Whose Side Are You On? A Response to Coco Fusco

If anyone were to undertake a protest without official permission in or around Parliament Square – the putative heart of democracy in the UK – they should be aware that there was a high probability that they would be arrested.[1] When Cuban artist, Tania Bruguera, announced, in December 2014, that she was intending to make a performance–protest in Havana’s best-known public square, despite having being denied official permission, her arrest was met with inevitable cries of censorship. Coco Fusco – who has offered an interpretation of the ‘context and implications of the performance’ for the Anglophone world – concedes that unauthorised protests in the US would risk similar reprisals. The first thing to note, then, is the blatant hypocrisy deployed when Cuba is discussed.

The second thing to note is that the performance Bruguera proposed to undertake was a restaging of a provocation she had already executed in the Cuban capital. At the Havana Biennial in 2009, the artist offered visitors an opportunity to speak from an amplified podium, flanked by two figures in the olive green uniforms of the Revolutionary Armed Forces who would escort speakers away from the stage after permitting them one minute of unencumbered oration. In case the point Bruguera was attempting to make was too opaque, the website of the Guggenheim Museum – the epicentre of the US corporate cultural machine which acquired the work in November 2014, just one month before its proposed reactivation – tells us that Tatlin’s Whisper #6 is intended as a ‘temporary platform for the free speech normally denied in Cuba’. Similarly, Fusco takes as the starting point for her analysis the abiding perception that ‘the Cuban government still does not allow its citizens to express their political views in public’, and argues that, to assume this situation would have been altered by the recent US-Cuban rapprochement, would be ‘politically naïve or disingenuous’.

It is no surprise that freedom of expression is the first resort of those seeking to discredit alternatives to capitalism. David Harvey notes that ‘The founding figures of neoliberal thought took political ideals of human dignity and individual freedom as fundamental, as “the central values of civilization”. In so doing they chose wisely, for these are indeed compelling and seductive ideals. These values, they held, were threatened not only by fascism, dictatorships, and communism, but by all forms of state intervention that substituted collective judgements for those of individuals free to choose’.[2] In repudiating capitalism and its ideological justification, Cuba has prioritised collectivism over individualism and spent more than half a century fielding accusations about the loss of individual freedom this implies.

When the US sociologist, C. Wright Mills, visited the island in the summer of 1960, he met many of the key figures within the leadership and conveyed the impression to his readership back home that the less the Revolution felt menaced from the outside, the purer expressive freedom would be. The menace remained. Ten years into the revolutionary process, six renowned Latin American writers and cultural commentators came together in Havana to discuss the role of the intellectual in revolutionary society. The Cuban writer, Edmundo Desnoes – whose novella, reflecting the anxieties of a society undergoing acculturation, would form the screenplay of Tómas Gutiérrez Alea’s 1968 film, Memories of Underdevelopment – indicted himself and his fellow writers for creating the illusion to visiting foreigners that there existed an absolute freedom to express oneself without recognising the demands of a society in revolution.

