March 31, 2009
OPC Blog Entry 8
March 31st, 2009
Yesterday we hosted a lunch for young artists – both Cuban and non-Cuban – who have lived and worked in Havana. We spoke informally about their experiences as students in Cuban institutions and with experimental arts education. We learned of the ambiguous relationship between Bruguera’s collaborative art school Arte de Conducta and the state-run Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA), which offers programs in the visual arts as well as in dance, music, theater, and architecture. Many of the artists with whom we spoke had been students at ISA, and even earned degrees there, while simultaneously participating in Arte de Conducta.
The students described how their professors consistently expected hard work and mature projects, refusing excuses such as the lack of resources and studio space. Further, some of the artists we spoke to considered these limitations as an encouragement towards collaboration. Among a group of seven or eight students, one might own a video camera, one might be able to get their hands on editing software, and another might possess studio space. The same was true in regards to access to information. Anyone who returned from travel abroad with an exhibition catalogue would often see the book transfered from hand to hand across a large portion of Havana’s young arts scene before it returned to its owner.
Throughout this trip, we have been intensely interested in the socio-political context for art in Cuba but it was only in this informal setting that the artists we have been spending time with opened up to us about their personal experiences — negotiating bureaucracies, racial tensions, and economic hardship. Even then, the foreign students, hailing from Colombia and the Virgin Islands, were the most open about their perceptions of social and political pressures on artists in Cuba. Arte de Conducta had only a small percentage of non-Cuban students, as Bruguera was reluctant to open up her project to students who typically already had opportunities to participate in comparable forms of arts education.
March 30, 2009
GUILLERMO GÓMEZ-PEÑA, photographed by Zach Gross, 2007.
OPC Blog Entry 7
March 30th, 2009
Guillermo Gómez-Peña generously invited us into his dressing room and rehearsal space minutes before his performance, which took place in the outdoor courtyard of the Wifredo Lam Center. Amidst the pre-performance hubbub we spoke with Gómez-Peña and six of his collaborators not only about the impending event but also about broader issues related to practices removed from art world centers.
While speaking with us, Gómez-Peña and his collaborator Roberto Sifuentes emphasized their efforts to tailor each performance to the local conditions of its presentation. The performance at the Lam Center was no exception. Their collaborators included artists from across Latin America, but Gómez-Peña and Sifuentes took care to include Cubans in the planning and execution of their piece as well.
In response to our question about his role as an internationally renowned artist returning to a radically local situation, Gómez-Peña described himself as a permanent border-crosser, narrating his experiences of performing at Latino community centers in San Antonio one evening and at the Tate Modern the following week. Gómez-Peña explained his practice is characterized by a constant opposition to stasis – a refusal to refusing to be situated in one context or the other.
We asked Gómez-Peña his opinion about the pressures facing young Cuban artists during the Havana Biennial, when they are confronted by a temporary influx of artists and curators from the United States, Western, Europe, and other art world centers. Gómez-Peña replied that it was a difficult question, one that he needed to think more about. Though aware of the danger that local artists might be compelled to assimilate into the predominant languages of contemporary art, Gómez-Peña displayed a generally positive attitude about the potential for increased familiarity with international practices that foreigners could offer Cuban artists.
March 29, 2009
OPC Blog Entry 6
March 29th, 2009
Tonight we attended two major biennial events, performances by Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Tania Bruguera at the Wifredo Lam Center in Old Havana. The evening began with Bruguera’s performance, in which two soldiers holding a white dove flanked a podium situated in the center of the stage and in front of a large orange curtain. The performance’s physical infrastructure consisted of a stage and podium, plus two soldiers and a white bird. As people from the audience climbed on the stage and approached the microphone, the soldiers placed the bird on the shoulders of anyone who wished to speak. By turns funny and poetic, nearly all political, the statements and actions by members of the audience who took the stage roused the audience into cheers several times during the evening. Audience members invariably addressed Cuba’s political situation, and most expressed pro-democratic sentiments. Other participants spoke of social problems or were generally critical of the current state of affairs in Cuba during this somewhat choreographed scene of controlled chaos. Finally, Bruguera, who had previously watched from amidst the crowd, took the stage and thanked the Cuban people.
Following Bruguera’s performance, the crowd moved into a courtyard of the Lam Center, where Gómez-Peña and his collaborators performed. In the space were four performance stations and a large screen on which live video footage of the various stations was projected. The first station, to the right of the entrance, featured a santera (santeria priestess) dressed in blue silken robes waving a matching fan through the air as audience members bathed her feet. One participant, the University of Chicago’s own Marilyn Volkman, was brought onstage, where the santera combed through her hair, then mimed a scalping.
