TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT May 2019

RISE TO THE OCCASION

Tania Bruguera, Homenaje a Ana Mendieta (Tribute to Ana Mendieta), 1985–96, re-creation of Ana Mendieta’s artworks, unrealized projects, lectures, exhibitions, interviews, and texts. Photo: Gonzalo Vidal Alvarado.

THERE’S A TENDENCY to dismiss artistic gestures created in the white heat of the political present—they don’t rise above the complexities of their moment or have anything to say to future generations. The Cuban artist Tania Bruguera begs to differ. For the past decade or so, she has referred to such work as political timing specific.1 The phrase is a clear riff on site-specific, a term devised in the late 1960s to describe an anticommercial way of making sculpture within the physical remit of a given space, such that the work could not be resituated without its destruction. But this analogy is a false friend: The only thing political timing specificity has in common with site specificity is disposability once the moment has passed. In fact, political timing specificity is a response less to art than to the conventional forms and gestures of political activism: a fist in the air, a demonstrator holding a placard, people assembling for a march or a sit-in. Bruguera points out that those in power have developed counterstrategies for this kind of protest. (Politicians don’t show up to their offices during a demonstration, for example, or they claim that the demonstrators were paid.) For Bruguera, activism needs to operate in less predictable ways—and this is where the idea of political timing comes in.

Of course, art has long served to make activism more vivid and thus generate media attention. The best-known examples have mobilized graphic design, such as the Art Workers’ Coalition’s galvanizing anti-Vietnam poster And Babies?, 1969, and Gran Fury’s unforgettably trenchant work for ACT UP (1987–95). Art can also leverage its own institutions to bring visibility to an ongoing issue or long-term campaign, as in Laurie Jo Reynolds’s “legislative art”; with support from arts organizations like Creative Time, Reynolds’s project Tamms Year Ten, 2008–13, successfully closed down Tamms Correctional Center, a supermax prison in Illinois. A third genealogy comprises those who embrace strategies of performance and body art (Guerrilla Art Action Group, Suzanne Lacy, the Yes Men), and it is with this category that political timing specificity seems to resonate most strongly.

Tania Bruguera, Memoria de la Postguerra I (Postwar Memory I), 1993, ink on newsprint, 13 3⁄8 × 8 3/8".

BRUGUERA COINED THE TERM political timing specific because she felt that Western critics and curators focused on the cultural and anthropological dimensions of her practice, rather than on its political dynamics, which are unique to Cuba—the country where she grew up and where her most significant work has taken place. Two of Bruguera’s earliest projects seem especially useful in illuminating the meaning of political timing specificity, albeit within the particular temporality of socialism, which is characterized by the experience of crippling stasis rather than capitalist hyperacceleration. Bruguera began the first, Homenaje a Ana Mendieta (Tribute to Ana Mendieta), 1985–96, shortly after the suspected murder of the older Cuban American artist, when Bruguera was still a student at the Escuela de Artes Plásticas San Alejandro in Havana. Mendieta, who had left Cuba in 1961 at the age of twelve as part of the US government’s Operation Peter Pan, had been disowned by Cuba, despite her trips to the island and her continuing influence on the nation’s artists. For more than a decade, whenever Bruguera was invited to participate in exhibitions in Cuba, in addition to presenting her own work, she would reenact one of the late artist’s performances—effectively reinscribing Mendieta into the history of Cuban art.2 She ended the project in 1996, after receiving a visit from a Cuban art-history student working on a dissertation about Mendieta, who was also the subject of a major traveling retrospective that year. These developments indicated to Bruguera that her intervention had accomplished its goal: Mendieta was now firmly established in Cuban art history.

