|Dangerous moves: performance and politics in Cuba. By Coco Fusco, marzo 2015.|
On 4 May 1990, at the opening of The Sculpted Object, a group exhibition at the Centre for the Development of the Fine Arts in Havana, an artist who had not been invited to participate entered the gallery and arranged several small prints depicting bones in a circle, placing them on the floor. He then took a copy of the Communist Party newspaper, Granma, out of his bag, ripped a small hole in the middle of it and put it in the middle of the circle. Then he proceeded to pull his pants down and defecate in the hole that he had made in the newspaper. During the few minutes that it took for him to relieve himself, one of the exhibition’s curators squatted beside him and tried to convince him to stop, warning him that there were security agents present. The artist nonetheless completed his bowel movement and left it on the floor, after which he solemnly distributed the rest of his prints to stunned audience members before he departed. His excrement remained in the space for the next twenty-four hours, and would serve as evidence against him. According to the artist, the scene was videotaped by state agents and the documentation was circulated among cultural bureaucrats and Communist Party officials as an example of what Cuban art should not be.1 Six days later, the police arrived at the artist’s home with an order to arrest him for ‘public scandal’. The artist was Angel Delgado, and he was twenty-five years old at the time. He served a six-month prison sentence for his performance, entitled Hope Is the Last Thing We Are Losing.
Delgado’s infamous live act marked a turning point in the history of post-revolutionary Cuban art. There is a before- and an after-Angel Delgado. During the island’s much-heralded visual arts renaissance of the 1980s, performance art had become the aesthetic strategy of choice for serving up irreverent critiques of staid art pedagogy, the state’s power over artists and the perceived hypocrisies of socialist officials. Artists in comic getups would interrupt academic conferences and art openings with satirical gestures; they would march down thoroughfares with sandwich signs lampooning bureaucrats’ corrupt behaviour and they would engage pedestrians on Havana’s streets in exchanges designed to awaken suppressed desires.
Performance is cheap to produce and portable – and, unlike painting and sculpture, it is imperceptible to authorities prior to its actualisation, making it an ideal means for intervening in unexpected places.
Some of the artists who engaged in performance were emboldened by the widely held belief that Soviet-style perestroika was going to reach Cuba. In 1986, Fidel Castro had announced a campaign to rectify Cuban socialism, and some artists saw this as an invitation to act as the critical conscience of their society. Havana’s art scene in the 1980s was the country’s most dynamic cultural front. Cuba’s art institutions had recently consolidated, and the newly established Havana Biennial drew thousands of international visitors. Those visitors were impressed by both the promotional capacities of a relatively poor country and the sophisticated work produced by the first wave of artists educated by the revolution, known as ‘the children of Che’. The favourable impression of the Cuban revolution that Havana’s art scene created led to artists’ attaining unprecedented privileges, including the opportunity to travel abroad, at the time an impossibility for most Cubans. Graduates of Havana’s prestigious University of the Arts enjoyed an unusual degree of freedom to express themselves, to associate with foreigners and to embrace cultural influences from countries that were seen as Cuba’s enemies – attitudes and behaviours that had identified intellectuals of the 1960s and 1970s as politically suspect and undesirable.
However, when the decade drew to a close, Cuban artists encountered unanticipated repression. The government went on the offensive against its spirited critics as the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union unravelled and pro-democracy opposition groups on the island multiplied. Tensions mounted among artists, power brokers in Cuba’s cultural institutions and the country’s all-powerful security apparatus. Between 1988 and 1990, numerous exhibitions were censored, artworks were confiscated and artists whose content, tactics or personal style tested the boundaries of revolutionary decorum were subject to mysterious retractions of invitations, intimidating interrogations and politically motivated rumour campaigns. Party officials sometimes used a divide-and-conquer strategy, soliciting negative appraisals from their peers of artists under suspicion. A stern warning was usually enough to get artists to alter their conduct and thus avoid losing the privileges they had accrued as shining examples of the revolution’s munificence. Although the coercive tactics of state security and the presence of informants inside cultural institutions were conversation topics that were avoided in exchanges with foreigners, Cuban artists in the spotlight understood that they had three choices: demonstrate proper conduct and reap benefits, leave the country or risk enduring various forms of internal exile: expulsion from professional organisations and jobs, social marginalisation or incarceration.