At the station next in the clockwise direction an acupuncturist stuck needles adorned with national flags into a young Cuban woman’s naked body. A man holding a video camera followed the lines of the woman’s body, slowing over each tiny flag. Later in the evening, members of the audience were invited to remove the flags, one by one.
On the largest station, next in the circuit, Gómez-Peña stood adorned in his typical Chicano cyberpunk attire: one black patent leather high heel and one chunky black motorcycle boot; a skirt of black leather shreds and metal grommets; a black bustier alternating with a bare chest, showcasing his tattoos; one long gray braid slung over his right shoulder; feather earrings; and heavy black eye makeup extending from his lashes towards his hairline. Between reading cyberpunk manifestos, Gómez-Peña invited audience members onto the stage to hold a gun against various parts of his body.
Atop the following station lay Gómez-Peña’s longtime collaborator Roberto Sifuentes in a red-stained white gauze diaper, his arms and legs painted red; a red bandana across his forehead and an abstract geometric design painted in black horizontally across his nose and cheeks; and a brace on his left leg. Partway into the performance, the santera joined Sifuentes in a series of rituals they performed in dance-like slow motion movements.
At the end of the evening, Bruguera joined Gómez-Peña on his stage as the final audience participant to press the rifle against the performer. After several moments frozen in the arrangement of Bruguera’s choosing, Gómez-Peña positioned Bruguera so that the two artists straddled one another on the stage. Once disentangled, Gómez-Peña and Bruguera approached the acupuncture station and removed the last flag from the patient’s forehead.
March 29, 2009
OPC Blog Entry 5
March 29th, 2009
Today we took a city bus to the neighborhood of San Agustín, the headquarters of the laboratorio artístico de San Agustín (LASA). This alternative venue was established in 2008 by the artist Candelario when his friends needed space to work. About an hour outside central Havana, San Agustín has become for LASA a forum for interactive engagement with the social and spatial aspects of a small community. This approach of direct intervention is defined by LASA as “contextual art.”
According to the group’s own description, borrowed from Paul Ardenne’s Un art contextuel, in this model “the art work is an insertion in the complexity of the concrete world, its confrontation with the material conditions.” Curator Dannys Montes de Oca Morada, in writing about LASA, says “What characterizes this type of project and particularly LASA is an action that involved many agents from the social sphere, originating as operational platform or scene of actions that establish an ecosystem of relations, exchange and communication to subvert also the traditional models of production, circulation, and reception of the work, its aural condition and its physical limits of autonomous existence.”
As their writings suggest, the performances presented at LASA this weekend were immersed in the public space of San Agustín. For the biennial exhibition, international artists invited by LASA came to the neighborhood and created work that involved the residents and the cityscape in the area.
German artist Peter Kees drove around in a 1950s-era car and asked members of the community what they considered the quintessential sounds of San Agustín. After collecting a number of audio clips, Kees attached a neon orange loudspeaker to the roof of the car to replay them. The car was displayed in the rear area of LASA’s building, installed between painted water tanks on the roof of the adjoining building and films screened in the interior of the art space.
One of the films screened was a lyrical depiction of the neighborhood by Italian/French artist Laura Delle Piane. The film followed a series of neighborhood residents as they went about mundane actions throughout the day, from a middle-aged man shaving to a small girl preparing for ballet practice. As we watched the film, other residents of San Agustín chuckled and pointed out friends and neighbors.
The physical space of LASA demonstrates the biennial’s diverse exhibition spaces: colonial forts, white box galleries, and crumbling warehouse spaces all housed artworks around the city of Havana. See their website for more information: <http://www.lasa-cuba.blogspot.com>.
March 27, 2009
OPC Blog Entry 4
March 27th, 2009
The 10th Havana Biennial opened today at the Fortaleza de San Carlos, a Spanish colonial fort situated on a small peninsula separated from Old Havana by a body of water. One of more than a dozen biennial exhibition spaces throughout the city, the fort’s picturesque location seemed like an ideal setting for the pavilions but reaching it was not uncomplicated. With no chartered shuttle, no means of traversing by foot, and baffling municipal bus routes, it was as though the biennial was designed to prohibit all but Havana insiders from reaching it. Several pavilions were installed within the fort’s centuries old infrastructures, which also contained vitrines displaying aboriginal weapons, medieval battering rams, and a Neanderthal man diorama. Enigmatic maps and unclear labeling enabled visitors to wander into the fort’s permanent displays and wonder if they were viewing a contemporary art installation.
