with Gemma Medina Estupiñán
March – May 2014

From: Medina Estupiñán, Gemma. “ARTE ÚTIL. A Colloquium with TANIA BRUGUERA,” ATLANTICA, Journal of Art and Thought. Nr. 54. (Spring / Summer 2014) Ed. Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno (CAAM). The interview took place in Summer, 2013 during Tania’s Arte Útil at Internationale Sommerakademie fuer Bildende Kunst, Salzburg, Austria. (illust.) pp. 232-251 

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With Gemma Medina Estupiñán

Tania Bruguera is a Cuban performance artist who has deal t with political and social issues throughout her artistic career.  In addition to her performance work, over the course of the last decade she has been researching the notion of Arte Útil , a practice that addresses the responsibility of artists and the opportunities that artists have to contribute to social change. Her ongoing project Immigrant Movement International, which she has been developing with the Queens Museum of New York since 2011, seeks to respond to the immediate needs of the immigrant community by offering a range of free services.

In the course of her work, Bruguera has come to ask questions about not only the role of art, but about that of the museum as well. How can a museum be used to a different effect? Can art be a tool of transformation? In August 2013, Bruguera gave a three-week workshop on Arte  Útil at the Sommerakademie in Salzburg, Austria. As part of her public presentation, she asked her students to formulate a series of questions that would serve as the basis for a lecture.  An edited transcript of portions of that dialogue follows.

Gemma Medina Estupiñán

What is Arte Útil?

The symbol for Arte Útil is an A for arte turned upside down, transforming it into a U for útil. You could say that what Arte Útil does is turn our assumptions of art upside down. The question that it examines, instead of the more common ones surrounding technique, genre, and context, is what art is for?

Arte Útil is a concept that I’ve developed after observing, in various countries and at various times, a tendency where artists have become interested in providing concrete social solutions by using art as a problem solver, as a direct social tool. It’s important to note that the artists aren’t doing this kind of work as a result of policies emanating from a government or an institution; they’re doing it in order to provide options that can help envision a society that works in a different way. They’re proposing to exist in a parallel  society, they’re imagining that society and creating it without permission, inverting the rules that favour the few at the expense of the many. Arte Útil isn’t another genre of art intended to entertain the people who have political power and privileged economic access and make them feel good. It’s trying to use the autonomy that art has for means that go beyond the practice of art itself in order to implement the desire that we all have for a society that works differently.

Regarding the two words, arte and útil, I insist on using art because I believe in the role it plays in society and because I want to insist that creativity should belong to everybody, not just to corporations and the “creative class.” The use of the word útil indicates that it’s working towards an art that will have a concrete beneficial outcome, but at the same time the word útil means a tool, which indicates the uses art can have in society; Arte Útil encompasses both aspects of the definition.

Arte Útil provides an entry point for people who aren’t connoisseurs of contemporary art. Once they’re no longer afraid of not understanding contemporary art, they can become interested in areas of the practice from which they were previously alienated. This opens up the possibility of educating people and sharing with them tool s that we use in art that could improve their understanding and conditions of life. We should stop using people for our own benefit in our work, and should instead use art to provide benefits to the people our work is addressing. We shouldn’t be afraid if not only the experts and connoisseurs but also  the “users” of art are able to understand our work.

I understand the trepidation that the word “use” provokes. Many people react from a traditional view of art where art isn’t supposed to have a use, where its potential for freedom resides in its inoperability in the real world, as if being absurd or useless was a requirement for admission to the canon. Arte Útil is a way to indicate that naming things isn’t enough anymore, that we need to move from “saying something” about our society to “doing something” about it.

I wanted to share these ideas with other people in the arts. I had various strategies, but when I started to put together the Museum of Arte Útil I saw the need to come up with some criteria, so that people could see what Arte Útil is and understand it readily. The criteria that we have created hel ped us to si tuate Arte Útil projects and begin a larger conversation.

The first criterion is that Arte Útil has to propose new uses for art in society. It isn’t based in the kind of practice that uses the traditional, individual artist studio setting but is instead something social and more than likely in the public sphere.

