A pioneer of the arte útil movement – in which art goes beyond aesthetics and is a tool for social change – Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera aims to transform audiences through her politically charged work. “I have been fighting not only for my ideas but also to break this illusion that art to be art has to be useless, has to be apolitical.” By Rosemary Forde.

Performance artist Tania Bruguera

Tania Bruguera.
Tania Bruguera.
Credit: Claudio Fuentes

One of artist Tania Bruguera’s most iconic works is a performance involving two mounted policemen conducting a series of crowd control techniques on visitors to the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. With reference to the Soviet Modernist artist Vladimir Tatlin’s proposed monument for the Communist International, Tatlin’s Whisper #5 (2008) brings the choreography of control and power into the unexpected setting of a museum. It is a work that forces the audience to consider their response, agency and behaviour as the mounted police patrol, manipulate and direct the movement of people.

It seems fitting, then, that I meet Bruguera in the studios of the Victorian College of the Arts, which once held the stables of the Victoria Police Mounted Branch. For more than 30 years, the Cuban artist and activist, self-defined as an “artivist”, has engaged with free speech, institutional power, migration, displacement and social and political resistance. Working itinerantly, though currently based in both Havana and New York City, she has been repeatedly interrogated, surveilled, arrested and detained by Cuban police because of her art and activism. Bruguera breaks the ice with a joke about this as we sit down in these converted police stables.

Bruguera’s art education began in Havana. She studied at the Escuela de Artes Plásticas San Alejandro and the Instituto Superior de Arte in the 1980s and early ’90s, and later completed a master of fine arts in performance at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Many of her long-term art projects have also been educational endeavours. Behaviour Art School (Cátedra Arte de Conducta) (2002-09) was a free school that she founded and directed in Havana, and its curriculum focused on political and social art practices – fields of knowledge then ignored by mainstream art education in Cuba. More recently she organised the School of Integration (2019) at the Manchester Art Gallery, offering a wide range of classes – on food, language, music and more – taught by migrants to the city.

But when I ask Bruguera about her education, her thoughts do not go to those institutions or pedagogical artworks. Rather, she speaks of the cultural education she experienced growing up in Cuba – a country she describes as very performative. “Because people could not say what they think, they used metaphors and tropes and figures of speech to talk about the things they could not say,” she says. “In that way, I felt that I was in an environment that was highly creative. And also, I felt that the revolution itself was a big performance.”

Given that she comes from this culture, perhaps it is no surprise that Bruguera’s artwork is both performative and politically charged. Increasingly, the artist has taken politics – or what she calls “political-timing specificity”, referring to the context of any given political moment – as what could be considered a medium or material in her work. But Bruguera believes that art should not exist simply to provoke. She says, “Political art should not be shown indiscriminately; it should be shown when it’s needed. It’s very hard for a piece to have some current urgency after a while.” Ultimately, she wants her artwork to be useful.

So much so, the artist has even put forth the concept of arte útil – “useful art” or art that can be an effective tool – as a guiding force in her own practice, and has co-founded the Asociación de Arte Útil. Through the association’s research, Bruguera and her collaborating partners have developed an archive of “useful” artworks and advocate for this form of work. Arte útil is an ambitious movement; one of its eight criteria for useful art is to “re-establish aesthetics as a system of transformation”. No small task.

Thinking again of Tatlin’s Whisper #5, and the unpredictable jostle between the bodies of policemen, horses and the unsuspecting audience, I wonder where exactly the artwork lies. What is the artistic material here? Are the audience members Bruguera’s collaborators, or are they part of the work? To Bruguera, it is simple: her artistic material is collective behaviour.

“I think we have been under the spell of apolitical art, or the misconception that you can be apolitical. In my experience, everything is political,” she says. In pushing her artistic agenda of arte útil, she has found that “I have been fighting not only for my ideas but also to break this illusion that art to be art has to be useless, has to be apolitical”.

Developing the archive of arte útil has been a key strategy in this advocacy work, whereby the research and reappraisal of artworks, events and projects throughout history have provided precedents of artworks functioning as tools or devices for social and political change. The archive was presented as the Museum of Arte Útil at the Van Abbemuseum in the Netherlands in 2013-14. There, researchers documented more than 200 works – in some instances stretching the definition of art – that provide a collective benefit beyond their aesthetics. The archive, and Bruguera’s own relationship to art history, is focused on making historical moments useful and relevant to the present day.

While still a student, Bruguera began remaking or reperforming works by Ana Mendieta, a Cuban artist a generation older who had migrated to New York, where she suffered an untimely and violent death in 1985. Working from archival documentation, Bruguera continued performing Mendieta’s works for almost a decade, in a manner that can be seen as both a personal homage to an artist she admired and a strategy to keep Mendieta in people’s minds until she was ensured a place in art history.

