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How Tania Bruguera’s Free Speech Performance Was Mishandled, and Misreported, in Cuba

Havana's Plaza de la Revolución on the day of Bruguera's performance (photo by Semión Sénderov/Twitter)
Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución on the day of Bruguera’s performance (photo by Semión Sénderov/Twitter)

At 3pm on Tuesday, December 30, Cuban artist Tania Bruguera’s participatory performance “Tatlin’s Whisper #6” was scheduled to take place in the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana. Two weeks after the US reestablished relations with Cuba, Bruguera’s project invited anyone and everyone to step up to an open microphone for one minute of free speech. As she explained in her press release, “The aim is that Cubans peacefully express what ideas they have about their nation and its future, after the re-establishment of relations between Cuba and the United States.” The hashtag for the event was #YoTambiénExijo — “I Also Demand.”

It seemed idealistic to assume she would be able to carry out her project in a country with restrictions on freedom of speech, but maybe that wasn’t the point. Bruguera, who splits her time between Chicago and Havana, is an artist, and having set up the event ahead of time, there was going to be a performance, regardless of what the government planned to do about it.

Selfie taken by Cuban blogger Alejandro Uloa Garcia, who arrived late at the Plaza de la Revolución on the day of the performance (photo courtesy Alejandro Uloa Garcia) (click to enlarge)
Selfie taken by Cuban blogger Alejandro Uloa Garcia, who arrived late at the Plaza de la Revolución on the day of the performance (photo courtesy Alejandro Uloa Garcia) (click to enlarge)

Cuban blogger and journalist Alejandro Uloa Garcia arrived late to the plaza and discovered an empty site. “I just got to the Plaza de la Revolución and nah, nothing happened … piles of journalists … and not even a microphone … Looks like they cleaned it out early,” he posted on Facebook.

In fact, the performance had been suspended by government officials. Bruguera was arrested before arriving at the site, along with 12 other detainees, all of whom “were taken away by police, including the husband of opposition blogger Yoani Sanchez, while several others were told not to leave their homes,” Reuters reported. Released on the afternoon of December 31, the artist immediately called for a press conference at 4pm on the Malecón, an avenue that stretches along the coast of Havana, before the monument to the victims of Maine. Bruguera was arrested a second time on her way there, but was able to record a series of statements on her phone, which her sister, Deborah, released:

“I’m being accused of creating public disturbances with my performance,” Bruguera said. “I disagree with the characterization that government officials made of me in their statement. … They are yet to explain what law prohibits that a citizen organize a cultural event on the streets.”

She added how she got duped by government officials, who didn’t tell her she was arrested until it was too late:

Officials arrived at my residency at 5:30am, and I refused to open the door until 2:30pm. When I agreed to leave with them, I asked for two conditions: that they allow me to call my sister, and that they announce the performance was suspended so that nobody got hurt. They did not respect any of these conditions. Also, they told me I was getting taken to the station “to talk” but later informed me I was detained there.

Bruguera was released again at 8pm on December 31, but according to her sister was arrested a third time the next day, on her way to the Castro regime’s prisoner processing center with a dozen other activists to demand the release of people who remained imprisoned for seeking to participate in #YoTambiénExijo. “I won’t stop until everyone is released,” the artist said. On Friday, January 2, Bruguera was finally released along with several activists and 50 government dissidents, but her passport remains confiscated and she faces charges of “resistance and public disorder.”

Despite being a failed art event, Bruguera’s performance was a successful provocation of authority in Cuba, highlighting the large gap between official discourse and reality. For example, it’s interesting to look at how the Cuban press handled “Tatlin’s Whisper.” The online magazine Progreso Semanal did not consider the event art, writing on December 30, “The ‘artistic’ performance that Tania Brugera planed to realize was one of the first obstacles that the government is to receive after diplomatic relations have been established.” OnCuba Magazine, an outlet that tends to be more critical of the government, published an article on January 2 stating, “Tania’s performance … ended in nothingness after neither her, nor her team showed up in the indicated spot.” Even though the publication did consider her work to be art, the writer did not make explicit that Bruguera’s failure to show up was the result of a government decision to arrest her.

