Interview with Tania Bruguera

with Jonathan Wallis
December 2015

From: Wallis, Jonathan. (2015), ‘Interview with Tania Bruguera’, Art & the Public Sphere, vol. 4: numbers 1+2, pp. 31-38, doi: 10.1386/aps.4.1-2.31_1


Art and the Public Sphere (Intellect Press)

Special double issue vol. 4.1 & 4.2

Ethics and Social Practice

EDITOR’S NOTE: In late December 2014, the artist Tania Bruguera was arrested after attempting to carry out an unsanctioned performance centred on freedom of speech in Revolution Square, Havana, Cuba. She was released after three days but held in the country indefinitely until a decision regarding legal action by the government was determined. In the weeks and months that followed, Bruguera dealt with legal issues and additional arrests, diplomatic contestations surrounding her confiscated passport, along with interrogations and intimidation by the Cuban government. It was not until July 2015 that her passport was returned. In mid-August, with a letter securing her diplomatic status as a Cuban citizen in hand, she returned to the United States. Due to her detention, Bruguera participated remotely as a speaker at the College Art Association session, The Ethics of Social Practice, reading a paper through a cell phone on Arte Útil and Aest-ethics (taken, along with other belongings by the Cuban authorities). I invited her to revisit her position on ethics and Arte Útil, and her work generally, in the form of an interview for this journal, to which she graciously agreed.

Jonathan Wallis: Tania, thank you for taking the time to have a conversation about ethics and its role in your work for this special double issue. I know it’s been an extremely challenging year for you and your willingness to revisit the topic of ethics is greatly appreciated. I’d like to start with a general question. You openly reference ethics in the language used to describe your work and your aesthetic philosophy, especially regarding AEST-ethics and the goals of Arte Útil. Before we turn to specific questions and issues, would you like to respond about ethics broadly at the outset of this interview?

Tania Bruguera: First of all, thank you for inviting me to be a part of this issue. The way I see it, ethics is not morals. I think many people in the art world, including artists who produce social and political work and also critics responding to the work, make the mistake of judging it through a moralistic lens. For me, ethics is a component of political and socially engaged art from the outset and is included in the conception of the work. Why? Because you are trying to challenge or question behaviour regarding the status quo. For me, it’s about asking how ethics can set up a different ecology – of relationships, of concepts and of the future. That is why language is so important to me, and why I battle so strongly for a new kind of language for this practice of art.

JW: What concern do you have for the response to your work/conduct in this context, thinking about the concept of ecology?

TB: This is why for me there is no problem with having a work that I consider to be ethical be seen by others as confrontational or scandalous. Again, I don’t see ethics as a moralistic approach, because that would make it a response to the status quo. I see political work as challenging the status quo.

JW: Let’s talk a bit further about challenging the status quo. When describing Arte Útil, you’ve said that, ‘Art is the space in which you behave as if conditions existed for making things you want to happen, happen… although it may not be like that yet: art is living the future in the present.’ Could you elaborate on this idea of behavior where conduct is determined by a yet to be manifest condition?

TB: Artists can create a scenario. Art can be a scenario. There is a certain degree of open mindedness and suspension of disbelief that is of benefit; you create a previous accord with the audience and with the institution. To produce political art, and to have a different reaction, you have to construct a different setting. It’s like forcing reality. I always say that art is a rehearsal, but a rehearsal that creates the seed to do it again later because it has been made possible – to then try it outside.

JW: Is there something autonomous about art in this approach? Something to do with aesthetics and a social space distinct from the everyday? A rehearsal for life?

TB: In one sense, yes. In another, no. Yes, as a concept of a rehearsal. No, in a hyperrealistic way (and I use that term in reference to a painting, for example). I’d call it para-realistic. Why? Because it is a real experience. That’s the beauty of performance and socially engaged work. An installation, one that is not participatory keeps the audience passive and it makes for autonomous experience. But once the audience is absolutely involved something else happens. Yes, it is autonomous because you have the frame of the art institution that protects you. That is the only autonomy. That is why I go out on the streets. I don’t want that autonomy. I want to gain that autonomy, or that protection, but in the public sphere.

JW: And where does it end, the rehearsal, in the context of the street?

