From: Bruguera, Tania "Taller de Tania Bruguera," Cuadernos de la Cátedra Juan Gris, On the occasion of the Workshop “Arte Util” at Cátedra Juan Gris curated by Fernando Castro. ed. Universidad Complutense de Madrid, May 2010, Madrid, Spain, 2010. pp. 90.
by Tania Bruguera
Tania Bruguera: I would like to thank the invitation extended to me by the Juan Gris Chair and I expect that during this week we may think on how to act socially and on what is the meaning of being an artist.
Calling oneself an artist is a gesture that, more than assuming it, should be constantly put into question, because the function of an artist is also contextual and requires devoting constant attention to the spaces of urgency and to those which are undefined. Only then is the universality “promised” to us or rather “demanded” from us achieved. During this week we will be working inside the spaces of Utopia, we will create still inexistent trades and we will try to sketch them from their practical implementation. The passive nature to which art is traditionally relegated and which has to do with a very specific way of “consumption” suggest Utopia as the shore you never reach. This is something that does not work for political and social art. In these times art, more than walking us down a possible landscape, must bring to us a potential reality through which we walk as authorized pedestr ians. A reality functioning like a portal that must be appropriated by these passers-by and (with the necessary adjustments) turned into a more permanent state. Artists must implement their ideas like a scale model I:I in time and space and behavior. The idea of an artist as an irresponsible being with privileges should not be confused with the idea of artists as free-thinking people and it should always be understood that freedom comes with responsibility and nonconformity should not be mistaken with whim. Artists as beings who depend on those who believe in them should be aware that biting the hand that feeds them or renouncing to the faith deposited in them is a duty, because only then can they be truly free, only then may they make their work as artists instead of being the followers of their own image (that is many times created by others and many times is complacent) and only then those who believe in art may understand the true nature of this trade: that of making people think.
To question the idea of art as an exercise in uselessness is the focus of the workshop this week. When I speak of usefulness I am not only referring to the idea of “service art,” but to the idea of art as a social instrument to make what is legal illegal, to make transferences of privileges, to establish perfectly functional social writings which should be shared with those for whom they are created. This presupposes a commitment with the time invested in the work that may function in a different way, not only on the part of the artists, but also on the part of the spectators, because spectators are no longer inert beings, but active elements endowed with decision power, because the works offer them a system of coexistence they must implement and evaluate.
As to the use of time in the oeuvre, I divide my work into two parts, one I call short term and the other long term. The difference is in the demand on the time of necessary existence of the project for it to articulate and function socially. Short term works have more to do with the structure of the world of art and they dialogue with it in what has to do with the use of images. They may be seen as exercises in the effectiveness of the image for the spectators and I will later use them in my long term works. Long term works suggest an insertion in social everydayness which not only should be camouflaged as to their adaptation to the environment and the parallel acknowledgement of the structure created with their referent, but that needs time to understand the mechanisms activating social structures with the purpose of being able to intervene in them. It is important that artists understand that these interventions are ephemeral and replaceable by others and it is there that the ego of artists working political and social art should be educated.
I made a selection of works to share. I would like to begin presenting a long term work I made during ten years and it was a tribute to Ana Mendieta. One of the reasons why I want to talk about this work today is that it was made when I was still a student and that it is a work in which the ideas I have continued to deal with in my more recent works can be perceived.
As Fernando said, the figure of Ana Mendieta has been of great importance for Cuban art, but when I began to make this work months after her death, this influence was not as defined and much less disseminated. Many times I use art as an instrument for ends alien to itself. In this case, my interest was to try to use art to reinsert in the cultural level a type of figure that was politically not allowed at the time: the émigré. And even more, of a person that had specifically migrated to the United States. In the Cuban context, saying that what is individual is political could be translated as what is political is individual.
There are various aspects of importance in this work that would define my later practice:
-First, the way to access what is political from the emotional space:
Mendieta was an accessible figure. She frequently traveled to Cuba and was the friend of persons who were close to me, among them Gerardo Mosquera, and I would probably have met her in her next trip. The impact of her death left me only her work as a way, as a meeting place. This type of replacement, in which the work openly, with no apologies, supplants other needs and the idea of establishing a contact through art, of replacing an absence, is something I worked on in my future pieces.