The second criterion is that Arte Útil has to challenge the field within which it operates. Many artists bring elements or themes from other disciplines into the arts, but when their works are shown to practitioners of those disciplines the reaction is usually the same incomprehension that we get from people who don’t understand contemporary art. If we aren’t experts i n the other disciplines,  if we don’t bring anything exciting or new to them, then all we’re doing is importing commonplaces and vulgarised versions of the expertise in those fields. In Arte Útil, on the other hand, the artists have to create projects that work at the same propositional level in both the art and the other discipline, opening up new possibilities in each, so that they legitimatise art as a collaborator rather than an intruder. For instance, in the legislative field, working with laws and with the legal aspects of society, artists using Arte Útil, unlike those in other practices, have to come up with something that i s useful and new, that will challenge the status quo in that field as well as in the art field. It’s not enough for them to come up with a utopian proposal; they have to try to implement it in reality in a way that will that challenge how institutions, organs, and laws function.

The third criterion is that Arte Útil has to be timing-specific. I t must respond to the urgencies of the moment . This is very i mportant. This is not intended to be “timeless” art. Arte Útil responds to and tries to solve specific problems located in concrete places and times. Of course, because problems have their specific circumstances and change each time, our practices have to adapt as well. This places the art in a non-permanent condition. The artistic aspect is a temporal condition that can be activated according to circumstances.

The fourth criterion is that Arte Útil has to be implemented and functionin real situations. You have to find  the tools that are required to implement change in the real world. As a consequence, you have to be able to work with people and with changing circumstances, and you have to be open to modifying your project if conditions require it. In Arte Útil there’s no failure; if the project fails then it’s just art, but if it’s Arte Útil a way has to be found to make it work.  Once the project is implemented in the real world it starts fading away as an art project and just becomes part of the strategies available to others. But creativity, imagination, modes of production, irreverence, freedom, and other art strategies are part of what  made that change possible.

The fifth criterion is that Arte Útil has to replace authors with initiators and spectators with users. In this practicewe’re notinterestedintheideaof authorship because we’ve already understood that the author is only an initiator. The artists are the ones who have ideas that they want to elaborate with the community that is being affected by a problem. The practice is carried out not only by the artists, but by all the people collaborating in a creative way. At some point, the artists will no longer have control over the work and they’ll be remembered, at most, as the initiators.

In the art world, we still have this impression that people should come to a show to see something, instead of to be part of something or to change something or to do something with the art. I’m not entirely sure that the term “user” is appropriate but what’s clear to me is that calling people “spectators” or even “participants” is even more problematic. 

Why? Because of the issue of commitment to the project. Arte Útil is not something for a spectator to witness; it’s something you have to get involved in. Even the term “participant” doesn’t indicate the commitment that the people coming to such experiences need to have. Arte  Útil isn’t something you get from a ten minute video you might not finish looking at or from a sculpture that you pass quickly by. Our aim isn’t to entertain the audience with some interactive fun activity that you can “participate” in but to initiate an activity in which you can enjoy getting involved in as a citizen, which means that at some point it will have to be carried outside of the museum.  In order to experience the project the users have to commit time, ideas, and creativity to it.

The sixth criterion is that Arte Útil must have a practical beneficial outcome for its users. Why? Because a  lot of social art projects that we’ve  seen look like they’re more beneficial and useful to the artists who produced them than they are to the people for whom the works were created. If that’s the dynamic, then you don’t have “users”; instead, you’re just “using” your audience. I think it’s crucial that artists working in Arte Útil recognise that the main benefit of their practice is going to go to the people for whom and with whom they’re working.

The seventh criterion is that Arte Útil has to pursue sustainability while adapting to changing conditions. That’s because we’ve discovered that not every social art practice is Arte Útil. There’s an extra level of intensity here, because Arte Útil isn’t a one-time “happening” or an exciting event of a week’s duration; it’s a commitment to a community. In order to change something socially, the practice has to have a long-term life, because social timing is completely  different from art-world timing. You  have to understand that things take longer, that the practice needs to be sustainable and to work with its own rules, which won’t always follow the usual rules of art.