When Angel Delgado went to prison, no one protested at the state’s response to his performance. Some arts professionals openly expressed the opinion that he had crossed the line, while others said nothing, probably out of fear of being tainted by association with a person who had become a pariah overnight. Most of Delgado’s artist peers were absorbed at that time with finding ways to leave the country, and the liberal-leaning cultural bureaucrats who had advocated for creative endeavour that pushed the envelope were losing their jobs. In the years immediately after Delgado’s imprisonment, Cuban art supported by state institutions veered away from social critique toward what has come to be characterised as a ‘recuperation of aesthetic concerns’.2 Given the context, it is difficult to avoid reading this shift as the product of political pressure. Overt references to state authority and revolutionary iconography all but disappeared, and discussions of art turned to such topics as technique, beauty, spirituality and subjectivity. The severe economic crisis brought on by the withdrawal of Soviet subsidy, known as the ‘Special Period in Time of Peace’, further pressured artists to lay low and create objects they could sell and thereby eke out a living in hard times. The legalisation of hard-currency possession in 1993 made it possible for artists to join an emergent economic elite along with successful musicians, athletes and budding private restaurateurs. Discursive conventions for describing the art scene of the 1980s as excessively utopian or crudely political set in. New waves of art students were discouraged from replicating the ‘errors’ of the previous decade; it is somewhat ironic that this message was often conveyed by teachers who themselves had been censored just a few years before.
After his release, Delgado resumed his art practice on the margins of a changed cultural landscape. Influenced by craft traditions of Cuban prisoners that involved using soap for sculpture and handkerchiefs as canvases, he began to create a new body of work while he was incarcerated and continued when he got out. In 1996, an exhibit of these pieces took place at Espacio Aglutinador, an independent gallery in the home of artists Sandra Ceballos and Ezequiel Suarez that had opened two years earlier. Art critic Gerardo Mosquera wrote a text for the show’s catalogue that noted a precedent for Delgado’s scatological performance in another Cuban artist’s having urinated in the name of art in the 1930s.3 Mosquera lamented the indifference of the art community to Delgado’s arrest and celebrated the artist’s use of a carceral aesthetic as yet another aspect of vernacular culture to be discovered and fruitfully exploited. However, neither Mosquera nor any other critic since then has teased out the layers of political significance embedded in Delgado’s use of defecation for artistic purposes.
Excrement has its place in the history of art as an abject material, the use of which is almost always shocking. Key references such as Piero Manzoni’s cans of faeces entitled Artist’s Shit from 1961 and Chris Ofili’s use of lacquered elephant dung to prop his paintings immediately come to mind. Though neither of these artists engaged in open defecation, Ofili’s use of excrement is particularly relevant to a discussion of Delgado’s performance because he placed the dung underneath his depiction of a sacred figure in Holy Virgin Mary 1996, just as Delgado chose to deposit his bodily waste on top of the Cuban Communist daily.4 Ofili’s juxtaposition incurred the wrath of religious conservatives who attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to have his painting removed when it was on view in New York as part of the Sensation exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999, but scatological art does not automatically provoke censure. In the US and Europe, art cognoscenti tend to resort to psychoanalysis to rationalise artists’ tampering with this taboo substance. Separating ourselves psychically and physically from our own excrement is a sign of our effective maturation as social beings. The presence of excrement in art is supposed to jolt us into awareness of how we have internalised socially constructed notions of beauty and ugliness, the desirable and the undesirable. Open defecation is usually framed as a public health problem, rather than a crime.