TB: The work is not finished when participants experience something and have a reaction. My hope is that they will leave and think about their experience. It’s done when the work produces critical thought that leads to an action that is transformative.

JW: That’s really interesting because I don’t know that I’ve completely understood the importance of that subsequent, affective resonance. Much of your work emphasizes presence, experience, and even a disregard of past actions. I always assumed that the active component overshadowed any symbolic or post-action reflection

TB: Everything else is a set up. That doesn’t sound ethical because it sounds like I am setting up people, but I mean it in terms of theatre. The theatre of reality. I’ve been accused, especially earlier in my career, of manipulating people. I hate it when I hear that. It’s so moralistic. I’m not using manipulation for personal gain. It’s social experimentation and I have no problem with that. Before I was troubled by that but not any more.

JW: What was your earlier concern over that accusation and what changed to make you no longer see it as an obstacle or something to weigh you down?

TB: We live everyday with social experiments. Governments are experimenting with us constantly. So why don’t we have the right to experiment politically and collectively? I also think there is a common misperception that people involved in social experiments have no options, that they are taken advantage by the experimenters. In the work I do, people have the right to walk out. I don’t force anybody to be part of it. I’ve done work where people have wanted to go away and they do. That’s part of the work. Not wanting to participate means something.

JW: So it’s about a different set, or degree, of agency in the context of your work from many of these other potentially hegemonic social experiments?

TB: I want to provide absolute freedom within a situation. There is no correct outcome. I tell people ‘be yourself.’ No one is going to judge you. Instead of a moment of suspension of disbelief, it is a moment of suspension of judgement.

JW: What kind of judgement is being suspended in these situations?

TB: What is ‘correct’ according to a mainstream, dominant ideology of the status quo. That and the social constrain saturating society. We see this in the United States everywhere – the idea of self-censoring ourselves. In my work, judgement comes afterwards for those who experience it and I hope it is a personal confrontation. It’s interesting actually, I see my work as a collective construction but yet a personal experience for those who participate.

JW: I want to go back to your statement that ‘art is living the future in the present’ because it is clearer to me now how the work is a rehearsal for a potential reality, while also being a reality. What responsibility to society do you think art and artists have for the present and the future?

TB: I believe artists have the privilege to see beyond the present moment the same way scientists do and can. Many people working in various disciplines do it. But art is different in that there is something lacking. While scientists, for example, think in futurity they also live it. They are trying to build it through research. Artists are more limited. Our presentation is very much limited to the imaginary. Why can’t we implement an idea of the future? That’s my claim and this is why I am very adamant when people accuse me of killing art or not wanting to be an artist anymore. I am trying to establish the right of artists to do this. Often we measure artistic creativity in relation to degrees of fantasy. To me it is much more interesting to consider creativity in relation to levels of implementation and what you can accomplish as an artist. For me, the times of representation are done. I’m not saying it should be dismissed. But when I see art that represents something (and it may be beautiful) it’s as if the full capacity of being an artist has not been achieved. There’s more, intellectually and otherwise. It’s one thing to present the problem. I like that. But then it’s a matter of ‘O.K. now how can we make this happen?’

I want to go back to your earlier question about aesthetics because for me aesthetics is present the entire time. Perhaps it’s because of my background, coming from a communist country and being raised to appreciate the beauty of the ethical gesture. It’s less about a material beauty or aesthetics of things as being beautiful. Instead, I am interested in the gestures we give to others as aesthetics, and how they make someone beautiful or remembered as a good human being. This is what I am trying to bring into the established discourse of aesthetics in art. I don’t consider what I do necessarily as performance art. I see my work as gestures. To me, this is aesthetical. I am much more moved by an ethical action I witness or experience than the viewing of a painting or a sculpture, or walking through an installation.

JW: Is this an unfolding artistic transformation? Is art becoming transdisciplinary or is it an expanded idea of art that is taking ethics and potentially other discourses into itself?

