When Behaviour Becomes Form

Tania Bruguera
January 2007

From: Bruguera, Tania “When Behaviour Becomes Form,” Parachute Contemporary Art La Habana, no. 125, January 2007, Parachute Quebec, Canada, 2007, pp. 62 – 70. 


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When Behaviour Becomes Form

by Tania Bruguera

How Does a Cat Look Like a Mouse?

Education shapes our narrative, the way we interpret and recount our experiences.  The educational process is a way to intervene in the future, a way for political beliefs and judgments to survive.  It is not coincidence that one of the most important agendas of any totalitarian regime is to intercede as early as possible in the educational process.  Appropriating education capitalizes the narrative process by which one gives sense to experience, and therefore is also a way to control emotional reactions to reality.  Appropriating education maps and assigns pain and pleasure.  Good politicians work with emotions, with the fine balance between fear and comfort.  Education creates or conditions the capacity to respond.

Like art, education is a voyeuristic-analytical narrative process, the creation of symbolic and iconic stories that will give sense to our fears or allow us some space for freedom.  Education, like art, is also a system of association generating.  But while art deals with images, sounds and situations, education deals with behaviour with social conduct.  Behaviour is used in society not only as a communicative tool but also as a source of interpretation and judgment.  It is through behaviour that one is defined and categorized in society.

What I’m interested in is the possibility of incorporating art into society, not as a contemplative gadget, as a form of therapy or didactic device, but as an agent of and for social change.

Problems of Conduct

There are two main elements with which I have been working in my art practice: one is the idea of art as a space that allows for freedom; the other is the idea of reality and how to interact with or intervene in it.  Like Bretch I would like to provoke a rational self-reflection and a critical view of actions.  With the series Arte de Conducta (“The Art of Conduct”1 ) I have been working in a Hyper-realistic way, not by “copying” reality but by “camouflaging” the artwork with reality by using art in its communicative capacity to generate space.  This entails generating a space where the participants are the observers, where the audience is the participant, where one has to take part in order to access and perceive it, where awareness is a fundamental tool in order for events to have as much life in the realm of reality as in the realm of reality’s symbolic representation: art.  This fosters and awareness in order for events not to unseen because they are ignored.  I could paraphrase Descartes and say that things signify, therefore they are.

Pepito Once and Again 2

Cátedra Arte de Conducta (“Art of Conduct Chair”)3  is an idea which, like most of the ideas I have, started as a desire, a desire to have something I was missing.  In this case when I was a student at the Intituto Superior de Arte (ISA), we did not have a performance department or even a performance class, so when I graduated in 1992 I decided that I was going to teach performance, to open a department. Of course, I was well beyond my own possibilities, but I am also a very stubborn person.  Although I have a very bad memory I don’t forget ideas for projects easily and, moreover, I love to prove myself wrong with anything that is related to Utopia.

Time passed by and I decided that in order to know performance better and to teach it I needed to study it at an art school myself first, to know an existing academic program.  This was only possible outside of Cuba.  I went on to do an MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

In 1992, a few months before I graduated from ISA, Tomás Sánchez, a well-know Cuban hyperrealist landscape painter with much commercial success, approached me because he was putting together the first foundation for the visual arts (an independent an self-sustained non-governmental organization) in socialist Cuba.  This project only lasted one year during which some economic tension -soon to become political- resulted in the foundation’s closing, at which point Sánchez decided to emigrate.  The foundation had an ecological platform, including interpersonal relationships and society.  Art was conceived of as an agent of change.  Close to Tomás’s house in Guanabacoa, a district outside of Havana City, there was a school.  He wanted to create a program in which new ways to relate to others would be built in to the environment through art classes, thereby affording students a better social situation.

