“My work is about loopholes,” says Tania Bruguera, commenting on the bureaucratic quirk that now permits qualified Cubans to get licenses as academic tutors, thus enabling her to open up the Hannah Arendt International Institute of Artivism. “Artivism” is one of the many conceptual neologisms that Bruguera (b. 1968) has coined over the years to describe a brand of performance that blurs the line between art and activism. Most recently, she has taken on the issue of freedom of speech in her native Cuba.
At the 2009 Havana Biennial, Bruguera staged Tatlin’s Whisper #6, a project—subsequently reiterated at Tate Modern, London, and elsewhere—in which any participant could approach a microphone and speak freely, without censorship, for one minute. In December 2014, two weeks after President Barack Obama’s announcement that the United States would begin normalizing relations with Cuba, Bruguera attempted to mount the piece again, this time in the symbolic political center of Cuba, Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución. The performance failed to take place, as Bruguera, along with 12 other potential participants, was arrested before arriving at the square. A petition was launched, signed by more than 1,000 artists both inside and outside of Cuba, and Bruguera and the others were released after three days.
I met with Bruguera in Havana in mid-June, a week or so following another headline-making incident. This time she sustained bruises from the police, who briefly detained her for attending one of the weekly protests of the Ladies in White, a group of relatives of political prisoners. We met in Old Havana at her three-story house, which was undergoing renovation to accommodate the Institute of Artivism. It is the same space where Bruguera initially performed The Burden of Guilt (1997-99) during Cuba’s so-called Special Period, precipitated by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, when a majority of the population endured severe economic hardships and malnutrition. In the piece, Bruguera stood naked with a lamb carcass hanging around her neck, eating dirt, with her living room opened up to the street. Later, she used the house for her project Cátedra Arte de Conducta (Behavior Art Department), 2002-09, an interactive “school” for socially engaged art-making.
While the renovations still had a long way to go—throughout our conversation, we shifted from room to room trying to avoid the noise made by construction workers—the Institute was officially launched on May 20, with Bruguera and colleagues doing a 100-hour-long reading of Arendt’s seminal book The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). The event, roughly concurrent with the opening of the 12th Havana Biennial, took place in Bruguera’s living room. Shortly after the performance, she was once again arrested by plainclothes police officers, though released after a few hours of interrogation.
TRAVIS JEPPESEN Was the first performance you did here The Burden of Guilt?
TANIA BRUGUERA Yes, that was the first. A lot has happened in this house! In a way, I wanted to do this institute because it reminds me of when we did the school. We were such an intense group of people—working and eating and sleeping here—discussing art until 2 a.m. It was really cool. So, hopefully, we’ll have that again. We’ll see. Even before we were ready, I announced it at the Havana Biennial. So now that people know, it will be harder for the authorities to close us down. You never know, but at least it will be a more complicated situation. So yeah, I hope people come, and we can use art to solve some problems, even little ones.
JEPPESEN The Burden of Guilt was done at the height of the Special Period.
BRUGUERA In Cuba, everything is intense, and you have to be intense as well—in order to compete with the reality here. Back then, people were losing their sight from vitamin deficiencies, their muscles were atrophying—a lot of weird stuff started happening. It was hard. Every time there was a blackout, a certain neighbor would shout, “Viva Fidel! Viva la Revolución!” I was really young, but I thought, “That’s how I want to work as an artist!”
JEPPESEN Besides your recent detainment after the Ladies in White protest, have things settled down here since you were arrested for reading The Origins of Totalitarianism?
BRUGUERA Yesterday at the Biennial, a friend of mine was doing a workshop. I went, and within 15 minutes the secret police officer who is in charge of me was there. I mean, at least they’re learning something about art! But it’s kind of annoying, because it’s like, man, I’m not doing anything wrong, I’m just going to a public event!
JEPPESEN Are you under surveillance all the time?
BRUGUERA Before, I could tell that they were following me and recording me—I could tell exactly what they were doing. I think it was a way to threaten me, to make me afraid. Intimidation. So when that didn’t succeed, they changed their strategy to something sneakier. I think my phone is completely hacked.
JEPPESEN It’s strange that you didn’t get my text message trying to arrange a meeting.
BRUGUERA It’s very interesting. And they read my e-mail as well. Then they showed up at the Biennial yesterday, just to see what I was going to do.
JEPPESEN And it’s not like you were there to do a performance!
BRUGUERA Recently, a visiting friend asked me to go with him to the airport to say good-bye. I sat down waiting for him to check in. Five minutes later, four people, all dressed in plain clothes with little ID badges, came and sat down around me. So it’s kind of weird. Because, to be honest, they know that they can’t threaten me—I’m not going to be afraid. So why they keep doing this, I don’t know.
JEPPESEN How long did they detain you after the Ladies in White demonstration?
