Tania Bruguera interviewed by Lorenzo Fusi

with Lorenzo Fusi

De: Fusi, Lorenzo “Tania Bruguera interviewed by Lorenzo Fusi,” It is about the change of being [Cátedra Arte de Conducta/Tania Bruguera/Allan Kaprow] Ed. Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art. Published on the occasion of the exhibition “Touched” Liverpool Biennial 2010. Curated by Lorenzo Fusi. January, 2011. London, England (illust.) pp. 235 – 251.

ISBN 978-0-9536761-9-4

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Tania Bruguera interviewed by Lorenzo Fusi

by Lorenzo Fusi

I would like to start this conversation by asking you to recall how the Cátedra Arte de Conducta originated. What were your personal motivations and reasons to start such a project? Which have been the most relevant achievements and challenges? Can you now attempt a final evaluation…

The project was an idea I had for a long time, one that came from various frustrations. For instance, I.S.A. (the Art Institute of Cuba, the only educational institution operating at university level in the country) never had, and still does not offer, a course dedicated to or focusing on performance. I was also somewhat dissatisfied by the way a certain strand in contemporary Cuban art was mixing art and reality. Ultimately, I sensed a lack of social commitment in the neo-bourgeois attitude in the arts, projected by the successful artists of my generation to signal their own success.

That was what I had in mind initially, but the opportunity was provided by the profound crisis I.S.A. was experiencing in recruiting new professors. When they called me back to Cuba to teach there, I proposed this project. I would not have been able to make it happen independently under any circumstances: I had to operate by law within an institutional umbrella.

Another aspect to take into account is that people in Cuba had discovered that art could be a means for economical survival. The “spectator”, for whom this art was made, was very much the foreigner (from the naïve to the specialist one). The established artists of my generation were either tired of banging their heads against the wall or too immersed in their debts and loyalties to the international art market/career to develop alternative strategies of art-production or presentation, so the solution broadly adopted was to create small and cheap art-factories in the island for exportation-only products.

Many, and always new, were the challenges throughout the process. The first one was the critique levelled at me by other artists, who were not so eager to re-think their own position and even tried to discredit the activity of younger artists.

We also reached a point, I think it was in its 5th year, that I had to sabotage my own project because it was starting to become a mannerist exercise or “style”: the people who were applying seemed to have a pre-set idea of what we were “looking for” so I had to change many elements of the project in order to keep it fresh and stimulating. The biggest challenge I had to face was to close the school. It was a necessary act, but so very painful.

Most of the achievements had to do with the enthusiasm and engagement of the participants: the level of the discussion, the changes that occurred in the art sector during the time of the project, the re-direction in practice towards a revision of the political and socially-committed approached with a direct and new language. I suppose to see the real achievement, though, we may need to wait for some years, when the work of the participants in the project will have matured.

I can’t have a final evaluation because although the project is “inactive” I still keep in very close contact and in dialogue with the participants. To me this is an open-ended piece, given that the friendship, collaborative spirit and issues to be solved through art are still ongoing.

Has this project had an impact in your own practice as an artist? How do you think your own work has changed during and by means of this experience?

It had a great impact. During the period the Cátedra was active (2003-2009) I refrained from exhibiting my own work in Havana in order not to contaminate by means of my artworks (or the way they were perceived and read) the image people had of the project. I did not want to directly influence the way authorities and public alike were responding to the work of the participants. It was somehow a form of conscious self-censorship. I also felt increasingly uneasy with the exhibition format, because of the separation or distance it creates between reality and life.

The constant dialogue set up between the participants in the project around the topics I am interested in exploring via my own work was extremely fruitful. Particularly because I had to define and elaborate on my position, looking at issues that I would have otherwise taken for granted.

This project also made me re-evaluate the importance of the transcendence of the artwork and the way art should be documented. For instance – although I am currently working on a publication dedicated to memorialising the project – the only real way to verify its outcome is to look at what the participants will do in the future.

