In the glare of the afternoon sun and the LED screens of Times Square, an unassuming woman with thick glasses and a rolling wave of gray hair stood on a soapbox and spoke, as another woman held a white dove over her shoulder. “This is not just about Tania Bruguera — this is about all of us! How people with power control us!” Her right hand cut into the air as she spoke, her words rousing — until she abruptly caught herself and stopped. “Oh, I’m speaking English!” she exclaimed, to laughter from the crowd that encircled her. She quickly resumed her speech in Spanish.
The woman was Martha Limia, and the soapbox (a wooden crate) she was standing on had been placed there, fewer than 100 feet from the famous TKTS red steps, by nonprofit art organization Creative Time (they also provided the dove). Limia’s mini speech — no longer than a minute — was one of dozens given in both Spanish and English, all of them part of a tribute to and an act of solidarity with Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, who was arrested in Havana on New Year’s Eve for attempting to stage a public performance in the city’s Plaza de la Revolución.
In the wake of the announcement of thawed relations between the US and Cuba, Bruguera had planned to reprise her piece “Tatlin’s Whisper #6” — which she originally staged at the 2009 Havana Biennial — in a public space in Havana. The performance called for people to step up to a microphone and “peacefully express what ideas they have about their nation and its future.” But authorities arrested Bruguera on her way to the square, and although she was later released (and then rearrested and rereleased), she faces criminal charges brought by the Cuban government. According to a member of Creative Time, her trial is set to begin this week.
Combining the hashtag for the planned Havana performance with the name of the original artwork, this afternoon’s event, “#YoTambienExijo: A Restaging of Tatlin’s Whisper #6,” was spearheaded by Creative Time in New York City, but other groups and organizations in other towns and cities staged their own versions as well. In Times Square, notably, there was no signage for the solidarity seeker — only a thick ring of people huddled around a small soapbox in the midst of the mess of people that is Times Square. Nor was there any sound. Although the original “Tatlin’s Whisper #6” was mic’ed, and the instructions in the Facebook event call for “a human microphone like the ones used in Occupy Wall Street,” the Times Square “#YoTambienExijo” used neither; the first would have required a permit, an impossibility for an event pulled together in such short time, and the second would have required that it last much longer than two hours (or include far fewer speakers). Understandable limitations, both, and yet the lack of sound seemed a profound misstep. Times Square’s car horns, truck engines, tourist talking, and performer pronouncements eclipsed the soapbox statements so firmly, you could hear only if you were standing within the first two or three rings of people. And so I watched countless passersby stop and stare — some going so far as to approach the circle and strain to listen — but when they couldn’t hear anything, they walked away. (“We’re trying to figure it out, but you can’t hear,” one man told me. “I wanted to yell, whaaaaaat?”)
Those in the circle seemed mostly to be affiliated with the art world: artists, curators, museum directors, etc, among them artists Dread Scott and Hans Haacke, curators RoseLee Goldberg and Catherine Morris, and NYC Commissioner of Cultural Affairs (and former Queens Museum director) Tom Finkelpearl. Some offered their own remarks, smart and relevant, sometimes powerful: “Our world is a world of coercive speech,” said artist Malik Gaines; “Standing here in Times Square, we can’t ignore that free speech is tied to economics,” said curator Saisha Grayson. Others read statements written by those who couldn’t attend, such as art critic and historian Cuauhtémoc Medina. A group of people involved with Bruguera’s long-term project in Queens, Immigrant Movement International, attended and took turns speaking ardently in Spanish (“no hablo inglés,” said one). Their large banner, which they folded up and took with them halfway through the event, was the only public-facing indicator that some kind of political action was going on.
Almost no one I spoke to who attended the event seemed bothered by this, or by the lack of amplification. “The documentation of things has more presence than the original these days,” said Creative Time curator Sally Szwed, adding that Tania’s sister, Deborah Bruguera, is planning to use the recording of the event to help Tania’s case. “It’s a symbolic gesture — nobody’s in denial that being here is hypocritical, but I think it’s really important to stand up. It was hard to hear, but that’s because of the law we have here,” said artist Aida Šehović. “It’s more of a central meeting point, a symbolic way of taking up space. It’s much more the dissemination over social media and news. You can’t be bigger here, or you’re going to become a spectacle,” said artist Kerry Downey.
Only the execution of “#YoTambienExijo” solely as a symbolic gesture suggests a failure of imagination. The description of “Tatlin’s Whisper #6” on Bruguera’s website says:
The piece, endowed with an acute political impact, was conceived as an open structure pressing the limits of the institutions in power … The privilege of expression, with limitations, artists have in Cuba is transferred to spectators who enjoy a sort of momentary democracy, almost as a rehearsal of what a plural society tolerating discrepancy as part of a project for civil society would be.
The US is not Cuba, nor is New York City Havana, but are we really to believe that there are no spectators here who could benefit from “a sort of momentary democracy”? The structure of “#YoTambienExijo” was theoretically open, but if you weren’t aware of the event, let alone what it was about — and if you couldn’t hear it and there was no signage — how would you know that you were welcome take your place on the soapbox? Where was the transfer of the “privilege of expression” from artists to spectators?
“It’s fun to have an organized encounter with folks outside instead of being in an art world bubble,” Samantha Garcia, director of marketing and communications for Creative Time, told me after the event had ended. I neglected to point out that we’d been pretty much standing in a real-life art world bubble, albeit a well-intentioned one. The importance of showing solidarity with Tania Bruguera as she confronts the Cuban government cannot be understated; in Times Square, however, an opportunity was missed to express solidarity not only with Bruguera the person, but also with Bruguera the artist.