Wednesday, April 15, 2015
TOURISTS AMBLING through Time Square on Monday between 12 and 2 PM encountered something different from the usual melee of naked cowboys and competing Elmos: a tight cluster of people gathered around a soapbox upon which speaker after speaker took a stand for the freedom of speech.
As they spoke, a man held an unusually cooperative white dove upon their right shoulder. The lack of amplification meant the crowd had to lean in to hear the likes of artist Hans Haacke, art historian Claire Bishop, and curator RoseLee Goldberg protest the continued detention of Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, whose performance piece Tatlin’s Whisper #6 this event restaged. In Spanish and English, scripted and impromptu, each speaker took their minute before an attentive audience.
Bruguera herself was incommunicado: She has been under house arrest in Havana since last December, when her attempt to stage Tatlin’s Whisper in Havana’s Revolutionary Plaza, as part of the #YoTambiénExijo (I Also Demand) campaign to bring ordinary Cuban voices into the public dialogue about the normalization of diplomatic relations with the US, was firmly shut down by the regime. (You can read details about the events leading up to her arrest and those of other activists on this site’s news column and in a detailed post by artist Coco Fusco, as well as a 500 Words with Bruguera about her project.)
On a day when a handshake between Presidents Castro and Obama was making headlines around the world, the restaging of Tatlin’s Whisper was a forceful reminder that state control of the arts and public expression hasn’t evaporated overnight. And while the speakers were united in condemning Bruguera’s detention (along with many other dissident artists and intellectuals, including Danilo Maldonado “El Sexto”, who was also arrested in Havana in December for attempting to mount a political performance), many also linked her cause to broader struggles for social justice in Cuba and beyond.
“We don’t think of our own context here as one in which freedom of speech is repressed,” Bishop said, “but I think we self-censor ourselves,” offering numerous cases where “speech is unequal and unfree because of fear of retaliation.” Haacke read a solidarity statement from the Gulf Labor Coalition, of which both he and Bruguera are members, and which has been calling attention to labor and human rights abuses in the UAE, where museums and universities are building shiny new citadels. The artist Dread Scott, whose work has been censored here in the US, reminded the audience of the arrest and police harassment of Ramsey Orta, the man who bravely filmed the killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island last summer. Another artist, Malik Gaines, told the crowd that Americans love the right to free speech almost as much as we love the right to bear arms, but that even where artists enjoy the freedom of speech, they often fail to use it to confront power.
Tatlin’s Whisper did not only draw art-world luminaries to Times Square; it also brought a proud, banner-bearing contingent from Immigrant Movement International, a long-running activist project Bruguera has been organizing in Corona, Queens. It was moving to see working people take time to attend a protest held in another borough on a Monday afternoon (timing that probably accounted for the fact that the bulk of the other speakers were artists and arts professionals). Laura Raicovich, director of the Queens Museum of Art, told me how this confluence answered earlier reservations expressed in the media as to whether Bruguera’s community-organizing among undocumented immigrants qualified as art. “Those questions seem to be resolving themselves in interesting and unexpected ways.” Raicovich said. “I always say if an artist tells me its art, I believe them, because at the end of the day artists often see things we don’t.”
Nato Thompson, chief curator of Creative Time, who helped organize the restaging, told me the event was intended to keep Bruguera’s case in the public eye at a time when formal charges could be imminent. If charged and convicted of “counter-revolutionary activities”—a disastrous eventuality—Bruguera could face a long prison sentence. In addition to the event at Times Square, restagings of Tatlin’s Whisper were held in Los Angeles, Rotterdam, Chicago, Amsterdam, Knoxville, Pittsburgh, and Dallas. Raicovich told me that future events were also being planned at the Queen’s Museum: “It has got to be this layered, long-term approach, until things get resolved for her.”
With the Havana Biennial opening in May, many wondered how Bruguera’s case would affect artist’s willingness to participate. Filmmaker Ela Troyano, performance artist Carmelita Tropicana, and playwright Jorge Cortiñas, who were all in attendance, felt that continued engagement with artists on the island was crucial. Pulling back now, they told me, would only feed into the disastrous politics of the blockade.
Thompson reminded me that working as an artist today necessarily entails negotiating contradictory relations to difficult state regimes, including our own. “Being someone that operates in the United States, you are always in a state of deep contradiction when you stand up for the rights of people in other countries,” he said. “It’s hard to find a place that we haven’t, either through economic or military means, exploited. So you always come equipped with some kind of humility and awareness of the contradiction. Nevertheless, one has an obligation to stand up for these rights, regardless, in this country and abroad.”
Paul B. Preciado, who is currently facing legal charges of his own after an exhibition he cocurated at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona (MACBA) was censored for a crime of insulting the king, placed the ongoing detentions of artists in Cuba in a broader context, lest any conclude the problem is quarantined to an island-nation that has, after all, historically stood up against cultural and economic imperialism. “The Right is organizing in Europe to give an ideological coup d’etat to block the cultural institutions where ideas, representation, and artistic experimentation are taking place,” he told me. “This is happening in Spain, France, Italy, Greece… We have to get organized and fight together.”