather than a venue for propaganda where above all there is a lack of transparency and institutional tolerance. Since the government likes to simplify things into right or wrong, I would like to share with others the construction of complex concepts or emotions, like forgiveness,” she says.

Translated from Spanish to English by Alvaro Guzman Bastida. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera