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Tania Bruguera

  • Interview by Esther Allen
  • Issue 21
  • Free RadicalDecember 2017

In Displacement, first performed in Cuba in 1998 and most recently in Philadelphia this May, the artist Tania Bruguera strolls a city’s streets for hours with all but her bare feet and hands concealed beneath an amorphous carapace of wood, textiles, glue, nails, and Cuban soil. The eerie assemblage—based on the nkisi nkondi figures of the Kongo people—invariably causes a stir, even as the artist remains out of sight within it. Invisibility is one of the central preoccupations of Bruguera’s considerable body of work, which itself grows ever more visible: the Museum of Modern Art recently acquired her performance installation Untitled (Havana 2000), which includes a long, dark corridor, decomposing sugar cane, and video footage of Fidel Castro, and which will be presented at MoMA beginning in February 2018.

Bruguera currently lives between New York and Havana, the city of her birth. While her pieces have been exhibited in distinguished institutions across the globe, in Cuba her art has regularly brought her into conflict with the authorities. In conversation, she's warm, straightforward, unguarded, and every bit as outspoken as as her work would lead you to expect. We talked Cuban history, totalitarianism, utopia, and revolution—all of which are, for her, something more than simply themes in her work.

Esther Allen

The Cuban revolution of 1959 initially had great appeal; it engendered joy in many, both within Cuba and internationally. You were born in 1968, so I wonder: Did you ever experience that revolutionary joy?

Tania Bruguera

The Cuban Revolution did what all revolutions do: it generated and enlarged the visibility of a group who normally aren’t seen or heard and who, for that reason, launched a revolution. I connect with the idea of revolution from an artistic point of view. Revolutions shatter a paradigm, they invite us to be guided by aspiration rather than be dragged along by the chains of history. Which creates an ethical paradigm shift. What truly interests me is how that new ethics can generate a new aesthetic—by which I mean something that creates emotions that go beyond daily life, that compel you to act.

In earliest childhood, I saw the revolution only from a distance. We lived in Lebanon, France, and Panama, where my family were diplomats representing the revolution. I was exposed to a different vision there, I was living the propaganda of the Revolution. Also, I spoke French from the time I was small, which gave me a more Cartesian way of thinking. Doubt was always central. I didn’t go to school in Cuba until 1978. I was ten. It was quite a readjustment, because what I’d been told outside Cuba wasn’t what was being asked of me in Cuba. I learned that you had to control your emotions, so much that you falsified them.

There was a boy in my class named Miguel Vaquero—I’ll never forget that name. I was in fifth or sixth grade. Miguel’s family was leaving the country. He was someone I really liked. We always got along well. But suddenly, because he and his family were leaving, we had to hold a public demonstration against him. No one sat down in the classroom with us and explained anything. No: it was just, “Let’s go throw eggs at them, shout at them.” From then on, I’ve never liked shouting. I hate to shout.

Another thing I remember from elementary school is having to spend hours standing next to a bust of José Martí. It was so strange. I had to spend what felt like endless time there without moving... Wanting to go to the bathroom so badly. And I couldn’t fathom why we were standing next to a bust—a dead thing, a thing. Yes, it represented an idea of revolution. But why did we have to stand there?

You were being punished?

No! It was a prize! I had top grades, and was named to the vanguardia—the elite—of the school, the district. There were two of us, one on each side of the bust, it was an honor, but it felt like a punishment. The Cuban revolution transformed honoring someone into a static, purely symbolic act—rather than an invitation to become part of a process of change, and rather than trying to become like the people we were honoring. There was no space for heroism after the revolution, there was only duty.

Might this be a source of the anti-monumentalism that characterizes your work?

Remember, revolution doesn’t mean to look at something. It means to look within yourself. It’s much more psychological and internal than concrete or visual. The revolution’s aspirations were big and humanistic, but the way they were implemented was catastrophic. Over time, it became a series of empty acts to be performed in front of others as if we had learned a script and were all acting it out. Sometimes revolutions don’t have patience. Though that’s a strange thing to say, when the Cuban Revolution, in almost sixty years, has had only two presidents.

The two great “what ifs” of Cuban history: What if Martí hadn’t died? And, What if those early aspirations had been implemented after 1959? How differently could things have turned out?

Martí’s death was a calamity of Cuban history. Fidel remaining in power for so long is another calamity. Martí died before his time; his ideas were never transformed into policies, or laws, or a government. The 1959 revolutionaries demanded that the actions conceived by Martí take place, and claimed to be the heirs to his ideas. But what happens next? This, to me, is the original sin. The people who made the revolution ended up using it to stay in power indefinitely. Or maybe the way it turned out was what they’d always had in mind—I don’t know. In our short history as a nation (106 years), we've had three dictators—one of them for almost sixty years. And now, ideas of humanism and social justice are identified with the failures of the 1959 revolution. It may take a generation or two to convince people again about equality, solidarity, collectivism. The ideas dreamed of by Martí are now identified with Fidel, not with a project for a nation.

You’ve been on the move since you were an infant, and now it seems you’re perpetually in motion, in a different place every day, week, and year. Your work, too, often focuses on immigrants. What is home for you?

Perhaps I’m not in a position to answer! Home isn’t something I have much of. But remember that José Martí, too, lived all over the world, in Spain, Venezuela, Mexico, Central America, New York. And that contributed to defining Cubans as an international people. One of the real achievements of the 1959 revolution, at least in the beginning, was the idea of the “international proletariat,” as they called it—what I would call international solidarity.

What is my concept of home? For me, home is a place you can invest yourself in, emotionally, economically, and intellectually, the space where the future is constructed. There are people who live in Cuba but don’t live in Cuba; people who live in the United States but don’t live in the United States. They don’t care about what’s happening around them; they’re tourists in their own reality.

And you don’t have to be committed to only one place. When I’m in Cuba, I try to bring with me what I’ve experienced outside. When I’m outside, I try to bring with me the aspiration to equality, to being open-minded and without prejudice, that was proposed at the start of the Cuban Revolution. It didn’t happen, but at least then the possibility of a utopia was an idea that had value. Now, everything in Cuba, too, is becoming very pragmatic. Nothing but money—so utopia, the future, is something to rescue.

That sounds familiar. I remember that after Fidel died, his estranged sister said she saw many parallels between her brother and Donald Trump. Do you?

When Trump was elected, I cried like I hadn’t cried since I was a teenager. I felt helpless, homeless. As if I’d been stripped of my right to doubt. In Cuba, doubt is not allowed: everything has to be definitive, categorical, grandiose. Which frightened me and enraged me. I wondered how much time it would take before people who know why something is wrong get caught up in this process that twists and alienates them until they can no longer recognize anything. How would people be rendered ignorant of the strategies they could use to change things? I was so afraid it almost paralyzed me. Will the United States become Cuba? Not the Cuba people see as progressive, but the other part, the part people don’t want to see.

The totalitarian part.

The difference is that Trump is no humanist, is not brilliant and has no charisma. He’s a completely corrupt racist who has profited from the system. His egotism comes from his low self-esteem, that’s why he needs all those grandiose compliments. Fidel’s egotism came from his certainty that he was better than anyone else. Trump is battling himself, Fidel was battling History. They are not the same, but they look similar, as when Hitler is compared with Stalin. In January 2017, people criticized me and said there are many institutions in the United States created precisely so there cannot be a dictator. And my response is, Yes, these institutions exist, but are they working? People have lost confidence in governments in general, but the answer to that is never a “strong man.”

Now is the time for the United States to listen to people from countries like Cuba and Venezuela and Chile and Argentina, which have gone through this process. They also had institutions defending democracy that were diminished and discredited. It may be time for Americans to learn from others. Though I don’t know if people in the United States are capable of doing that.

In October 2016, you took to YouTube to announce your candidacy for the presidency of Cuba in the elections to be held in 2018. Did the rise of Trump have anything to do with that long-term piece?

Actually the opposite: Trump’s win paralyzed that piece. Because on the one hand, yes, it is important that people who are not professional politicians have access to a political platform so their voices can be heard. On the other hand, the election of Trump makes you rethink the point to which a person who doesn’t have experience can occupy a role like that. What I see now is that it’s not whether a person is a career politician, but whether you have ideas that can be beneficial to others, and whether you can be selfless. My project for a candidacy was first of all a call to all Cubans to nominate themselves. I just stepped in as one more. Proposing myself also entails a critique of the patriarchy, of the long tradition of the caudillo in Cuba, and of how democracy has been devalued.

Are you going forward with it?

