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Tania Bruguera: 'We are engaged in a symbolic/psychological war' in Cuba

'It's a very dangerous time' for the life of Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, the artist states in this interview, in which she talks about INSTAR, her 'artivism,' and her vision of Cuban civil society.

Tania Bruguera.
Tania Bruguera.

With the Hannah Arendt Institute of Artivism (INSTAR), the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera has taken her artistic practice a step further by endowing other creators and civil society groups with tools, and providing support to alternative projects outside the official circuit in Cuba.

On the occasion of the 6th anniversary of the independent project, I interviewed the INSTAR team in a series of online talks on the institute's Facebook page. In the last one, I spoke with Bruguera herself about INSTAR's main challenges and principles, as well as her vision of political art and activism.

"INSTAR was inspired by an interrogation I underwent, with Kenya," Bruguera confessed, alluding to the State Security agent, well known among activists involved in art.

In response to her work El Susurro de Tatlin, Bruguera was interrogated on several occasions. The artist related how she ended up explaining to the agents the difference between theater and performance: "It was like an Art History lesson that I gave her (Kenya) in the middle of the interrogation." This experience led her to understood that knowledge is "a way to counteract hatred" and "violence."

"Because hatred and violence often come from a place of ignorance and a lack of resources. Later I realized that I maybe it didn't really help her; I don't think so. But I came out of there saying: 'I have to do this in a more systematic way,'" she said.

INSTAR is "a project that I also needed, as a human being," the creator acknowledged. The project "came about during a frictional relationship with the Government. They were upset by us calling it an 'institute', for appropriating the idea by creating a parallel institutionality and institutions."

Bruguera said that, in addition, this point is part of her artistic practice: "creating parallel institutions, not to criticize those that exist, but to provide a constructive example of what we desire.

"The best thing that can happen to a social project that I work on is that there no longer be any need for it, as this means that what originated it has changed, that the reason why the project had to be created no longer exists."

Another key aspect of INSTAR's work is its spirit of "support and fellowship" with other groups and independent projects. "I’m very aware of my privilege," said Bruguera, as during her artistic career she traveled a path on which she worked with Cuban cultural institutions and became an artist recognized by the government, with works in the collection of the National Museum of Fine Arts.

But her approach to activism and her art, increasingly critical of the system, distanced her from official institutions. In 2015 she returned her Distinction for National Culture and resigned from the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC).

"The challenge is also not to succumb to Cuban Government's toxic, tedious, abusive and cyclical dynamics of repression," said the artivist, who confessed that her team, on more than one occasion, has had to ponder whether to make public aggressions they have suffered.

"At INSTAR they put acid under the door and the windows. They locked it up so that we could not get in. They have constantly cut off our Internet, and we have had police outside surrounding the place. We have suffered a smear campaign, and people from our team have been interrogated by State Security several times. We have a very specific challenge, which is this constant aggression, and part of our challenge is how to respond with clear minds and in a fresh way, without becoming intoxicated with all that ideological acid that they subject us to, in the mental sense ... And they’re always trying to sabotage projects,” she explained.

"INSTAR's greatest attribute —and this is something for which I personally fight every day— is that, no matter what is going on in Cuba, no matter what is happening on other projects, or with ourselves, INSTAR has to continue, it cannot stop. Because the day that INSTAR stops, they will have won."

Another important aspect for Bruguera is its self-financing model, through donations. "We had 936 people who donated, everything from one dollar to 3,000…" Bruguera also asked institutions that had to pay her fees for exhibitions, to give donations to INSTAR on her behalf. The origins of the donations are detailed on the project website, in an exercise of transparency that is unprecedented in Cuban society.

"We can pay fair wages, and we have been able to economically empower people to whom all the doors allowing them to live from their work had been closed."

The loneliness of the artivist

"Sometimes you have to distance yourself from people you love, to protect them," confessed Bruguera, whose  political position has affected her relationships with friends and family: "Family and partners are something that they (the political police ) affect a lot."

Loneliness also manifests itself at the professional level. "I remember in 2014, when I did 'El Susurro de Tatlin', which was an appeal to Cubans to turn out at the Plaza and share their vision of the Cuba they wanted to see, at that time more than 80 people were arrested. Many of my fellow artists decided not to support it. Many said that they didn't know what they were talking about when someone asked them about it," recalled Bruguera, who, despite this, did not publicly criticize the lack of solidarity she suffered at that time.