The second example overlaps chronologically with the first, and took place during el período especial (the special period), the Cuban economic crisis prompted by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Bruguera again responded to the official erasure of those who departed, especially artists, musicians, authors, and playwrights. She published two newspapers titled Memoria de la postguerra (Postwar Memory) (I in 1993 and II in 1994), suggesting a comparison between the special period and the trauma that follows war. The island’s economy had shrunk dramatically, leading to food and power shortages so severe that more than thirty thousand Cubans fled on rafts in 1994 alone.3 Bruguera’s newspapers are among the very few documents of the special period created outside official circuits: Inflammatory gestures of counter-publicity in a country still lacking a free press, they disrupted state control of Cuban history and media by placing work by cultural producers who had emigrated alongside work by those who had stayed. The first newspaper masqueraded as the catalogue to Bruguera’s solo show at the Galería Plaza Vieja in Havana and led to the artist’s receiving a warning from the government to cease distribution. After the release of Postwar Memory II, Bruguera was brought in for questioning while the state confiscated and destroyed all of the copies they could find.4

Tania Bruguera, Memoria de la postguerra II (Postwar Memory II), 1994, ink on newsprint, 12 1⁄4 × 8".

Despite their very different durations, both of these projects exemplify a way of working that has been inadequately addressed in Western art history: the Latin American tradition of the intervention, one of the paradigmatic modes of political artmaking during the era of the region’s military dictatorships. The artist makes a precisely targeted gesture that chafes against a given situation on a number of levels, drawing the attention—and possibly the ire and censorship—of government authorities. Such interventions, generally carried out in urban space, became powerful public expressions of dissent from the mid-’60s onward. Think of Brazilian collective 3Nós3 placing plastic-bag “hoods” over public statuary in São Paulo (Ensacamento, 1979), or the No + (No More) slogan of Colectivo Acciones de Arte, which, beginning in 1983, was spray-painted on walls, where it was completed by the public, as a sign of resistance to Augusto Pinochet. Closer to Bruguera’s context, the group Arte Calle covered themselves in gold paint and walked through the streets of Havana with signs saying síganos, somos de oro (follow us, we’re made of gold); once they had gathered a crowd, they jumped into the polluted bay (Easy Shopping, 1988). The action was a riposte to the government’s decision to raise hard currency by setting up casas de oro (pawnbrokers) to buy Cuban’s gold and silver heirlooms for less than their true value. Existing on a spectrum from poignantly melancholic to barbed and ironic, such actions do not fall neatly under the Western rubrics of activism or public art; they are fly-by-night gestures designed to reach the widest possible audience, sometimes at great risk to the artists. They’re not commissioned or invited but self-initiated; they stem from urgency, frustration, and daring. We could use more of them in the US.

Tania Bruguera, El susurro de Tatlin #6 (versión para La Habana) (Tatlin’s Whisper #6 [Havana Version]), 2009, stage, podium, microphones, loudspeakers inside and outside of the building, two persons in military uniforms, white doves, one minute free of censorship per speaker, two hundred disposable cameras with flash. Performance view, Centro Wifredo Lam, Havana, March 29, 2009. From the 10th Havana Biennial.

THE CURRENT DISCOURSE on art activism, or what Bruguera calls “artivism” (another mode in which she has often worked), fails to capture a crucial aspect of these political-timing-specific interventions. Rather than advocating a cause, art that is political timing specific usually poses a question or issues a challenge. This tendency can be elaborated via a consideration of what political theorists call a conjunctural analysis. The idea of the conjuncture traverses leftist political theory from Antonio Gramsci to Louis Althusser to Stuart Hall to Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. Hall articulates it most clearly: “A conjuncture is a period during which the different social, political, economic and ideological contradictions that are at work in society come together to give it a specific and distinctive shape.” A conjunctural analysis is partly an attempt to define the contours of the present moment; it’s also a way to determine future action. For Hall, conjunctural analysis “forces you to look at many different aspects, in order to see what the balance of social forces is and how you might intervene, or have a better idea of how to intervene effectively.”5

