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Saturday, December 19th, 2015

The State and the Studio: Coco Fusco on Performance Art in Cuba

Interdisciplinary artist and writer Coco Fusco has performed, lectured, exhibited, and curated around the world since 1988. Her work across media and in various formats explores the politics of gender, race, war, and identity, and she has been recognized through numerous fellowships and awards, including Guggenheim and Fulbright fellowships, among many others, and dozens of museum exhibitions, curatorial projects, and performances. Her latest book, Dangerous Moves: Performance and Politics in Cuba (Tate Publishing, 2015) is an examination of performative practices in post-revolutionary Cuba. The survey, which covers the last 35 years of performance—from live art, poetry, music and activism—examines how performance has been an effective means for challenging state control of public space, political discourse and the Cuban cultural milieu.  The project was made possible by the Absolut Art Award for Art Writing, which Fusco won in 2013, 

Fusco considers performances by artists such as Angel Delgado, El Sexto (Danilo Maldonado Machado), Sandra Ceballos, and collectives such as Omni Zona Franca, the Department of Public Interventions and Enema in light of how their work addresses the Cuban political context. While she discusses artistic censorship and the rules of conduct specific to the island, she compares Cuba’s situation with social and political restrictions in other contexts, including countries widely perceived as “free.” I recently spoke with Fusco about Dangerous Moves, and she expanded on these ideas and more.

Cover of Coco Fusco's "Dangerous Moves: Performance and Politics in Cuba," published by Tate, 2015.
Cover of Coco Fusco’s “Dangerous Moves: Performance and Politics in Cuba,” published by Tate, 2015.

LEE ANN NORMAN: In the book, you speak specifically about the unique political situation that gave rise to public performance practices in Cuba. Can you talk a bit more about that?

COCO FUSCO: I grew up during the Cold War, and at that time Fidel Castro was public enemy number one, spoken of publicly the way that Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden are today. Every news story about Cuba in the 1960s and 1970s underscored that there was no freedom there. It’s true that political culture on the island is more centralized and authoritarian than in the US, but it’s also true that in the US, for all the rhetoric about freedom, the art world is run by a very small elite, and artists who do not produce work that is in fashion have a hard time securing a place for themselves professionally. Just because we don’t talk about this situation as representative of a lack of freedom, it doesn’t mean that there is no policing of culture here.

Tania Bruguera, still from Tatlin's Whisper #6 (Havana Version), 2009. Installation with stage, podium, loudspeaker, video camera, microphones, and color video, with sound, TRT: 40:32. Courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum.
Tania Bruguera, still from Tatlin’s Whisper #6 (Havana Version), 2009. Installation with stage, podium, loudspeaker, video camera, microphones, and color video, with sound, TRT: 40:32. Courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum.

Right. I think as Americans, we tend to accept popular media narratives that show our society as the ideal liberal one, and everything else as repressive…

Americans don’t think about the rules of behavior that they conform to because they’re socialized not to see them. We do have very strong codes of conduct here, though. We tend to focus on controls relating to obscenity and sexuality, but think about social codes that are imposed in public spaces like shopping malls or schools. Let’s not forget the recent news story that went viral about Black women who visited a winery and were thrown off a train because they were laughing “too loudly,” whatever that means.

When looking at codes of conduct in Cuba, we have to understand the role they play in the shaping of political behavior. One of the articles of the Cuban penal code refers to social dangerousness, a term that includes public drunkenness and modes of behavior determined to run counter to socialist morality. There are Communist party officials and divisions within the Cuba police whose duty is to identity those engaging in these modes of conduct. There are also socially and politically unacceptable behaviors in the United States. The main difference is that in Cuba, power is centralized, which makes the repercussions for engaging in potentially criminal behavior more draconian. People operate with a clear sense of what is and what is not permitted. If they don’t know, someone will remind them very quickly.

How did performance emerge as a public action? What is that history in this context?