On January 2, Jorge de Armas, director of Cuban Americans for Engagement (CAFÉ), called out, from Miami, Cuban journalists’ irresponsibility in failing to accurately cover the event. On social media, de Armas, who has “known Tania for 20 years,” pointed to the vulnerability of Cuban press outlets and wrote, “I don’t want to, and I resist to think that the [Cuban] press which does the most, is the press that follows a suppressing model of thinking, and assumes that what is not said does not exist.” (I followed up via e-mail, but de Armas was not available to answer my questions.)

Meanwhile, Cuban artist Lázaro A. Saavedra Gonzalez, winner of the 2014 National Fine Arts Award, issued a public statement reflecting on Bruguera’s use of censorship:

Can someone conceive a performance in the name of civil rights, knowing ahead of time that it would be prohibited, and then use censorship in her favor? The answer is positive and Tania just demonstrated it. A long time ago she read Foucault and knows that whoever controls space, can control human conduct. This applies to any space, be it a “public” institution inside the art world or a public space outside the art world.

Flyer for #YoTambiénExijo (courtesy Studio Bruguera) (click to enlarge)
Flyer for #YoTambiénExijo (courtesy Studio Bruguera) (click to enlarge)

Bruguera’s project was art, but it was read as politics (or too political) by official outlets, including artistic ones. Cuba’s National Mixed Media Arts Council denied Bruguera the support she requested for the event, claiming “the action would negatively impact public opinion, in a key time of negotiation between the Cuban government and the government of the United States, in which they seek to reestablish their diplomatic and commercial relations in full.” The Artists and Writers Union of Cuba reproduced a government statement calling her performance a “provocation”: “We are not naive, the meaning of this performance will not be interpreted in any way as a work of art. It is about political provocation.” And Rubén del Valle Lantarón, the president of the National Fine Arts Council in Cuba, said in an interview with Cuban magazine La Jiribilla, “The way things have happened, more than a performance this looks like a reality show.” Lantarón also characterized Bruguera’s performance as “counterrevolutionary.”

After her arrest, however, more than 2,000 artists, curators, art historians, and others from inside and outside Cuba signed a petition to President Raúl Castro asking for Bruguera’s release. “Her detention, and the withdrawal of her Cuban passport, are inappropriate responses to a work of art that simply sought to open space for public discussion,” the petition says.

There is uncertainty about what will happen next; the government could crack down even more or — who knows? — finally allow for free speech. Speaking to Hyperallergic, Dr. Michael Kelly, philosophy professor and author of Hunger for Aesthetics: Enacting the Demands of Art, suggested that “Bruguera’s participatory art event is incomplete because we are not sure what will happen to her and the others who were detained or at least prevented from going to Revolutionary Square to enact ‘Tatlin’s Whisper #6.’”

The 12th Havana Biennial is also scheduled to open in May, and it will be important to see what form it takes (Bruguera has already been warned not to attend). “Bruguera’s action has demonstrated the importance of art in Cuba, so long as artists are willing to stand up for civil rights, either to demand them or to demand the freedom to exercise them,” Kelly said. Will the biennial’s participants continue the debate about free speech in Cuba that’s now begun?

Bruguera’s work often seeks to make art indiscernible from reality. In 2011, she lived for one year in an apartment in Corona, Queens, with five undocumented immigrants in an attempt to highlight their struggles and help shift negative views about Latino immigrant workers. In her Political Art Statement from 2010, Bruguera writes, “Political art is the one transcending the field of art, entering the daily nature of people, an art that makes them think. … Politics is not a service: it is a way to think about the future.”

Despite the censorship, there was a performance in Havana last week. Now it’s our turn to think about and act on it.

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