TB: We have a very different relationship with images today. Much of what was traditionally the purview of art is now produced by the media and the avalanche of citizen generated content. The next steps might be to create more complex relationships with images, which I consider important, but also to move the focus into broader humanistic territory that includes ethics. The other thing is that aesthetics entails brutal honesty and creativity. What makes a gesture affective and aesthetically valuable, as opposed to one that is false or based on convention only, has to do with asking how can you solve a problem or how you can respond in a way that creates a different vision for society. It’s not just making a nice gesture; it’s about challenging the vision of our world. This is why I don’t agree with socially engaged art that is ‘saintly’, where the artist and the work is a device to produce various experiences of happiness. For me, art is not about being happy. Art is about challenging the world. For that you need brutal honesty in your gestures. They are thinking gestures. You can be happy at the end, but it’s a painful road (laughs).

JW: You’ve said that working in the public sphere ‘should, in part, come from your ethical duty as a citizen, but the idea of helping people is murky territory. In the name of kindness many disasters have been created. I believe that art can help people, but the problem starts with what “help” means and for whom.’ How do you negotiate help, care, and need as a citizen and artist?

TB: It depends but generally I work with and around things I don’t understand. Sometimes you see a problem and you say, ‘the solution is so easy.’ Of course, it’s not easy because nothing social is easy. But as a spectator in the political moment you ask yourself why are they not doing what needs to be done? Sometimes it’s a very small thing that sparks it, sometimes not. For example, with immigration it has to do with not being able to speak for oneself and having to be assigned someone to speak for you. Why can’t immigrant voices be part of the political ecology themselves? In 2005, it was a small catalyst in a meeting when I was in Paris, meeting with a group of Algerian immigrants and witnessing a French woman assigned to speak for them. The Algerian woman was well versed in the law and a sophisticated speaker. She utilized brilliant strategies and political tactics to galvanize an entire community of Algerians in Paris. She didn’t need someone to ‘speak’ for her; she needed to be able to speak politically. Other times, it is a larger issue – like propaganda. The way the Pope is theatrically presented as apolitical when in fact he is part of one of the richest companies in the world. ‘Showing’ the world he feels the struggle of immigrants. Why not provide immigrants with papers rather than a gesture and theatrics of engagement and empathy? That is what they need. This is why I produced the campaign to make them citizens of the Vatican.

  About help, one of the issues is where you work. For example, how much responsibility do we have for something happening somewhere else? As an artist I don’t have a problem working other places, but it’s how you deal with it. One issue is that as artists we can be invited as a ‘band-aid army’ to parachute in with an art project. This is dangerous. The way I proceed is through what talks to me personally, and I know that can be perceived as counterproductive to socially engaged work.  Someone might ask how can I be focused on myself when I am making work about others? But it is the only way I find authenticity in the work. I’ve gone to places and decided I can’t do the work because it didn’t connect with me.

JW: Following up on your comment about invitations to produce work, what do you see as current or emerging concerns for socially engaged art and its relation to funding sources and institutions?

TB: One of the problems of doing these types of projects is the expectation that in a certain amount of time you are going to finish something. And when I talk about long-term I don’t just mean how long it will be visible or a participatory experience. I am referring to the amount of time you need to get to the right place to do the project and how long the work will resonate and produce change, politically, socially or otherwise. In art, yes, you condense an experience. In 2010, for example, I had an idea for a project and an opportunity to participate in a large-scale exhibition but I was in the research phase. Last year, I was finally ready with my idea but when I returned to the site the conditions were not appropriate for it to become manifest. Not as art. So this has to do with timing. Not just duration, but the appropriate moment. Even when an institution invites you to do a project and genuinely stands behind the work and its ethical intention, and offers funding support, it’s important to maintain openness to issues of timing.

JW: I want to give you an opportunity to talk about your recent detention in Cuba and the work produced during that eight-month period, specifically the performance that inaugurated the Hannah Arendt International Institute for Artivism, where you held a 100-hour reading of the philosopher’s book The Origins of Totalitarianism in your home beginning on May 20, Cuban Independence Day. I’d like to ask you to describe how the work evolved from a performance in your home into a work that entered more directly into the public space and political sphere.