I went to Havana in September during the elections for my neighborhood CDR [Committee for the Defense of the Revolution]. And twice they were postponed. The first time I changed my plane ticket because I managed to find out the new date—though no one would tell me. And then that was postponed, too, and I was told no new date had been set. When I asked, “How much longer will it be?“ I was told, “We don’t even know if it will happen at all.”

When I arrived, State Security—of course—stopped me at José Martí International Airport. Their most urgent question was why I was there, what was my reason for this proposed candidacy. But it was very clear from what I say in the video that the idea was for everyone to run for office. That everyone could imagine having the power to change things. I’m not going to send people off to face the fire while I’m back here calm and safe, right? I said to State Security, “What are you afraid of? You control everything, you control who can move up from the CDR in the next election! Why not let anyone propose themselves as a candidate? Don’t you trust the people?”

They control the whole process.

So what is there for them to be afraid of, when they have a system that will not allow people to go beyond a certain point in the power chain? But they won’t take any chances. Several opposition candidates decided to run this year, and the state has two responses. First, they find a pretext to arrest and imprison candidates, which not only demoralizes and discredits them but also invalidates their candidacy, because you can’t run for office when the government has a case pending against you. Second, with people like me who travel, they play this trick of canceling and postponing the election until the person is no longer in the country.

All the Cuban government’s “decisions” these days are only reactions, based in fear, because they know there’s nothing behind it all now, no ideology, nothing but economics. When I had the problem in 2015—

When you were arrested three times, after you put a microphone in the Plaza de la Revolución and invited any and everyone to come and speak into it for a minute?

Yes, that problem. One of the strategies I used when they asked me questions was to pretend I had a lot more money than I actually have ever had. I claimed I wanted to buy a house in Havana for $250,000. I don’t have that kind of money! But incredibly, after I said that, you should have seen how quickly everything changed. The interrogations were no longer at the police station; now they came to “visit” me at my house.

Because you had money.

It was so asqueroso—you can use that word—so disgusting. And they didn’t even have any evidence of it! In Cuba, they just take things at face value without any proof; anyone at all arrives with a story and everyone just starts licking their feet.

I, for one, am glad they believed you.

Today, the Cuban government is afraid of its own population. It’s a colonial government—an auto-colonial government. With almost annexationist ambitions. The annexation doesn’t have to be to the United States. Cuba could be annexed to anyone that offers it a tit to suck on.

Do you see any positive changes in Cuba?

The positive changes sold to the world were either because the government legalized what everyone was doing anyway, or wanted to look good during negotiations with the Obama administration, or was reacting out of economic desperation. I wondered what changes would be motivated by peoples’ needs. Recently I read that the new tax laws give a break to single moms with a business, which is positive and in keeping with the ideals of the revolution. But that did not make the news. I guess the only stories that make the news are changes that move towards capitalism?

I do think some changes in Cuba have been positive but the government doesn’t seem to foresee their consequences. Last year, in 2016, money seemed to be flowing, you could see how life had gotten better. People were renovating their houses, things had improved, materially. But at the cost of a moral deterioration. And who has benefited most? Those who are closest to power.

The Cuban government is making many small mistakes—not small in the sense of insignificant, which they’re not, but small in the sense that they don’t transcend the individual groups affected by each one to create any kind of group solidarity. There’s very little solidarity in Cuba. It will be interesting to see what happens when the government makes a big mistake. That’s when I think people are going to start understanding things as citizens.

The great contradiction in Cuba is that the tourism there is a political tourism based on a nostalgia for something that was once proclaimed but doesn’t exist now. Because in Cuba today there is racism, there is classism, there is misogyny, there is discrimination. And there’s something else that didn’t exist five or ten years ago, which is a cohort of girls maybe twenty-one years old, all very light-skinned, their parents are all in business. And they won’t have anything to do with the black girl, or the poor girl who lives in another neighborhood. And what the hell is that? Isn’t that what we fought against?

You said you reacted to Trump’s election with fear, yet you seem to be such an utterly fearless fighter.

Do you know what I mean by fear? Fear is something you conquer, it gives you energy and focus to fight against what you fear. Fear makes you alert and self-critical and you fight it by understanding and analyzing what makes you afraid, analyzing it as a system. Trump came in with an agenda of sowing emotional chaos. And the best way of surviving fear is by reducing the task, breaking down what you have to do into something very concrete, very specific, very situated in the here and now. The problem with people who generate fear is that they don’t let others imagine the future. Our best way not to be afraid is to start behaving here and now as if we were in the future, one that doesn’t include our oppressor.