--Secondly, the awareness that my education and the place where I was developing as an artist, Cuba, left me no other option than being a political artist because in that context even doing abstract art is political, not only because it is a renegade art challenging the function given to art in socialist countries, but because, according to Cuban authorities, it was established with documentary evidence that abstract art was a movement “created” and funded by the U. S. government and implemented with the help of the CIA to counteract the art from the Soviet Union and present a generation of successful artists with a proposal that may popularize and disarticulate the collectivist endeavors of the socialist camp. Years later, after thinking that all this was paranoia of the system, I read an article in ArtNews where a very similar theory was supported.
--The third thing that has especially influenced me after I made this work is considering performances not as something developing in the body, but in the gesture. They are therefore something immediately relevant, contextual and necessarily ephemeral in their political effectiveness, although not in their existence as icons.
-The acknowledgement that some ideas require a period of time that has more to do with social time than with time in the world of art and that this time must be respected for the piece to function. The project in Ana Mendieta took me ten years because it was the time I needed to promote it and make it present and complete in the reality of our culture. When two young history of art students came wanting to make a graduation thesis on Ana Mendieta was the moment I decided I could put an end to that work.
And, lastly, that what interests me the most is the area lacking definition in art, the space from which what is art is redefined and reformulated. An area where it is difficult for spectators to discern what is it that is artistic while they are “living” it. Because I believe this should be an a posteriori condition, acquired when gestures are made, when the audience has used it as an intellectual device to question their reality. I do not believe that things are art because artists decide them to be, but because spectators use them to understand and change the way they think about things. I do not think that pleasure for the sake of pleasure is part of the artistic condition and either is the unease of pure evasion because art is also an ideological construction and an educational experience.
I am not interested in people understanding that what I do is art. As a matter of fact, in my latest works I try to delay this information as much as possible, not announcing my work until after it is experienced so as to be able to stop the flow of presuppositions existing around art, so the audience in general does not judge it and can dive into the experience.
When making these long term pieces, the immediate satisfaction one can have in a short term piece does not exist, because the elements used are generally alien to artistic production and in many cases require a process of self-education which is rather difficult and at times dense, because considerations for the effectiveness of the piece answer in a first moment to different parameters, not artistic, and to other audiences which will not always give us “the benefit of doubt.” While making this type of work, short term pieces function as visualization exercises which are implemented or which dialogue with the long term piece. At times they also function like a breathing space.
In those ten years I also made other pieces as this one, for example, a newspaper. I created a publication for which I invited various artists and intellectuals, generally from the world of visual arts, to rethink the situation in which art was in Cuba after the ‘90s, after the massive migration of artists who had belonged to what received the name of “The Generation of the ‘80s.”
You see a list in this image. It is the list of artists who were not in Cuba when the presentation was made. The list shows them as “working abroad,” a term the Government gave people authorized to live out of the country instead of using the concept of émigrés, thus making physical displacement natural and not necessarily identifying it with ideological displacement. Making a list is also a political gesture if we take into account the process through which all references to a person who up to then had been part of a culture suddenly disappeared. The person became a collective anonymous indistinguishable in short term memory.
Memoria de Postguerra (Postwar Memory), the title of this work with its first edition in 1993 and a second in 1994, is very important for me because its strategy was not to representing the elements of power, but appropriating them, in this case appropriating the written press which is absolutely the property and the right of the state. And this is how political art should be understood: in its context. You cannot expect political art to detonate with the same intensity in every context or extend through the same affective or intellectual channels and much less for it to be as necessary, or even have the right to exist, in every context. This piece was somewhat ironical, at a moment in which in Cuba there was the beginning of an attempt to “play” with proto-capitalism and suddenly you could buy everything with money and we were involved in a process of “rectification of mistakes.” I was interested in taking this to its limits, to try to find where the ideological limits of this new confuse reality were. This became evident rather quickly, not only directly with me through the official reaction to this piece, which they did not want to acknowledge as a piece, but with the blurring of the role of the new wave of changes in Eastern European countries.
In my work, I try to talk about things from within their structures. By creating a process of identification that does not have to do so much with the process of winning and receiving the “authority” to talk about the topic, but which makes use of the concept of self-criticism, an institutional self-criticism. A self-criticism in which we are all implied. Not artists pointing out the institution but artists acknowledging they are part of the institution and speak its same language.