Installation art was heavily represented at this part of the biennial, as opposed to otherwise performance-heavy biennial and the several painting exhibitions showcasing earlier generations of Cuban artists such as Wilfredo Lam. For us, the most interesting works at the fort were in the media of video and photography, both often functioning as part of a larger installation. Colombian artist Maria Elvira Escallón, for example, presented an installation featuring four large color photographs of metal bed frames. Some of the beds were placed in domestic spaces alongside chairs and night tables, while others were depicted more fantastically, with erupted grass almost completely obscuring the frame. At the end of the room was a white wall with a tiny peephole a little above eye-level. Through a fisheye lens, viewers witnessed a small chair adjacent to a metal bed frame resembling those in the photographs but here overflowing with soil. The way in which the stark arrangement of the material objects was coupled with the lusciously saturated, visually stunning aesthetic of their photographic representations resulted in a work that engaged the viewer sensorially and phenomenologically, as well as conceptually.
Juan Manuel Parada, a member of a Colombian video art collective, displayed Paka Posse, a surreal video telling a story about artistic and political development via different modes of animation technology. In this allegory of successive systems of visual representation, a magical pencil transforms the black-and-white world of collaged photographs into a mutable realm of color and imagination in which anyone with access to the pencils can change their world at will. Though the government of the collaged world sends forces armed with magical erasers to repress the spread of pencils, the rebels soon triumph in their creation of a whimsical, interactive utopia. Photography and video soon follow in Parada’s kooky history of representative technologies, imbuing their new world with an alluring, glossy sheen.
Later this weekend, we will be heading to San Agustín to spend the day at LASA, an artistic laboratory. We also look forward to Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Tania Bruguera’s upcoming performances at the Wilfredo Lam Center.
March 26, 2009
OPC Blog Entry 3
March 26th, 2009
Today we were lucky to have the opportunity to speak with British curator Claire Bishop, who writes about participatory art practices and pedagogical issues. During our interview, we discussed how the work of the young artists in the Havana Biennial dovetails with her research interests. She opened up to us about her anxieties: how the model she has developed in her work surrounding Great Britain and Western Europe translates to the local Cuban context. Bishop admitted that her framework faltered even in New York City, where institutional structures more closely mirror those in Europe than in Cuba.
We questioned Bishop about how market pressures differ in places outside of Western Europe – particularly in Cuba, where capitalist structures are underdeveloped to say the least. She expressed concern that the presence of Western art world figures (including herself) in Havana this week would encourage young Cuban artists to adopt the logic of market-friendly practices.
Bishop noted parallels between the makeshift institutional art structures present in Cuba and attempts by some practitioners working in heavily bureaucratized art centers to offer alternative collaborative and pedagogical models. We discussed the contrast between Cuba, where political restraint intersects with artistic experimentation, and places like the United States, where political liberties are frequently coupled with the expectation that artists fit into preexisting artistic models. We plan to meet with Bishop again when we all have attended more biennial events to continue our conversation about these themes.
One artist’s work exhibited today resonated with our conversation. Núria Güell’s Aportación de agentes del orden documented the artist’s encounters with police officers in Havana over the course of several months. Noticeably non-Cuban, Güell was the focus of much attention on the street, mostly lecherous. To carry out her project, Güell cleverly entrapped a number of her accosters, responding to their catcalls by inviting them on a date to her opening at Arte de Conducta’s nine night exhibition. There, the men were confronted with a bulletin board that mimicked a detective’s investigation board displaying their photographs, transcripts of their conversations, and personal information such as phone numbers and addresses. A small camera mounted above the board captured viewers’ reactions, hopefully including those of her solicitors. To protect her privacy, Güell was not present at the opening and we were not able to positively identify the men in question, but the footage might reveal whether her invitations were accepted. Despite the often oppressive nature of everyday life in Havana, particularly for a non-Cuban female, Güell was able to exploit the experimental impetus of the Arte de Conducta to delve into these issues in her artwork.
March 25, 2009
OPC Blog Entry 2
March 25th, 2009
During our first full day in Havana, we spent more time experiencing the constructive chaos of Arte de Conducta at the Galería Habana. The second night of this experimental art school’s Estado de Excepción primarily featured performances, most of them heavily body-oriented. For her Muro de lamentos project, Jeanette Chávez asked men on the streets of Havana to enter the gallery and undress, then stand facing a wall, beat their chests, and chant “Mea Culpa.” Both of the men who agreed to participate performed this task for approximately twenty minutes; lacking watches, they had to trust internal clocks to determine when their responsibility should end.
Carlos Martiel spoke with us about his performance of that night, in which he sliced open healed scars from childhood while crouching naked on the gallery floor. After searching out and re-opening every old wound, Martiel stood upright before the crowd for several minutes while viewers took photographs and filmed. The artist cited the influence of feminist forbears such as Ana Mendieta and Marina Abramovic, yet he was one of six men who performed nude – or, nearly nude – this night. While Martiel’s work references his personal experience as a twenty-first century Cuban, he also discussed aesthetic influences ranging from post-war European actionist art to contemporary Latin American artists.
