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Tania Bruguera’s activist art for the people, with the people | The World Weekly

Art is not often judged by its practicality and usefulness. Instead, it often remains ambiguous; it poses questions rather than providing answers. Cuban artist Tania Bruguera has been challenging these conceptions of art throughout her career. She champions what she calls ‘Arte Útil’ which translates as ‘useful art’ or ‘art as a tool’. “Art should not only suggest ideas but also implement them,” she tells The World Weekly.

Her pragmatic approach to art is heavily rooted in political and social activism. “Arte Útil is a critique of the status quo. It shows how to do things differently.” Born and raised in Havana, Cuba, Ms. Bruguera, who now shares her time between the US and Cuba, heavily draws from the political contexts surrounding her. Her often provocative performances do not shy away from taking a stance.

In her 1999 performance ‘The Burden of Guilt’ (El peso de la culpa), the artist stood naked with a lamb carcass hanging around her neck, eating dirt for 45 minutes, referencing indigenous Cubans who ate dirt as a weapon of resistance against the Spanish conquerors.

In another artwork for the Havana Biennale in 2000, Ms. Bruguera had the floors of vaults in the Cabaña Fortress covered with rotting sugar cane whilst showing historical speeches by Fidel Castro on a TV screen hanging from the roof. Naked men were roaming the dark vaults repeating gestures that were suggestive and laden with guilt and humility. The piece was censored by Cuban authorities and not shown again for the rest of the festival.

Empowering the audience

Ms. Bruguera says that the idea of Arte Útil was born out of her frustrations with contemporary art. One of her main irritations lies in the way contemporary art addresses its audience, especially people who are not trained in art and are not regular museum goers. “Art can be threatening to people. It is being sold as this sophisticated activity that not everybody is ready to understand. I want to make contemporary art accessible to these audiences.”

In many of her works, her audience therefore takes centre stage and becomes an integral part of the artwork. "What we do in Arte Útil is to create a conversation with a community or a group. The artist becomes a collaborator working with other experts in the field.” In the case of one of her long-term art projects ‘Immigrant movement International’, the experts were illegal immigrants.

As part of the project, Ms. Bruguera operated a community space in Corona, Queens, New York CIty, for three years where she and a handful of volunteers offered practical assistance as well as artistic activities to illegal immigrants. The artist herself moved to the area and shared her living quarters with illegal immigrants. “Living with them was not a performance but research. Part of the project was that I was living on minimum wage so I couldn’t afford to live elsewhere anyway.”

Engaging her audience isn’t always straightforward. “People are often scared of art. If you tell non-cultural workers ‘hey let’s do art’, they mainly think about very traditional genres like paintings and they mostly say ‘I’m sorry I don’t know how to draw’. They are scared of potential embarrassment. This does not allow art to happen”. 

An audience member is giving a one minute speech in Tania Bruguera’s ‘Tatlin’s whisper #6’

The methodology of approaching people becomes a key element in her work, heavily relying on dialogue with the audience and giving people time to enter the world of art. We start by bringing art to their live experiences and once they understand it as a mechanism by which to think and change reality, then we focus on the history of the practice and other set of optional forms of expression”. She gives the example of a dance workshop she organised in the framework of ‘Immigrant Movement International’. “We had local mothers do very sophisticated contemporary dance exercises. They enjoyed every minute. At the end of the class the teacher told them where the exercises came from, they were from Pina Baush and Trisha Brown’s choreographies. They said they wanted to do more contemporary dance. But if you’d told them at the beginning, they would have freaked out.”

Challenging authority

Ms. Bruguera is not only a collaborator but also an activist in a political sense. “I call it artivism. The art I do wants to activate the audience as citizens. I want to make passive people become active and conscious about what’s going on.”

Her form of art and activism has recently landed her in trouble with Cuban authorities. After the announcement of the restoration of diplomatic ties between Cuba and the US in December 2014, Ms. Bruguera took to social media under the hashtag Yo Tambien Exijo (I Also Demand), calling for a recreation of her work ‘Tatler’s Whisper’ at the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana. The piece had previously been performed in Havana before during the 2009 Biennial. In it, spectators are invited to take the stage and speak freely for one minute about a topic of their choice. 

Ms. Bruguera was arrested by Cuban authorities, preventing her from taking part in the performance. “There was a moment when me and my family thought this might not end well, that I would be going to prison for up to 10 years.”

In the end, the government dropped the charges and Ms. Bruguera was released after pressure from the international arts community. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times shortly after her release, she responded to criticism about her advantageous position as an internationally-recognised artist who could easily return to living abroad. “I know I have privilege. But it’s about using it”.

But Ms. Bruguera says her performances are not artistic caprices. “I am not doing what I do for the sake of creating a scandal. I want to change political reality and I am a strong believer that art can play a role in it.”

Human rights through art

Her frictions with the Cuban authorities have not deterred her. Currently resident in the US, she is planning to return to Cuba in December to work on further projects. Commenting on the political situation in Cuba, following the country’s reconciliation with the US, Ms. Bruguera says: “There are a lot of changes happening. But none of them, so far, entail changing the policies towards freedom of speech. The changes are mainly about how to quickly implement capitalism. We don’t need to copy the Western model of capitalism. We need to challenge the problems with capitalism and the things that don’t work in socialism.”

In response, Ms. Bruguera plans a civic literacy campaign involving the writings of political theorist Hannah Arendt. In keeping with Ms. Bruguera’s vision for Arte Útil, she finds that Arendt manages to deliver complex and politically challenging ideas in a very accessible way. “That is exactly what I want for my project. Through art, I want to bring more knowledge of human rights to people and show them how to enact them.”

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