BRUGUERA It was just a few hours. They took me outside the city, disrupted my life. Then they drove me back. Even with all of this, they treated me as special. In the little room, the guy from the secret police said, “Oh, we know you’re renovating your house with your own money.” I said, “Great, I wish you would say that in public. Because in public, you said that I was working for the CIA. So I hope that you also make a video to clean up my image, since you created all this mess.”
You see, they did this video saying that I wanted to overthrow the government, that I was CIA, all this crap. The problem right now, if I look at this as an outsider, is a lot of dysfunctional methodologies. The temporality, the speed of certain things, is too slow, and they need to catch up to the alternatives that Cuban society is proposing. So the police, for example, tell me, “Oh, your head is very hard.” I say, “No, it’s not that my head is hard—it’s that your methods are wrong.” So there are all these clashes—even aesthetic clashes. I believe in saying everything out in the open, and they don’t want me to say anything at all. For me, Tatlin’s Whisper and The Origins of Totalitarianism are pieces about public space. My recent work is all about how to transgress this idea in Cuba that everything is private, that nothing you really think can be said aloud in the public realm.
These will be the rooms for the workshops, the working rooms. And also I hope that some of the visitors can come and stay for a while.
JEPPESEN Students and professors?
BRUGUERA When I say “institute,” I mean research and practice, not a formal school. I already did a school, the Cátedra Arte de Conducta. Here I want a “think tank,” an institute for research with books about everything that can challenge the power of mainstream structures everywhere—not just in Cuba. So, for example, say [Canadian author and filmmaker] Naomi Klein is finishing a new book, and she needs two months of quiet time, she can come here, have her own room, do her work and then give a lecture.
JEPPESEN So a residency also.
BRUGUERA Yes. A mix of a residency, a school, a think tank. All of them. And a good residency needs a kitchen! So this will be a place where everyone can eat. Here or on the patio. And in the rest of the house, each floor will be named after the project happening there at the moment.
The other thing I want to do, hopefully in September, is to hold an open forum. For example, someone who wants to research certain aspects of social activism could send us a proposal. And based on the proposals, we’ll try to get different interested people to come for the discussion.
Also, we will have a big library. We’ll put shelves on the walls. It will be a specialized library, for people working in art, activism, philosophy and politics.
JEPPESEN It’s going to be a huge project.
BRUGUERA After everything horrible that has happened, I feel this is the best response I can give. I need to do something I believe in. The answer to bad experiences is teaching, education. It’s never violence.
JEPPESEN Do they still have your passport?
BRUGUERA Yes. I can’t travel. Not even outside Havana. But, according to the law, they have only 180 days to investigate the case, to prepare it for the prosecutor and decide. Now that time is running out, I don’t know what they’re going to do. Either they have to resolve the case or they will have to ask special permission from the ministry of the interior to do more research, more investigation. I don’t think they will. It’s totally clear that I have no ties to anything—that I’m doing this as an artwork. But they don’t understand that the confusion is not my problem; it’s the problem of the people in the ministry of culture, who don’t teach them what contemporary art is!
JEPPESEN When you’re interrogated, what is it like? Do they use the old rhetoric, accusing you of being a counterrevolutionary?
BRUGUERA I’m already defined as a CR—a counterrevolutionary. Which is unfair, because what I’m actually doing is trying to implement the Revolution here. Cuba says to the world, “We are different from America, we can survive by understanding each other.” So I say, “OK let’s not just say that to the outside world, let’s actually do it here.” But, in fact, that’s not possible. They brag, “Yeah, we respect everybody’s opinion.” OK, so let’s do it here. “Oh no, that’s not possible.” So what I’m doing is simple, a form of aesthetic play. They claim that what they say is the total truth, so I’m going to believe it as the total truth. Let’s implement it and see if it works. I think they are the counterrevolutionaries. Because they’re the ones who want everything to remain the same.
At the beginning, the interrogations were more about who I was working with and whether I knew about something connected to something else. And I said no to everything. “I’m not talking.” Now, it’s different. It’s been very weird. The secret police even invited me for lunch—and they paid! I’m writing a text about it because it’s so disturbing.
JEPPESEN A new tactic: now they’re trying to be friends!
BRUGUERA I told them that they’ve been very sloppy, unintelligent. And they said, “We know! Why do you think we’re here?” I replied, “Oh, do you think a lunch will change everything? No, I’m sorry, it’s not that easy, after so much has happened.” So now they want to be nice to me, to show me they’re not bad. I’m like, well, you have to undo a lot of stuff first—in public. Because they do work in public, you know. One of the things they might want to do is pretend that I’m working with them. Because they told me I can’t tell anyone about our meeting. I said, “I’m sorry, I work in public, and I don’t work for you. So I can tell anyone I want about this lunch.”
