Displacement, 1998-99. Behavior art with Nkisi Nkonde icon, Cuban earth, glue, wood, nails, and textile, dimensions variable.

Real Consequences: A Conversation with Tania Bruguera

In October 2016, at the Creative Time Summit in Washington, DC, Tania Bruguera, whose projects merge social reality, culture, and politics, announced her candidacy for president of Cuba in the 2018 election. She encourages others to follow her example—to speak up and empower themselves—because the clock is ticking on free speech around the world, as freedom of expression battles the politics of repression and control. Bruguera, who was born in 1968 in Havana, grew up as the daughter of a diplomat. As a young adult in Castro’s Cuba, she began teaching and producing art, including tributes to Ana Mendieta, before earning her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2000. Some art performances in her native country have been shut down or have landed her in jail. As an “artivist” who founded Immigrant Movement International in 2005, Bruguera spent 2015 working with undocumented immigrants in Queens as New York’s first artist-in-residence for the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs; the project is ongoing. Her retrospective “On the Political Imaginary” (2010), at the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, New York, was visceral, confrontational, and sensory, combining pungent smells—mud, sugar cane, tea bags, raw meat— with equally strong sights and sounds. Her work, including a progress report on her candidacy, is currently on view in “Speak,” at London’s Serpentine Galleries, and later this year, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts will host a survey exhibition, “Tania Bruguera: Talking to Power / Hablándole al Poder” (June 16–September 24). 

Jan Garden Castro: You told Art 21,“I’m dying to start a political party…to create political power by immigrants for immigrants. I know that in the United States, the risk…is that it’s going to be seen more as a gesture than as an actual thing that happens, but we’ll see.”* How does this goal relate to your announcement that you are running for president of Cuba in 2018? 

Tania Bruguera: These are two different projects. First, I’m trying to see how we can relocate immigrants as political citizens, not just a workforce. Today, when immigrants are coming to this country to get away from other totalitarian governments, is a moment we can learn from. Second, I never said I want to be president of Cuba. I said I want to present myself as a candidate. Cuba needs fresh air and somebody who can bring the world to Cuba and Cubans to the world—someone who is not afraid of freedom of expression, of a bigger emotional spectrum to deal with the challenges that Cuba is going to have to face from now on. Cuba’s responses are not adequate for the 21st century. 

The Burden of Guilt, 1997-99. Decapitated lamb, rope, water, salt, and cuban soil, re-enactment of historical event.

JGC: Your Immigrant Movement International (IMI) project is ongoing. How do you help undocumented immigrants gain empowerment through art? Is the storefront in Queens still serving the immigrant community? 

TB: The first gesture that I had as an artist was to pass the project to them. Members of IMI are now in charge of an art organization presenting things about themselves. They have a platform to speak, and they can talk directly to the City of New York. At the moment, I have a Radcliffe Residency at Harvard, but I’m still working on the project in Queens, and I’m still artist-in-residence at the City of New York. We have the community, and I hope it will spread to other places. 

JGC: The Francis Effect had the goal of petitioning the Pope to grant Vatican City citizenship to immigrants and refugees. But the process of collecting signatures and the ensuing dialogue aimed to reach people who think differently about what Pope Francis has called “the globalization of indifference.” What, for you, was the outcome? What will you do with the signatures you collected? 

TB: We had signatures from 60 countries. We’re going to exhibit them at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in my upcoming show. The idea is to present the petition to Pope Francis. It is a covert action. What immigrants need is not charity but opportunity— something more permanent. We gathered a lot of signatures in New York. Everybody in every country has the same problem. Immigration must be dealt with locally but has to be understood globally. Everywhere you go, you see the same problem. People have the same responses to immigration issues and discrimination. Nothing is in place globally. Immigration is a problem/issue that will never stop. 

JGC: You’ve said that, for you, the most important—and productive—moment for an art piece is when people are not sure whether or not it’s art. Could you elaborate? 

TB: Art is scary for a lot of people. Art is seen as the highest possible element to measure human achievement. There’s a lot of pressure on people, including the artist. Art has developed its own history, and people who don’t understand the conversation feel self-conscious.

