Days prior to President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba on March 20, a provocative art concept has been announced by one of the island’s most controversial and successful artists.
Through a Kickstarter project, renowned artist Tania Bruguera is raising funds to convert her home in Old Havana into an international “Institute of Artivism,” which would be open to dissidents, artists and intellectuals from across the world.
She was arrested on her way to do an art performance that consisted of placing an open microphone in the center of Havana’s iconic Revolution Square and inviting people to speak their minds.
As punishment, her passport was clipped for eight months. She described that period, which included regular “visits” by Cuban state security, as “psychological torture.”
“This project came out of that experience,” Bruguera told me on a phone call from New York, where she lives when she’s not in Havana. “At that time I learned that political violence is to be fought with knowledge and civic education, and that’s what I’m doing now.”
Bruguera is very serious about her latest project, but also admits that it is something of a “test” for the Cuban government. Alternative cultural or art projects in the nation are routinely discredited and accused of being funded by the CIA or other U.S. government agencies, she said. (In some cases, these claims have turned out to be true.) But by crowdfunding her project through Kickstarter, Bruguera says she will be able to have a detailed list of all her funders; the names of each donator will be written on the walls of the art institute, she said.
“We are going to be completely transparent,” Bruguera told me. “What we will be able to show is that it’s not a government, it’s just random people who believe in this type of art.”
In addition to money coming from abroad, efforts are being taken to collect “very modest” contributions from Cubans on the island—something, she says, that “will help show that this project is for them, and by them.”
Already, the Cuban government has granted her a provisional permit to move forward with the project.
The project has funded over 30% of its $100,000 goal. If the goal isn’t met by April 7, all of the pledged money will be lost.
“This institute is intended for reflection and discussion, but also as the advancement of ideas that can result in change,” Pablo Helguera, director of Adult and Academic Programs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, says in a video for the Kickstarter project. “It is this integration of a political involvement in all that we do that makes this project worth supporting.”
The project has been selected as a “Project We Love” by Kickstarter, giving it a little more promotional oomph than some other projects.
Bruguera’s work is in the permanent collections of the MoMa, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and the Cuba’s Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana, among others. Her works and performances have been seen in exhibitions from Peru to Istanbul to South Korea.
In 2009, her Havana performance of “Tatlin’s Whisper”— the same open mic performance she was arrested trying pull off in 2014— was denounced by the Cuban government after people said the words “freedom” and “democracy.” She had previously done similar shows in London, New York, and other cities.
Despite being prevented from doing the show in Cuba in 2014, Bruguera said it was still a success, but in a different way than she originally intended. “[It was] one where the government is the one who ended up performing,” she said. “The world was able to witness the way that the Cuban government reacts to uncomfortable questions.”
She’s starting to meet some resistance again from Cubans who support the government. She said someone recently sent an email mocking her project to her entire mailing list, in a move she thinks is the beginning of a harassment campaign.
“My take on it is that they’re waiting to see if we get [the full amount],” she said of her Kickstarter project. “In Cuba, art is going to be a dealbreaker for other civic activities, and I don’t think they’ll let it go too easy.”
I asked her if she knows of any planned artivism events that might coincide with President Obama’s visit next week.
“Let’s say: The information I have cannot be disclosed,” she laughed.
We’ll just have to keep our eyes open for it.