Test­ing Cas­tro-era rules of ex­pres­sion

Author­i­ties in Ha­vana see per­for­mance artist Ta­nia Bruguera as a cal­cu­lated provo­ca­teur backed by anti-Cas­tro forces abroad

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY NICK MIROFF

ha­vana— It was prob­a­bly in­evitable, given the tra­jec­tory of her ca­reer, that Cuban artist Ta­nia Bruguera’s cre­ative vi­sion would col­lide one day with her coun­try’s less-ex­pan­sive po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity.

From a young age, Bruguera, 46, won in­ter­na­tional ac­claim as an ir­rev­er­ent, bar­rier-break­ing per­for­mance artist. She smeared the floor with pig’s blood to make a point about sex­ual as­sault. She stripped naked and ate dirt in trib­ute to Cuba’s van­ished in­dige­nous tribes. Dur­ing one per­for­mance in Colom­bia, she cir­cu­lated trays of co­caine — real co­caine — invit­ing au­di­ence mem­bers to try it. They did.

By com­par­i­son, what landed Bruguera in trou­ble with Com­mu­nist author­i­ties seems rather mild. Soon af­ter the Dec. 17 an­nounce­ment that the United States and Cuba would re­store diplo­matic re­la­tions, Bruguera flew to the is­land from Europe and tried to or­ga­nize a freespeech fo­rum. The trans­gres­sive part was the lo­ca­tion: Ha­vana’s Plaza of the Revo­lu­tion.

It was meant as a chal­lenge, she said — a test to see how much Cuba was will­ing to change as part of its new re­la­tion­ship with the United States.

The event never hap­pened. Be­fore she could reach the plaza, Bruguera was ar­rested, along with more than two dozen sup­port­ers. Since then she has been de­tained four more times and has been barred from leav­ing the coun­try while fac­ing charges of dis­turb­ing the public or­der, re­sist­ing ar­rest and in­cit­ing crim­i­nal be­hav­ior.

Cuban author­i­ties “are try­ing to de­pict me as a rebel with­out a cause,” Bruguera said in an in­ter­view, her arms still bruised from when she was hauled off by po­lice with mem­bers of the Ladies in White op­po­si­tion group af­ter their weekly protest march.

“I am a rebel, but one with a cause, and it’s one that they have given me: the fight on be­half of free­dom of ex­pres­sion and against po­lit­i­cal ha­tred,” she said.

Cuban author­i­ties do not see Bruguera as a cause­less rebel so much as a cal­cu­lated provo­ca­teur, backed by anti-Cas­tro forces abroad, who is swoop­ing in for a po­lit­i­cal stunt. Soon af­ter she ar­rived in late De­cem­ber, Bruguera said, se­cu­rity of­fi­cials took her aside to is­sue a warn­ing about her plans for the open-mike event.

“They told me: ‘You think you’re com­ing back here to cre­ate another Maidan [the square in Kiev where Ukraine’s 2013-2014 revo­lu­tion be­gan], but we’re not go­ing to let you.’ ”

Bruguera’s treat­ment also sug­gests that Com­mu­nist author­i­ties in­tend to send a sig­nal to other Cubans who are think­ing of re­turn­ing home to take ad­van­tage of new eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties and less­en­ing ten­sions with the United States. Cuba is will­ing to welcome them back as en­trepreneurs, sure, but not as dis­si­dent ac­tivists.

Bruguera, who has lived most of the past two decades in the United States and Europe, says she never em­i­grated from Cuba. In re­cent years, as she worked to or­ga­nize an im­mi­grant po­lit­i­cal party in Paris and joined the Oc­cupy Wall Street move­ment in New York, her cre­ative work in­creas­ingly smudged the line be­tween art and ac­tivism.

The for­mer — in par­tic­u­lar the kind that takes place in mu­se­ums and movie the­aters — has con­sid­er­able lat­i­tude in con­tem­po­rary Cuba. The lat­ter, when it oc­curs in the street, does not.

In 1961, two months af­ter the Bay of Pigs in­va­sion, Fidel Cas­tro is­sued the fa­mous dic­tum that would lay out his view of artis­tic free­dom: “Within the Revo­lu­tion, ev­ery­thing goes; against the Revo­lu­tion, noth­ing.” Cuban artists have been try­ing to fig­ure out what that means pretty much ever since.

The is­sue is not an aca­demic one. Art is big busi­ness in Cuba, al­low­ing young peo­ple to earn in­come in­de­pen­dently, prof­it­ing from a global fas­ci­na­tion with the is­land that is as strong as ever, par­tic­u­larly among col­lec­tors in the United States.

Over the years, as cen­sor­ship eased, art also be­came an out­let for ex­pres­sion in a coun­try that doesn’t al­low tra­di­tional ac­tivism. Young Cubans who seethe at their gov­ern­ment’s po­lit­i­cal con­trols or In­ter­net re­stric­tions can’t protest in the street, but they can pro­duce dark, brood­ing works of art that dra­ma­tize or sat­i­rize Cuban re­al­ity. And in­ter­na­tional col­lec­tors love the stuff.

