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Luis Camnitzer on Tania Bruguera and the Havana Biennial


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On the Colección Cisneros website, artist Luis Camnitzer has written about choosing between supporting Tania Bruguera and the Havana Biennial.

I’ve been a friend of Tania’s since she was a student, and a friend of the Biennial since its inception. In that sense I find myself in a fairly conflicted and uncomfortable situation, because it would seem that one would have to choose between two possibilities: boycott in support of Tania, or support the Biennial and thereby sacrifice a friendship.

To start: boycotting the Biennial seems ridiculous to me. The Havana Biennial was the first forum that granted independent access to art from the third world and it established a fundamental precedent for other countries on the periphery. Over the course of 30 years it has had its ups and downs, but it has always been an open, self-critical institution that has (more or less) looked for ways to improve. Especially with this year’s version, the Biennial seems to be trying to refocus its mission, correcting a perspective that had lamentably allowed the show to turn into a form of cultural tourism oriented toward the hegemonies of the marketplace, allowing it to once again assume its formative local function. One can disagree with the position that the Cuban government takes with respect to freedom of expression, with the ways in which it controls dissidence, with the Cuban definition of democracy, and, generally speaking, with detours in the utopia promised by the Revolution. But to then attempt to do away with the country’s most open cultural enterprise, one that fosters the very dialogues that take place over and above the meagerness imposed by external blockades and internal repression, would, it seems to me, only serve the interests of fanatical extremists while doing harm to artists and the Cuban public, all without greater political effect. The proponents of boycotting the Biennial have no compunction about participating in biennials organized in countries as repressive as Cuba or more so (China, Turkey, Russia, the Emirates, to name a few), which undermines the seriousness of their proposal.
While for me all of this is relatively straightforward, it’s when a repressive situation befalls a friend that things get complicated. Cuba, in maintaining a position of extreme legalism, surely managed the situation awkwardly. But with all that has happened, one has to remember that Tania is not in jail and that it seems that she is able to circulate in Havana, at least to the extent of visiting Danilo Maldonado (El Sexto), a graffiti artist who is imprisoned for “vandalism.” But aside from this, Tania’s sister Deborah, in a recent comment on Facebook, describes the difficulties that Tania faced in presenting her performance at the Biennial in 2009. Exchanges she had with Biennial authorities at that time were apparently extremely harsh, to the point that she was threatened with reprisals. This would indicate that her intention of repeating the event in December of last year was less ingenuous than it originally seemed, and that the consequences of her project were relatively foreseeable.

This presents another series of problems, which have to do with how much power we have as individual artists, drawing a line between a collective political cause and individual martyrdom, and distinguishing the difference between the choice to be a martyr and the use of an individual as a political symbol. Unfortunately there are no clear distinctions here. As artists we are court jesters, destined to a double, contradictory role as agents of defiance and service. Excessively focused on our individuality and poorly organized, this leads us to exert defiance at strategically useless moments, and to support causes that we don’t necessarily want to support. In a brilliant move Tania is now organizing, from home, a seminar dedicated to studying the Cuban penal code in order to analyze the ramifications of her case and those of others. Perhaps it is this new “performance” of Tania’s that will give her work a clear collective backbone and pull it out of the ego-ridden paralysis that it was generating, and which diluted what I think was surely her true intention.

*Image via pica.org