For the duration of the Cátedra project, I hardly talked about my other projects or ideas, unless the participants were asking direct questions. I was aware that to disclose the intimate and intense process of creation would have mutually influenced our work. On the one hand, I wanted to avoid the participants being seduced by the lure of making work that could please me; on the other, I myself wanted to resist the temptation of shaping their own work according to my own vision.

This project obliged me to become even more strict and demanding in my practice: otherwise I could have possibly lost face and the respect (as an artist) of the participants. I felt a lot of pressure as well as the weight of my responsibility.

How do you think the generation of artists that has taken part in the art school differs from the previous one (the one you belong to) that has now achieved international recognition? What role has the Havana biennale played in the process of emancipation towards visibility for Cuban artists?

I would like to think that a difference exists between the generations, because it was one of the premises behind making this project. In fact, not only does this generation differ from the one I belong to, but they also differ from the “age group” after mine. There is at least one “generation” between my own and that of the project participants, and it is very different again, especially in its approach to the social and the Cuban Revolution tradition.

Generally speaking, many of the well-known artists there produce art that is somewhat disconnected from the specificity of the reality that surrounds us. It is a kind of art that one can find in any country: a sort of context-less “international” art.

We live in a situation that is extremely different from most other countries in the world. I believe that one can do “international” art by immersing in the specifics of one’s own reality, even if other people may need some context to fulfil their understanding of it. To me it is very important to avoid any “folklorization” or over-simplification of the context to please a foreign audience. In focusing on the art market (both the local and international one), one tends to forget the people. I am more interested in working for the people “in” the(ir) context than having voyeurs or secondary spectators: if the viewers feel they lack information, they can always actively look for it, that in a way is their “job”.

I sincerely think that any Cuban artist who lived in the island after 1984 (when the Biennial was initiated) and has achieved international recognition owes this – mostly directly, but also indirectly – to the Havana Biennial. It is a complex but important event. It provided visibility for local artists as no other biennial in the world. This visibility was sometimes subordinated to interests and excitements other than artistic ones. It is anyhow the artists’ responsibility to correct the perspective or the way their work is viewed. Undoubtedly, amongst the many art-enthusiasts and socialism-nostalgists, there have been very knowledgeable and important curators or critics.

In Liverpool the Cátedra artists followed two operational strands and contributed to two parallel projects (namely, the legacy of Allan Kaprow’s work and the role of the artist in shaping an ideal city): what is your take in retrospect on those two ideas? Do you think Kaprow’s legacy still retains political poignancy and relevance today? And does it still make sense to speak about utopian cities in a post-ideological society such as ours?

I was amazed, once I started re-inventing Kaprow’s work, by how political it was and I was mesmerised by its political implications. This was something I understood only by doing it. It was not so evident by reading his instructions nor so explicit in his texts which I read a long time ago. I think this is because I could not tear apart the historical distance and the assumption that our contexts were extremely different. This gap might have originated in the academic approach to his work I adopted during my MFA studies in Chicago: it was very playful and superficially focused on the notion of spontaneity. On this occasion, I instead fully appreciated how progressive Kaprow was: how silently political were his gestures. There is some tension in the work, but it is a very personal matter. It is not an open declaration, but a process of personal understanding. I enjoyed reinventing his work immensely and it made me learn a lot. His work has to be performed, it is not to be read about. I think he understood this basic principle very well. In relation to the Cátedra Arte de Conducta project, to openly confront Kaprow’s research was an important statement. It made us re-think what were the criteria (around the notion of performance) with which we were working: primarily, the everyday and the concept of non-artist.

I am not entirely sure if it still makes sense to speak about utopian cities in what advertises itself as post-ideological societies. This is precisely a topic I would like to analyse further in my next project… In the case at hand, it was more about seeing how the participants could make a statement or speculate about it from within a city that has been a dreamland of many utopians, but where the concept of utopia itself was co-opted by a group of people in power.

Your participation to the 2010 edition of the Liverpool Biennial was manifested in a quite distinct way. You co-curated with me a collective experience that included almost twenty practitioners; you personally took part as an artist; you followed up with several projects developing simultaneously both in Liverpool and Cuba notwithstanding the many communication problems, language/cultural barriers (many of the participating artists have never or rarely been abroad) and the travel and work restrictions imposed by the UK government on non-EU citizens… Additionally, during the preparation of the show you were often in a country other than Cuba or the UK (France, Italy, Spain, USA to name a few). How do you think this experience differs from your previous participation in international exhibitions of this scale?