Of course, when you enter into this kind of work, you feel that the power, the institution, may strip you from your institutional rights and put an end to the process.
In this case, I received a rather heavy censure. And what I did after I consider a mistake in my career. This is something I want to be understood: you can also say you were wrong and that part of the research went a way that was not the better one. This is the work that is an example of that mistake. It is my best known work up to now and it shows all the elements that make me say that it was a time of mistake.
After the “newspaper” was closed, all this research I was doing standing on that boundary of lack of definition of the concept of art that was the point from which I was interested in functioning in a direct way within the (political) structures of society with an artistic awareness, with an awareness of the control of the meanings of actions, but using an entirely real morphology, changed. The piece became more symbolic. Intervention was not the way it now existed. Ideas were expressed through forms that were easily recognizable as performances.
For me, the problem with this type of work is that space, the transition between its existence as experience and as a potential commodity, is shorter and is more traveled. It almost seems an unavoidable misfortune. As an artist trained in a socialist society, what interests me the most is to make useful art, to be a socially useful artist.
Besides, at that time I was very interested in my work surviving as the rumor it created and not through an image which would be a set result. I knew that a live work could not be permanent. It was necessary to think in what medium would it be transformed and I chose oral narration and not visual narration. I was interested not only in putting the role of rumor on the same level in the construction of its history, but also rumor as the element used by the people in controlled societies to create a society of their own, a reality rebelling against the body of knowledge imposed on them (something that is constant, evident and known as “Radio Bemba,”1 that is, something transmitted from mouth to mouth and generally believed more than what comes from the media). Rumors have a much wider wavelength than an image and are in a constant process of transformation, while images are intended as a process of reproduction. I thought rumors might function as more “alive” elements than images since more elements might be integrated into them and, therefore, are closer to what I am looking for with the experience of the work I am doing. I had deliberately moved away from painting, sculpture and even photography because I did not feel that through this means I could establish a direct communication with the audience and I was not interested in doing all that for it to remain as an image in those other media I had rejected. Performance is just an image if it is not accompanied by a text. It remains as a journalistic document: where was it made, when, who was there, what happened, but never what were people feeling, apart from the reaction of some faces. The way the experience was felt cannot be reproduced, while oral narration can navigate in the emotional memory and be understood in a different level.
The importance that documentation suddenly started to acquire – something I had not been interested in until then – is a problem with these pieces. In all the former cases it is interesting, for example, that the “documentation” were the discussions on “the newspaper” in meetings of the Cuban Communist Party in several workplaces. For me, this was the highest fulfillment of my work, having it enter into other – non-artistic – sectors and having it analyzed, making people think and perhaps, have an influence on these sectors. It might have been mere chance, but after the “scandal” this piece created some periodicals for visual arts were started in Cuba. Arte Cubano has survived and if, by any chance, my piece contributed to that to some extent, I believe this is more important than having a beautiful picture and is a better way to exist after having existed.
This piece, like that of Ana Mendieta and that of the newspaper, is like a social excavation in which I retook former stories and relocated them. In this case, the place was our country and the story was that of the Cuban Indians who died in collective suicides under the Spanish oppression.
Since at the time I had not yet solved the problem of documentation, I tried to see if I could do it through the exhibition of the stronger element in the piece. This was “Uniformes” (Uniforms).
Another problem with documentation was that the associations created are visual and therefore, taken from art history, image files and, at times, the work is construed through a pseudo-morphism which rather answers the need of (proficient) spectators not to feel alienated instead of what the work pretended. Therefore, relationships are established from visualization and not from intention. So I decided I would not focus more on experience than on the visualization it gives rise to. I could make pieces which would not be reflected as images or I would not have them replying to experience, with which this distance would make evident the need of finding a meaning within the space which images did not provide.
An example of a work in which I entirely did away with visual elements in a physical sense was Sin título (Untitled – Havana, 2000). People entered a tunnel 50 meter long, 12 meter wide and 4 meter high in an old prison for prisoners of conscience who has been there from the times of the Spaniards to the Cuban revolution, a tunnel that was completely dark and you couldn’t see anything. Those entering it were compelled to “see” with senses other than sight. The visual element that was first seen was a trap. A conceptual trompe d’oeil, an element that seemed to be “the work,” but was the hook to access the experience of the work. The video was a rapidly recognizable element, the performance was something that was seen in the best of cases when eyes got used to darkness, to not seeing.
