In 1994, during some of the darkest days of the so-called Special Period in Time of Peace in Cuba , Sandra Ceballos established an art space in her home in Havana. Ever since, Espacio Aglutinador has been dedicated to showing inventive, challenging work free of the strictures of the official cultural apparatus. Ceballos is an accomplished artist in her own right, and her discursively engaged, performative works have for years grappled with the terms and contours of contemporary life in Cuba. (In a famous 1999 performance, “Forever,” Ceballos copied every word of a speech by Fidel Castro as she listened to it on headphones, writing new lines across existing lines when she reached the end of each page so that by the time the speech was complete the words had become indecipherable.) Now, after more than two decades, Aglutinador is working with longtime collaborator Coco Fusco to expand the gallery’s work into a series of workshops and programs intended to expose more people to Cuba’s unofficial art scenes. Absent institutional support or other resources, the two have launched a GoFundMe campaign intended to enable them to take on more of this new facet of programming and reach bigger audiences, broadening and formalizing their ever-expanding dialogues with the international community amid resurgent interest in Cuban art and culture.
To understand why Espacio Aglutinador is such an essential and unique force in the cultural ecosystem, it’s important to be aware of its context: Cuba’s art schools, like the entire cultural apparatus, are controlled by the government and have been for decades. The free training is rigorous and sophisticated — but of course nothing is really free. In order to be accepted and succeed in having an officially sanctioned career, artists must abide, in their work and personal conduct, by the Byzantine codes, requirements, goals, and whims of the official culture. Put another way: almost every art space in Cuba — from schools to museums to galleries — is operated and controlled by the regime. The artists and the works shown must adhere to the regime’s program. As Coco Fusco put it in her book Dangerous Moves: Politics and Performance in Cuba (2015): “The arts in Cuba are supposed to represent the success of a revolutionary social experiment. They are supposed to be proof of the effectiveness of free art education, and evidence of the liberalism of a state that produces world-class creators despite the persistence of underdevelopment.” Within this political culture, the space of acceptability for artists and artworks — not only those explicitly critical of the regime, or critical in the oblique ways Cubans have learned to express ambivalence, but also those whose concerns are utterly outside the scope of officially sanctioned modes of expression — becomes extremely narrow.
Aglutinador is thus a kind of air bubble in what can be a suffocating environment. Now the longest-running (and one of very few) independent art spaces in Cuba, Ceballos intended it to show work outside of the official culture, as a generative space to think about, talk about, and show artwork. More, it was established to show work by artists on and off the island, younger artists needing a more flexible space in which to experiment, exiles, and even established artists. As Fusco replied, when I mentioned the density of highly trained artists in Cuba, “But it’s not just kids from the art schools. It’s about showing anybody, no matter whether they were in or out of favor with the government, or whether they were censored or not.” Juan Sí Gonzalez, an interdisciplinary artist whose transgressive, incisive performances have not endeared him to the government, and who has lived in the United States since 1993, had his first show in Havana in years at Aglutinador. The space has hosted international artists as well, including Santiago Sierra, William Cordova, and Leslie Hewitt.
Now, with increased international interest from art schools, critics, curators, and researchers, Fusco is joining with Ceballos to expand Aglutinador’s program into what they call a “laboratory for art and ideas in Cuba.” In a series of educational workshops aimed at artists, arts professionals, students, and researchers from around the world, Aglutinador will attempt to offer an alternative experience of the Cuban art world, to shed light on and foster discourse around the diverse and dynamic art scenes that exist beyond the official culture to which most tourists or visitors would be limited. In this sense, it continues to offer a counterpoint not only to governmental interference, but also to the burgeoning commercial structures emerging as global interest in Cuban art creates and imposes multiple markets with varying goals and motives. Its role as a space for experience and experimentation beyond the officially sanctioned may, in this way, extend beyond the artists themselves, making the broader contours of Cuban art worlds less opaque and its contemporary situation more legible.