The Liverpool Biennial project was introduced to the participants as an exercise. The notion of exercise together with that of research for me is extremely important, because it positions the work in a way that demands much more than just production and execution of an idea or an image. I think it is a “healthy” way to look at what we do as artists, instead of solely thinking in terms of products or career steps. It reminds you of the modesty of doing art.

Our discussion was not centred (including during the period of our collective participation to the Gwangju Biennale) on how cool it was to be part of a biennial or how important it would have been in order to find a gallery. We were talking about the amount of ‘professional capital’ we would have gained in the eyes of Cuban art authorities. What was under scrutiny was the degree of freedom that the participation in such an important international event would have secured us back in Cuba and if our inclusion in a biennial (in a country other than Cuba) would have allowed us to negotiate higher levels of freedom for our future projects in our country of origin. We discussed a lot the needs and strategies to ‘translate’ the work and its circumstances to new places and audiences; essentially, we were interested in exploring how to negotiate ‘the international’ aspect of the work, how to choreograph the progressiveness of the various layers of the work’s information and understanding. In Gwangju my role was primarily that of a facilitator: I was mediating the relations between the Cátedra artists and the institution. I embraced this role, knowing how intense and frustrating a biennial experience can be, since I wanted them to focus on their work and the way it was perceived.

In Liverpool, once the projects were decided and fully developed, I removed myself. I jokingly told the participants to the project that it was now time for them to deal directly with the curator. “What you will achieve – I said to them – depends on your ability to negotiate with the biennial your needs and defend your work in order to have it installed in the best possible way”. I tried to be very detached. Sometimes it was painful to see great artists being unable to defend their work convincingly or to be ultimately excluded for some reason or other. At the end of the biennial, I discussed this experience with most of them: it was a way to conclude that exercise. The difficulties they encountered will be obstacles they have to overcome anyhow in their professional lives. This was a safe way to verify what they were.

My personal experience was about not being present, which is exactly the opposite of what one expects from an artist or his/her work in the context of a biennial. I gave my space to the participants and re-invented the work of another artist; so basically it has been an exercise in disappearance. At the same time I took part in almost every aspect of the exhibition: co-curating and organizing a part of it, working as a part-time staff member (as per Office Boy), doing a commission (Kaprow’s re-inventions), participating in a panel discussion and the education programme and, ultimately, as a regular visitor. Maybe a good farewell to biennial formats…

The separation line between the roles played by the artist and the curator respectively is often blurred. Many practitioners wear comfortably both shoes out of necessity, personal ambition or other circumstances. Several curators are, in the first place, frustrated artists. It took several decades to clarify what being a curator might possibly mean and now that we seem to have achieved a definition, it seems already passé. So much so, that the slogan “the next Documenta should be curated by an artist” does not seem to be so radical anymore. Especially now that, for instance, the next Berlin Biennale is, in fact, curated by an artist (and many other similar events come to mind). I, for one, have often asked artists to co-curate shows with me. These experiences were incredibly enriching and I consider them as seminal moments in my career and personal growth. This notwithstanding, I somehow resist the temptation to see in this process a form of liberation from the über-power of the so-called “star-curators”. It simply shifts decisional power into the hands of an apparently different agency, but it is not per se guaranteeing any greater level of freedom of expression or a higher degree of representation in the process of the selection. I would argue that the fact that some artists (besides producing and promoting their own work) discuss, choose and write about the work of other artists, control certain channels of communication and information, etc. is somehow incestuous: it creates a completely self-referential system of evaluation/validation. It institutes almost a self-centred caste that embodies and incorporates all actors involved in the process. How do you see the roles of the artist and curator correspondingly evolving? Is there a new “third way” yet to be explored?