The final criterion is that Arte Útil has to re-establish aesthetics as a system of transformation. This is very important, because a lot of people ask us, where is the art in our projects?, where is the aesthetic? Our idea is to create a kind of ecosystem in which witnessing or being part of the transformation is the aesthetic experience.

In addition, we’ve developed a concept we call “aesth-ethics,” where you value ethics as a way to access aesthetics, where both have to be in a specific balance and interrelationship. It can also be understood as the aesthetics of ethics. When I refer to “ethics” I’m not referring to what is “appropriate” or “correct” or “socially accepted” but rather to a way of seeing relationships between things and a way of acting in the social sphere in order to question the status quo. Part of the aesthetic aspect lies in the admiration of the beauty of the new and more ethical way in which things can operate.

How does Arte Útil relate to art history and to earlier movements in art?

We’ve created a timeline where we  show how Arte Útil in fact derives from a long tradition. We start with examples that aren’t, strictly speaking, from the arts but which come from the soci al fiel d, from soci al practices, scientific research, and so on. For example, we have Melusina Fay Peirce, who in 1869 created the first housekeeping cooperative, something that seemed impossible back then. We have Nikolai Vavilov, who created the first seed bank. What all of these case studies have in common is that they proposed and implemented ideas that were regarded as absolutely utopian and impossible  at the time. All of these examples passed from being utopian projects to becoming practical utopias. In terms of influences, there are two main tendencies, one coming from the more anarchic tradition and the other from moments that came into being when governments decided that art had to be socially useful . There are problems  with both approaches but especially  with the latter, because there’s been an instrumentalisation of art by governments, which have used art to correct the system but not to challenge it the way we want to do. There are some examples, like the Legislative Theatre of Augusto Boal, where laws were actually changed through artistic strategies. Among non-artistic influences we can cite the influence of social innovation, the do-it-yourself movement, alternative economies, and virtual networks. Although we decided to demarcate an area of research starting in the 1800s, these practices in fact go much further back.

Is art that is not Arte Útil useless art?

Of course not. This is a question that we get everywhere. Many people become extremely sensitive, thinking that the concept of Arte Útil implies that other art practices are unnecessary. This isn’t what we’re saying at all. What we’re suggesting is that there are other uses for  art than the ones that are usually accepted. Let’s say, for example, that you’re living a horrible life and you need a break; you can go to a museum and see a painting and in doing so have a different experience.  This is useful, but it’s a usefulness that doesn’t generate an activation of yourself as a citizen. It’s a usefulness that corresponds to the idea of art as a mental and spiritual activity, one that remains within your mind and in your feelings as an experience that will change you internally but that won’t be reflected in terms of activating you for social change. Arte Útil , on the other hand, doesn’t operate within people’s minds but on the outside.

Is Arte Útil trying to change the art world system from the inside?

Yes, I think that’s obvious. It’s trying to operate within the set of values that prevail within the art world at the  moment, especially with regard to the  role of the market and the role of the artist. But we need to be very vigilant,  because there’s nothing that capitalism and neo-liberalism do better than co-opting every critical space. This is why I always talk about Arte Útil not only as a practice or as a methodology, but as an ideology.

Does Arte Útil always have to be a problem solver? And if so, where is the room for art?

Actually, yes, the idea is to make use of the potential that art has i n order to social problems. A social solution that is proposed using the Arte  Útil methodology isn’t something that  only reaffirms the system that has created the problem in the first pl ace; the solution, on the contrary, necessarily encompasses the questioning and critique of that system. The art aspect is a very important part of it, not only because of this critique but because when people hear about it or experience it -especially if they are the  direct beneficiaries – their perception of the way in which the world functions and its potential to be different is dramatically changed. In teaching about Arte Útil I’ve experienced how people have made the shift and have begun to view art through this lens. Once they’ve done so it’s difficult for them to be completely satisfied with the more passive uses of the potentialities of art.