You recently directed and staged a production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, which has been touring Europe. You’d never directed a play before, had you?

Never, I’d never done any kind of theater. John Romão, the curator of the BoCA Biennial in Portugal, had the very simple, lovely idea of inviting every artist to do something in a genre they’d never worked in before. I chose to do a play. And it turns out Romão is a theater person, who became a very valuable interlocutor, even for the practical side of things. I proposed the idea to him, he disappeared for about three months, and I thought it was never going to happen because it was too complicated, and then he reappeared with a number of European festivals as coproducers. And we did it!

Do you think you’ll do more theater?

I’m already working on a production of Brecht’s Galileo. I’m interested in the moment when you have to negate yourself in order to survive. For Galileo, I’m doing a version that’s a bit more free.

With Beckett, the estate won’t let you change a comma of the text: nothing. But I found a way to add a little twist. The author never says anything about where the audience is. That’s where I saw my chance. I follow the stage instructions precisely, but I made the stage circular; what was frontal becomes circular. And he never speaks of the spectator’s perspective, so I proposed an aerial perspective. The audience views the play from above, looking down.

Endgame was an interesting process of subordination and insubordination. These are small details but they have a lot of impact. The decisions weren’t merely aesthetic; they were related to my reading of the work and how I wanted the spectators to position themselves. I wanted to put the spectator, too, in a situation of “Do I go or not go? I’m uncomfortable. What do I do?” They have their own internal dialogue while they watch the actors’ dialogue unfold beneath them.

Another work of yours, Monument to New Immigrants, consists of statues made of unfired clay that gradually disintegrate. Anti-monumentalism! Had you done that as overtly before?

That work builds on an earlier one, Isasthenai, which I made in 2010 when Orlando Zapata died after a hunger strike. His death had a big impact on me. I made a work in which a sculptor sits in a gallery and has five minutes to make a bust of whoever happens by, a spectator who comes in to have a bust made—since busts usually honor heroes, which isn’t a bad thing. Then, once the bust is made, the person it represents goes and pounds it back into amorphous clay. Then someone else shows up and another bust is created.

Monument to New Immigrants also has something to do with heroes. In the case of immigrants, society gives you almost no way to be a hero; you arrive and are infantilized, you become a child. Even if you know the language, you have to get to know the culture, you have to start from zero. And immigrants arrive in waves: first the Italians, then the Irish, and so forth. That’s why the statues look like kids, and that’s why, after one of them decomposes after days of exposure to the elements, a new statue is put in its place. It appears almost magically: the switch is made when nobody’s around. A phoenix reborn. We made a whole series of those statues, enough to last the duration of the exhibit.

My final question is a “what if.” If you could create any work of art you wanted in Cuba, without asking anyone’s permission, in full freedom, what would it be?

That’s a tough one. Well. Okay. It would be a work in which I run for office, and once I’m elected, I abolish the office of the presidency and create an administrative council, a council of experts, let’s say. By experts I mean a varied group of people with both human and social experience and scientific and academic knowledge. And everyone would go back and rethink not just Cuba: we’d think about what other kind of society we could be living in. We shouldn’t compare ourselves with the United States or Russia or China. We shouldn’t go back to Capitalism or defend Socialism. We should create a humanistic society that defends civil rights, understands the different minorities, and encourages political opposition and diversity of perspectives as an organ of accountability.

A kind of revolution.

There you go. The October Revolution happened a century ago, and I don’t think the world has ever been so badly in need of a revolution as we are now, in the sense of rethinking how we can live together, how we can be more fair together. We’ve reached the most interesting part of the dissolution of socialism: the crisis of capitalism. And now we have to think of another way of organizing ourselves, so individual rights don’t limit collective rights, as happens in capitalism, and so collective rights don’t limit individual rights, as in socialism. I have no idea how to get there, how to do that, but that would be the work I would love to do. Take on the big “what if” and propose a different way of living together. That would be marvelous.

Esther Allen edited, translated, and annotated the Penguin Classics anthology of the work of José Martí. Her most recent translation, of Antonio Di Benedetto’s Zama (NYRB Classics), won the National Translation Award. Her work has appeared in Bomb, LitHub, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Words Without Borders, among others.

Photograph by Tanya Marcuse