They’ve tried everything. Then they even said that I “ceased to be an artist.” How can you cease to be an artist?! What is that?! So now I think they’re trying to use this chummy approach. But I’m not letting them. I’m telling everyone what they did.
To be honest, I never thought it would go this far. Somebody said the other day, “You can’t be that naive. You must have known there would be consequences.” And I said, “Yeah, I had plans A, B and C. I knew it was very hard. But I never thought it would go this far.” Not at all. That really surprises me. What I like about Tatlin’s Whisper is that it unveiled all the systems they use. It unveiled very clearly the mechanisms they employ against people they don’t like.
JEPPESEN After the performance, you were publicly condemned by the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Wifredo Lam, where Tatlin’s Whisper took place in 2009.
BRUGUERA I was completely censored by all the art institutions in Cuba. I was not allowed to show anywhere. Now it has become convenient for the government to say they let me do the performance the first time. It’s not that they let me do it—I made it impossible for them to censor me. It was out in the open.
JEPPESEN Does that restriction continue to this day?
BRUGUERA Yes, absolutely. Recently, I tried to enter the National Museum of Fine Arts to attend the Tomás Sánchez opening, to which I was invited by the artist. They wouldn’t let me go in. It was absurd and ridiculous. And painful, to be honest. Very painful.
JEPPESEN Were the people who participated in Tatlin’s Whisper in 2009 harassed afterward?
BRUGUERA Well, [political blogger] Yoani Sánchez was—she wasn’t allowed to enter any cultural place. At the time, I thought, OK, that’s part of the job; if you’re a dissident, that’s what you do. So I didn’t feel guilt or anything. But most of the Cubans who spoke left the country. They were probably already in that process, getting ready to leave. That’s what pains me, what makes me mad. The solution for everything here is to get rid of the ones who bother the government. Then they can say, “See? They didn’t care so much. They left!”
That’s not the way you run a country! You have to deal with everybody: the ones who don’t like it, the ones who don’t understand certain policies. That’s why I don’t accept leaving. They offered several times to give back my passport, on the condition that I leave with no return. I’m not doing it.
JEPPESEN One of your Cuban artist colleagues complained in print when you tried to stage Tatlin’s Whisper in the Plaza de la Revolución last year, saying that, because
you don’t live in Cuba, you’re safe, they can’t really do anything to you.
BRUGUERA This is important to contextualize. I live a lot outside of Cuba, like a lot of successful Cuban artists. None of the artists currently exhibiting in the National Museum live in Cuba. So I don’t feel that’s a valid argument. Also, each time I come to Cuba, I give a public lecture or create a workshop with students or organize a public event. Which means my coming back to Cuba is not just symbolic; it’s actually to do something. Also, I never disconnect. They want what happened to me to be a lesson not only to the people in Cuba but also to the Cubans who want to come back. It’s a way to tell the people outside, “You should come here to invest—but not with your ideas.” I’m clearly a sacrificial lamb. “Look, they did that to her, I’m not even gonna try.” That piece was more for people outside Cuba. Everybody here already knows how the system works, they know its limits, but people coming from the outside might have the wrong idea.
JEPPESEN Abroad, many leftists and intellectuals are very sympathetic to Fidel Castro and the achievements of the Cuban Revolution.
BRUGUERA Cuba is a sacrosanct virgin—even when she’s having a lot of sex, people don’t want to see it. They want to keep her as a virgin. My new piece is in part a critique of the international left’s tendency to be blind. I am not against the entire project of the Revolution—I’m a revolutionary. I’m against the repression of free speech. I could criticize other stuff as well. But I decided to focus on censorship.
The problem with criticizing Cuba is that you are not allowed to criticize just one aspect. People are completely polarized. Therefore, if you question one aspect of the Revolution, it is as though you are condemning the entire Revolution.
Sometimes, the international leftists try to salvage a political project because it’s good for their own needs and their own conscience. So they overlook things they might not forgive in their own countries, because the experiment as a whole is a good example, something to show.
JEPPESEN Is that what you see happening with Cuba?
BRUGUERA I’m an anticapitalist. So I’m present in the discourse. I believe that socialism is a better model, even if it has some problems. I’m afraid that Cuba will go in a direction that is completely contrary to the Revolution. Art has become entertainment instead of a critical space to think. People come here for investment, and they don’t care about the impact of gentrification on Cubans. We have literacy, but we need a literacy campaign for our rights. My actions are not so much opposed to the current government, they’re more like a preparation for the big corporations that are planning to come here. Because I don’t want this to be China. If you don’t know how to ask for your rights now, when the big capitalist enterprises come you will just put your head down and accept the exploitation from day one. I want to work with Cubans, to teach them how to speak up.
JEPPESEN These days in Cuba the middle class is disappearing. The rich are getting richer, the poor poorer.