Performance produced self-consciously as art begins in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with a generation of young artists who wanted to shake things up. Their first forays were not so confrontational. Art students staged interventions in their classes because they felt the Soviet pedagogy being imposed on them was retrograde. Some of the artists who spearheaded the renaissance of the early 1980s in Cuba would stage performances privately for friends so they could experiment and not be interrupted. Some of their performances were about policing, state security, excessive bureaucratic control of culture, or the poor food that was being rationed to the population.

Things changed in the mid-’80s when artists such as Juan Sí González and Arte Calle (a group that tried to be clandestine but was “outed” very quickly) began creating street interventions without permission. The reactions varied. Some thought the work was too hot to handle. Others decried that it was not really art, but only a political provocation. There were other people who silently approved, but a sector of the art community expressed the fear that the more politically edgy artists were taking risks that would provoke negative reactions to young artists as a whole, and because of this they rejected their aesthetic proposals entirely.

Coco Fusco, A Room of One's Own: Women and Power in the New America, 2006-08. Courtesy of Alexander Gray Associates.
Coco Fusco, A Room of One’s Own: Women and Power in the New America, 2006-08. Courtesy of Alexander Gray Associates.

How were these artists and their performances received? Were critics and historians dismissive, thinking of them like fame seekers?

Some art historians and critics were dismissive of those artists at the time, but I don’t think anyone was saying that they were seeking fame. That wasn’t the language being used. You don’t get famous in Cuba by getting arrested. Many of the artists faced negative judgment by their peers. State bureaucrats said they were provocateurs, but the worst accusation that could be levied against them was that they were “dissidents” because it meant they would lose any protections they might have as artists. Their work would be reconfigured as political provocation, and it is the police’s job to handle that. I remember the time when critics and curators ignored performance art in New York. The commercial art world thought it was a joke. I certainly wouldn’t single Cuba out as being more opposed to performance than other countries, but the centralization of power in the state is special. The Cuban state has the power to determine an artist’s life in a manner that is not very different from the way that the art market wields power over artists in the United States.

What changes, if any, have you seen in Cuban performance art now that the US and Cuba are re-engaging diplomatically?

The rapprochement between the governments of Cuba and the United States in the past year has not produced a change that would conform to any notion of liberalization. On the contrary, what we’ve seen in the last year has been a rise in the detention of people doing street actions. Cuban culture is changing, though, in two ways.

First, the Ministry of Culture is, like all state entities, losing much of its state funding. Administrators are being encouraged to seek alternative sources of financing. The cultural ministry is getting more involved in joint ventures with private investors, both Cuban and foreign. For example, La Fábrica in Havana, a hybrid nightclub, bar, and exhibition and performance space in an old factory, opened not that long ago. It’s a joint venture between the Ministry of Culture, music promoters, and local musicians. The bars are run by private entities, and local designers have display stands throughout. This kind of public-private endeavor is happening more and more in Cuba.

The pursuit of hard currency has completely transformed the Cuban art sector in the past 25 years. Events such as the Havana Biennial rely on money from tourists — not only for funding the event, but also because the back room sales of Cuban artworks allow many artists to live comfortably for months, even years after the exhibition. As the public sector shrinks and the value of Cuban salaries declines, artists become more dependent on the sale of their work. The Ministry of Culture continues to wield power as the broker between artists and foreign collectors, dealers and curators. There have been a lot of articles in foreign press recently suggesting that Cuba has a treasure trove of great cheap art, so this is the moment for foreign collectors to get in and invest. That actually drove a lot of people to go to the last Havana Biennial. What we’re talking about here is economic change, not political change.

Fusco, Coco. Dangerous Moves: Performance and Politics in Cuba. (London: Tate, 2015). ISBN-13: 978-1849763264, 192 pages, $27.8

Danilo Maldonado Machado, performance photo, December 2014. Photo courtesy of Amnesty International.
Danilo Maldonado Machado, performance photo, December 2014. Photo courtesy of Amnesty International.