I have never understood this division of tasks, although I can appreciate the notion of  “expertise”. It is, anyway, somehow mysterious to me why people have to sacrifice their happiness for the sake of a clearer and simplified image of themselves in front of others. Creativity is joy. There are many different ways to engage with art and to me the problem lies in the reduction of possibilities to a very schematized model of visibility.

As regards whether artists writing and discussing other artists’ work is potentially an incestuous practice … yes, it can be. But, most importantly, it is the hardest ever exercise for an artist when it is done properly (that is to say, not using it as a career tool or to destroy an enemy).

Also, I must say that I have been extremely influenced by the writings of artists such as Kaprow, Smithson or Camnitzer, for example. I understood more about the “isms” in the arts and times by reading them, than through any other theoretical essay. When I read academic and theory texts I use them to open new possibilities into the future of my work, not so much for better understanding the past.

Regarding the statement you refer to, which is anyhow a curatorial project, it is worth remembering that Documenta (currently seen by many as the most important curatorial job in the world) was created by the artist and teacher Arnold Bode. When he initiated Documenta (1955) the term “curator” did not even exist as such. Does that even matter? The way I read the statement “the next Documenta should be curated by an artist” is not only a return to the status quo ante for the Documenta exhibition, but also as a declaration of faith in the ability of artists to create an event, experience and institution that can have the same impact Documenta had when it was first instituted, in all its political and artistic dimensions. By the way, Bode made another important gesture, after his first Documenta. Every other edition he then organized (in 1959, 1964 and the 1968 one to some extent) was a collaboration not a one-curator-only. In fact, he credited them as co-curatorial (with Werner Haftmann) or collective (1968) projects.

The problem is when an idea becomes an institution, when exercises transform into career moves, when knowledge becomes territorialized and reduced to mere commerce or a job. There are curators who are artists. When I worked with Jan Hoet at the SMAK museum, he reacted to, thought about and enjoyed creativity exactly like an artist. He was creating; his involvement was not about distributing artworks within the exhibition space: he created experiences. After the opening speeches he arranged for four military aircraft to do some sort of air exercises. I think the sound of those planes passing very low over our heads was the best piece in the whole show. Many of those early curators and some of the younger ones were trained as artists, deciding only later to become curators. Curatorial studies are a recent phenomenon; there is now a track record of people who have been acting as curators and there is a history to refer to that turns this practice into a career.

For me it only works (as an artist but also as viewer) when curators manage to create a balance between their emotional involvement and historical knowledge: when one can feel that they have truly enjoyed the process (even if only intellectually), because exhibitions are centres of energy. To curate is to understand how to handle and modulate this energy, how to transform these forces into narratives. In a way, it is about understanding how people can be reached and touched.

When I am invited by an artist, whose work and practice I respect, to be involved in a curatorial project I give my very best, because having the respect of another competing artist is the hardest thing of all. In fact, it is the most rewarding recognition. We artists are the fiercest critics, we know all the ‘tricks’ and we can recognize when another artist is really true or faking, which is something not all curators appreciate or care about, focused as they are on being truthful to their own curatorial ideas.

I do not value people in reason of their name or titles (curator, artists, critics, etc.). I only care about their strategies of implementation and their in-depth knowledge of the matter at hand. The mere chronological facts do not interest me. I am more interested in their inner contradictions.

The only “third way” I see in my work is the introduction of the non-expert and the audience. I continuously look for new ways to make my art speak both a specialized and popular language.

The theme for the 2010 art festival in Liverpool was Touched. What is your take on this title? How do you think we have contributed to its articulation? What is left to the arts to “touch”? And why should they even attempt to do so?

One has to be careful because the media are taking ownership of the right to “touch”. As artists, we have to defend our independent ability and the very same possibility to find a way of defining for ourselves the notion of touching and being touched.

We decided between us to start the Cátedra Arte de Conducta participation in Liverpool by opening the show with no works to be viewed. The exhibition space was empty and it only gradually filled up, progressively accumulating all the artists’ statements until the end of the exhibition. The idea was to reverse timing, thus undermining the expectations of the viewer. Conventionally, with the opening reception all manifestations are formally crystallised and artistic stances clarified. We both felt that this assumption was too restrictive, somehow inadequate to reflect the flux of life. Our choice was read as preposterous by many, surprisingly especially by art professionals (who should have instead easily grasped our intentions). Do you have any regrets in adopting this approach? Is there anything you would have done differently in the light of our recent experience?

