Frieze Fair 2015
Tania Bruguera: the more the secret police torture me, the better my art gets.
by Hermione Hoby
The performance artist was hounded in Cuba for an artwork championing free speech. Why did she end up thanking the secret police who surrounded her house, cut her phonelines then jailed her?
Tania Bruguera sits down on the grass and crosses her legs, as casual and at ease as the undergraduates all around us. “This,” she says with a gesture towards the grand facade of Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library, “is a really nice place for a recovery.”
As water flows out of the fountains and the well-trimmed lawns glow in the sun, there is nothing about the Cuban performance artist’s behaviour to suggest she’s just been through “eight months of psychological torture”.
She’s now a teacher at the Ivy League university, but in December last year she was in a Havana holding cell, being subjected to 26 hours of interrogation over a performance art piece. She refused to eat for the whole time. “In that situation, behaviour is your best communication tool,” she says. In the months that followed she was incarcerated three more times and subjected to twice-weekly “visits” from secret police, suffering 20 interrogations in all.
After her first arrest, she was incarcerated three more times and subjected to twice-weekly 'visits' from secret police
“I use the word torture very cautiously,” she says, “but I had moments in which I felt it was abusive and more intense than it should be.”
She had no access to a lawyer: even if her interrogators had granted her one, no Cuban would have dared represent her. “Legal vulnerabilities in Cuba,” she stresses, “are immense.”
The work that got her incarcerated, Tatlin’s Whisper, is brilliantly simple – just a live mic and an open invitation to enjoy one minute of free speech. She’d staged it several times before, including in 2005 at London’s Tate Modern where she employed mounted police to do arbitrary crowd control, corralling blocks of people through the space (most of whom had no idea it was part of the piece). In 2009, she did Tatlin’s Whisper at an arts centre in Havana, and several participants asked for freedom and democracy. Soon after, the government denounced the occasion as “an anti-cultural event of shameful opportunism”.
This time was even more politically charged, coming two weeks after the US government re-established relations with Cuba. She met with Ruben del Valle, the president of the National Council of Arts, who, after a four-hour meeting, denied her a permit to go ahead with the piece in Plaza de la Revolución, the huge square in Havana where Fidel Castro held rallies. Bruguera says Del Valle told her he washed his hands of her, and that whatever happened to her “legally or otherwise” was not his problem. None of this, of course, dissuaded her.
Tatlin’s Whisper #6 (Havana version), by Tania Bruguera, performed in 2009.
In the days leading up to the performance she stayed with her mother, “because she was really freaking out that some ‘accident’ would happen to me. I know Cuba pretty well, and I miscalculated one thing, which is how afraid the government is at the moment. And a government that is afraid is extremely dangerous.”
She adds: “In Cuba we’ve been in two dictatorships after the other,” referring to Fulgencio Batista’s authoritarian reign until the revolution of 1959, and the communist state that followed under Castro. “A lot of people don’t see it that way yet, and for me it’s hard, still, to say those words. People have been under fear. We need a process where people understand not only what their rights are, but what to ask for.” That process began for Bruguera when she left Cuba for the first time in 1999 to take an MFA in performance at the Art Institute of Chicago. (Most Cubans can’t travel, but the government tends to give artists and sportsmen and women preferential treatment.) In her first class, a professor asked her the seemingly innocuous question: “Well, what do you think?” For Bruguera, then 28 years old, it was a revelation. After a rote Cuban education and the strictures of its regime, she suddenly found herself “in a participatory situation where every idea counts”.
She started making performances, but initially didn’t dare use words: “When you are censored,” she explains, “you try to go through back doors.”
She found herself asking “not only what I want to say, how I want to say it and for whom I want to say it, but also how honest can I be? How nakedly can I present myself? That was when I started to become [politically] conscious.”
Bruguera is an ardent believer in “how art can give tools to people, make us freer, more aware ... help us imagine the future differently”. Gradually, her work (for which she’s been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship among other accolades) has become more direct – which in turn has made it far more dangerous for her.
Her idealism was put to the test when secret police surrounded her house “like I was Osama bin Laden”. At 5am on 30 December 2014 – the day Bruguera was due to stage Tatlin’s Whisper – she was woken by harsh knocking and an enormous crowd outside.
“And I go to use the phone,” she says, “but both lines are cut. This is what it’s like to live in a totalitarian state: they control everything. My mother and my entire family were very nervous. To be a political artist, you have to work with consequences as one of your materials. You have to work out potential outcomes, and you have to be responsible with that.”
She was taken to a holding cell and, “at that moment,” she says, “the piece changed. Because it became about how the government keeps the status quo, how far they will go not to lose the control they have. There was this artistic conundrum, this fight over ‘who owns the piece’. Me as the artist, the audience, or the government? And I think the government was so totalitarian they even wanted to be the author of the work.”
That the regime should unwittingly highlight its totalitarian tendencies, only bolstering the piece it sought to suppress, seems very ironic. She laughs: “At one point I wondered, do they not notice that they are making the piece even better!”
During one interrogation, she actually thanked the secret police.
“And they were so mad at me,” she grins. “They said,” she mimics them spluttering with fury, “‘what do you mean ‘thank you?’”
I replied: ‘Thank you for this – you actually made me a better person.’”
Her situation, like that of fellow dissident artist Ai Weiwei, elicited an outpouring of global support. Thousands of people worldwide, including Turner prizewinners Elizabeth Price, Jeremy Deller, Mark Leckey and Simon Starling, signed an open letter to the Cuban regime calling for her release. On 2 January, she was freed and her passport returned.
“When you do this kind of work,” she says, “you can never forget that you are an artist, but it’s hard because you have to be an artist, an activist, a citizen, everything simultaneously.”
As an artist, she says, “I am very happy ... even if it’s cost me quite a lot. It was beautiful to learn how solidarity feels – we use a lot of important words, without knowing their real meanings – ‘solidarity’ is one, ‘love’ is another, so is ‘friendship’, ‘support’. This year, I actually learned what these words mean.”
copied from https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/oct/13/frieze-tania-bruguera-artist-cuba-torture-interview