To Boycott or To Dialogue? False Choices

May 6, 2015

The idea that there can be a dialogue with the Cuban authorities seems naively optimistic. How is a dialogue going to be opened up with authorities who have either directly or indirectly censored artists for thirty years or more?

When I started working on a story for The Art Newspaper about the censorship and self-censorship of artists in the context of the Havana Biennial, it was impossible to get its director or any of the Biennial’s curators to comment. After my emails and calls went unanswered, I went to Cuba to interview Tania Bruguera and other artists there. I showed up at the Wifredo Lam Center in Havana only to be pushed around from office to office, with nobody willing to talk to me on the matter, and eventually shrugging off the whole question on the grounds that they were "too busy". The Biennial curatorial team is, understandably, running with a "show must go on" bottom line, and dialogue on this issue is either too risky or not a priority. There are a sufficient number of artists, curators, and collectors willing to turn the blind eye, and any authority above the LAM is going to be a direct party official who will have no qualms in defending their tactics in the name of “the revolution”.

It might only be possible to open up a dialogue when there is pressure of a boycott. But concrete initiatives to boycott the Havana Biennial in any significant way have yet to emerge. Twitter and Facebook calls to boycott are insufficient. If there is to be a boycott, go big or go home. Make a boycott a real, powerful response to the situation of artists like Tania Bruguera. Get all those patrons from the Met and MoMA who go down to Havana every week to visit artist studios to stop going. Get all the big name artists on the list—Anish Kapoor, Daniel Buren, Tino Seghal, etc.—to pull their works. Discredit the event for its false claims of decentralization, collaboration and social inclusion. The romantic idea that the current Havana Biennial is even a shadow of the “historic site of resistance” it once was should be dispelled. In an interview I conducted with Gerardo Mosquera for The Art Newspaper he told me: “The biennial fulfilled its historical mission, but it could not renew itself because it could not overcome the country’s own destiny.”

The only realistic alternative option is to show up and give critical support with an awareness that the Havana Biennial cannot be changed from the outside and it cannot be changed unless conditions change in Cuba. The dialogue needs to happen in Cuba, but despite the vibrant intellectual culture among artists in Cuba, they understand well the limits of their freedom to dissent. Cuban artists have understandably been unable to show support for Bruguera, and have even been critical on many occasions, because they have no option but to accept the status quo and refuse any calls to boycott the most important visual art event in their calendar. The risk of economic hardship, of ostracization, is too big. This is what is absolutely unacceptable—but it can only be changed from within.