In the world of art people normally are not too patient. Therefore, the video with Fidel’s image was only five minutes long, but after only two or three minutes people said: “Enough, I already ‘saw’ the work”. But when they turned around to leave the place with their eyes more used to darkness, they saw things that at first they had not seen. Also, the light from outside came in and, little by little, they saw the silhouettes of four naked men who seemed to be taking care of the video. For me it was important to make this piece in a context as that of the Havana Biennial where so many foreigners came to “see” the Cuban Revolution, to see Fidel, to see a preconceived history.
I am not interested in making paternalistic works from a visual point of view. That is, not all those entering into a piece have the same experience or the same access to information. I consider it good that not all of them leave with the same “image.”
My work has always been contextual and, in this sense, it is ephemeral. It is ephemeral because, since it is political, it is a concrete answer to a specific and ephemeral moment. All political art is ephemeral. This is something I have learned in Cuba because what today is a Law tomorrow is revoked and because people and society are in constant change.
This Sin título (name of the place and year) series started with this piece in Havana; then came those in Kassel and Moscow and now I am seeing how I do it in Colombia and Palestine. They are different pieces, but all of them have to do with what is seen and what is not seen as a metaphor of what we know and what we don’t know. They all are related with a specific media: that in Havana with videos, which are part of a performance; that of Kassel with sound, actually generated by a live action. In Moscow it had to do with photography, part of a moment of discovery through an action. All of them have this moment of “discovery,” in which one thing is a different one or when we thought we already knew, a new element appears. It is a series where I try to play with the preconceived political imaginary of some geographical places, of some histories.
Political pieces can also be worked with historical documents as a basis, but they are political when they have to do with the present moment, when they contextualize historical data in the present. In the case of Sin título (Kassel, 2002), I was interested in the idea of individual responsibility in the moment things take place, not afterwards, when everybody understands and agree on what the “correct” action should have been.
When I left after making this work in Documenta, was rather frustrated because I noticed that the audience there did not have much time to undergo an experience, not much time to think. There were more than a hundred works in two days. I faced the reality that this work was not going to change a political opinion and would give rise to anything but a memory. There would be no change in thinking.
Then I returned to Cuba and decided that I would go back a little in my work and retake this idea of making long term works and try to go back to what is directly social in the most direct meaning of the word. I was once more going to appropriate the resources of power as materials for my work and forget a little about all artistic resources.
Also, something was happening in Cuba. An unbelievable number of Americans came to the 2000 Biennial and suddenly it became a sort of high quality bazaar where everything was ready to be sold to cultural tourists. Artists began to see the Biennial as a commercial opportunity and they prepared for it. I was interested in making a comment on this, but I could see that to be able to do it the conversation, the dialogue on the function of art, had to be with young people who were still training. That was how the Cátedra de Arte de Conducta (Behavior Art Chair) emerged. It is a space to discuss art in its relationship with politics and society. It is a project that focuses behavior as work material par excellence for social art, because this is the language society uses.
As in the case of “the newspaper,” the field it entered was quickly understood. To call the piece “chair” had the function of identifying the project as something having to do with education, a piece as a pedagogical project.
The structure of this work includes all the possible elements which form part of the problems of performances, whether legal, sociological, narrative, theatrical and other points of view. I used political art criteria when choosing the artists who would offer the workshops, including those who came from the former socialist countries with which we could share the experiences of transition and of the way this affected the production of social art. But it is also a program based in the needs created by discussions and the works that stem from them. For instance, we had a moment in which many were working with people on the streets and there was much discussion about what belonged to me and what to them. There was a constant debate on where the ethic limit was, what was using, what was collaborating, what was working with and then we brought a lawyer to talk to us about copyright and ethics from that point of view. The idea of the Chair is that this new generation may open to its own needs, its own language, without the pressures of the art market.
This is an example of a piece by Ana Olema on the pioneer organization. In this work she appropriates all the mechanisms and even the jargon of the methodologists of the Cuban Ministry of Education to explain a project through which pioneers will be better revolutionaries and not forget to wear the pioneer emblem because they will have it tattooed on them. This project was discussed in the Chair and Ana Olema submitted its most perfected version in an actual pedagogical meeting.