At times, the limits of the relative freedom accepted by revolutionary intellectuals have become palpable, with two landmark moments serving as examples. The first of these involved a thirteen-minute black and white cinéma vérité-style film called PM. The film was funded in Cuba by champions of free expression responsible for producing a cultural supplement, published by the main revolutionary newspaper every Monday, on the condition that it would be screened on Cuban national television as part of a weekly half-hour slot they had been charged with programming. After the national television premiere of PM, nothing much happened. Closely aligned with the European avant-garde, the same group then attempted to secure cinematic distribution for the short film, which was denied. This was May 1961. A few weeks earlier, Cuban émigrés, tacitly supported by the CIA, had attempted to launch an invasion of Cuba, via the Bay of Pigs, which the majority of the population – with artists and writers among them – had felt compelled to repel. In response to the first rumblings of this invasion, Fidel Castro had finally given a name to the growing process of nationalisation and redistribution that was being enacted in Cuba – socialism – sending shock waves rippling across the Florida Straits. In various quarters of the cultural field, wider circulation of PM’s portrayal of nocturnal abandon was considered inappropriate at such a politically sensitive time; others, particularly those involved with commissioning the film, foresaw the shadow of Stalinism being cast over the island. The heated nature of the polemic that ensued – which was as much personal as it was political – gave rise to three animated meetings in June 1961. At the last of these, it fell to Fidel to provide guidance for future cultural policy. Unlike previous socialist societies, freedom of form was guaranteed; only freedom of content remained at issue, the parameters for which were succinctly encapsulated in Fidel’s maxim ‘Within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing’. In other words, all artwork that was not explicitly counterrevolutionary would be welcome. And, although this sentiment was superseded a decade later (as discussed below), it may still be used as a benchmark against which to measure Tatlin’s Whisper #6 and its proposed restaging as #YoTambienExijo [I Also Demand].

Tatlin’s Whisper #6 aka #YoTambienExijo is entirely symbolic. It is not intended to canvass the actual views of participants – if this were the case, there would be far more methodologically effective and ethically rigorous means. Rather, as we have seen, the performance–protest is intended to imply that the people of Cuba have no public forum in which to express their views. Added to this, the public space of its proposed restaging is one of Cuba’s most symbolic, as Fusco acknowledges in her 2012 video work, La Plaza Vacia [The Empty Square]. It is in Plaza de la Revolución that the most significant public speeches and mass gatherings have been staged since 1959. It was here that Fidel Castro read out the letter that had been left for him by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara before he departed on his mission to Bolivia, while large sections of the international media revelled in its fatal outcome. It was here that Pope John Paul II addressed tens of thousands of Cubans in 1998 and his successor, Pope Benedict, returned to conduct Mass in 2012. Mention of the pontiff is significant as Pope Francis was – together with Raúl Castro and Barack Obama – one of the addressees to the letter in which Bruguera outlined her intentions, his inclusion serving as a thinly veiled allusion to the repression of the Catholic Church of which Cuba historically stood accused. Adding insult to revolutionary injury, the earlier iteration of Bruguera’s performance re-appropriated the white dove that landed on Fidel’s shoulder during the first speech he made after the triumph of the Revolution, which was widely interpreted as a sign of peace and hope. The combined effect of Bruguera’s gestures is clearly intended as ‘more of a political provocation than an aesthetic gesture’, as president of the Cuban National Council of the Fine Arts (cited by Fusco) rightly pointed out. Whipping up a furore around the alleged censorship of a recycled artwork when the eyes of the world are watching can only be interpreted as an act against the Revolution.

Returning to the history that further helps us to contextualise Bruguera’s intentions, the second major debacle to shift the parameters of Cuban approaches to culture was the so-called Padilla case, which simmered from 1968 before dramatically erupting in the spring of 1971. Having spent time in Moscow, Budapest and Prague, the Cuban writer, Heberto Padilla, committed himself to patrolling the boundaries of free expression in his poetry (published under such titles as Out of the Game and Provocations). In March 1971, he was arrested on suspicion of engaging in counterrevolutionary activities, in and around the manuscript of his novel, En mi jardín pastan los heroes [Heroes are Grazing in My Garden]. Padilla’s arrest prompted a letter, addressed to Fidel by fifty-four prominent intellectuals, including Europeans and Latin Americans who had previously been sympathetic to the Revolution – such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Italo Calvino and Gabriel García Márquez – and those who already had publicly broken with it. Initially intended as a private missive, the letter – expressing concern about the ‘use of repressive measures against intellectuals and writers’ in Cuba – was leaked to Le Monde and promptly re-circulated around the world. Padilla the provocateur was released the following month and made a public confession of his misdeeds. Dripping with irony, his speech was deliberately reminiscent of the Moscow show trials. This eventually prompted another letter to Fidel, more strongly worded than the first, which was disowned by several of the original signatories. In the meantime, Fidel responded with angry indignation to the ill-informed criticisms of often-fraught revolutionary processes that were being unleashed from the comfortable salons of Paris, London, Rome and New York. This kind of intervention was deemed inappropriate and unwelcome, creating a rift between Cuba and the leftist intelligentsia that the forces of imperialism (particularly the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom) did all they could to exacerbate.

