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Voices: How Cuban Artist Tania Bruguera Is Defining ‘Artivism’

President Obama has completed his historic three-day trip to Havana, an event that shifted the dynamics of the two countries' relations. But for those who want to be part of a new and pluralistic Cuba, this is when the work begins. Internationally renowned Cuban artist Tania Bruguera wants to make sure they have the right tools.

Artist Tania Brugera. Kickstarter

Whether Bruguera's playing Russian roulette with live ammunition or sitting naked in a box made of meat eating the pages of a Cuban history book, her work is riveting. Always bringing along the spectator into an uncomfortable and painfully truthful space, her art is as visceral as any I've experienced.

Last year, when I got the news she was arrested attempting to recreate her piece Taitlin's Whisper in the Plaza de la Revolución, I couldn't help but smile; if anyone could get under the Cuban government's skin, it's Tania.

Everybody from the Guggenheim to the MOMA to Tate Modern advocated for her release. Thankfully, after many weeks, she was, only to be re-arrested and put under an unofficial house arrest for months. This only made the artist stronger; Bruguera managed to make the Cuban government's actions part of her greatest performance piece ever - one of artistic civic engagement. And a year later, she's inviting the world to join her.

Bruguera has launched an ambitious Kickstarter campaign which she will use to open the Institute of Artivism / Instituto de Artivismo Hannah Arendt (INSTAR). The institute will serve as as brick and mortar as well as an online platform where international artists can collaborate with Cubans to create peaceful tools for policy change and advance civic literacy.

Rewards for support range from a membership to INSTAR to her telling Cuban security anything you want the next time she's arrested. Which considering the current tenor of the regime's apparatus seems inevitable, even though she is creating this institute within the parameters of current Cuban law. Any Cuban can join for one peso, a requirement as she applied and received a cuentapropista license from the government.

Curious about the aims of what could end up being a very impactful work of art, I asked Tania about her plans.

What would you want to tell somebody who doesn't know anything about Cuba?

I would like for people that don't know anything about Cuba as well as those who think they know all about Cuba, to stop projecting onto us their fantasies, stop judging Cubans that have a story to tell that differs from what they want to hear and try to understand what is happening in its own context.

How can the world collaborate with improving civic society in Cuba?

The Cuban government has a long history of creating and co-opting institutions that belong to civic society. Unions defend the employer instead of the employee, it's a perversion. Accountability meetings in town halls praise people in power whether they have done their duty or not. Groups that call themselves civil society work for the government and I could go on and on.

Artist Tania Brugera.

So people coming to Cuba who want to "help" need to be aware of these dynamics. That doesn't mean that work can't be done, but they need to understand what the real consequences of their work are, who they're collaborating with and what is the actual outreach their projects will have. Sometimes it's all a theater to please the visitor, to project the social or personal fantasy that person has.

Another aspect that is hard to deal with is that so many important people, who could give some of their knowledge to alternative projects or who could push more for institutions to be civically engaged, would trade that "difficult conversation" and "hard work" for meeting one of the historical leaders of the Revolution or to keep their institutional contacts in the island in good terms.

People have a soft spot for Cuba, therefore, they let go things that they would not tolerate in other countries. Just because it's happening in Cuba they find a way of justifying it.

Cuba should be measured by the same standard of the rest of the world. An injustice in Cuba should not be justified, it should be seen as an injustice. The world needs to see Cuba for what it is today, not for what it projects itself as. At INSTAR we want to give them a chance to do that.

What would make you consider your institute a success?

INSTAR is a long-term project, therefore, success should not be expected as instant gratification but as the result of a long and sustained series of small victories by which people will gain confidence on the power they have.

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