I did the same for a solo exhibition at the beginning of the year in Madrid, where I announced the performances’ time, place and date and three times a week new material was added to the space. When I visited the space you had in mind for the project in Liverpool I was enchanted by it because it immediately evoked in me the memory of the many dilapidated buildings that still exist in Havana. Of course, the environmental analogies between Liverpool and Cuba are evidences of two very different political stories: the first one comments on the lost of proletarian fights and the capitalist illusion, the latter romanticizes the survival of a country’s stubborn 50 year long ideology.

The artworks we selected were about civil society and with this project we were looking to unravel the notion of an ideal society. The show was devised for the people in Liverpool, who could more easily follow the sedimentation of the works throughout time. It was not designed for the art people, who want to encompass it all and at once (possibly before the others). It should be read it as a statement, not as a formal decision.

For the participants, whom to me are more important than the exhibition per se, it was a better way to relate to the event. It was a durational experience and also an occasion for them to catch up with those, part of the project, who have left Cuba and currently live elsewhere. I think it was important for them to collaborate by means of Kaprow’s re-inventions and I am pleased the biennial created the framework for this blending of practices and encounters.

To conclude, I would like to hear your opinion on biennials in general as a format and on that of Liverpool, specifically. Are they still useful and, if so, for whom? Have we reached a dead-end as many seem to suggest?

What interests me about biennials is looking at the effects they have on the local artists, art world and people in general. I am myself the product of biennials. Firstly, the Havana Biennial and, then, all the others I was invited to take part in around the world.

I see biennials as spaces of great freedom as compared with museums and galleries. This might be due to several reasons. The curator in charge has often too many artists to look after; often he or she adjusts to the modus operandi of the institution at the same time as the invited artists so there is less room and time for friction; the production timeframe that these events demand is very fast; a certain boldness is tolerated in reason of the once-only nature of the relation between the curator and the institution, consequently each negotiation happens in a very different way. The large scale of these presentations (in terms of physical space and impact) induces all agencies involved to give their best. Maybe it is just a matter of adrenaline. Things become inevitably over-scaled when they are presented within a biennial and there are very specific strategies for acquiring a better visibility in such a context, which are fun to play with. The system in place can also be very unfair to certain kinds of work that demand more attention, concentration or time. Biennials are the perfect ADD (attention deficit disorder) activity.

I do not think we have to demonize biennials, but we should understand them more as micro-systems for the locals than for the global gatherings of the ‘jet-set’ art world. There should be some equilibrium and some after-the-biennial sustainability for the people left behind when everybody leaves. People have mistaken political strategies for a remedy to their boredom.

Biennials have a significant impact on the cities in which they take place, and this impact should not only be measured in terms of visitors numbers.

There are other aspects to the biennial format that are not solely related to advancing the career of an artist or increasing the price of an artwork. They often provide spaces of actual tolerance, where the censorship exercised by governments and corporations alike cannot enter in such an easy and shameless way. I owe to such spaces and moments happening during the Havana Biennial some of my best and strongest artworks, because when one feels protected it is easier to try to overcome the fears one has grown up with.

The conversation, discussions and opportunities I have experienced during my participations in these forums represent seminal formative moments in my career. I think it is crucial for biennials to remain places for criticality, not just places to be criticized.

With regard to Liverpool Biennial, when I was re-inventing Allan Kaprow’s Office Boy at the reception desk, I verified that a very high percentage of the visitors were Liverpool-based. Many of them had visited the biennial in the past and surprisingly many had nothing to do with art, which I think it is a very interesting indicator.

I do not know enough of the history of the Liverpool Biennial to attempt an exhaustive analysis of it. Its systematic contribution to the proliferation of public art makes a big difference in the way the residents use and experience the city. The continuous activity between festivals is one the strongest aspects of its concept. It is a distinctive biennial in its anti-bombastic attitude.