One of the most important things in the Chair is how to use and work within reality and try to make the work from there. An example is this work by Amaury Pacheco.
While making this piece of the Chair I know I cannot make my own work in Cuba because, on the one hand, I want this gesture to be visible and, on the other, as my work is political, I have to be sure that what I do does not harm the kids in the Chair.
As part of my rejection of works that form part of the period I considered was wrong, I stopped using my body in the pieces to avoid superficial views of a supposed feminism in my work. In 2004 I used my body again. This time it was a series called Vigilantes, El Sueño de la Razón (Vigilantes, the Dream of Reason). What interested me in the word “vigilante” was its double condition in Spanish and English. Although its spelling in the same in both languages, their meaning is very different, it can even be said that they are opposite.
This is a piece I made in planes; I lived in Canada for two months and took a plane every week and came and went to the United States. Every time I was in the plane I made a piece. I was interested in the political charge planes had acquired in the American context after 9-11 and was also interested in working with an insecure public that was not specialized in art and had no idea they were going to see an expression of this type. Because, after all, we make all these social works and at the end of the day those who see them are four friends who are artists, a pal that is a critic and a photographer who comes and takes your picture and many times this is done within the framework of an art event. I was interested in seeing what the reaction of a non informed audience would be, on what a thing like this would mean for an audience not trained to define it as art.
It was also an experiment on documentation, because I asked the person sitting next to me, no matter who they were, to document me. I was interested in losing the control on this. I gave them no instructions. More than my view, I was interested in having a direct view of the spectators while they were discovering. I was interested in their approach to or alienation from the event. It was interesting to see how long their attention would last.
This is a piece Fernando referred to. It is part of a series I am making under the title of El Susurro de Tatlin (Tatlin’s Whisper). What we did that night was to show, with information downed from Internet, the instructions to make a Molotov cocktail. I find it funny people walking down the streets with their Molotov cocktails.
I thought: “They’re going to stop someone down the street” and wondered what the police would say when the answer to “‘What are you doing with that?” would be “Well, it’s art.”
Performances were sold in this exhibition and the various possible protocols were shown.
Another work was the auction of a piece that did not yet exist: an investment in the near future that was acquired by IVAM.
This piece is called Trust Workshop. It is a year long project in which a space is created where a former KGB agent uses all the knowledge he acquired to manipulate people emotionally so as to get information and protect the state, thus creating a generalized paranoia to reestablish to those citizens a feeling of trusting others.
On what I said a while ago about visualization, in this piece an ethic problem on documentation emerges, so I created an event to mark the beginning of the piece: it could be seen from a hole in the door or people could come in and participate. Both views were different. From outside it was not easily understood. It looked like people negotiating. When you came in – you could only come in with your family or with friends – you saw that there were three young Russians with some animals: three monkeys and two eagles and they told you to pick the animal or animals with which you wanted to have your picture taken as if it were a family portrait. For me, of course, choosing the monkey or the eagle had very different meanings, especially as you can see in the picture of one of the small monkeys who was wearing McDonald’s uniforms. The picture was then printed and you received it immediately. What those in the picture discovered was that the in the background there was an image of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the creator of the KGB.
I recently made a version in the United States. The difference was that there was no choosing. There was only an eagle and the picture in the background was what changed constantly. When you received the picture, inserted in a postcard, you could read inside all the historical data of the important figure in the background. The information was the name, number of years in power, name of the country of which he was the president and a description or data on the way he took power with the support of the CIA or of the U. S. government. At a given moment, some of those who had already left began to exchange postcards, to read about the other dictators and to ask each other: “Who is your dictator?” “Let me read what that one did…”
I am interested in trying various ways to disseminate knowledge through the piece without turning it into a purely didactic act.
This is the last work and it is the first time I show it in public. I made it only ten days ago. It is part of the series Tatlin’s Whisper.
In this case I worked with two mounted policemen and I asked them to use all the anti-riot techniques they had learned with the people in the exhibition. It is a work that, as others in this series, is based on mass media images with which we have no direct contact or personal experience.
Well, this is my presentation. If there are any questions…
Student: I wanted to ask about the piece you exhibited at the Juana de Aizpuru Gallery. There were comments on the great difference it had with the things you had done before with that work and that, in a given sense, it could be somewhat anachronistic with what you had done before. There were several different opinions on the path you are following with your actions. How do you see these comments?