The concept of the conjuncture can itself be considered an intervention in Marxist theory. Rather than relying on economic determinism, or what Hall called “vulgar materialism,” it requires an articulation of overdetermination, mapping a “complex field of power and consent, and looking at its different levels of expression—political, ideological, cultural and economic.”6 The conjuncture thus opens onto theoretical avenues that cannot be accessed through abstract transhistorical accounts of class or ideology. Above all else, the conjuncture is particular. Gramsci’s examination of the rise of Italian fascism in the Prison Notebooks (1929–35) is conjunctural, Hall argues, because it “often appears . . . too concrete: too historically specific, too delimited in its references, too ‘descriptively’ analytic, too time and context-bound.”7 Similarly, works of art that are political timing specific often appear too closely tied to the particularities of their moment. They were immediately legible at the time of their appearance, but now require considerable explanation to be understood (as in my earlier description of Arte Calle).

Tania Bruguera, El susurro de Tatlin #6 (versión para La Habana) (Tatlin’s Whisper #6 [Havana Version]), 2009, stage, podium, microphones, loudspeakers inside and outside of the building, two persons in military uniforms, white doves, one minute free of censorship per speaker, two hundred disposable cameras with flash. Performance view, Centro Wifredo Lam, Havana, March 29, 2009. From the 10th Havana Biennial.

The twentieth-century concept of the conjuncture is underpinned by a much older idea, going back to Machiavelli’s guide to the dark arts of power, The Prince (1532). Machiavelli puts forward the idea of occasione, the right moment for political action, an opportune alignment of circumstances that those who are savvy can exploit.8 Rather than subscribing to an absolute code of good and bad (e.g., Christianity), Machiavelli revolutionized political philosophy by encouraging amoral relativism, advising that each situation be dealt with on its own terms. The prince must be willing to use his virtù (understood here as virtuosity, not virtue) as necessity and opportunity dictate. Two different and morally opposed actions may both be justifiable, depending on the context. The ends justify the means.9

Machiavelli’s book sparked a resurgence of interest in the Roman goddess Occasio, counterpart of the Greek god Kairos. Both deities are depicted with wings on their ankles, to be used for a quick escape, and carry razors so they can cut themselves free if someone tries to hold them down. The backs of their heads are already shaven, so they cannot be grabbed by their hair. Suggestively, the root of the word kairos is in archery, where it has a dual meaning, “an opening” and “due measure,” because the shot “requires not only accuracy, but also the right amount of power . . . to pass successfully through the opening.”10 Such a fleet-footed figure, combining an aesthetics of velocity and accuracy with judicious evaluation—Kairos also carries a pair of scales—offers a suggestive image of the artist who, uninvited and unexpected, makes a provocative gesture before the authorities have a chance to work out their position in response.

Tania Bruguera, Untitled (Havana, 2000), sugarcane bagasse, video (black-and-white, silent, 3 minutes 47 seconds), performance with four performers of Cuban descent. Performance view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2018. Photo: John Wronn.

THIS CONVERGENCE of speed and precision can be seen in Bruguera’s most complicated forays into political timing specificity, #YoTambienExijo (I Also Demand), 2014–15, which is less a work of art than a saga whose consequences are still reverberating in Cuba today. The project began with Bruguera’s attempt to restage one of her own works, El susurro de Tatlin #6 (versión para La Habana) (Tatlin’s Whisper #6 [Havana Version]), 2009, a performance that originally took place at the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Wifredo Lam during that year’s Havana Biennial; members of the audience were invited to step up to a podium and speak freely for one minute.11 Bruguera revisited this work in December 2014, in response to Raúl Castro and Barack Obama’s agreement to resolve the diplomatic impasse between the two countries. Acting quickly—sending a metaphorical arrow, with due measure, through the newly opened window of political uncertainty—Bruguera wrote an open letter to the two leaders and their intermediary, Pope Francis, in which she listed her demands “as a Cuban”: freedom of speech, freedom to protest, open elections, an end to social inequality. At the end of the letter, she proposed, “as an artist,” that Castro exhibit El susurro de Tatlin #6 on Plaza de la Revolución: “Let’s open the microphones and let all voices be heard.” The call was taken up by others on social media under the hashtag #YoTambienExijo.

