Cuban Agitator Turns Crowdfunding into Performance Art

Images courtesy of Kickstarter

In some countries, handing a stranger a microphone and allowing them an uncensored minute of speech is a relatively insignificant action, but in others, it’s revolutionary. This performance work, Tatlin’s Whisper #6, which found Cuban artivist Tania Bruguera giving Havana passersby the chance to speak their piece for 60 seconds, earned the artist one of three back-to-back detentions by police. Now, she’s raising funds for INSTAR, or the Institute of Artivism Hannah Arendt, which will bring together Cubans and international artists to study their craft and become effective artistic agitators. But with donation rewards like "Tania will start a rumor about you in the art world. You have the option [to select] the subject of the rumor,” Bruguera’s not running your everyday crowdfunding campaign—she’s creating art through fundraising. We asked Bruguera about politics, activism, and her cheekily thought-provoking Kickstarter performance art. 

There are few if any programs like the one you are proposing– arts activism in an academic setting. Why do you think arts activism is something that should and can be taught?

Slowly you see here and there programs that link art with politics, art with activism and socially engaged art. People in the arts are starting to feel more comfortable saying they want to be active citizens and that they want to use the tools they have—art—for this. The task we have in front of us is how to go away from using art as an illustration tool (to make something visible) or a propaganda tool (to be used by politicians) and instead make art people can use.

For me the question in the arts right now is not “How?" (form), “ When?" (place/time), “By/for whom?" (authorship/audience), but “What for?" which is locating the projects in a political and ethical path. The time when people lived under the impression that they could avoid being political is gone, people now are aware that politics are in all aspects of our everyday life and that we can’t remain indifferent.

Art is a place where we can bring new tools by which to express ourselves in the public sphere, [and]is a safe way to rethink ways in which we can be together.

I think Artivism should be taught because citizens around the world are giving up their rights to governments and corporate interests.

Can you give me an idea of some of the lessons you will be teaching aspiring art activists? 

For security reasons we can’t reveal all we are working on and with whom, but we are preparing a program with artists that have a history as activists and that have proven their commitment to civic causes of social equality, freedom of expression and against state surveillance. We are also working closely with economists, philosophers and politicians who are trying alternative economies, societies and political organizing.

What we are looking for in the workshops, working groups and residencies is to bring paradoxes to be analyzed and hopefully challenged.

Who were the art activists that most influenced you in your formative years as an artist? 

In my formative years I had no exposure to activism, I lived in Cuba where the government co-opted all the civic society spaces and organizations, making mandatory that those spaces and organizations be supportive of the Revolution. Dissent was linked with treason and disgracefulness to the leaders. So it was a process for me to understand what to be a citizen meant.

I came to study my MFA in Chicago, a great city to learn about activism, there I had as one of my professors at the Art Institute Gregg Bordowitz, and I learned about Act Up. At some history of performance class I learned about the Guerrilla Girls and that was a great discovery, although back then I didn't make the most of it. Then I discovered Greenpeace at an exhibition curated by Rosa Martínez. More recently the work of Anonymous, Enric Duran, Christoph Schlingensief, Aaron Swartz, Wikileaks, Edward Snowden and Wochenklausur to name a few are my references. But the biggest influence was my experience at Occupy Wall Street.

After understanding the need to learn more about this, together with the Van Abbemuseum, we started an archive of Arte Útil, which is a place where you can find multiple examples of artists trying to make the world function in a different way.

Do you have plans for the design of the school? Are you going to reflect the mission of the building into the design of the building? 

The Institute will be in my house in Havana. The way in which we are building the structure of the program is as a:

—Think tank, for policy change.

—Do tank, for actions and performances in the public sphere.

—Wish tank, for developing a vision of a different society.

What are some of your Kickstarter awards? 

The rewards are shaped in the spirit of my work and of my experience in Cuba last year. Some of the rewards are:

—I will spread a rumor about you in the art world. You have the option to select or not the subject of the rumor. This one was gone in less than 24 hours, we had to re-open it on a second batch and is going fast.

—We will hire someone to follow you and we will find something we can blackmail you with.

—I will give away my Instagram password.

But my favorites are:

—Blame Tania Bruguera for something you have done. The backer will inform us what I will be taking the blame for and send documentation of the blaming action (photo or video). The documentation will be posted on the official campaign page.

—Message to an interrogator:  you can tell me what you want to say to the interrogator, if I’m ever detained again.

—You will have the opportunity to ask me anything (no boundaries) for a truth or dare game. You will have the option to revert the roles and be the one asked. One question only. The process will be documented. I reserve the right to turn the resulting piece into a performance/artwork; if so, the backer will be credited as primary instigator. They will receive a certificate.

One very important aspect of the rewards is that if you really want one reward  and don't have enough money you can pool resources with your friends to purchase a reward as a group.

For this project, crowdfunding seems to have become just an extension of your performance. Can you speak to this? 

Using Kickstarter is a way to exercise a popular vote on a project that is about civic participation. It is also a way to protect the project. The more people supporting it the harder it is for the Cuban government to prevent its opening; it is a collective message.

I will confess that if I do not accomplish the Kickstarter campaign I, very probably, will not start this project, so it is an all or nothing, I can’t do the institute if people do not want it.

To donate to the Institute of Artivism, click here

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