Where Criticism Is Counterrevolutionary: Tania Bruguera on Cuba and the Fight for Free Speech

By Tom ZoellnerJuly 8, 2015

Where Criticism Is Counterrevolutionary: Tania Bruguera on Cuba and the Fight for Free Speech
TANIA BRUGUERA’S HOUSE is behind an unmarked brown door at the edge of Old Havana. Like many of the doors in this crumbling barrio, the door suggests little of what lies beyond: in this case, a towering courtyard atrium and a warren of ancient rooms coated with cement grit. Junk is piled everywhere. Workmen in rubber shoes and jumpsuits wander about muttering directions to each other. Bruguera, one of Cuba’s most famous performance artists, is busy converting the graceful set of apartment chambers into what she calls the “Hannah Arendt Institute” for the study of totalitarian systems.

Bruguera knows these systems up close: they are her life’s study and her greatest torment. Though she is no longer in prison, she is an official enemy of the Cuban government, and her passport has been revoked. She cannot even leave the city. Her arms were bruised when police grabbed her on June 7, trying to prevent her from disrupting the Havana Biennial exhibition of art with a 24-hour-long public reading of Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism from her doorway, a spectacle the government felt was too hot to handle. Offering an unexpected commentary on the material, police occupied the streets for blocks in every direction and drew even more local attention to Bruguera’s lampoon. She has been under virtual house arrest ever since, and her movements are closely watched by state agents.

This is not her first unpleasant encounter with the guardians of the revolution. Bruguera, 47, has been previously harassed for putting on a performance in Havana’s Revolution Square in which passersby were invited to speak their minds into a microphone for one minute. It was consistent with her theory of “behavior art,” which holds that art goes beyond mere representation and into the realm of the lived experience. Lines between reality and art are blurred in her work — too uncomfortably for some, and especially in Cuba, where fidelity to the promise of the 1959 revolution is often performed on a daily basis, whether believed or not.

Life wasn’t always as grim for Bruguera. She earned widespread praise for a 1998 exhibit in which she stood naked in public with a lamb’s carcass around her neck and ate soil from the ground in homage to the Cuban indigenous people who promised to eat dirt rather than submit to the conquering influence of the Spanish. Before her recent detention, Bruguera had taken full advantage of the Cuban government’s relatively liberal policies for travel by prominent artists. She received an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago and served as an assistant professor at the University of Chicago. 

She spoke to me inside a cluttered room at the back of her townhouse. We both sat on broken chairs. Though no obvious policemen were visible on the street outside, she assumes that everything she says and does is being watched.


TOM ZOELLNER: How did you react to the harassment you received at the Havana Biennial?

TANIA BRUGUERA: I tried to be as positive as possible with everything that has happened and learn from it instead of being angry. The whole thing has been a conversation with power on my side. They haven’t wanted to have this conversation. I came to Cuba to have a performance, and it ended up that I now have a mission to push for freedom of speech in public places in Cuba. And this is all thanks to them.

Did you view the police response as part of the art?

Yes. They are doing the piece at this point. I just have to lift one finger and they mobilize and they raise all the alarms. I have said three times that the piece is finished during the course of five months, and each time I say that, they do something to revitalize it. I even volunteered to teach them about performance art.

Some might say this is a publicity stunt.

I wish. I really wish. I wish I was so desperate for publicity, and I wish it was the goal for this. Because this situation is not what I would want for anybody. The pressures I had to endure. Forget the days in prison. Forget the nights in prison. That’s the easy part. The hardest part is all the psychological pressure. They have sent people who want to sleep with me who are agents. They send people who want to be my friends who are agents. Imagine the solitude I have at the moment. That I can barely trust anybody. All the artists who are in a powerful position or a position to lose something have turned their backs to me. They are not supporting what is happening. I look like a crazy person because I am asking for something that nobody wants at the moment. They want Americans to come and enjoy the place or have investments in the place, and what I am asking is for freedom of speech — which is not convenient for investors who want a frightened population who will say yes to everything.

How do you know I’m not a Cuban agent coming by to trap you?