Although the December 2014 reperformance was stopped before it even began—Bruguera was arrested at 5 AM on the morning of the event—the result was a protracted drama played out by the artist and the Cuban government. Each staged their own PR battle: Bruguera on social media (with the assistance of her sister in Italy and of the international art world) and in person during the 2015 Havana Biennial, where she unofficially performed, in her home, a one-hundred-hour reading of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). The government, by contrast, distributed a video to the Instituto Superior de Arte that denounced Bruguera as a traitor and troublemaker, removed her from the official list of Cuban artists distributed to international art professionals, subjected her to weekly interrogations, and organized a team of workers with jackhammers to noisily “repair” the street outside her home during her reading. Years later, the war continues: In the spring of 2018, hackers blocked two of Bruguera’s email addresses and managed to close down her website; last December, she was arrested once more for opposing Decreto 349, a new law that prohibits artists, musicians, and performers from operating in public or private spaces without prior approval by the ministry of culture.12

Tania Bruguera reads from Hannah Arendt’s 1951 The Origins of Totalitarianism in her home, Havana, May 20, 2015. Photo: Enrique de la Osa.

We can see how a project like #YoTambienExijo seized the new historical conjuncture of Obama’s overture to Castro and the end of the almost-sixty-year-old US embargo. This reconciliation built on Castro’s reforms of the Cuban economy in 2011 and 2014 (permitting foreign investment and moving to a hybrid public-private model), and indeed, Obama had his own reasons for reversing half a century of US antagonism (a desire to improve hemispheric relations, to secure the Cuban-American vote, and to subjugate Cuba through less confrontational means, i.e., co-opting the small-business sector). Yet it was uncertain what this agreement would mean for ordinary Cuban citizens, in terms of the state regulation of overseas travel and internet access, the ongoing difficulty of obtaining medicine, and the punitive dual-currency system, which protects imports at the expense of domestic salaries. The resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries heralded the possibility of certain freedoms—but Bruguera wanted to be sure that this would not be limited to the free market of laissez-faire capitalism. The speed of her open letter exposed the irony of that moment: Being a “good” revolutionary subject, loyal to the principles of the Cuban Revolution, meant questioning the government and thus being branded a traitor. The consequences of her action were and continue to be disruptive for her, both personally and institutionally.13

It should also be clear that an intervention like #YoTambienExijo demands a conjunctural analysis. After all, in conventional art-critical terms, it is barely conceivable as a work: It is a failed attempt to restage a performance. Such an analysis also prompts us to reconsider what might be meant by artistic materials. Political-timing-specific art seeks to activate forces that already exist in the social and political landscape—desires and affects more usually manipulated by those in power. By mobilizing these energies, #YoTambienExijo intervenes in the conjuncture in two ways: It not only exposes the political contradictions of its moment (i.e., the fact that artists are the ones upholding the values of the revolution while the government betrays them), it also indirectly reveals the contradictions of Cuban daily existence, in which doublethink has become the norm. When foreign visitors ask Cubans what they think of Bruguera and #YoTambienExijo, Cubans find themselves in a difficult and even dangerous situation. The response, invariably, is to condemn Bruguera’s motives as egotistical and attention-grabbing for the sake of her own international career. Undoubtedly, some truly felt this way, and yet there is really no other answer a prudent Cuban living under perpetual surveillance can give.

Logo for Tania Bruguera’s #YoTambienExijo (I Also Demand), 2014.

FOR MANY DECADES NOW, Euro–North American art history has exported its terminology to the rest of the world, despite the fact that concepts like “institutional critique” and “performance art” are not readily transposable to other contexts. Likewise, there is a certain awkwardness to translating political timing specificity to our own milieu. It seems obvious that such interventions will look very different in Cuba, China, and Russia than in so-called liberal democracies, where culture is less micromanaged and dissent has (at least until recently) been viewed as healthy. This difference is manifest in the respective terminologies by which we label opposition: The dissident in authoritarian regimes is referred to here as an activist. Political timing specificity sits between these positions, dissident and activist, yet differs from both, because it seeks to expose contradiction rather than to express indignation or propose solutions.

