San Francisco

Tania Bruguera, Autosabotage (Self-Sabotage), 2009/2017, table, chairs, sound system, 38-mm firearm, video projection (color, sound, 12 minutes 9 seconds). Installation view. Photo: Charlie Villyard.

Tania Bruguera, Autosabotage (Self-Sabotage), 2009/2017, table, chairs, sound system, 38-mm firearm, video projection (color, sound, 12 minutes 9 seconds). Installation view. Photo: Charlie Villyard.

Tania Bruguera

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Tania Bruguera, Autosabotage (Self-Sabotage), 2009/2017, table, chairs, sound system, 38-mm firearm, video projection (color, sound, 12 minutes 9 seconds). Installation view. Photo: Charlie Villyard.

Over the past several decades, Tania Bruguera has pioneered a distinct form of socially engaged art, located at the intersection of performance art, institutional critique, and activism. She coined the terms Arte de Conducta (Behavior Art) and Arte Útil (Useful Art) to describe facets of her practice in which she strategically elides the division between art and life with projects that have included a school that she ran out of her house in Havana (Cátedra Arte de Conducta [Behavior Art School], 2003–2009), a newspaper she published in collaboration with Cuban artists living inside and outside the country (Memoria de la Postguerra I, II, III [Postwar Memories I, II, III], 1993–2003), and a community resource center for immigrants she founded in Corona, Queens (Immigrant Movement International, Corona, 2010–15). These works were among the many on view in “Talking to Power/Hablándole al Poder.” Bruguera’s sprawling, durational pieces defy traditional conventions of museum display. Rather than trying to overcome tensions between her transient, participatory interventions and the institutional drive to arrest and preserve, however, the show heightened them—reinforcing the critical force of her practice.

If the exhibition of performance art has traditionally focused on questions of authenticity and presence—implicitly or explicitly questioning the extent to which documentation and/or reenactment can convey an intrinsically ephemeral experience—Bruguera sidesteps such debates altogether because she is less concerned with faithfully re-creating the past than with ensuring efficacy in the present. The exhibition presented a number of “updated” projects (as Bruguera calls new versions of works), altered and reactivated by current political conditions. Documentation of selected original pieces was largely relegated to an anteroom, while the gallery space proper was devoted to five large-scale installations that alluded to specific works but did not attempt to restage them. Wandering around these rooms, one felt an acute sense of absence. For instance, for the performance work El susurro de Tatlin #5 (Tatlin’s Whisper #5), 2009, the artist invited an audience of hundreds of Cuban citizens to “freely express their thoughts” for one minute each at a podium. This exercise—inherently fraught in a country where political dissent is still stifled—was represented by a vacant stage on which two video cameras were trained, as footage from the original event played in their tiny viewfinders. A video of the 2009 lecture work Autosabotage (Self-Sabotage)—during which Bruguera infamously played a game of Russian roulette—was screened in a room full of empty chairs facing away from the projected image and toward a table upon which rested an unloaded gun. Both presentations stressed the mediated nature of documentation, as well as the viewer’s remove from the lived event.

In opposition to the playful, participatory bent of much relational aesthetics and the laboratory-like spaces associated with “New Institutionalism,” this exhibition refused feel-good rewards, easy fixes, or simple answers. Even the few opportunities for interactivity—such as the chance to send a postcard to Vatican City to petition the pope to grant citizenship to immigrants and refugees (The Francis Effect, 2014–), or to cast a vote on whether borders should be abolished (Referendum, 2015–16)—function as mere symbolic gestures, leaving us with the nagging feeling that we should take more concrete action. And while it is precisely within the symbolic or representational realm that art achieves some of its most potent political effects, the emancipatory possibilities of practices such as Bruguera’s were not presented as automatic or given in this show. To really combat oppressive systems, Bruguera seems to insist, will take a lot more than spending an afternoon in a museum.

Yet if the show withheld emotional catharsis and abstained from visual spectacle, it also offered occasion to explore art’s capacity to intervene within global power structures. This was exemplified in Escuela de Arte Útil, 2017–, an evolution of Bruguera’s earlier Cátedra Arte de Conducta: an intensive six-week course on Behavior Art taught by the artist in one of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ galleries. On the day I visited, some forty university students and museumgoers were earnestly discussing art’s potential to bring about social and political change. Bruguera was there to facilitate the conversation, though there was nothing special or dramatic about the artist’s presence. It was an ordinary classroom—a place for slow, incremental grappling rather than sensational pronouncements or climactic revelations—but also unquestionably a space of hope and change.

Gwen Allen