5 Questions for Contemporary Practice

5 Questions (for Contemporary Practice) with Tania Bruguera

Tania Bruguera, "Tatlin's Whispers #5," 2008. Medium: Decontextualization of an action. Year: 2008. Materials: Mounted police, crowd control techniques, audience. Dimensions: Variable Performance view at UBS. Openings: Live The Living Currency, Tate Modern. Photo: Sheila Burnett. Courtesy Tate Modern.

Tania Bruguera’s long and various career as an artist starts with a series of works made after, but mainly through, the Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta. I say “through,” because in Bruguera’s eleven year-long project devoted to Mendieta’s work, Tribute to Ana Mendieta, she does not just pay tribute to Mendieta, but channels the artist during a time before art historical appreciation of the Cuban-American artist’s work had taken shape in the United States —and before the popularization of re-enactment as a tool used to archive performance. In this series of performance and site-specific sculptural works, Bruguera undertakes reenactments of Mendieta’s performances in order to resurrect them for a Cuban audience. She also presents Mendieta as a kind of double (or alter ego), inasmuch as through her work, Bruguera seeks to situate Mendieta in a cultural context from which both artists emigrated, but only within which Bruguera was brought up.

Bruguera’s most recent work, an institution which intends to foreground the situations of immigrants in New York City and worldwide, called Immigration Movement International, extends the artist’s preoccupation with the situation of immigrant, emigrant, homeless, and other displaced people. As in her previous work after Mendieta, the new piece tracks a movement across cultural contexts, locations, and institutional sites in an attempt to make relationships between these places more visible, better understood (especially for those who could most benefit from understanding these relationships—those who are themselves displaced).

Tania Bruguera, "Tatlin's Whispers #5," 2008. Medium: Decontextualization of an action. Year: 2008. Materials: Mounted police, crowd control techniques, audience. Dimensions: Variable Performance view at UBS. Openings: Live The Living Currency, Tate Modern. Photo: Sheila Burnett. Courtesy Tate Modern.

Immigration Movement International also extends two practices that Bruguera has pursued for the past nine years: Arte de Conducta (Behavior Art) and Arte Útil (Useful Art). Through the creation of Behavior Art works—works the artist relates through the performances of early Dada and Soviet Constructivists, as well as the 80s generation of artists in Cuba—Bruguera wishes to not only perform certain power relationships for her audience/viewer, but also to place him or her in a situation by which one may participate in the immanent expression of certain power dynamics as they unfold within institutions.

For an example of Bruguera’s Behavior Art works, you may watch a video online filmed at the Tate Modern in London of the artist’s Tatlin’s Whisper #5. Here, Bruguera employed mounted policemen to patrol the gallery, where they demonstrate various techniques of crowd control. Visible in the expressions of the audience is annoyance, if not also some anxiety. Many do not seem to know they are participating in an artwork; the revelation only comes afterwards, or in the process of their participation. Their behavior thus enacts how (state) power operates spatially to coerce groups and multitudes. As Bruguera tells scholar and curator RoseLee Goldberg in an interview from 2005,  “I want to work with reality. Not the representation of reality. I don’t want my work to represent something. I want people not to look at it but to be in it, sometimes even without knowing it is art.” Distinguishing between “performance” and “gesture,” Bruguera relates the significance of her Behavior Art works through their ability to create actions within a set of power relationships, rather than through the representations of those relationships.