Today in the US, the barbarities come thick and fast: Cops continue to murder black men with impunity; ICE kidnaps babies from parents seeking asylum; corporations have increasingly free rein to dump chemical waste in drinking water; a stolen Supreme Court majority declares execution by torture constitutional. None of these stories gets the coverage it deserves, because the media is willingly diverted by a constant vomiting of tweets from the president. Meanwhile, my phone buzzes throughout the day with alerts to call members of the House of Representatives, fax senators, sign a petition, show up at a march. Artists who seek to raise consciousness about current events need to contend with the warp speed of the twenty-four-hour news cycle and the eviscerated attention span of contemporary culture and, by extension, of contemporary art. The idea of political timing specificity might serve as an invitation to operate precisely at the breakneck speed of social media—in other words, to beat the attention economy at its own game.

Although it’s difficult to find direct equivalents to the Cuban situation, a handful of recent gestures in the US that exploit political timing might include Parker Bright’s decision to stand in front of Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, 2016, for two days during the 2017 Whitney Biennial; Christoph Büchel’s 2018 proposal to preserve the prototypes of Trump’s wall on the US-Mexico border as Land art and to make them national monuments; the Yes Men’s circulation of a “fake” edition of the Washington Post announcing Trump’s resignation in January of this year; even curator Nancy Spector’s letter of response to the Trump administration’s request to borrow a van Gogh painting from the Guggenheim Museum, in which she instead offered Maurizio Cattelan’s golden toilet, America, 2016.14 While some of these projects are designed primarily for the eyes of the art world, rather than for the public at large, they are clear, sharp, direct, and readily legible to their intended audiences.

Artists have long internalized the idea that they should spurn topicality for timelessness, responding to current affairs only indirectly. Art shouldn’t be too tied to a particular moment in history, so the theory goes, if it wants an extended life on the market. Yet our own historical conjuncture demands a different way of thinking. In the Prison Notebooks, Gramsci argues that the conjuncture requires the immediate politics of “tactics” and “agitation.”15 Mobilizing the media is crucial to this task of agitation—unsettling habitual perception when history shifts gears. Gramsci was writing in the late ’20s and into the ’30s, grappling with the collapse of a revolutionary project that had been hegemonized by the far right. His work has terrible echoes today. A decade ago, we never imagined that fascism would step out of the history books and into our current, living reality. Artists can respond to this shadow in many ways: activism, artivism, legislative art, and numerous other forms of social engagement. Another tool in the kit is the mobilization of political timing, the material that politicians themselves use to such great effect. Artists, too, can think like politicians—using their cunning and virtuosity to harness attention and generate gestures that circulate rapidly and virally, to the widest possible audience, including (and especially) those in power.

Claire Bishop is a professor in the Ph.D program in art history at the CUNY Graduate Center, New York.

NOTES

1. As the artist phrases it, “Arte en sincronía con el tiempo politico.”

2. A familiar strategy in contemporary art since the millennium, reenactment was still an outlier in the mid-1980s. Bruguera herself prefers the term rehacer, “redoing,” which connotes something more like digestion—a metabolic incorporation rather than academic repetition.

3. Fidel Castro announced in August 1994 that anyone wanting to leave the island could do so on a raft. By the end of that month, the US Coast Guard had rescued 21,300 Cubans off the Florida coast. See Jorge Duany, “Cuban Migration: A Postrevolution Exodus Ebbs and Flows,” Migration Information Source, July 6, 2017, www.migrationpolicy.org/article/cuban-migration-postrevolution-exodus-ebbs-and-flows.

