Tania Bruguera Uses Art to Effect Social and Political Change

Her recent Columbia presentation coincides with the Wallach Gallery exhibition, Sin Autorización: Contemporary Cuban Art.

Angeline Joelle Dimambro
December 14, 2022

On November 17, 2022, the School of the Arts, together with the Institute of Latin American Studies and the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, hosted a presentation by acclaimed visual artist and activist Tania Bruguera. Founder and director of Cátedra Arte de Conducta (Behavior Art School), the first performance studies program in Latin America, Bruguera’s work explores the ways in which art can be applied to everyday political life, focusing on the transformation of social effect into political effectiveness. Her work has been exhibited at documenta, an international contemporary art exhibition held every five years in Kassel, Germany; the Guggenheim Museum; and the Tate Modern in London; among other venues, and is included in the permanent collections of such institutions as the Bronx Museum of the Arts, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana in Cuba, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Betti-Sue Hertz, director and chief curator of the Wallach Gallery, introduced Bruguera. “Tania has shown, through creativity, activism, collectivism, and persistence, that art can change perceptions and address policies head on,” Hertz said. “Underlying all of her of work is the foregrounding of artists’ agency against repressive and discriminatory systems—how the artist's body and creative output can act as a weapon against tyranny. Like others around the world fighting for justice, Tania's heroism will continue to inspire others.”

Bruguera’s lecture was presented in conjunction with Sin Autorización: Contemporary Cuban Art, an exhibition now on view at the Wallach until January 15, 2023. Featured are the works of artists—including Bruguera—representing the complexity of cultural production in Cuba over the past several years. Highlighted in the exhibition are installations and archival materials from the Hannah Arendt Institute of Artivism (INSTAR), an artistic and pedagogical collective founded and directed by Bruguera.

Are We Going to Have Democracy Now?

Bruguera began by sharing the story of INSTAR’s inception. On December 17, 2014, Presidents Raúl Castro and Barack Obama announced the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. “Everyone in Cuba was shocked,” Bruguera said. “My question was, are we going to have democracy now? I decided to put that to the test.”

With her sister, Bruguera wrote a letter to the Cuban president asking what this decision meant for the daily lives of Cubans. The letter was published on Facebook, where, soon, more than 20,000 Cubans residing all over the world entered into a dialogue about their country’s uncertain future. To combat the inaccessibility of both Facebook and, more broadly, the Internet, Bruguera and her collaborators organized a collective performance, #YoTambiénExijo, in Havana. They installed a microphone in the Plaza de la Revolución, then invited members of the public to take the mic, and, for one minute per person, share their thoughts and hopes for the future of Cuba. More than 83 participants were arrested by the Cuban government, including Bruguera, who was detained, denied access to her passport, and subjected to over 30 interrogations.

During one of these sessions, the idea for INSTAR’s founding event took shape. “The interrogator began to recite the biography of Vladimir Tatlin, the Russian architect and artist,” said Bruguera. “In order to censor me and my work, my interrogators had to engage with it. I decided then that I would do a performance reading of Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism.” In response to Bruguera’s reading, the Cuban government sent a public works team to jackhammer the street where the performance was taking place in an attempt to drown out the performance. Despite this, more than 100 people attended the event—INSTAR’s first—which featured some 50 readers.

“I’ve always been an advocate of works that are long-term,” Bruguera said. “I want to prove, especially in Cuba, that things can be done, even if they say it's impossible, even if we think it's not going to happen.”

Combating 60 Years of Propaganda

When Bruguera received an invitation to present new work at documenta fifteen, the 2022 version of the Kassel, Germany art exhibition, she knew immediately that it should be about INSTAR. She said that only through collaboration was the documenta installation possible.

“I had two challenges,” Bruguera said. “First: How do we do this event when there are so many things happening at INSTAR? We have a press, we host workshops, we maintain a historical archive of activism in Cuba, and more. How do you put all that into a show that lasts for 90 days, a social and political experience of seven years? Second: How do we combat 60 years of propaganda, which has made people see Cuba as a beautiful paradise where issues of social justice have been solved?”

Bruguera shared a series of images that document the reality of suffering that exists in Cuba today, contrasted with more familiar tourist images. Understanding the context in which Cuban art has been made became central to INSTAR’s documenta exhibition.

“We used documenta as a platform to show artists whose work has been censored and eliminated,” said Bruguera. “I was shocked to find that there were more than 260 artists to whom this applied, in all areas of art, including theater and film, over the years.”

The documenta fifteen INSTAR exhibition presented a counter-narrative of Cuban cultural history through 10 installations in both Havana and Kassel, showcasing the works and voices of both artists and intellectuals censored by the Cuban government across many mediums—performance, mural, video, music, photography, and more. Also featured was a series of public events, workshops, and discussions.

“I needed an unstable aesthetic for documenta,” said Bruguera, so the exhibition changed every 10 days. “I wanted people to feel how we felt—insecure. We felt we were missing something, that nothing was complete. We felt uneasiness. We would prepare for something and the next day, the Cuban government could have a new law that could erase months of work. So the changing exhibit was a metaphoric gesture to tell people, you don't know the whole story. You will never know the whole story.”

This Is the Cuba We Have Today

Bruguera showed a video clip in which Cuban Minister of Culture Alpidio Alonso Grau can be seen striking a journalist who was attempting to record the demonstrations that occurred outside of the Ministry of Culture in Havana in January 2021. Many demonstrators were arrested and detained by the military.

“This same minister of culture has negated again and again that Cuban artists have been abused and imprisoned by the police. He not only witnessed it, but gave the order,” said Bruguera. “The project of the artist-activist group 27N was to engage in a dialogue to demand change. We went through all the legal ways in which you can remove somebody from their post, collecting thousands of signatures, only to have the National Assembly laugh at us, and Miguel Díaz-Canel, the president of Cuba, publicly support the minister of culture, who remains in his post. This is the Cuba we have today.”

During the Q&A portion of the evening, a student asked Bruguera to speak more about the usefulness of art. “I don't think art alone can change any political system,” she said, “but it can be a good tool for people to understand things that are hard to visualize, and to bring them to a place where they can imagine all the realities that don't exist yet. Art can unite people and inspire them to do things they think they cannot do. Art can deconstruct images that have been built by political structures, and it can be useful for social change.”

Angeline Joelle Dimambro is a screenwriting/directing film MFA student at the School of the Arts. She will graduate in 2023.