I try to do art not as art, but as something else that is happening in their lives—a game you can play that will engage people. When you introduce art this way, people feel art is talking to them. When people do not know something is art, they can totally understand what art is. Art is the presentation of the unknown, of the things you don’t understand. When you do art that is not so recognizable, you have to do the work to understand. Personally, I feel that the art we are supposed to understand needs to expand even more. We need more art that doesn’t look like art, but feels like art. 

JGC: In 2009, you planted hecklers at a College Art Association talk that you invited ex-Weathermen Bernadette Dohrn and Bill Ayers to give in Chicago. How was this received by the speakers and the audience? 

Tatlin’s Whisper #5, 2008. Mounted police, crowd-control, and audience, decontextualization of an action at Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London.

TB: The concept for the piece, which we did just after Obama’s election, was discovering what to do to take power away from somebody. Bernadette and Bill are unflappable, good community organizers. It was beautiful, because it felt like there was a transference of power from two people to the group. It was something that didn’t look like art. 

JGC: Tatlin’s Whisper has been staged in many ways. At Tate Modern, mounted police bossed around visitors. In Havana, you invited people to exercise free speech for a minute each. Was this the first such event in Havana? Can staged freedom lead to real freedom? 

TB: It would not be modest to say yes. This piece addressed the issue of freedom of expression and was the first time when an audience could speak up publicly. It was an experiment about how much freedom people allow themselves, and it was also about people’s fear of saying what they want to say. It was an exercise to start understanding what that feels like. People often don’t understand what not having freedom is like. We have had 50 years of censorship in Cuba. Freedom is confusing for some people. They have the recycled feeling of censorship that hides behind guilt. 

JGC: People are starting to have it in the U.S. 

TB: People start by self-censoring, and at some point, they lose their voices. A friend in Cuba developed two sets of discourses, then became crazy. I am starting to feel it here. Most of the people who are staying mobilized are immigrants.

JGC: How many times have you been arrested or detained in Cuba? Does being a woman affect how you are treated? 

TB: I’ve been arrested four times. My passport was held for eight months. The past three times I went to Cuba, I was detained and interrogated for two to three hours. Cuba is a macho country. It’s seen as a “crime” to rebel as a woman. There is a lower tolerance for a woman saying what she thinks. Nevertheless, anyone who dares to speak in Cuba faces zero tolerance. People in power can criticize a little, but you can never address the president. I have been working on a Trump project that addresses similar issues, which will be on Google Drive. 

Urinal at the Queens Museum of Art, New York, as part of the Arte Útil Project, 2013-ongoing. Urinal, dimensions variable.

JGC: How do you use your house in Havana for art projects? What is happening there? 

TB: Last year, we were stopped. Usually, if you do things inside your house, you cannot be stopped unless a neighbor complains. I went to present the plans and conditions for the Instituto de Artivismo Hannah Arendt (INSTAR) in Cuba, but the government took away my construction and teaching permits. Now, we are doing things in the street. Because we are being watched, I prefer not to say anything about what will happen in Cuba in the future. 

JGC: You’ve spoken about how your life changed when your parents divorced and you returned to Cuba with your mother. What spurred you to become an “artivist”? 

TB: I did not become an “artivist” at 12 years old. I believed in the propaganda that Cuba had sold to the world. The contrast between what I had heard and what I found when I lived in Cuba sparked my desire to find what truth means—the difference between the narration and the experience.

JGC: What other projects are in the works? 

TB: The idea for my upcoming show at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is not to exhibit but to update past work. If it had continued, what would be its logical continuation, and how would this idea work today in this context? It’s about effectiveness, not nostalgia—how the work can keep its edge—the things that make it necessary. I’ve just been working on a project and performance for “Person of the Crowd: The Contemporary Art of Flanerie,” at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, through May 22. And I’m also working on programming for INSTAR (Instituto de Artivismo Hannah Arendt) in Cuba. 

JGC: In that same Art 21 interview, you said, “As a political artist, I always want my work to have real consequences.” Why is socially engaged art important today? 

TB: If you had asked me this question six months ago, you might have wanted to know the answer. But today, in the Trump era, it’s clear why we need art to be a tool for social change. We can’t let the “right to imagine” be taken away. 

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