4. A third example would be the installation Untitled (Havana, 2000), a work commissioned for the Havana Biennial that year. The theme of the exhibition was Uno más cerca del otro (“closer to one another”), and Bruguera’s installation staged proximity: In a dark, tunnel-like space, the floor strewn with sugarcane, four barely visible naked men performed repetitive movements, such as brushing themselves and bowing; a small video monitor, suspended from the ceiling, showed footage of Fidel Castro exposing his chest to the camera. Bruguera’s work was aimed at the US tourists who had just recently started to flood the island, romanticizing its relics of the 1950s and buying up Cuban art. But the installation was immediately censored by the cultural authorities, who cut off its electricity. The work has since been restaged several times, including in Okwui Enwezor’s “All the World’s Futures” at the Venice Biennale in 2015 and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2018.

5. Stuart Hall and Doreen Massey, “Interpreting the Crisis,” Soundings, no. 44 (Spring 2010): 58.

6. Hall and Massey, “Interpreting the Crisis,” 65.

7. Stuart Hall, “Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity,” Journal of Communication Inquiry 10, no. 2 (June 1986): 6.

8. Machiavelli situates occasione between fortuna and virtù—the political leader takes advantage of fortuna (luck) to use his virtù (in the sense of political cunning).

9. Machiavelli’s treatise was taken up by Gramsci in “The Modern Prince,” where he suggests that the modern-day Communist Party might assume the role played by the prince: He proposes Machiavelli’s motif of the centaur as an image of the revolutionary party, holding contradictory forces together—coercion and consent, authority and hegemony, tactics and strategy, agitation and propaganda. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), 170.

10. Joanne Paul, “The Uses of Kairos in Renaissance Political Philosophy,” Renaissance Quarterly 67, no. 1 (Spring 2014): 46. Paul refers to R. B. Onians, The Origins of European Thought About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time and Fate (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 345.

11. The work contains other important elements, but there is insufficient space to enumerate them here. See Claire Bishop, “Tania Bruguera at the 10th Havana Biennial,” Artforum, Summer 2009, www.artforum.com/print/200906/tania-bruguera-at-the-10th-havana-biennial-22960.

12. Amnesty International notes: “Individuals or businesses that hire artists without [Ministry of Culture] authorization can be sanctioned, and artists that work without prior approval can have their materials confiscated or be substantially fined. Under the new decree, the authorities also have the power to immediately suspend a performance and to propose the cancellation of the authorization granted to carry out the artistic activity. Such decisions can only be appealed before the same Ministry of Culture (Article 10); the decree does not provide an effective remedy to appeal such a decision before an independent body, including through the courts.” See “Cuba: New Administration’s Decree 349 is a Dystopian Prospect for Cuba’s Artists,” Amnesty International, August 24, 2018, www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/08/cuba-new-administrations-decree-349-is-a-dystopian-prospect-for-cubas-artists/.

13. The Cuban government has harassed and intimidated Bruguera’s elderly mother, attempted to shut down the artist’s Instituto de Artivismo Hannah Arendt, and hauled in most of the latter’s international visiting speakers for interrogation. Yet such upheavals are not as severe as they are for Cuban cultural producers who lack Bruguera’s connections. During the 1990s, the artist was protected by her father’s proximity to Castro—it was he who brought her in for questioning after the publication of Memoria de la postguerra; the newspaper’s printer, however, was jailed for six months. Today, Bruguera’s status in the international art world acts as a shield. She is continually interrogated, and then released; she was placed under house arrest, but not imprisoned. At the same time, her actions can result in greater difficulties for other artists on the island: It seems likely that #YoTambienExijo was a catalyst for Decreto 349, but the law deals a much harsher blow to Cuban cultural producers without opportunities abroad.

14. Philip Kennicott, writing in the Washington Post, argued that Spector’s gesture was a work of art. See Philip Kennicott, “An Art Critic Explains What the Guggenheim Was Really Saying When It Offered Trump a Golden Toilet,” Washington Post, January 26, 2018, www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/museums/an-art-critic-explains-what-the-guggenheim-was-really-saying-when-it-offered-trump-a-golden-toilet/2018/01/26/953b49c4-021c-11e8-bb03-722769454f82_story.html.

15. Gramsci contrasts the conjuncture to the “situation,” which relates to “strategy” and “propaganda” by those in power. Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 177.