The parallels between the Padilla case and the Bruguera affair are uncanny. Both involve the temporary detention of a high-profile creative producer. Both have at their core creative works that seem aimed as provocations, rather than genuine attempts to stimulate dialogue. Both are predicated on knowingly probing the well-defined boundaries of Cuban tolerance. Both depend upon the attention of an international audience, including external protagonists less than sympathetic to the Revolution. Both make sinister allusions about events in Cuba – from ‘repressive measures’ to ‘concerns about Bruguera’s whereabouts’. Both rely on the perception outside Cuba of freedom of expression as the Achilles heel of socialism.

Fusco has made no secret of her opinions. Her public presentations, peppered with snide asides about the Cuban government, predictably adopt free speech as a stick with which to beat Cuba. Framing high-speed internet access as a basic human right, she identifies citizen journalists with access to mobile video technology as performance artists (which must make Indymedia one of the most performative spaces in the world as footage of confrontations with authority flood in from its four corners). Recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a collaborator of MoMA, Tate and MoCA, Fusco has consistently aligned herself with so-called dissidents, collaborating with Yoani Sanchez on the aforementioned video and giving exposure to the work of blogger, Elicér Ávila, who is supported by money from the US National Endowment for Democracy, designed to preserve US interests in Latin America as the Congress for Cultural Freedom did before it. Fusco is also a full-time faculty member at Parsons The New School for Design, which potentially adds credibility to her views. However, the limits of academic objectivity were succinctly identified by Chicago School sociologist, Howard S. Becker, in his seminal text, ‘Whose side are we on?’[3] This exposed the ‘hierarchy of credibility’ at play within society, ensuring that those with the most power and access to information are perceived to be those with the most valid opinions. In placing tenured academics at the top of this hierarchy, Becker argued that those who adopt the dominant position in their work are – despite assumptions of neutrality – nonetheless taking sides and thereby helping to maintain the existing order. In commissioning Fusco to comment on the Bruguera affair, the editors of e-flux exposed the prejudices of their location.

Bruguera also occupies a lofty position within the hierarchy of credibility. Her Havana-based pedagogical artwork, Cátedra Arte de Conducta [Professorship in Behavioural Art] (2002–9), has been interpreted by Claire Bishop as an attempt to ‘produce a space of free speech in opposition to dominant authority’,[4] and her Museum of Arte Útil [Useful Art] was presented at the Queens Museum of Art, New York, and the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven. (Both Bruguera and Fusco enjoy the privilege of moving relatively freely between Cuba and the US, which, until recently, has been denied to the majority of citizens from either of these countries.) Cognisant of the cultural history of her country, Bruguera well understands its limits, inviting a lawyer to advise Arte de Conducta students on the legal and media implications of performing in the public sphere. As Fusco documents, Bruguera was left in no doubt – by officials in the cultural field and the denial of permission – about the wisdom of attempting to restage her performance, but she chose to persist regardless. Questions remain about what she hoped to achieve by remaking this provocation at the precise moment her homeland faces an opportunity to cease being menaced.

And what of the other artistic provocations, mentioned by Fusco, which have met with reprisals in Cuba? Again, double standards are at play here. How far would a performance be permitted to proceed which involved pigs named Barack and Michelle being led to Central Park? What would happen to an artist who pissed on the Stars and Stripes anywhere outside of liberal New York City? Perhaps the hypothetical artists would not be incarcerated and their gestures would be repressively tolerated. Perhaps this would depend on whether any attacks had recently been made upon US territory or whether the President was engaging in discussions designed to alleviate half a century of systematic – and disastrous – discrimination. Either way, high-profile cultural institutions with partisan boards and generous donors would surely think twice about offering exhibitions to the dissenting artists, and their voices would be silenced through equally ‘draconian measures [designed] to enforce […] hegemonic control over public space and discourse’.

In his interrogation of US cultural interventions in Latin America, Christopher Lasch observed that:

American intellectuals are not subject to political control, but the very conditions which have brought about this result have at the same time undermined their capacity for independent thought. The American press is free but censors itself. The university is free, but they use their freedom to propagandize for the state. What has led to this curious state of affairs? The very freedom of American intellectuals blinds them to their unfreedom. It leads them to confuse the political interests of intellectuals as an official minority with the progress of intellect. Their freedom from overt political control […] blinds them to the way in which the ‘knowledge industry’ has been incorporated into the state and the military-industrial complex. Since the state exerts so little censorship over the cultural enterprises it subsidizes […] intellectuals do not see that these activities serve the interests of the state, not the interests of intellect. All that they can see is the absence of censorship; that and that alone proves to their satisfaction.[5]

It is those labouring under the illusion of freedom who most need to visualise its limits and the consensus that exists between academia, culture and the media.

In Europe, the limits to free expression have been made manifest around the satirical French magazine, Charlie Hebdo. While persistent mockery of Islam resulted in journalists paying the ultimate price, the same magazine neglected to stand by one of its veteran cartoonists when a reference to the alleged Jewish links of Sarkozy’s son was greeted with accusations of anti-Semitism. Like Islam, Cuba is an easy target in the US and, to a large extent, Europe. Ultimately, the Bruguera affair reveals more about the artist and her champions than it does about Cuba.

Two weeks after Fusco’s comment on Bruguera’s arrest was dispatched by e-flux, an announcement reached inboxes from the related Art and Education mailer. This heralded a forthcoming conference, coordinated by Fusco and involving two e-flux editors, to discuss the profound economic inequalities that persist in the cultural field. All the issues that ‘The Artist as Debtor: The Work of Artists in the Age of Speculative Capitalism’ proposed to explore – from the Romantic notion of artistic talent to the disparity between those making art and those profiting from it – are endemic to capitalism, not just in its ‘speculative’ form. Since artists in the capitalist world have realised that their work is largely valued in economic terms and their place within society is by no means guaranteed, it has become clear to most that an alternative is needed to this inherently iniquitous system. The Marxist-humanist philosophy underwriting Cuban cultural policy inverts the logic at play within the capitalist system by valuing artists according to their contribution to society, as reflected in Bruguera’s conception of useful art. Aviva Chomsky, who has attempted to discuss the contradictions of the Cuban process in a nuanced way, concludes that ‘If we want to imagine a better world for all of us, I can think of no better place to start than by studying the Cuban Revolution’.[6]

This text was originally posted on Metamute on 29 January 2015.

[1] While the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 repealed sections of the 2006 Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, which criminalised any demonstrations made within 1Km of Parliament Square, it remains a crime to engage in any ‘prohibited activity’ within the same exclusion zone. See: Liberty-human-rights.org.uk/human-rights/free-speech-and-protest/protest/protest-around-parliament

[2] David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 5.

[3] Howard S. Becker, ‘Whose side are we on?’ Social Problems, Vol. 14, 1967, pp. 239–247.

[4] Claire Bishop, ‘Pedagogic Projects’, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London and New York: Verso, 2012), p. 248.

[5] Christopher Lasch, ‘The Cultural Cold War: A Short History of the Congress for Cultural Freedom’, B.J. Bernstein (ed.), Towards a New Past: Dissenting Essays in American History (London: Chatto & Windus, 1970), p. 347.

[6] Aviva Chomsky, ‘Relations with the United States’, A History of the Cuban Revolution (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), p. 195.

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