Arte Útil is an activist art. It can work outside of the system as well as inside of it, and that ‘s what makes the movement so rich in terms of its spectrum of tactics and methodologies, but any  solution it proposes – as soon as it’s clear that it works -can become a system, whether sustained by institutions or by the people. In the process of expanding and transforming it from being the exception (art) to being the rule (culture), its artistic qualities will suffer some erosion in the same way that a Van Gogh mutates when it’s used as a decorative element on a cup or the cover of a notebook or a scarf. Making something normal makes it less interesting and exciting but it doesn’t mean that it loses its original qualities. Many artists have generated things that were adapted by the general public, and sometimes we forget that they originated with an artist who not only wanted to i magi ne a different world but who wanted to try to live in and share that other world.

What happens when a project is certified as Arte Útil even though it wasn’t intended to be Arte Útil?

At the moment I’m doing an exhibition at the Van Abbemuseum called Museum of Arte Útil. One of the main problems that we encountered in the selection of the pieces is that there are many artists who have a practice that in fact looks a lot like Arte Útil, because they have the intention and the desire to change society or to use art in other ways, but they’ve encountered difficulties in implementing  those intentions, either because museums and exhibition curators didn’t want to support their projects or because the technical conditions just weren’t right.

In light of this fact, we’ve designated different categories. We’ve created a category of proposals, which are mostly works that want to be Arte Útil but which haven’t found the right conditions; we’ve created a section of prototypes, where artists were able to propose something and produce an example or two; and we’ve identified implemented projects, which are fully functioning at the scale and for  the people for whom it was created.  We’ve created these three categories but at the same time we also have to certify the works. Why? Because there are many artists who said, “I made a device, and it operates, and I worked with several people from such and such a community and they were so happy with it ” – but the source of the certification of their work was simply the artists themselves. In our show, the works will be certified not just by the arti st but by either the user or the producer of the work as well.

And yes, sometimes, there’s a work that has been certified as Arte Útil even though it wasn’t intended to be useful. One example is the NSK passport, which involved creating a fake passport for a fake country. It was all an autonomous project of art, intended only for the imagination,  but what happened is that when it was shown in South Africa at the Biennial some people there, from Nigeria in particular, realised that these  free passports were so high-quality that they could pass for real ones, and many people actually started using them to go to other countries. The quality was so good that in some cases they could be used to cross borders. The artists themselves said to people, “please don’t use it, this is art, it’s not real,” but the Nigerians just said, “we don’t care, we want to try.” This is a clear example of where art wasn’t intended to do something useful but people nevertheless found a use for it. So that’s another category of possibility.

Is it possible for Arte Útil to go outside of the art world and be sustainable?

Yes, in fact in order to be Arte Útil, you have to go away from the art world at some point and interact with the real world, whatever that entails. There are two different audiences for this practice: the users and the art world. For the art world, these projects will always be “art.” But from the point of view of the users that’s not the first question they ask themselves. For them, the art part will come later. They’ll realise that it’s art only after already being engaged in it and after seeing that it has a benefit for them. For me, this offers a personal solution to the problem that we have in  contemporary art where we’re working with communities through an art practice which they don’t understand because they aren’t insiders in the art world, because they don’t know what’s been going on in that world. In my experience, when you practice Arte Útil people discover that they really like contemporary art, they want more of it in fact, and they begin to see the artist not as a weirdo who will use them but as an al l y whom they can trust.

Does Arte Útil have to be political?

The correct answer to make you feel good is “no.” But the real answer is  “yes.” Why? Because if you start  entering the social sphere wanting to change things, immediately you become engaged in power struggles and power games and power discussions, so, yes, it’s political. And all of it is social. In this case, the social and political aspects are very connected, they’re inextricable.

How do you evaluate Arte Útil?

The best way to evaluate the success of an Arte Útil project is by looking at whether the people for whom it was created take it and make it their own.  

Does Arte Útil need to have an outside evaluator, an art critic for example, and are new criteria needed to evaluate Arte Útil?

