Notes On Tania Bruguera’s #YoTambiénExijo Performance in Cuba

As has been widely covered, artist Tania Bruguera was detained in her native Cuba, along with many others. She attempted to launch #YoTambiénExijo at the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana. The action was to be an updated version of her 2009 performance, Tatlin’s Whisper #6, at the Bienal de la Habana. She is now free from detention but her passport has been reportedly confiscated.

The performance is described as an open invitation for Cubans to speak about their “hopes and fears for their future and that of the communist island” (per AFP). Her detention drew international scorn just two weeks after the historic agreement to open ties between the United States and Cuba. About one thousand people, myself included, signed a petition to ask for her release.

Political detention is reprehensible. But beyond the faint outlines of the case, Bruguera’s intentions remain, for me at least, hard to read when thought about in the context of her previous trajectory. Perhaps for her as well. She argues that she works deliberately with political uncertainties. And before one can begin to make sense of it all, one should keep in mind that the performance is arguably not over yet. She now faces court charges, according to several sources, which seem hard, if not impossible, to separate from the stifled performance itself. That said, some *very* provisional notes can be jotted down.

Bruguera’s work has been embraced by Cubans like Yoani Sánchez, “the best-known dissident blogger from Cuba.” But it is unclear (to me, at least) that Bruguera identifies with the dissident community in return. Furthermore, Bruguera self-identifies as a leftist feminist, and yet she’s now being celebrated by the exiled right. She’s unlikely to reciprocate the gesture. Her letter on the occasion of the new diplomatic ties, which denounces rising economic disparities, is far from anything that the right would genuinely agree with. But rather than being accidental alliances, I’ve come to think that Bruguera must revel in inciting such contradictions as a way to reveal political expediencies that remain unsaid in society.

Bruguera indicated that she did not want to be freed if other detainees were still held. At one point, she went back to protest the detentions and ended up back in jail. Yet this is not tantamount to declaring that she agrees with other detainees’ viewpoints. In other words, unlike the Cuban dissidents, she was not being held for any particular ideas herself and was arrested instead for the platform she threatened to bring. As a relevant side note, Puerto Rican artist Beatriz Santiago Muñoz shared a post on Facebook in which she demanded that Cuba release Bruguera, while pointing out that the United States also uses “preventive detentions” to stymie dissent ahead of large protests. Coco Fusco, in the best, in-depth blow-by-blow so far, similarly pointed at the myriad rules that govern public space in the US, especially around comparable government plazas, as a way to put Cuba’s actions into more perspective than a shrill anti-Castro soundbite.

Tatlin’s Whisper #6 (Havana Version)” (2009)

Apart from what dissidents may have been expecting to accomplish through #YoTambiénExijo, Bruguera often stages performances that seek to make ordinary members of civil society visible, and invite them to take a risk by stepping out of anonymity. I personally don’t see her work as a platform for self-selected activists, who nevertheless seem so drawn to it. Sometimes those activists might be better served by staying out of it, since they can end up being unwitting performers that says more about them than what they say about current politics. In fact, Bruguera often sets up conditions where established actors or institutions, such as museums, seem to come across as repressive agents themselves, employing performers that act as police forces. Other times she sets up conditions for a voice to come across and then disrupts the very performance with unexpected happenings to allegedly challenge accepted social norms.

In the current staging of Tatlin’s Whisper #6 for the Plaza de la Revolución that was shut down, it wasn’t clear if Bruguera intended to revisit the props (the white dove, for example, harkening back to a famous Fidel speech), and the green-garbed guards flanking every speakers. Far from minor details, these would change the whole perception of the piece, adding meaningful aspects that go beyond merely an open mic.

On the one hand, dissidents seem to think that Bruguera’s work deliberately provokes and exposes the state: “con su propuesta Bruguera había develado el entramado de censura, cobardía cultural y represión que inmoviliza la vida cubana” (Bruguera has exposed the scaffolding of censorship, cultural cowardice, and repression that immobilizes life in Cuba — YS). And an expression from the exile community calls the cancelled event “one of the most important cultural challenges that the Castros’ tyranny has had to face” (“uno de los desafíos culturales más importantes a los que se ha tenido que enfrentar la tiranía de los Castro”).