Tania Bruguera Tltle: Tatlin Whisper # 6 (Havana version) Year: 2009 Medium: Behavior art Materials: Stage, podium, microphones, one loudspeaker inside and one loudspeaker outside of the building, two persons dressed on a military outfit, white dove, one minute free of censorship per speaker, 200 disposable cameras with flash. @Tania Bruguera, 2009 ESPANOL Tania Bruguera El susurro de Tatlin #6 (version Habana) 2009 arte de conducta plataforma, podio, micrófonos, un baffle en el interior un baffle en el exterior del edificio, dos personas con vestimenta militar, paloma blanca, un minuto sin censura por persona que accede al podio para hablar, 200 cámaras desechables con flash. Video documentación del performance @Tania Bruguera

The flip-side of Behavior Art is something Bruguera calls Useful Art: artworks which challenge art’s autonomy from social and political practices and which attempt to create institutions that may intervene in an existing state of affairs. Her first Useful Art work may be considered  Memoria de la Postguerra (Memory of the Postwar), a newspaper in which she attempted to reactivate the socially- and politically-motivated work of a preceding generation of artists in Cuba during the 80s. Tragically, for Bruguera, the publication of the newspaper resulted in the detention of a colleague and in the repression of her work. It also led her to stop making work for quite a few years following the event. Another significant Useful Art work involved the creation of a school in Cuba, the Cátedra Arte de Conducta (School of Behavior Art), during a time when Cuba was especially isolated from an international contemporary art discourse. Through her school, Bruguera helped to facilitate dialogue about contemporary art in relation to socio-political and ethical dilemmas facing Cuban society. In a tradition of Cuban Marxist-socialism, the school catered not just to an elite group of artists, but to a diverse range of social actors including school teachers, workers, and ex-cons.

Immigration Movement International extends one more crucial aspect of Bruguera’s practice, what she calls Political – Timing Specific. Through this practice, her work develops immanently, horizontally, in response to practical problems that may beset it at any particular moment. The work is not pre-determined, but responds to circumstances, in this case the circumstances of immigrant communities based in Queens, New York, and beyond. Tracking Bruguera’s work through the many different interviews and essays about the artist at her website, it has been fascinating to witness her evolve from an artist well-regarded in Cuba to one of a more international scope. In her international role, I am curious to see to what extent she may further a dream of artists that has only rarely been fulfilled: to bring art closer to the problems of life; to make use of art’s privileged position to redirect certain economic and political resources for the marginalized and dispossessed while citing its complicity with the various ways that power expresses itself through those very channels it would direct and make use of.

Year: 2010 Medium: behavior art Materials: permit from artists to reproduce and pirate their work in the collection of new media at the Center Georges Pompidou to be sold in the streets around the center for 1 Euro. Exhibition inside the institution. Performance view at Center Georges Pompidou. Les rendez-vous du Forum, Series Voir / Revoir: 2 DVD collection, fabric, various TV monitors models, DVD players, metal shelves, projectors, sofa, red carpet, chains, vynil text on floor, performer, printed correspondance. Courtesy of Studio Bruguera © DR

1. What is your background as an artist and how does this background inform and motivate your practice?

My background as an artist is the Cuban Revolution and all that brings with it, including the political performances and the lack of privacy, even in your thoughts. I also draw upon my years as a kid in Beirut from 1974–77, where the war and the news on TV were the landscape outside my window. The mixing of the Cartesian and then the socialist education I’ve received. The Perestroika struggle and hopes in the 1990s in my country and the exciting rebellious energy and atmosphere in the arts during that time in Havana. The death sentence of the General Arnaldo Ochoa. Political events closely impacted my family, especially through my father, who was a politician. And lately, my experience living outside of Cuba, especially in Chicago.

Most of all it is the fact that the only way I have to express myself and to communicate is art; outside of it I do not understand things very well. Perhaps that is why my art is also about looking for ways to communicate through other languages, idioms not belonging to art.

Motivations rearrange, and priorities change, but some of my motivation comes from the contradiction of being raised to do something socially important (like every Cuban educated before the debacle of the socialist block), and growing within the frustrating limitations imposed by that same government, who demand great things from you while simultaneously forbidding them. I guess it is sort of a case of “domestic political violence.”

The motivations also come from the inability to be cynical about it. I could never do my work out of believing in its social and political potential, and I could never just “decorate” the subjects I address for the occasional political tourists.