Bruguera, who earned a master’s de­gree at the School of the Art In­sti­tute of Chicago and has held teach­ing po­si­tions in the United States and France, doesn’t make ob­jects that look nice on a cof­fee ta­ble or com­ple­ment the drapes. Her art, by na­ture, is in­tan­gi­ble and some­what un­pre­dictable.

And be­cause Bruguera wants to blur the line be­tween art and po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism, it can be dif­fi­cult to dis­cern where her “per­for­mance” starts and ends.

Bruguera’s le­gal or­deal over the past six months serves a broader artis­tic goal, she says, in which the Cuban gov­ern­ment has been an all-too-will­ing par­tic­i­pant in her at­tempt to probe the bound­aries of ex­pres­sion at what she sees as a piv­otal mo­ment in her coun­try’s history.

“All of this is a per­for­mance,” she said. “It is un­fold­ing as events oc­cur.”

The gov­ern­ment prefers theater, she said. “It likes hav­ing a script that can be acted out by a cast of char­ac­ters it cre­ates.”

In con­trast, she said, “per­for­mance is a space for spon­tane­ity, where hu­man be­ings can be them­selves, in­stead of act­ing out roles.”

Like Cuban author­i­ties, crit­ics of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion do not view Bruguera’s case as an ab­stract ex­er­cise in aes­thet­ics. Her ar­rest is proof, they say, that Cuban Pres­i­dent Raúl Cas­tro isn’t open­ing up at all and that Pres­i­dent Obama’s poli­cies have em­bold­ened him to be more re­pres­sive.

“We’re not naive,” read a state­ment by the pres­i­dent of Cuba’s Fine Arts As­so­ci­a­tion on the day of her ar­rest. “The mean­ing of this per­for­mance isn’t go­ing to be in­ter­preted as a work of art. It is a po­lit­i­cal provo­ca­tion.” Her goal, the state­ment said, was the same as that pur­sued by Cas­tro’s op­po­nents, who, it added, helped pro­mote her ap­pear­ance.

“The act has no other aim than to un­der­mine the ne­go­ti­a­tions that have given hope to many hu­man be­ings, above all Cuba’s 11 mil­lion peo­ple,” the state­ment read.

Bruguera, who iden­ti­fies her­self as a left­ist and calls Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren (D-Mass.) her “fa­vorite politi­cian,” in­sists it is not her in­ten­tion to em­bar­rass the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion or give fod­der to its crit­ics. She said her goals are wholly re­lated to Cuba’s un­cer­tain fu­ture. She wants a new law pro­tect­ing free­dom of speech and to open a cen­ter for art and ac­tivism named for the late po­lit­i­cal the­o­rist Han­nah Arendt.

Bruguera’s most re­cent ar­rest oc­curred in the mid­dle of Cuba’s big­gest art fes­ti­val — the Ha­vana Bi­en­nial — with many of the world’s lead­ing gallery own­ers and col­lec­tors in town. Some sup­port­ers urged a boy­cott and gath­ered protest sig­na­tures on her be­half, but rip­ples from Bruguera’s case haven’t reached very far be­yond Cuba’s arts scene.

Some artists and crit­ics said they have been con­fused about her goals. They don’t want to see Bruguera treated as a crim­i­nal, but they said they are puz­zled as to what the avant-garde artist is try­ing to ac­com­plish.

“I never saw Ta­nia as a po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist,” said Cristina Vives, an art cu­ra­tor and his­to­rian who worked with Bruguera ear­lier in her ca­reer and con­sid­ers her “bril­liant.”

“She didn’t need it to be ef­fec­tive as an artist,” Vives said. “And she has al­ways been one of the most ef­fec­tive artists I know of.”

Asked if she viewed her work as “against the Revo­lu­tion” and be­yond the bound­aries vaguely es­tab­lished by Cas­tro in 1961, Bruguera an­swered with a ques­tion.

“What is the Revo­lu­tion to­day?” she asked. “I think the ne­go­ti­a­tions with the United States have cre­ated a cri­sis of iden­tity and a need to re­de­fine what ‘revo­lu­tion’ means.”

“I am a rebel, but one with a cause, and it’s one that they have given me: the fight on be­half of free­dom of ex­pres­sion and against po­lit­i­cal ha­tred.”

PHOTOS BY NOAH FRIED­MAN-RU­DOVSKY FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

TOP: A street in­stal­la­tion at the re­cen­tHa­vana Bi­en­nial art fes­ti­val. ABOVE: Ta­nia Bruguera, who earned a master’s de­gree at the School of the Art In­sti­tute of Chicago, says it is not her in­ten­tion to em­bar­rass the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion or give fod­der to its crit­ics.

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