Tania Bruguera is a Cuban artist who has been confronting a military dictatorship of Fidel Castro for more than 20 years now. She lives and works in Cuba and in Chicago. Tania Bruguera coined a term “behavior art”; she constructs social situations that demonstrate flawed sides of political systems from all over the world. In 1993 she published a newspaper Memoria de la postguerra until it was closed by the government censorship. On December 30, 2014 Tania Bruguera was arrested by the Cuban police for the preparation of performance Tatlin’s whisper #6 on the Revolution Square in Havana. After being released she continued her work.
Oksana Shalygina / 2015
When performing Self-sabotage at the 53d Venice Biennale did you know in which chamber of the revolver cylinder the round was?
I dind´t know.
Were you really ready to commit a suicide when you pulled the trigger?
Performance Art history is full of risky performances where the limit of life and death is tested, in my case I worked that limit in relationship with the artist´s political commitment, the body as the recipient of an ideology.
In this case the idea behind that artwork was that if you do political art you have to be willing to go all the way, until the last consequences of the ideas you are defending. The Russian roulette was my way to illustrate this statement, it was the metaphor I used; it is something most people agree would be a high price for an idea, a suicidal act, something not everyone would be willing to do. It also entails the random luck of chance, which many times is also what decide things in art and in politics.
The title of the piece is “Self-sabotage” because I wanted to signal that the artist who does political art has to be willing to sabotage its own comfort, its career, his wellbeing for the political idea he or she wants to defend, for the social injustice it wants to fight against.
That doing art that works politically is a life decision not an artistic technique á la mode; it is a long and tiresome road where you may not be loved or recognized for a long time or at least until political things change. While doing political art people may reject you because you are fighting instead of pretending nothing is happening and enjoying the pleasure of life like they are doing; because through your fight you put in the spot the person who decided not to fight.
It is important to understand that those political artists from the ´60s, ´70s and ´80s that we admire today, back then, when they were doing the critique work, they were hated and suffered many disrespectful actions against them, they were the minority, they were expelled from the circles of legitimation, political art was not a ´cool´ thing to do it was the right thing to do.
Did the Forum organizers know about your plans?
It was a curator only who knew.
Did you have any problems with the Forum management after the performance was over?
No, I guess because it had a happy ending.
For me it was important that after the performance all the elements were removed and no documentation or trace remained. It was important not to fetishize any object but for the piece to exist, to be documented via rumor, personal memory or by the imagination of those who heard about it.
Can you please think of examples of political artists or cases of the political art nowadays or in the history of art?
I think there are mainly two types of political art, one that reacts and one that acts; one that illustrate one that wants to initiate political change; one that reflects politics one that generate the political; one that speaks to a general audience one that is directed towards politicians; one that uses politics to create art one that uses art to create politics; one were the personal is political and one where the political is personal.
You ask for some examples … for me Please Love Austria from Christoph Schlingensief is an excellent political art piece for example. The fact that people thought back then that it was a true event and not a theater piece signals rightly so that art that acts politically has to operate in the space of the real, that it has to go beyond representation and become a presentation. It is also a good example of what I call Arte de Conducta (Behavior Art) where the reactions of the people and their learned social behavior generate the meaning of the work.
Most work from WochenKlausur is a good example of art that works politically and in most cases is what I call Arte Útil (Useful Art or Art as a tool) which I think is what correspond to our times, not only signaling the problem through art but to propose another way of doing things and using art as a platform from which to prove that other solutions, other ways to do things may work better than what governments or the law have decided; Arte Útil is art done from the citizenry point of view. Political art should come out of our sense of citizenry.
The work El Síndrome de Guernica of Fernando Sánchez Castillo where he buys the boat used by Franco (where the Spanish dictator even had several important political meetings), apparently one of the last remaining object of his, in an auction and after the acquisition he compacts the boat transforming it into a metal cube; transforming the political value of this object and the political potential of its memories, into the mere value of metal in the market. While it is a more symbolic piece, what works perfectly is the act of a person to strip out the most valuable thing a politician wants, survive in history, to be remembered, either through its political decisions or through its memorabilia.
Of course, The Guerilla Girls´ clear and persistent work, but, while back then, the political gesture was to make public, to make visible injustices that were not so easy to notice, I think that today making things visible is not enough for political art. What makes political art contemporary is that it sees signaling and making things visible only the first step of the work, the context in which the work is going to happen, but the real work political art can do today is not only saying that the status quo has to change but to change the status quo.
What is a material of the political art and what are its categories?
For me, to be political art it has to speak and involve also politicians and citizens it cannot be only understood or interesting for artists of for the art world (unless it is about art politics). Political art works with the desire of the citizens and the regulations of that desire by the state (or by those with such power). It situates itself in the space between political propaganda and political realities.
What are the goals and means of the political art?
For me, political art should go beyond the critique or the exposure of an issue, it should challenge the political ecology of the issue; it should use the suspension of established social precepts through art in order to try new ethical paradigms; it should be the search for new solutions to old problems.
When collaborating with different institutions how do you manage to overcome censorship and administrative management that constrain art?
Sometimes you can´t. But, the thing is to see if that censorship is part or not of the issue you are working with and if the censorship gives to the work meaning or if it´s only an anecdote of the work. When you work on political art you cannot control it all because you are leaving a space to the intervention of real politik.
What do you think about the human rights ideology?
I which in some places the words ´human rights´ would not scare people because their government have convinced them they are a concept built by the enemy, like it happens in Cuba when you pronounce human rights and people say please do not say that I could get fired, or do not pronounce those words because that is an invention of the C.I.A. to damage our revolution, or they simply do not talk to you anymore because they think you are a dissident who want to damage the Revolution because you have mentioned the words human rights. They do not understand that those are their rights.
The first time I read the Declaration of Human Rights my eyes were opened, I didn´t know some of the things I was punished for in Cuba were indeed my rights as a person. I think it should be an obligatory reading in schools as there should be classes about internet rights and about how to identify and fight power abuse (either in the personal life or in the civic life).
Why are you staying in Cuba?
The moment has arrived to be in Cuba. We are at a very important political moment in Cuba. It´s when what I call Political-timing specific art can be done but more than that I´m here because I´m a Cuban who wants to defend the rights the normal citizen has to be part of a political change; because, not all the political decisions have being implemented yet. Because I do not want Cuba to become Russia or China but its own model where social injustices are taken into consideration and human rights are established. At the moment it seems that the Cuban Government is more interested in acquiring money than in human rights and political transparency. I will fail because what can a person do against a state that controls it all? but I need to try and my only tool is art.
Do you share ideas of urban partisans like RAF or М-26-7 or you rather oppose their effectiveness in the present-day context?
I believe more in peaceful solutions like for example social movements or in exposing and forcing governments to be transparent like Wikileaks does or accountable like Edward Snowden have forced, or opening spaces for free speech and more than anything I believe in the lasting force of education.
I do not believe in physical violence because the Cuban Revolution was made through taking arms and killing people and today 56 years later violence is still the only way they know to deal with those who think differently.