Who knows? I don’t care at this point. I have only one discourse, and I say that to journalists, I say this to my friends and to the secret service that comes into my house once a week. My only defense is to make everything public. This piece is about how to use the public space as a protection. The funny part is I had someone come by pretending to be an American agency wanting to help me, and all they had to say is: “Don’t go out onto the street.” So all these games have happened. And I don’t care.

Some say that you go too far in the name of your art. True?

That’s what an artist should do. An artist’s job is to precisely go away from common assumptions and try to go where people are afraid to go. In this case I’m interested in the political arena and the emotions that it stirs.

Can politics be separated from emotions?

No. Good politicians know how to put both in the same package.

What role does emotion have in Cuban politics?

There has been a 50-year-old cultural policy where they work in emotional propaganda working in codependence. People need to learn how to feel about certain events.

What’s an example?

Writing here is a disadvantaged medium. They are extremely afraid of the written word in Cuba. The most subversive act you can do in Cuba is to write a book that says how you really feel and your own responses instead of the learned response. The government is afraid because they know books stay forever.

Will you write a book?

I will. After this, it looks like the only way. Actually it’s very interesting because I’m a visual artist, and all I’ve done since getting back is read and write. I could be drawing as well, but it feels like the best way to process what’s happened is to think, and the best way to think is to write.

Your work is often called “useful art.” What does that mean?

I’m not interested in representation. I’m interested in art as a way to present a potential new reality instead of reproducing what we already see. I work in performance art, live art, so it’s easy to put people in a situation where they are living at the moment as it is actually happening — something different from their everyday life. So for me it is a useful medium to challenge reality.

But doesn’t art by its very definition involve a separation from ordinary reality? A kind of curated reality?

No. Performance art is different because it is a living experience. The great challenge of this medium is precisely how to work without boundaries between art and life and how to push the boundaries between art and life. Instead of having suspension of belief you have affirmation of belief.

It seems the 1959 revolution is performed in Cuba like that — a daily performance all over the island.

It is used that way, yes. We have had for 50 years a “branding” of a revolution — but it is the opposite of revolution. We have had a successful literacy campaign and healthcare for all, but the rest has been “branding” over and over again that no one is allowed to criticize. Criticism is counterrevolutionary. A revolution dies as soon as you get into power, unless you create a system in which you are questioning yourself all the time and changing all the time. That’s not what happened in Cuba.

Who influences you artistically?

What influences me most is the revolution itself. Having a struggle with power is what I’m about as an artist. At the beginning I wanted to understand power. Then I wanted to represent power, to identify it. And slowly but surely I understood the best way to work in dialogue with power is to take over their strategies and use it against them.

What are those strategies that both you and the government are using against each other?

The government is like an abusive husband. Why? Because when you have domestic abuse, that person is horrible inside the house but to outsiders they are the most nice, generous, and wonderful person. Second, because it always makes you feel guilty for the abuse you receive. They want to pretend that you don’t matter and diminish your self-esteem.

But how do you use that against them?

I try to make clear I understand that none of what they want to put on me is true. They want to change my public image. So I have to contest everything that is a lie. We are in a battle between the lie and truth. And I employ what a friend of mine calls “brutal truth.” This is the only way to defend yourself. You cannot say that Cuba is happy just because we have sex and dance a lot. That’s not the only way to be happy. The battle right now is to get people to take off their masks because for so many years they have been behaving in a survival way — in a way they have been told is the correct way.

Is your art fiction or nonfiction?

You can choose. In my case, my performance uses elements from life. And I like that I can alter reality. If pressed, I have to choose nonfiction instead of fiction. But it’s the projection of a possible future: of something that could happen, and you have the chance now to see how you feel about it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


Tom Zoellner is an associate professor of English at Chapman University.

LARB Contributor

Tom Zoellner is an editor-at-large at LARB and a professor of English at Chapman University. He is the author of eight nonfiction books, including The Heartless Stone, Uranium, The National Road, Rim to River, and Island on Fire, which won the 2020 National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for the Bancroft Prize in history.


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