Tania Bruguera: Well, I didn’t hear those comments on the exhibition. That’s the problem in the world of art: nobody tells you anything… but I believe it is quite the opposite, that there is a return to my original works, to my original research where I questioned what art was, what performance was, what politics were. I’ll be honest: I could have continued doing those performances forever and I would be doing much better than I am in my career, because I know there are people that when they reach a level of complacency with the works they love the artists who do them and love that they understand what the work is, but… I do not do works for people to want them. I do works to try to create a moment in which people think. I, as an artist, must be honest with my own process and the requirements of my research. I felt work was becoming too easy and needed to enter into quicksand.
It was difficult to make the transition, because many curators invited me on the basis of the works they already knew and I offered them things that were new to me and I did not know if they would develop well or not. There was a given level of risk, but curators were not looking for the insecurity of trying to do something good without knowing what results it would have.
For example, I am working with an excellent curator who told me: “Let’s do a new work.” “Yes, yes, I am making long term pieces. I am making a political party with immigrants and I would like to do…“ “Oh, yes, yes! But on the opening day, what performance will you do?” “No, what I’ll do is a work in process.” He was interested in what was going to be ‘seen’ on the inauguration day. This is also dangerous with performances. Many times they are seen as entertainment, perhaps rather strong, but entertainment. Also, institutions adapt very slowly to the new ways of production of artists and try to “fit” in exhibitions actions that perhaps require a different format to be experienced. They do this instead of looking for other methods, other ways to approach these practices, ways emerging from the very requirements of the piece.
But I don’t know what specific aspect you mentioned. If you say can expound on it, I may…
Student: I think that from the answer you have given it is understandable that one has expectations on what one knows, that one normally knows with a time cadence that makes spectators have a different idea.
TB: It is interesting that the best known work is the most iconic, the easiest to reproduce in an iconic level. Not too long ago it was in Art Now… I sent about seven images. They asked for three and I sent seven. None of them was this one. I asked them: “Please, not the image of the lamb.” I called it that way just in case they did not know its title. I didn’t send it. I told them and I don’t know how at the end they found it who knows where and used it… Artists must be very aware of how they promote their work. I was not interested in that for a while and I think, to a given point, I have been a victim of this unconcern, because there is also an element of convenience in that, but it may give the impression that this is the only piece you have. I am trying to make the images I present, although they may give some access to the event, not let you know everything… to leave you without a clear understanding of what the image is or what is happening, to have some information lacking.
Estudiante: Well, I will make another question. I wanted to ask about the spectators in your recent presentations. You kind of incite spectators to act and to make their own activities. You find that spectators themselves, just as you are saying that performances have other – well, let’s leave performances behind – that the work you are doing has a different generation and other generations of spectators result too. It could be seen as an evolution in the perception of these works.
TB: Well, the first thing is that I call it Arte de Conducta (Behavior Art) and not performance, because first of all, performance is an English word, so it does not belong to my history. We can say its tradition does not belong to me. I arrived at this conclusion after doing my master in the United States when I saw the debates that were being held had no meaning for me. First I call it Arte de Conducta because I am interested in the idea of behavior and conduct as a work material. This is what I am working with and is something everyone brings with themselves and everyone understands because that is how they communicate every day. We are all experts in behavior. At times the material I work with is a group of persons discussing in a space.
In the last piece that was shown, the one with policemen, my work material was the historical and political memory for that public facing an image you see on TV, from which you keep a distance, but actually seeing it… those horses with real policemen approaching you and you having to move… well, for me that is the material with which work and seeing how this audience… and it is not the age of the audience or it being a new audience or not, but an audience I submit to a transformation process from “public” into “citizen.” And at times, as in this case, it is not announced as a piece and this makes the audience for a moment think they are into a real situation and must react as they would in a real situation and, when seeing it is not real, they may rethink their reaction and there is where I consider my work is to be found. People are suddenly seeing other things and these policemen arrive… That is what I am interested in: the conflict. Someone said some weeks ago… there has been something with a bomb… for me, it is counting with this political memory of the audience and reactivating so as to analyze it again because at times our political memories are appropriated in a passive way and without being questioned.
1 (Radio Bemba) A mouth with thick lips is pejoratively called “bemba” in Cuba.