"If I'm fighting for freedom of expression, I cannot condemn a person just because we disagree," she explained. "It's their right to think as they do. Do I believe that they're wrong? Yes, I do. Does it hurt me that they don't support me? Yes, it does. And yes, that is an achievement by the Government. But I can't force anyone to do what they don't want to do."

From art to activism

When we talk about political art in Cuba, Tania Bruguera's name immediately comes to mind. But the Cuban artist is heir to an artistic tradition that in the 80's opted for this artistic discourse. "There's a group of artists who came before me who have not yet been assigned their place in the history of Cuban art: the artists of the 80s, who inspired me to be the artist that I am today. The actions, the performances that they did at the institutions, Arte-Calle, Glexis Novoa, Ángel Delgado, Sandra Ceballos herself.

There is a very strong generation of people who marked a turning point in Cuban art, and they have not been appreciated as they should have, in their sphere. I think you have to be fair."

Although the political arena has been an essential component in Bruguera's work, she took a step further when she came into contact with activists in the United States. There she learned strategies to speak to power. "Can art change reality, society?" was one of the questions she asked herself, which led her to approach her artistic creation in another way: "For me it was no longer enough to condemn. Rather, it was about creating systems of change."

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, the enthusiastic student

Before INSTAR, Tania Bruguera led workshops on projects such as the Cátedra de Arte de Conducta (Behavior Art School). At INSTAR the creator has continued and strengthened her pedagogical work Among the artists who has studied the most at INSTAR is the independent artist and coordinator of the MSI Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara: "He went to all the workshops, from the beginning. He was always very enthusiastic about INSTAR. He and Yanelis Nuñez grasped very well what INSTAR was about from the beginning. They're very smart people."

"Art is not only about producing an object. It’s also about creating a gesture that breaks with a narrative … so you can communicate something that makes people think, and I believe that is what he’s doing at this time," she said in defense of Otero Alcántara's artivism.

"We're engaged in a symbolic/psychological war, and it's a very dangerous time for Luis Manuel's life. It's a time when, no matter what you think of him as a human being, or as an activist or an artist, there are things that cannot be allowed, based on human principles, ethical principles ... to be able to look at yourself tomorrow," Bruguera declared.

Fortunately for Otero Alcántara, Bruguera went on, "we're no longer in 2014. Artists feel a certain responsibility with respect to others, and they know that their voices are being heard ... People are beginning to understand that they have to use their privileges so that other people can survive. It's the perfect time for all of us to come together and tell the government that we're not going to allow any more abuse," she stressed.

The search for 'common ground' to build a better country

"I’m on the Left. I define myself as someone who is interested in fighting against social injustice, and I believe that governments should not be realms of privilege for a few, but rather ones where we can all exert an influence," she said. "It is very difficult for left-wing groups in the world to understand and support you," she said, since "the Cuban government has been weaving a narrative for more than 60 years" that is accompanied by "strong economic" support for those left-wing groups. "There are other loyalties," she observed.

Although her political positioning brings with it harassment by the regime and exclusion from cultural life on the Island, Bruguera has been a role model and an inspiration for other artists to decide to come out of the ideological closet. "For me this is a time of great happiness, as an activist, because I used to be so alone, and now I'm seeing a lot of solidarity. I don't mean that the alliances are not complex, that there aren't times when we argue, but this is a very special time, because I’m seeing the Cuba that I want. It's not in power, it is not the  majority, we do not have in our hands the tools to create laws that support these behaviors, but that Cuba already exists," she said, referring to the burgeoning civil society groups, such as 27N.

"I don't agree with banning any political party. I am for creating a state of rights that naturally prevents these things from flourishing." We have to "break the cycle of violence and of emotional and political abuse that exists. Eliminate the political hatred that we have been subjected to for so long."

It's not an easy road. (…) There will undoubtedly be people who will have to pay, but we cannot embrace an attitude of revenge," she said, pointing out that most Cubans have a relative involved in the structures created by the Revolution: "You're not going to kill your cousin. You have to make him understand why what he did was wrong."

"It's going to be a difficult process, but in 27N we're doing things of this kind, (...) We have always managed to find a point on which we all agree (...) This common ground that we all have to find has to be one to build on. Because for 60 years we have been subjected to a process of destruction."

Asked what remains to be done, Bruguera confessed that she would like to be part of the team that drafts a new constitution for Cuba: "I would love to advance a bill against hatred and political violence."

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