I am curious as to what Bruguera learnt through this process, which sounds like an apprenticeship with the phantom of Mendieta. Bruguera laughs. She says she learnt “everything” from inhabiting Mendieta’s works. More specifically, she continues, “for me it was very important because at the time there were no contemporary female artist role models, very few. I learnt about the idea of country, because she was Cuban but she lived outside of Cuba, so [there was] this idea of how you imagine a place, what it means to belong to a place. And also, I discovered performance.”

Over time, Bruguera also came to understand, as she explains, that “art requires people”. Her works moved from the traditional mode of a performer addressing passive spectators to a more participatory structure. She realised she needed to shift her thinking about the role of the audience. Today, her art is often “asking the audience to become”, she says – to become someone or do something in order to take part in the work.

This ambition is evident in the Hyundai Commission Tania Bruguera: 10,148,451 (2018), in which an invisible mural-sized portrait of Yousef, a young Syrian refugee in London, was laid on the floor of the Turbine Hall. The portrait was revealed when bodies came together to activate the heat-sensitive surface. But the warmth of 300 bodies was needed to unveil the complete image, so in reality it was only ever a partial transformation, with individuals leaving ghostly impressions on the floor. Indeed, for an exhibition context usually concerned with spectacle, much of Bruguera’s Turbine Hall commission was perceived in fragments, experienced intangibly, accessed through complex and shifting layers.

Bruguera says her real interest lies in “how can people use art”. By this she means “we have to shift the idea of art as something to be revered in a church, towards art as something that is part of your everyday life – something that is a device that can help you be a different person”. She stops short of saying a “better” person.

Alongside Yousef’s portrait, Bruguera also established Tate Neighbours, a group of 21 individuals who live or work within the museum’s postcode – many with antagonistic or ambivalent relationships to the mega-institution. Facilitated by the artist, the group was paid to meet weekly for six months and develop interventions aimed at bringing the Tate into closer connection with its local community. One such change involved renaming a wing of the museum in honour of a local community activist and social worker, Natalie Bell.

While this work can be seen as an exercise in community outreach on behalf of the institution, Bruguera is clear: if the project had been treated generically, “then it’s just for the use of the institution”; however, this was avoided through the precision and specificity of the artistic process. For her, a joy of Tate Neighbours was to see “how you can put a group of people together that would not naturally exist. That’s why I think it’s art because it’s not a homogenic group, so it would never happen unless it’s art. How do you do that and then transform that conflicted relationship into something where they have power to make some change?”

For Bruguera, audience numbers are not a mark of success. “It’s about the quality of the relationship,” she says. When invitations come from galleries and museums that do not seem equipped to support the expectations and “aftermath” of community-building projects, she does not accept. She takes her role seriously: “We have to push institutions, that’s our role as artists, but we have to do it responsibly.” Unlike a provocateur, who does not take responsibility for their actions – “they provoke something and walk away” – Bruguera is committed to “remembering that you work for you and the community, and not for them”, the institution.

With the nature of her work – on a global stage, intervening in large public institutions – many of Bruguera’s projects require long-term investment, both financial and emotional. She admits to getting tired. Not least, she says, “because you do the work, but maybe 30 per cent of the work or more is educating the institution”. Yet working with people and guiding collective behaviour is clearly in her skill set. She recognises that “if you’re an artist, you know how to work with the emotions of people”. It is a point she sees as a further link between art and politics. “I also think that emotion, which is the realm of art, is a political device used by politicians to get their aims,” she says. “We [artists] are also expert in the same thing.”

Bruguera, who will exhibit in Australia as part of the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, is now considering how to work with the political moment that is defined by Donald Trump. She knows 2020 will be the right time, and that the challenge will be to interject effectively in a cultural environment that is both overwhelmingly contradictory and simplistic.

“The times are so politically charged and we, the people who have studied history, we know that we are repeating a history that already existed. We know where this is going,” she says. “People think that this is alarmism. It’s not alarmism; it’s understanding that history is repeating itself.” Given her history of detainment by the Cuban authorities, and with the country’s enforcement in 2018 of Decree 349, which prohibits any art practice – in public or private space – that is not authorised by the Ministry of Culture, it is hard to ignore her warning.

“I was raised in a situation in which ethics were beautiful,” Bruguera said recently during a speech at Monash University, reflecting on her youth in Cuba. “We were moved by things that were ethically beautiful. And that’s the kind of art I want to do, an art that creates an ethical ecosystem that is different.”

In the “political-timing specificity” of today, Bruguera sees no other way of making art than to engage with politics and emotion, and to lift the expectation of what is required of audiences and museums. Her demand that art be useful may require more from artists and their work, but it is a demand that suits the times. “If you have a CNN news feed on your phone,” she says, “it’s very hard to pretend to be an artist in the studio 24/7, not knowing what’s happening on the outside.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 7, 2019 as "Change of art".

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