BRUGUERA That’s called neoliberalism, right? When I say Cuba is becoming neoliberal, all my leftist friends get mad at me. But that’s what I see. And racism is coming back. Yesterday I was talking to a former student, a black artist whose work deals with these issues. She told me that she will no longer go to some private restaurants, because nobody there is black—not the cook, not even the person who cleans. Everyone is white. Racism is, of course, related to classism. This is something we haven’t seen for a long time in Cuba. We were color blind. We saw people for who they were, how they behaved—not how much money they had or the color of their skin.
I agree that the middle class is disappearing, and so is the working class. We’ll soon have only the poor and the rich. Now we live in a society where you work for somebody else—which I’m not against with small businesses. My issue is that the government has not taken the responsibility to regulate the potential abuses.
JEPPESEN Why is that? Do they want to just pretend it’s not happening?
BRUGUERA I don’t know. You’ll have to ask them. But what is clear is that the main thing they care about is to have big American corporations come here. For Cubans, it’s almost offensive to see how desperate they are.
JEPPESEN How do they manage the contradiction between this greed and the official ideology?
BRUGUERA You know how they deal with it? By suppressing freedom of expression. That’s why I think my work is so necessary. But also I have a concept called Political Timing-Specific Art, as opposed to site-specific art. This is why the government is so controlling of the public space.
JEPPESEN Do you think that ordinary Cubans live
BRUGUERA By now we have two, even three, generations of people born with fear already in their DNA. A lot of people don’t even notice that they’re afraid, because it’s their natural state. If you are a young person at home and you want to speak out, your father will say, “Ssssh! Don’t say anything! The neighbors are going to hear!” Or, “Shut up! You’re going to lose your place at university!” If you live that way constantly, you get used to it. My battle right now is to not get accustomed to what’s happening to me. Because, as time goes on, you can get used to the secret police coming to see you. You can adjust to anything. It becomes a habit. The habit in Cuba is to be afraid and not even tell anybody about it. Right now, people are in Fear 2.0, which is self-censorship. That’s why we don’t have a lot of young people. Everybody’s leaving.
JEPPESEN But it’s still kind of difficult to get a
BRUGUERA Of course. A lot of people left on boats.
JEPPESEN What does that bode for the future?
BRUGUERA It’s very important for art to be part of civil society. And I tell the secret police, every time I meet with them, “Look, this is the kind of art I do everywhere. It’s not like I’m trying to fuck up your life!” I’m part of Gulf Labor, I’m part of an antifascist association of artists, people who are against this everywhere—not just in Cuba. The other day, the secret police said to me, “Yeah, but look, today the American police were beating people up in the street!” I said, “Great, of course I think this is wrong. But let me ask you: Why, because they did it, is it now okay for you to do it? What does that have to do with Cuba?” Now the government wants to be like everyone else, but they look to “everyone else” only when they’re doing bad things—not good things. “Oh, they beat people! So we have to do it, too!”
JEPPESEN Are you still going to the Ladies in White protests?
BRUGUERA I didn’t go last week, but I’m going to go next Sunday. Some people have complained that I am with them. I’m not with them or with anybody; I’m with my art. I might not agree 100 percent with the Ladies’ political positions, but I cannot remain calm when I know people are being beaten every Sunday. This is happening in my country. I am against violence.
JEPPESEN Do you think the country has recovered economically from the Special Period?
BRUGUERA You can see a lot of change, and that’s good. My only fear is all the money that’s coming in. The government is preparing itself for a huge cash flow from the U.S. Where is that money going to go? That’s what I don’t see clearly right now.
JEPPESEN There’s a lot of poverty here.
BRUGUERA Many artists here have privilege, but what do you do with it? Sure, I have a big house, but I’m going to create an institute with it, hopefully to help change something here. The government is now giving lots of stuff to artists for free—though not to me! But it’s important to keep your independence. Because if you do everything through institutions . . .
JEPPESEN You become a puppet.
BRUGUERA You said it! I don’t want to criticize any of my fellow artists. Sometimes it’s hard, but I’m keeping that promise to myself.
JEPPESEN Do you feel you’ve been abandoned by other artists here?
BRUGUERA Ask around. Some people say they don’t know what happened to me. And I’m like, how can you not know when I told you? It’s been very painful. But when you do this kind of artwork, where you want to present the total truth, a lot of people aren’t willing to accept it.
In July, Bruguera’s passport was returned, her work Untitled (Havana 2000) was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the city appointed her its first artist-in-residence for the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, a one-year position in which Bruguera will encourage undocumented residents to sign up for municipal identification cards. The appointment comes on the heels of Immigrant Movement International (2010-15), her project in Corona, Queens, involving research and community education on issues of immigration law and policy, sponsored by the Queens Museum and Creative Time.