That school was “Escuela de Conducta Eduardo Marante.”  Escuela de Conducta (the translation would be something like “School for Conduct,” or “Behavioural School”) was an euphemism for what really was a prison for kids ages five through sixteen.  The crimes they had committed were considered of low risk, which means anything but murder.  Traditional crimes (robbery, assault, vandalism, fraud, etc.) were included, and also new crimes  which resulted from social adjustments to new sets of social and ideological relationships that reflected the changes society itself was undergoing (for example: jineterismo4 )  The goal in these schools (there are several in Havana and on the rest of the island) was to re-educate, to prepare students to “function” in society, to “adjust,” to learn how to deal with authority in a non-confrontational way, to not let others manipulate them (many were working under orders from older people): in other words to change their social conduct.  In cases where these achievements were not fulfilled, students went to an “Escuela de Oficios” (a trade school) where they continued their re-education and, in the process, learned a skill that would help them obtain an honest job afterwards and become integrated into society.

I started working at the Foundation in the summer of 1992, the same week I graduated.  Back then something happened that was to become decisive for my practice as an artist: I shared the days of the week between the Behavioural School and the ISA.  I worked Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at the Behavioural School, trying to use art as a tool to provide people with some freedom, some calm, some attention or even a language to express their traumas.  I was trying to give art some sort of utility.  I was constantly questioning the possibilities of art and, more than anything else, its function.  Then, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I was teaching at the ISA where there was a different game, one that included political discourse in its representation instead of in its actual execution.  I was in the world of representation and privilege.  It was the “world” where I belonged and the one I felt was my own, while the other, the correctional world, even if “more real” was an alien world, almost as if it were a representation in itself, a laboratory, albeit in the “real” world.  Art-back then- was the only “real” world I knew and I looked at everything through its prism  At the ISA I was questioning reality, while at the behavioural school I was creating reality.  I was trying to prove that art could change people’s lives, not as a philosophical proposition or a speculation or an art project, but through real life, real results.  I sought a change of behaviour that could be noticed, that could be “proved”; I had a big responsibility, one that was different than the one I has as an artist.

In the 1960s at the Congress of Culture, art was defined as a weapon in the service of the Revolution’s struggle.  For me, art, like education, is a weapon; both have a subversive aspect.  It was no coincidence that, in my research about art and politics, I had gotten to the point of creating an artistic project in which education was the theme.  It was also no coincidence that I called it Arte de Conducta.  This project is the result of those years. 

The conduct of Art.

Cátedra Arte de Conducta is als a public art piece.  When we think about public art we think mostly about spaces or quick interventions.  Cátedra Arte de Conducta is a long-term intervention not only on the participants but also on the Cuban art scene.  To intervene in a city is to intervene in the ways of behaving in that place.

When I got the idea for this project, I was questioning the art scene and the urban discipline the one that determines whether one is or is not part of society, the one that marginalizes, that questions one’s essence as a citizen through one’s behavioural codes.  A primary question for a citizen is if one will follow the established disciplinary code or not, thereby becoming either a citizen or a criminal -and art is mostly a delinquent act.

One thing I find curious is the fact that during those years when I was teaching at the ISA my colleagues included Eduardo Ponjuán (the chair of the department), René Francisco and Lázaro Saavedra.  All of us, except Ponjuán (as far as I know), created our own pedagogical project after leaving the department.  I have no idea why this happened, but I find it curious.  René created DUPP (Desde Una Prágmatica Pedagógica, or “Using Pragmatic Pedagogy”), then Lázaro created Enema, and then I created Arte de Conducta.  I really have no idea why this happened, but what is clear is that each project has its own point of view about art, life and society.

The theatre curtains open; the theatre curtains close; the theatre curtains open; what’s the name of the play?5

I’ve assumed a few things that are mostly natural consequences of group projects as part of the structure of my undertaking.  For instance, I have embraced the idea of the disarticulation of the group which is something that happened in other projects like this, where the group disappears when its members graduate from art school or when individual success forces them to go on in different directions.  For that reason I created a two-year project per person.  After those two years, if participants wish to continue in the workshops and discussions, it is entirely up to them, but the established time is two years (a length of time that is long enough to shake them but not to create a sense of false commitment, and short enough to leave them with a lot of questions).

