Cuban Artist Tania Bruguera Wants to Open the Institute of Artivism in Havana

Alexandra Martinez
April 1, 2016

From: Martinez, Alexandra. “Cuban Artist Tania Bruguera Wants to Open the Institute of Artivism in Havana” New Miami Times. April 1, 2016. 

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Cuban Artist Tania Bruguera Wants to Open the Institute of Artivism in Havana

Alexandra Martinez

One of the driving goals behind Fidel Castro’s 1959 Cuban Revolution was the alfabetización (literacy) campaign. The country believed that reading and writing radically empowers the individual, allowing them to cultivate thought. Today, Cuban artist and activist Tania Bruguera is taking that movement a step further.

Bruguera is calling for civic alfabetización: a campaign to educate locals about their rights as humans. She wants to open  the Institute of Artivism/Instituto de Artivismo Hannah Arendt (INSTAR). It would be a space where locals and international visiting artists can create peaceful tools for policy change and civic literacy. 

“I realized that a lot of the political violence was because people lack understanding of their rights,” Bruguera says. “We cannot read what we want, some things are forbidden, and we cannot write what we think. We need to learn to be free. A lot of Cubans do not know what freedom is.

“With all this transition, education should be a key element for people to understand what’s going on.”

Cuba is in the midst of historic change. After President Obama’s visit, American corporations Cisco, General Electric, and Google have already announced they’re working on deals with the Cuban government. But as commercial doors open, locals still suffer from censorship. Dissident artists and activists are getting detained on a weekly basis. Most recently, Danilo Maldonado Machado “El Sexto” was detained for four hours while attending a Porno Para Ricardo concert — Escándalo Público — held the same day as the Rolling Stones concert. 

Bruguera is no stranger to this plight. After Obama announced neutralizing ties with Cuba in December 2014, the artist was detained three times for trying to organize a public performance about free speech in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución. She had planned to set up a microphone and invite people to express their visions for Cuba.

“I was censored and [the piece] forbidden to show in Cuba. I realized then that this new relationship with the U.S., it was not for us,” she says. “We need to have discussion about what are building up. Are we going to be capitalist? Are we going to be Russia? That’s what I want the Institute to be, a way to unpack all of these paradoxes in a way that people can navigate nonviolently.”

She plans to open INSTAR in her home in Old Havana, a central neighborhood where locals and tourists coexist. The institute will host artists, politicians, economists, and philosophers from all over who can engage and educate the local Cuban community. But most important, the institute will use art as a powerful communication tool. Bruguera sees art as a way to help people project the change they want to see.

“We want to change the culture of complaining to a culture of action,” she says. “I think artists can work and deal with the imagination of people; through art we can come up with a different way of seeing ourselves. Through art, you can create a space in which you behave in a world you want, not the one that exists.” 

She’s crowdfunding the project through Kickstarter and has already surpassed her $100,000 goal. The prizes Bruguera has designed for donors are not typical benefits. Pledging $100 will get you a message “mule” — the artist will personally deliver a message to whomever you want in Cuba. A donation of $250 or more can get you a “blackmail” — she’ll have someone follow you around and find something to blackmail you with. These prizes are representative of the lack of trust Cubans experience daily.

“I want people who pledge to understand the psychological pressure you’re under when you do this type of work. I came up with rewards that reproduce in a way what you have to go through or how you feel,” she says. “In Cuba, there is a phrase that I love: ‘No sabes el pasadoque te espera.’ You never know what past awaits you.”

Now that INSTAR is fully funded, the project will begin this September. Ultimately, Bruguera hopes to see Cuba move away from the cultura de resolver (culture of resolving) and grow into “a place that is still where people can see themselves and be proud of themselves.”