But what motivates me most are ethics. There is an aesthetic dimension of ethics that for me is very clear and works in very specific ways (maybe due to my socialist education?). Ethics emotionally affects me more than any artwork.

Memoria de la Postguerra I (Memory of the Postwar I) Medium: Editing of a newspaper Year: 1993 Materials: Collaboration with Cuban artists living inside and outside Cuba, black ink/newsprint. Dimensions: 13.4" x 8.4" Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Tania Bruguera

2. Do you feel there a need for the work that you are doing given the larger field of visual art and the ways that aesthetic practices may be able to shape public space, civic responsibility, and political action? Why or why not?

While I practice that expanded version of aesthetics, my work is about the role of the artist in society and the possibilities for art to be directly involved in social endeavors. In order to get involved in social issues, it is important to truly commit to real action. The challenge is that artists are very often confronted with the institutional wall. So the work gets caught between a sort of hyperrealism and representationalism that affects the expectation of the artist, but also the ways in which the institutions are ready, or in some cases not, to deal with this kind of work. It is the old dilemma of responsibility in art and what the people in the institutions think the artist should be doing. Unavoidably the work starts dialoguing from an institutional critique standpoint. A new institutional critique where we do not wait for the institution, but we become “institution builders.” Sometimes within the inside of an already existing institution; other times ignoring them, so they have to catch up. It is positive institutional critique.

Artists using this methodology tend to be more interested in the effectiveness and functionality of those institutions they are building than their art-historical role, though they are aware of it. Things are analyzed from a different perspective. For example, how they “look” does not necessarily refer to a skilled trompe l’oeil reproduction of a bureaucratic structure, but rather relates to the way that structure functions. The way in which time is valued in these kinds of projects is very different. They are mostly long-term, and the old charming “beauty of failure” is not tolerated the same way, nor seen in the same working capability within this methodology. So the idea of aesthetics may be changing into effectiveness, or towards the construction of ethics. This way of working with institutional critique uses the institution’s resources in other ways, especially its privileges.

In my case when I talk about institutional critique, I include the artist within the role of the institution itself. For example when I did my project at the Pompidou, IP Détournement, the main critique of the project was not of the way the institution dealt with [its] collection, but the ways in which the artists dealt with being part of collections and their involvement with such value markets. We cannot do a Hans Haacke-type piece at this moment in time without being all involved and all held institutionally “responsible.”

Tania Bruguera Title: Memoria de la Postguerra III (Memory of the Postwar III) Medium: Editing of a newspaper Year: 2003 Photo: Tania Bruguera Materials: Newspapers without name, date or news; political slogans used by the Cuban Revolution, reproduction of the posters used to advertise revolutionary slogans, red ink, black ink/newsprint Dimensions: 11.2" x 15.9" Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Tania Bruguera

I think there is a need for this methodology of working. The more that is produced the better. These approaches should not be isolated cases, but a strong positioning towards the old regime of the uses of art. Also, I’m not so sure about aesthetic practices’ (in the visual arts) ability to shape public space and civic responsibility when it doesn’t come with an ethical component. I do not believe in the autonomy of art. I never bought the impact of Guernica, nor the potential people saw in it to call for peace. I might be too cynical about it. I think people project too much in art, too much sublimation about the humanism behind it. For me, the problem is that the kind of humanism in it mostly doesn’t belong to this time, to our present, even in very contemporary artworks that we, specialists, celebrate.

Regarding the part of your question about feeling a need for the work I’m doing, I just can tell you that while I was writing this answer at the Immigrant Movement International headquarters, a person came in to ask for a lawyer to look at her immigration case, proving that reality dictates in this kind of practice. Also, I think it is necessary because the ways in which one can solve the old discussion about the relationship between art and spectatorship, in my view, is better answered this way, through Useful Art. One possible clash of Useful Art may come from the fact that some people who see themselves as the safeguards of art do not know yet how to deal with the circumstance in which works done as Useful Art ignore them and ignore certain manners of display, focusing instead on ways the aesthetic experience can be relocated.