The participants are from different field, including architecture, theatre, writing, set design, music, film, sociology and the visual arts.  More than once we had the good fortune to count among our members several self-taught participants.  This is something I really appreciate and enjoy.  We don’t have age restrictions either; we just believe in participant’s work.  When we do the selection process we do not accept cv’s or any personal information.  Candidates just show their work and talk about heir ideas.  The last year as well as this coming one, the jury for the selection process was international.  We only accept nine participants per year, eight of whom are practitioners and one is an art historian who documents the experience by doing the assigments and then writing about the experience in a short report.  Those reports constitute the documentation of the project  Each year the previous group and the new group coincide; this is a way for me to have no hierarchy and for the new participants to feel the pressure that everyone is being judged under the same bar.

Another important element is the fact that we have worked without a lot of advertisement.  We do exhibitions, but they are part of the learning process; they are not devised to establish the project as a whole in the art scene.  That will be done individually with the work of each member.  Some members have been invited to partake in artist residencies as well as international exhibitions, and some have won prizes.  One of out students won a Foundation Cartier Prize, another one a Guggenheim Felloship, another the Premio Nacional de Curaduría (“National Curatorial Prize” in Cuba), and one the Premio Nacional del Salón de la Ciudad (“National Prize of the Salón of the City”) of Havana.

One particular problem I found in the other pedagogical projects in Cuba was the immense focus on the professors.  The projects “became” the group of René or the group of Lázaro, for example.  I wanted to create a project where I barely existed and where my point of view about art, life and politics is shaped through the selection of the other professors.  The idea of diversity of points of view is crucial for this project.  Since I am focusing the project on creativity more than on art production, I have invited people from different disciplines and points of view (lawyers, architects, art dealers, curators, writers, scientists, dancers, theatre directors, screenwriters, actors, etc.).  I want each participant to decide what could constitute the “truth” for them, if any.  Each year I even invite one professor with whose vision about art and culture I do not agree.  This is done in order to engage discussion.

Each workshop lasts one week.  At the end of the week the participants are then asked to show a creative response to the assignment given at the beginning of the workshop.  The project takes place in Havana and has been conceived as a mobile academy, moving around different locations throughout the city for each workshop.

This project is a dialogue, a centre of energy, a space for discussion about art, life and society, as well as the possible means by which to combine these elements in an artistic way.  We are interested in creating new ways of thinking through the use of art in society and by questioning the relationship artist have to social responsibility.

I am not teaching art but I would like, instead, to create an intellectual activity as an art activity.

Arte de Conducta is an artwork in the shape of an art school.  The same way Memoria de la Postguerra was an artwork in the form of a newspaper.  Like Memoria de la Postguerra, a collective art piece transmitted through rumour, Cátedra de Arte de Conducta is also a rumour.  Rumour is the way this piece is documented and the way it should survive.  Rumour has been proven an effective defence mechanism against the amnesia existing in between the numerous and frequent re-editings of Cuba’s history.

1“Arte te Conducta” is a term I created in 1999 inorder to define artworks in which I worked with behaviour, social response, prejudice, rumour and collective memory as the main formal resources/tools.  The series includes the body of work Homenaje a Ana Mendieta (“Homage to Ana Mendieta” 1985-96) and Memoria de la Postguerra (“Memory of the Postwar,” 1993-94, 2003)

Pepito, a popular fictional character, is the protagonist of most political jokes in Cuba.

The title of this artwork, which is par of the series Arte de Conducta, refers to the academic chairs within the department of post-graduate studies.

Jineterismo is the popular way to refer to Cubans (female or male) who have sex with foreingners in order to sell them illegal products or work for them illegally.  Broadly speaking, it denotes those who receive their living income from their relationship, in whatever way it manifests itself, with foreigners.

This is a paraphrase of a popular structure used in Cuban jokes.  The theatre curtains open, then something is shown happening; the curtains close; they open again and something else happens, then they close and the spectator has to guess the title of the play.  There are infinite variations of this and it is used in many kinds of jokes.