Excerpt #1: Tania Bruguera in Conversation with Claire BishopFriday, May 7, 2021
The following text is an excerpt from the book Tania Bruguera in Conversation with Claire Bishop, published by Fundación Cisneros/Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in 2020. A controversial figure working in installation and performance, Cuban artist Tania Bruguera (born 1968) has consistently blurred the lines between art and activism. Defining herself as an initiator rather than an author, she often invites spectator participation and works in a collaborative mode, working with various organizations, institutions and individuals to challenge political and economic power structures and the control they hold over society. She researches and executes the ways in which art can be applied to everyday life, and how its effects can translate into political action. From offering Cubans one minute of uncensored time in Havana's Plaza de la Revolución (#YoTambienExijo, 2014) to operating a flexible community center in Corona, Queens (Immigrant Movement International, 2011), Bruguera strives to make Arte Útil (Useful Art), an art that imagines and provides tools to bring about social change.
Tania Bruguera (TB): [...] The idea behind the [Tatlin’s Whisper] series is that people get anesthetized to news from other places. So I decided to work with an image that represented such news and bring it into people’s real experience, so they could no longer be indifferent. The hope is that afterward, people might understand better, on a gut level, what others are going through. I was pursuing empathy instead of sympathy.
Claire Bishop (CB): Number six of this series took place in 2009 during the opening days of the Havana Biennial, at the Centro Wifredo Lam. When people entered the courtyard, they saw a raised stage at one end of the space, in front of a huge, theatrical, mustard-colored velvet curtain. On the stage was a podium with two microphones.
TB: There was a lot of tension because it was a setup that looked like an official public speech.
CB: Because this was your first work in Cuba since 2003, there was a large crowd. Nobody knew what you were going to do. You heightened the atmosphere of anticipation by handing out disposable cameras, which led us to believe that something would happen on stage that was worth photographing.
TB: I wanted to add a visual element (the sudden bright lights of the camera flashes) but it soon became clear that it made the audience part of the documentation, the afterlife of the piece. It also put the audience in a responsible mood, they were the witnesses. The work began when Guillermo Gómez-Peña made an announcement to the audience: “Here are 200 cameras for you to take. Anybody who wants to speak will have one minute of free speech to say whatever they want.”
CB: Then there was a big pause.
TB: Exactly. The space of fear.
CB: I think maybe three minutes elapsed, but it felt like fifteen.
TB: It felt like an hour to me.
CB: But for you was it also the fear that nobody would go up and speak?
TB: In a way this would have been OK too: “failing” would reveal what kind of a political moment we were in. But I wanted to push it, and so I planted three people to make sure that something would happen. The first person, Lupe Álvarez, was a very important critic from the nineties who had left the country in 2000. This was the first time she had returned. I saw her a few days beforehand and when I told her about the piece, she wept. So at the performance she came on stage and started crying. I didn’t ask her to do this; it felt a little sentimental. Maybe it was real, but symbolically it set a certain tone. It functioned as the moment of trauma, after which everybody else could talk.
CB: Then you had Yoani Sánchez, a dissident blogger, who talked about Internet freedoms.
TB: To be honest, her speech more or less repeated her blog posts, but her presence—a first in a public space—was a defiant gesture to the government and made the piece much more real. She brought with her a group of young dissident bloggers, and they helped set the tone. She also did a lot of postevent promotion, writing two posts about it, which made the piece very well known among Cubans in general.
The third plant was a critic, Eugenio Valdés, who was living in Brazil. He did something very beautiful: he repeated a phrase that was said after Fidel Castro gave Palabras a los intelectuales [Words to the Intellectuals] in 1961, a seminal cultural policy speech. After Fidel had spoken, Virgilio Piñera (my favorite Cuban writer) took the microphone and said, “I am afraid.” That’s all he did. So Eugenio told this story and then said, “I’m also afraid.”
CB: What range of positions were represented by the general public who came after these speakers?
TB: I think the majority of the people were expressing their dissent, but there were also some people who defended the Revolution. This mix was great—that’s what democracy looks like. My favorite intervention was from the blogger Claudia Cadelo, who said “I hope that one day freedom of speech in Cuba doesn’t have to be a performance.”
CB: We haven’t talked about your theatrical framing of this event. The cameras were important because they created a ripple of flashes every time someone went up to the podium. But there were also two people in military dress flanking each speaker, one of whom placed a white dove on the shoulder of whoever was talking.
TB: I didn’t want the piece to be a “one minute of free speech” piece, which is an exercise people do all over the world. I wanted to relate it to Cuba. In 1959, during Fidel’s first speech, a dove landed on his shoulder; everybody thought it signified that he was the chosen one. The idea that anyone (and everyone) can be the chosen one was very important for me. Tatlin’s Whisper uses very symbolic elements and works with cultural memories; that’s why I think people like it so much—it still uses some old strategies.
CB: You call them “old strategies” but culture and politics have always operated—and continue to operate—with symbols. You were taking a cultural memory from 1959 and replaying it (even reenacting it) in the present of 2009.
TB: The two guards were originally a solution to the problem of how to place a dove on people’s shoulders. Later I realized that they had to be dressed in military uniforms to create a conflict in the image. Because if you include the image of military in the performance, it’s more difficult for the military or secret police to remove them: it would look as if the military had turned against themselves. Much later I realized that it was a great idea, because the image I was making included both freedom and repression. At the time I didn’t understand how much the cameras were also protecting people.
CB: What do you mean?
TB: Because there was such anxiety about what would happen to people who participated. But if someone had been arrested, two hundred cameras would have documented the event—it was a shield. The success of this piece is that it paralyzed censorship, they didn’t know how to stop it.