Tania Bruguera, "Immigrant Movement International", 2011 - 2015. Event #1: MAKE A MOVEMENT (Slogan Workshop), April 3rd, 2011. Courtesy Studio Bruguera and Immigrant Movement International Photo by Ahram Jeon.

3. Are there other projects, people, and/or things that have inspired your work? Please describe.

I’ve been inspired by anything that is an attempt to implement Utopian ideas. Restrictions also trigger me, especially when someone says, “No, it is not possible.” Lately, the revolution in the Middle East (Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Algeria) has had a great impact on me. These events were some of the first manifestations, together with WikiLeaks, of significant revolutionary actions in the 21st century.

In terms of Art, for me the freedom of Dadá and the social responsibility of the early Soviet Constructivists are still my main points of reference.

Tania Bruguera, "Immigrant Movement International," 2011 - 2015. Event #1: MAKE A MOVEMENT (Slogan Workshop), April 3rd, 2011. Courtesy Studio Bruguera and Immigrant Movement International. Photo by Ahram Jeo.

4. What have been your favorite projects to work on and why?

My favorite projects I’ve worked on are the ones where people are enjoying it and then they say, wait, is this an artwork?  My best experiences are when the work spills onto the actual terrain of politics or real experiences by its own merits, when I am able to appropriate the systems and resources of power. But to be honest, I do not always think a work is my favorite until someone comes in and tells me what they felt in it, or how they remember it 5 or 10 years later. You know, when you are working, the satisfaction of accomplishment is very fragile and evaporates very quickly because you are always starting a new work with all the complexities it brings.

Some other examples are works that can be seen with the same interest and intensity by people belonging to both worlds, the arts and the civic society, like Memoria de la Postguerra (Memory of the Postwar), a piece I did in 1993-94 in the format of a newspaper that circulated the streets of Havana in an underground manner and was talked about by many who are not in the arts. It was even discussed at the communist party’s assembly on the work of my aunt, who had nothing to do with art. Also Tatlin’s Whisper #6 (version for Havana), a piece where I staged one minute of public free speech for anybody who wanted to say what their political thoughts were, and which became an exceptionally liberating moment, such that my neighbors talked to me about it in the days following, and it was also part of the news. People in power had to reconsider their tactics and were somehow momentarily paralyzed with this event. Also a piece I did in the format of an educational space, Cátedra Arte de Conducta (School of Behavior Art) between 2002 and 2009, which became my first studies of political art. There we were teaching about ethics, sociology, and the ways in which an idea could be part of society.

"ARTE DE CONDUCTA," a project by Tania Bruguera. "Estado de Excepción" ("State of Exception" exhibition), X Havana Bienal, March 24th - April 2nd, 2009. Artist: Núria Güell. Title: "Ayuda humanitaria / Humanitarian help." Year: 2009. Medium: long-term performance. Materials: a Cuban who wants to leave the country, lawyer, marriage. @ Núria Güell/ ARTE DE CONDUCTA, 2009. Photo: Mauricio Miranda.

5. What projects would you like to work on in the future? What directions do you imagine taking your work in?

Well, I had to wait five years to do my current project, Immigrant Movement International, and I think this is what I will be devoting my next few years to, so I guess, for once, past, present, and future have coincided. Now I’m focusing on learning as much as possible, due to the fact that I have an incredible situation working with CreativeTime’s and the Queens Museum’s human resources and years of experience.

My work is done through what I call Political – Timing Specific, so while I know what I want to address with my work, the ways I do it and the priority it takes is mostly decided by political circumstances and not by me.

In the near future, I have accepted an invitation to bring Immigrant Movement International to a public presentation in Miami at the end of the year and next year to México City, through Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros, where we are working on creating the electoral campaign for Immigrant Movement International.

What I do not see myself doing for a while is exhibiting in a museum or a white cube.