I think there’s a need for new criteria and for a new lexicon, one with new words that can address this kind of practice. Many critics come who want to evaluate an Arte Útil project as if it were a painting, saying things like,  “the aesthetics of this photo aren’t so  good.” Well, it isn’t about the photo; it ‘s about what happened i n the place and whether people enjoyed it and whether something changed. I think this is a problem that’s encountered whenever people try to impose a regime of evaluation that doesn’t belong to the practice. Moreover, we  need a different kind of behaviour  from critics. The critics come for ten minutes, look at something, and then they go back and write an article for a newspaper or an art magazine, they judge our work. Some don’t even show up; they just read about it on the website and form their opinions that way. I think too much value is given to the mediated experience of a social art work; we need to put more value on the relationship with the direct agents of the work and the direct experience. As a consequence I’ve asked critics to engage in participatory criticism, meaning that they themselves become part of the project. They have to be active and not be funding for the exhibition to one project so that it could be properly developed. The museum said that while that was good from a social point of view, from an art point of view it wasn’t so good, and since it had to be good for both the challenge was what to do within the scope of the actual institution. So I also included as an aspect of the project the challenge of working within the premises of the museum. The show therefore became a kind of introduction to a discussion, a first presentation of the subject. If I do another iteration of a museum of Arte Útil I may concentrate more on the gestures that an institution has to perform in order for it to become an Arte Útil institution.

I think it’s fascinating, because all of the discussions that we’ve had thus far with the artists in the exhibition have been about how we would show the work, about who would have to do what and why. We were thinking,  for example, about possible ways to  address the ten-minute video situation, and we thought that maybe instead of having people look at a project we could have them be part of a project that would be happening concurrently with the show. They could take part, for instance, in talking about some local issue. This was the challenge that we had, and, to be  honest, I think it turned out very well because of the fact that the Van Abbe is a very serious museum. I would say that we wanted everything in the exhibition to be useful in the same way that other things in a museum provide useful benefits for people.

More generally, I do think that there’s a problem with working within an institutional framework, because there are now more institutions that are interested in socially engaged art and it has thus become more mainstream. But I think that the institutions have to change. First of all, they have to see themselves as civic institutions instead of as just museums.  Secondly, I feel that if they’re going to try to represent our work they need to be able to commit to the time-scale of the projects we’re doing. Some of our projects take three to five years to carry out. If an institution only has three months available in its show schedule, then what happens? We  in Arte Útil aren’t concerned with  preservation of projects the way a museum is, but with the implementation of projects.

Is there a risk that your projects will encourage gentrification by overexposing certain communities? What happens if Arte Útil starts to be appropriated by the culture and tourism industries?

I’m not sure that promoting gestures that question the system and the status quo will ever be readily embraced by the culture and tourism industries, but our challenge is to not let either of those industries change what we mean by doing Arte Útil.

The risk is a real one, but if you spend three years working with a community discussing one project, that’s going to seem really uninteresting to those hyperactive cultural agents; they’re

not going to want to hear about it. As far as gentrification, so far in the case studies we’ve had in Arte Útil  that hasn’t happened. What has happened is that people have gotten excited about a project and they’ve wanted to reproduce it in their own communities and try it out. We’re not trying to solve world hunger. We’re not trying to abolish poverty on a worldwide scale. Everything we do is extremely localised in a city, in a place, in a group of people.

For example, there is the work Nuria Güell did, where she removed the doors from a residential building so that people who had being evicted could go in again without going to prison – because the law defines trespassing as breaking a lock, so it  wasn’t illegal for the residents, but  it was illegal for the artist. That kind of project is very unsuitable to those who are interested in promoting gentrification.

We have a long way to go because ourart education isn’t prepared for Arte Útil, and our institutions aren’t interested in what Arte Útil is doing. I ‘d like to see, for example, how you would go about explaining to a museum board member that an art work is going to consist of breaking into one of his properties to bring back the people he has evicted. People in the arts have become too domesticated, too accustomed to going through the gallery channel; they’re not thinking about other ways to share their work. They’ve become so cynical that they don’t understand the difference between those who think that they can change the world by making fun of it and those who have fun changing the world.