In speaking to the artists of Arte de Conducta, it was often difficult to tell where the performances ended. In Mauricio Miranda’s performance Indemnidad the artist mingled with the crowd, chatting with friends and exhibition guests while revealing to each interlocutor an accurately rendered gun tattooed on his upper leg. While his actions of the second night mirrored his social interactions of the previous evening, there was a surreptitious conceptual shift involved. With performances occurring in every corner of the extremely crowded exhibition space, Miranda’s practice of sidling up to people and lifting his shorts to his upper thigh was covert yet revelatory. Miranda’s performance confronted us with the challenge of how to present ephemeral, conceptual artworks without distorting the artists’ intentions.
The most immersive performance of the night was Cabaret poético, in which an organic exchange between audience and performers soon became apparent during the dance, music and spoken word segments. The performance involved not only artists of the collective OMNI, but their family members and the crowd as well. We were struck by the use of imagery from U.S. cinema in the videos that played behind or in between the performers. From Groucho Marx to Michael Jackson to Waking Life, these visuals provided breaks in the cabaret performances. These performances were openly critical, but epitomized activism as a social experience, with a political constituency built upon shared social relations.
March 24, 2009
OPC Blog Entry 1
March 24th, 2009
With the Havana Biennial still two days away, we are getting the lay of the land. The first major event of the week, the group exhibition Estado de Excepción by the students of Arte de Conducta, opened Tuesday, March 24th.
Visitors had entered even before the 5 PM opening, and by the time we arrived around 6, the space was packed. The crowd had barely begun to dwindle when the show officially closed at 9. After familiarizing ourselves with the space, we had the chance to look more closely at the work and speak with the artists involved. Even at midnight – after a full day of installation, plus hours of conversing, not to mention months of preparation – the artists were still eager to talk with us about their work.
The cooperative concept of the exhibition extended to the opening itself, where the group dynamic was evident. Having been students at Arte de Conducta anywhere from six months to several years, the participants were not only familiar with fellow students’ work, but also involved in the exhibition and presentation of the final projects.
From slide shows to actions to video, this first night of nine one-day installations was a multimedia event. For example, in Raychel Carrión’s video Falla de origen, the artist documented an off-pace march in Cuba’s May Day parade. Nancy Martínez’s Secuencia de uno involved a carnival machine that offered winning players handmade dolls of Fidel Castro at various stages in history. While many of the artists’ works referenced aspects of Cuban history and politics, others addressed issues ranging from personal histories to global events. Ernesto Gallardo’s La Historia y yo memorialized the young artist’s life as a millennial Cuban in the style of traditional museum display. Novo, a collective of young artists, lined the gallery walls with collaged newspaper remnants with results ranging from comedy to provocation.
We look forward to seeing more work by young Cuban artists and, after visiting the biennial later in the week, gaining insight into how this work is in conversation with the influx of international artists coming to Havana.
March 17, 2009
This project will explore issues relating to art pedagogy and professionalization at the intersection between local contexts and the international art world.
Through attendance at the Havana Biennial, a series of interviews and studio visits with emerging artists in Havana, and documentation of Cátedra Arte de Conducta’s participation in the Biennial, we will use a discussion-based approach to explore what it means to be an emerging artist trained in a local context but entering international art structures. In an increasingly internationalized and professionalized art world, both American and Cuban students experience the difficulties of entering the global art field as young practitioners. While participation in international biennials is an increasingly important aspect of artistic and academic practice, art students and art historians trained outside of the major cultural art capitals are forced to embark on less direct paths into their professional fields. Despite divergent socio- political histories, both Chicago and Havana lack both geographical and infrastructural proximity to the institutional centers regulating art practice today. Working as an artist or art historian today necessitates an awareness of the constant dialogue surrounding art and art historical practice, which is hindered by a lack of proximity to the centers of, for example, New York, Los Angeles, Berlin, Venice, Sao Paolo, or London.
This trip is intended as the first of a series of annual trips to international art biennials that will form a crucial component of the curriculum in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Chicago.
Funding was graciously provided by the UChicago Arts Council, FOTA, the Open Practice Committee, and the Claire Kantor Foundation.
Adrian Anagnost Art His PhD
Amy Babinec MFA 09
Andre Callot MFA 10
Michelle Maydanchik Art His PhD
Danielle Paz MFA 09
Vanessa Ruiz MFA 09
Marilyn Volkman MFA 09
Tania Bruguera Sponsoring Faculty, DOVA
Judy Hoffman Sponsoring Faculty, DOVA