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‘I’m Not Asking for My Rights, I’m Exercising Them’: An Interview with Jailed Cuban Artist Tania Bruguera

Twelve days after the US and Cuba announced a plan to normalize diplomatic relations, Cuban authorities arrested several artists in Havana. VICE News spoke with artist Tania Bruguera, who was held for more than 72 hours.

by Jenny McCall
Feb 14 2015, 2:25pm

Photo via Yo Tambien Exijo

On January 11, 53 prisoners were released by the Cuban government as part of a historic deal with the US to start the process of normalizing relations.

On December 30, only 12 days after the US-Cuban relations announcement, Cuban authorities arrested several artists in Havana who were about to embark on a performance discussing censorship.

Tania Bruguera, a political artist from Cuba who now lives in the United States, had organized the performance in Havana's Revolution Square. Called the Tatlin Whisper, the performance's aim was to challenge the learned behavior of her audience, and in her own words, is best described as comportamiento del arte de conducta, or behavior art.

Bruguera never got to attend her own performance — she was detained by the Cuban authorities and held for over 72 hours. She was finally released following an outcry from other artists and politicians, including Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, who said that the US strongly disagreed with the arrest of Bruguera, and that freedom of expression is not a crime.

Cuban authorities have since confiscated Bruguera's passport and charged her with inciting public disorder, resisting police, and attempting to commit a crime.

A petition has been started to pressure the government to drop the charges. Well-known activists such as Pussy Riot have signed it, and over 25 countries have lent their name to the cause. A letter has also been sent to Cuban President Raul Castro calling for her case to be dropped.

VICE News met with Bruguera four days after she was released from prison, and spoke with her again this week.

VICE News: What sparked this idea to speak out against censorship in Cuba?
Tania Bruguera: I have been censored my whole life, and not only in Cuba. I have been censored in other countries. There are different types of censorship. You go to the US and you talk about something happening there, they say, "No you can only talk about things from Cuba." But they can go and write a book about Cuba. The shift came when I stopped being a victim of this structure and I started to use the same techniques they used to have power, and I think as an artist, censorship has become a big part of my work.

With political art you have the friction between what people learn, and unfortunately what people are afraid of they censor, instead of trying to figure out why you are afraid.

Can you tell me a bit more about your work as an artist and how it helps people to understand censorship in Cuba?
I define myself as a political artist and I have come up with a few concepts to define my work, one of them is behavioral art. I create conditions in which things could happen and the audience then completes the work. In this case I always feel like I am a co-author with the audience.

So can you just explain what the Tatlin Whisper is about?
It is about freedom of expression. I came up with an idea where the work can relate to a specific political moment and that political moment conditions the work.

Tania Bruguera speaking at the Creative Time Summit. (Picture via Peter Foley.)

The role of the artist is not to decide or impose but to negotiate with the reality. With this performance you test the boundaries of the political system. For example, in the Tate Modern Museum in London, two mounted policemen in uniforms entered a room full of people and started to exercise crowd control techniques. Spectators agreed with the oral instructions of the officers. In 2009 it was done inside an institution in Cuba, where the institution could control 90 percent of what would happen. But it got out of control. Dissidents in the arts said things the government didn't want to hear. There were consequences; I was accused of collaborating with dissidents. After, I found it hard to exhibit in Cuba, I thought I was being paranoid, until I had a meeting with the minister of culture, who said, "Yeah you are right, we are not going to be silly and let you do something like that again." He said he almost lost his job. What I like about Tatlin Whisper is that it unveils all the old learned response.

As one of the founders of Occupy Wall Street, I have always been very interested in inviting the left, the progressive thinkers, and the people who care about social justice, to the dialogue of Cuba through new ways. We always said for a long time that the left was the enemy of Cuba, because you could never even complain. There was always this discourse from the 60s and 70s, when the revolution was amazing and they had this program of social justice, gender, equality, and race that seemed amazing but now it has become something else.

You decided, despite the problems you faced last time, to perform Tatlin Whisper again. What happened on the December 30, 2014?
The police arrived at my parents' home here in Havana at 5am. They didn't have any warrant to arrest or search me. So I decided not to open the door and they kept saying, "Tania we have been here for an hour open the door." So basically at 12.30pm I realized I only had three hours until the performance, they were not going to let me out. There were 20 police, some downstairs. So I opened the door, they were hiding. They said, "We only want to talk to you, but not here, let's go somewhere else." I was really concerned for my mum — she is old. So I said "Okay I will go with you on two conditions, the first you do not cuff me as I am not a prisoner and the second you allow my mum to go and call off the performance so nobody gets hurt." They had cut off the phone lines in my parents' home at 5am so we could not call people to let them know. I was later informed that there were plainclothes policemen waiting at Revolution Square where the performance would take place.

When I asked about legal representation they said, "Honey, this is not an American film." I wasn't even able to make a phone call.

Revolution Square. (Photo via Flickr)

So did you have permission to do the performance?
I went to the police and the national office; everyone told me we don't know the law on this. The only way is to go through the central government and one of the lawyers I met said that there is no law that exists that will prevent you doing a performance outside. If that is true it means that I have done nothing illegal. I mean one of the places I went to ask, the official said, "I don't know which law, all I know is that it is impossible." So I wonder if in Cuba a subliminal law or even self-censorship exists.

Your passport has been confiscated and you are under "conditional release," how have these last 30 days been for you?
It is very difficult, because the state is building a case against me and the lawyers who I need to defend me have a conflict of interest because the executive, administrative and legal authorities in Cuba are not separated. I have never been afraid for my life but I have been for my mental stability.

The US spoke out about the dentition on Twitter. That is good. I am glad they said something.

Roberta Jacobson's tweet on the detentions. 

How will relations between the US and Cuba help decrease censorship?
I hope it helps to limit censorship. However I think sometimes politicians in order to do historical gestures oversee important details. For example I am worried about the role money has in Cuban society, and that we do not become a fierce capitalist country. You have seen what happened in China and Russia and even the UK and US. Cuba has a privileged opportunity and we are in a position to sit down and say what we think should happen. We need to look at social justice, ethics, and re-distribution of wealth. My fear is that those who are close to power or trustworthy will be the ones who have the chance to have the good jobs or be the first millionaires in Cuba.

The case has been extended by a further 60 days what is the reason for this?
A prosecutor has the power to extend by 60, 120, or 180 days. The case was originally 10 days it is now been extend to 60, so that the prosecution can prepare a case. My defense team, however, has been given four days.

 What are the possible outcomes of the prosecutor's decision? One, close the case temporarily or permanently. The problem with this is that in Cuba it will always remain on my record. Two, an administrative measure [payment of fine] but I would have to acknowledge guilt. Three, prison.

The purpose of my work is to encourage dialogue and for everyone to come and share what they think about Cuba. Surely that cannot be wrong?