On the other hand, judging from her past works, it seems that Bruguera is interested in creating a situation in which many unexpected outcomes might come to the fore. Those outcomes may include state reactions, but the work is not limited to those, and doesn’t depend on them to operate either. There often seems to be more in Bruguera’s work that happens at a barely perceptible level of power relations than what initially meets the eye. Tellingly, while Sánchez seems to understand this performance as already concluded, since it already exposed the state apparatus, I don’t think Bruguera is jumping to concur. This volatility is not necessarily something that the opposition in Cuba (or in exile) wants. Bruguera says (again, tellingly), “Esto sirvió para quitarle la máscara a todo el mundo;” (This served to unmask everyone – emphasis on “everyone” added here).

Tatlin’s Whisper #5, Tate Modern, 2008

Bruguera also made statements on Cuba’s art world status that seem to amplify what Fusco recently observed. Fusco says,

Bruguera’s foreign audience is the only one at present that can easily consume the flow of information about her artistic proposals, political views, and serial detentions. The Cuban people remain outside the picture so to speak, but Cuba’s status as an art world superpower comes under scrutiny.

Bruguera is similarly quoted as saying (referring to the new diplomacy between La Habana and Washington D.C.):

Ahora se abre una nueva posibilidad para que las obras de los artistas cubanos, las compren los coleccionistas norteamericanos y todo el mundo pone las cosas en la balanza. (— A new possibility opens up now for the works of Cuban artists to be purchased by North American collectors and everyone weighs things on a scale).

Slightly different from a dissident’s usual, repetitive focus on the ruling elite, at least some of Bruguera’s discourse is directed, thus, at the artists’ world itself. Bruguera seems to say that Cuban artists are playing it safe; they want to be available for the wealthy American market — which is understandable considering there is not much they can get to economically support their work in Cuba. The suggestion, true or not, is that these artists don’t want problems from the Cuban government when it comes to travel visas, biennials, cultural prizes, etc. Bruguera makes comparable accusations here. (From the right wing, similar observations appear from Néstor Díaz de Villegas here).

But Bruguera also seems to suggest, as Fusco echoes, that collectors outside of Cuba can become complicit in state repression while incentivizing conveniently digestible pseudo-nationalistic works, watching the value of their relatively modest investment in contemporary Cuban art balloon. Meanwhile, Bruguera opens herself up to criticisms of being a parachute provocateur who can spend most of her time outside of Cuba, and when she returns, seems to draw attention to issues that already are obvious to those living there.

Dissidents may want to see Bruguera’s work in the context of speech within the territorial space of Cuba, but Fusco and Bruguera both seem to concur that the performance did more to expose something outside of Cuba than inside. As Fusco concludes,

it may well be time for art world cognoscenti who have for so long been charmed by Cuba’s eccentricities, anti-imperialist rhetoric, and relatively cheap art prices to consider what, beyond the convention of indignant public letters, might serve as a valid response to a state that imposes draconian measures to enforce its hegemonic control over public space and discourse.

Finally, as Bea Santiago wrote, nothing can justify detaining an artist for exercising her speech. But the detention needs to be understood in light of recent USAID efforts to plant astroturf social media in Cuba to overthrow the government. Bruguera denies working with any US funding or logistical support — perhaps something that not all Cuban dissidents can honestly say.

Does Bruguera see the White House and the State Department also as part of all of those who are “unmasked” in all of this? What about the political ambitions of some or all of the dissidents? Did the performance have some unnoticed effect on those fronts? What at first may seem like the piece’s greatest weakness —the gap between intended citizen-participants and the actual regular dissidents who showed up— falls away in the aftermath, revealing deeper schisms and personal jockeying happening beyond facile media representations of the current shift.

Bruguera’s case in court is pending and she has indicated she will take on the state. With the next Bienal de la Habana coming in May 2015, some are already calling for a boycott, while Bruguera has also been instructed not to appear. There may be many more realities that remain to be unmasked.

  • Audio of Bruguera speaking (in Spanish) about her detention, via US-government-funded Martí noticias, here.
  • See also Bruguera’s episode of Art 21.
  • Ver también esta entrevista con Bruguera: “Para nosotros el primer y más puntual objetivo es la participación ciudadana plural. Que todo el mundo sienta que tiene voz y que su voz es escuchada. Otro objetivo es que el cubano de a pie conozca más lo que es un performance artístico  y el arte contemporáneo comprometido socialmente y en específicos sobre el Arte de Conducta y el Arte Útil.”

[Updated on January 6]

[reposted from here, slightly updated for clarity and new links; subscribe to my newsletter here]