TB: After the reading ended it was my intention to leave the house. I had been told by authorities (and even neighbours) not to go into the street. The authorities said, ‘We are not going to allow you to take the street… to go out as a rally,’ and I think they meant taking the art performance out into the street. But I have the right to go out of the house with my friends. When we came out of the house a pro-government civilian force was waiting down the street and came down to us shouting slogans and telling my friends and visitors not to shoot what was happening, even trying to take their cameras away (it’s very important in Cuba not to have evidence). By the way, I almost left earlier but changed my mind and that group was waiting down the street and started to approach my house, shouting slogans and making a scene. When they saw me re-enter the house they turned around and went back to wait until I came out again. There was also dubious construction work taking place outside my home that interfered with the volume of the speakers I set up out the door and the windows to send the reading into the street. Clearly this was planned and choreographed. My personal officer arrived when I did eventually leave and she got out of a car, along with Javier, the man who comes to my house regularly to ‘talk to me’ and I told them both I wasn’t doing anything illegal. They repeated that I would not be permitted to have a rally or ‘take the street’. So I had a choice. And I thought it was stronger that they took me into custody as an image and an experience, for reading Hannah Arendt’s book about totalitarianism, than making a scandal.

JW: So when did the work end?

TB: Actually three times. They kept reviving it and adding to it.

JW: Because they kept coming back?

TB: Yes! I told them –you’re doing the piece. Every time you do something you’re adding to the work. The other interesting thing is that I had over twenty interrogation sessions. They were very intense. At a certain point, I started talking about art. I told my assigned interrogation officer that we didn’t understand each other because it was an art piece. One of the last times I saw them before I left, when they presented me with my papers stating that my case was closed, one of them remarked that it was part of the ‘work’ (handing me the letter)… and that they understood I wanted to show the letter in an exhibition as art (laughs).

JW: Are there any persistent ethical issues you face that are difficult to resolve or continue to be an obstacle?

TB: Yes. Three things: The law, integration and issues regarding understanding ideas about art practice (especially as I work more and more in areas ‘outside’ the art crowd). I think integration is very key, especially if you work in communities that are not your own. Many times you have the glare, the ‘shine’, of an outsider. It is very dangerous and complicated. There needs to be the establishment of trust and in that integration you might have to change the work. It’s a big challenge. If you arrive with an idea… as artists we often come with an idea in mind and then execute it in a certain place. That is not very feasible in these types of projects. It’s about having a final goal and being open in how you navigate the situation without losing the goal. This is why I always talk about form in a different way. I acknowledge form. It’s very important and has an impact socially, but I like to work with open forms and consider how effective they will be. And then there is how different people understand art, both the art community and the community of the work. Sometimes it has to do with the art community and their insistence on defending artistic autonomy or protecting a certain history of art rather than saying ‘let’s just do this and find out later what it is or how it exists’… and it’s not just in terms of art’s history but also the idea of art’s packaging. I think that politically and socially engaged art that is really well packaged and presented is dangerous too. You can understand it really easily in its packaged form but if you go to the place where it exists or was generated it’s quite different. That’s why in Arte Útil we certify the work by talking to the producer or the community for which the work was done.

JW: And about the law? I’d like to ask about A-legalism. You’ve described it as a term that ‘refers to behaviour and actions that do not adhere to the letter of the law’ where ‘rules are bent or side stepped to achieve a desired outcome.’ Could you talk about the strategy of a-legalism and how you consider its relationship to ethics?

TB: Well, not all laws are just. The legal process is what produces sculpture from the State. A-legal is a situation that is not yet regulated by the law. So it is not illegal and it’s not legal either. It’s open, outside. As artists, it’s important with a-legalism that there is an understanding of how to highlight the flaws of the law, or aspects that have not yet been taken into consideration, in a way that makes it difficult for legal revision and change to occur. You have to be careful because there can be a backlash that can close a door. Artists are not the only ones using these spaces and it is more than a loophole. This is not a space inside the law. This is a space where the law has yet to take control and you can work faster than in a legal space. But you need to work quickly as well.

JW: Are there anything last thoughts would like to add about ethics before we finish?

TB: Yes! I want to talk about speed. It’s important to carefully consider how you determine when to accelerate or slow down the process. That is ethical as well. Sometimes you make a decision to accelerate things as a tactic and what you are doing is a violent act. But it may need to be done. The question is how do you carry the speed of the work. That’s important.

JW: Thank you, Tania. I very much appreciate you taking the time to answer these questions. You’ve illuminated a great deal about your work and your relationship to ethics in art.

TB: You are welcome. Thank you for the invitation.