In Havana, A Journey Into The Forbidden With A Provocative Artist
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel, reporting this week on my trip to Havana earlier this month. Today, an artist on the edge - Tania Bruguera is a provocative 46-year-old Cuban performance artist who's in trouble with Cuban authorities. In December, right after President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced their diplomatic breakthrough, Bruguera flew down to Havana from New York City where she's lived in recent years. After some futile talks with Cuban officialdom, she announced that she would stage a performance piece in Havana's Revolution Square. She invited Cubans to come speak freely into a microphone for one minute about life in Cuba. On this program, she told NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro about her plan.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
TANIA BRUGUERA: It's just to tell people in the street, come, and share with us your doubts, your happiness - whatever you think right now about what is happening in Cuba, and what is the idea of Cuba that you want.
SIEGEL: A few people turned out, but not Tania Bruguera. She never made it because she was detained, and in the months since, she has been jailed twice and interrogated several times. This was not the first time that she challenged the rules in Cuba. Tonia Bruguera set up her open mic at the 2009 Havana Biennial Arts Festival at an art center in the old, restored part of the city. Some came to speak. This woman came to cry. The recording is from
Bruguera's website. A podium was flanked by two people dressed as soldiers, and as each Cuban said his or her piece, one of the costumed soldiers placed a white dove on the speaker's shoulder.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
YOANI SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
SIEGEL: This speaker, the popular blogger Yoani Sanchez, said, "The time has come to jump over the wall of control."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
SIEGEL: Cuban authorities did not applaud. The Biennial organizing committee called Bruguera's work an anti-cultural event of shameful opportunism that offends Cuban artists and foreigners who came to offer their work and solidarity.
By planning the same performance for Havana's Revolution Square in December, Bruguera was courting trouble, and she found it. She is at large, but her passport has been seized so that she can't travel to New York or to Chicago where she studied and taught art. A couple of weeks ago, I met Tania Bruguera in Havana, and we talked about the politics of art and the art of politics.
I want you to convey some sense of the breadth of performance art that you have done because some of it is - it doesn't just sound outrageous, I think it is outrageous.
SIEGEL: The Russian roulette performance.
SIEGEL: So you, before an audience and with a text, actually had a gun...
BRUGUERA: A gun, yeah.
SIEGEL: ...With one bullet.
BRUGUERA: Yeah, one bullet. Yeah. And I actually play Russian roulette. I was lucky (laughter) I guess. No, but I think what my work in general - and I think art in general - is this space you have in society to push - let's say push the boundaries of behavior, social conduct and also politics. In the case of the Russian roulette that you ask, I was using that as a metaphor because I was reading a text I wrote about the sacrifice political artist has to do.
SIEGEL: Where's the line between performance art that is uniquely expressive and a narcissism that is all about the individual artist and not about anything beyond her?
BRUGUERA: Yeah. Yeah. I think artists can use themselves in performance to say what other people will not dare to do or to say and putting themselves in risk.
SIEGEL: And so far as you can tell, there isn't some loosening of these constraints now - there's not some liberalization that accompanies the rounds of talks with the U.S.
BRUGUERA: I think that they accuse me to not want the United States and Cuba to have relation, but that's completely false. What I want is for us to not only receive from the United State their products and their material goods, but to receive from them an exchange on freedom of expression and history of tolerance to people who think different.
SIEGEL: You're still going to play Russian roulette with this, even so?
BRUGUERA: I'm going to keep rolling - como se - rolling the - keep rolling the chamber of the gun.
SIEGEL: This was more than two months after her arrest. Had she been to Revolution Square since then?
BRUGUERA: I haven't gone after that. Maybe one day ago. But I don't know. I don't know what - I think I will not be allowed to arrive there or as soon as I get there, they want to take me out of there.
SIEGEL: The next morning, we went together to the scene of her alleged unconsummated crime of last December - not for a performance, but for another interview.
Thanks to daylight savings...
SIEGEL: ...We're in the dark.
SIEGEL: It was so early in the morning, the sun wasn't up.
BRUGUERA: All of the sudden it looks quite subversive, what we're doing. (Laughter).
SIEGEL: Because it's dark.
BRUGUERA: It's dark. (Laughter).
SIEGEL: The square, La Plaza de la Revolucion, is Havana's red square - its Tiananmen Square. It is a vast, open space beside the seashore. It's a place for mass pro-government rallies. We stood just below a monumental statue of Cuba's independence hero, Jose Marti. In the distance are the ministries of defense and interior with outline portraits of revolutionary heroes that are several stories high.
You would have had a microphone set up somewhere around here?
BRUGUERA: Yeah. The idea was to have a microphone, and the idea was to invert the dynamic because we are always here looking up to the leaders of the revolution and hear them in their own microphone. And I wanted to revert that dynamic and have the microphone in the street in the place where normally you would walk passively or shouting some chants that you learn and go out of this kind of automatic responses and learned responses and give people the freedom to say whatever they want. They could talk about the school, the professor of their kids - whatever - the neighbor, bad behavior - whatever they wanted. I didn't have an agenda.
SIEGEL: You know, Tania, I find this very interesting. You speak about the political act, which this was - which you had planned, as an act of artistic performance. I mean I don't - (laughter) where do art and politics - where's the line between the two of them?
BRUGUERA: Well, I think that good politicians know how to give new meanings to everything, and Cuban revolution has been a very, very good example - almost a case study. I mean, Fidel was really brilliant at changing the meaning of things, and that's what an artist does. An artist rethink the meaning of things. And as a performance artist, I can say that his 6, 7, 10-hour speeches are the longest performances I've seen in Havana - in Cuba. Yeah, I think art and politics are extremely linked. They share some of the same goals and the same resources, and that's what I'm advocating - you know, to give art a space in the history of a country.
SIEGEL: Well, you never got to set up your microphone, but you got to speak into our microphones in Revolution Square.
BRUGUERA: Yes, thank you for that opportunity.
SIEGEL: Tania Bruguera, Cuban performance artist in Havana earlier this month. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.