In the Cuban context, Delgado’s performance resonates on linguistic and political levels as much as psychic and sociocultural ones. His indulgence in wordplay was not an uncommon tactic – references to speech and uses of text abound in contemporary Cuban visual art. The popular Spanish expression me cago en literally means ‘I shit on’, but it is also a symbolic assertion of subjective power over the sacred. Cubans frequently exclaim, ‘Me cago en la madre’ (‘I shit on the Virgin Mother’), or ‘Me cago en Dios’ (‘I shit on God’), to signify “Holy shit,” or to affirm that they are angry, or to express hostility towards another person. It is also a way of invoking an individual’s right to reject authority. In a similar vein, the Spanish phrase la cagaste literally refers to someone’s having defecated, but metaphorically it expresses that ‘you fucked up’. By turning a profane utterance into a physical gesture, Delgado rejected the authority of the state and its bureaucratic representatives. In carrying out his work without an invitation, he challenged a political structure requiring that artists be pre-approved in order to make their work public. By openly defecating on a Granma newspaper as performance, Delgado directed a dramatised version of a popular off-colour phrase at the discursive authority of Cuba’s ruling party. The performance was a symbolic refusal of the revolution’s power over his person and his artistic identity.
The refusal to work within an established institutional framework is a
signature move in avant-garde art practice – it is an artist’s way of
declaring his or her right to change the rules of the game. But in a country
where public conduct is closely monitored for signs of ideological deviance,
symbolic rejection of authority is a dangerous move with serious
A self-proclaimed artist who is not formally recognised as such by the Cuban cultural apparatus can be prevented from publicly exhibiting work on the basis that he or she is not a ‘real artist’. Furthermore, if that self-proclaimed artist has been unemployed for more than a few months, he or she can be arrested under the terms of Cuba’s vagrancy statute.
Until 2013, an artist without union affiliation might not have been able to travel abroad on the basis of an invitation to engage in professional activities as an artist. Cuban artists may aspire to a Duchampian position – able to determine on their own what is and isn’t art – but the definition of art and the designation of artistic identity are ultimately up to the state, not them.
Angel Delgado’s prison sentence was an extreme expression of this dilemma.
The upstart members of the 1980s generation tried to challenge the balance of power between the state and its creative cadre. They ushered in a period of critical questioning as to the scope of what could be considered art and why that art should be understood as revolutionary.
While those artists were avid readers of postmodern
theory, they often imagined themselves as heroic subjects in the modernist
tradition, revolting against an established order both politically and
aesthetically. They sought to break the influence of what they perceived as
the retrograde socialist realism that had overshadowed Cuban visual arts of
the 1970s, with its romantic depictions of peasants and factory workers.
Informed by poststructuralist theories, street art, appropriation art and
conceptual art, the artists and their allied critics reasoned that stylistic
eclecticism was appropriate for a country whose indigenous culture had been
wiped out and whose actual culture was an agglomeration of influences from
colonial powers, African slaves and other immigrants. Although the initial
critiques of the state’s definition of revolutionary art were ostensibly
aesthetic, the artists’ underlying intention was political.
As the decade progressed, the demand for artistic autonomy became more strident, and younger artists emerged whose works were more openly critical of the socialist order.
While some older artists expressed a desire to distance art from state control by producing works that made no overt reference to social life or political matters, the younger artists were more direct, producing satirical works that were openly confrontational. Their challenges to hegemonic state control of culture and social life were echoed by groups of intellectuals in other fields, such as the young philosophers of Grupo Paideia, who also sought greater independence from the institutions that provided support but also exercised control over them.6 A power struggle took shape during that decade that continues to this day over who would define what art should look like, who could make it, where it could be presented and what its role should be in Cuban society. Performance and public interventions were the favourite means of publicly challenging state control, first over culture, and then more generally over civic life.
Many studies of post-revolutionary Cuban art represent the state’s relation to culture as an exclusively constructive effort, citing the expansion and democratisation of art education, and the creation of cultural ministries and museums, biennials and galleries.7 The positive outcome of those constructive efforts is undeniable. Without Cuba’s rigorous and free art education that begins in elementary school and extends through university, it would have been impossible to produce a visual arts sector that is stylistically diverse, conceptually refined and technically sophisticated in such a small and economically fragile country. Without the elaborate promotional apparatus for visual arts that exists in Cuba, the artists would not have been able to project themselves internationally as well as they have. Although the state acts as a censor, it also presides over a context in which officially recognised artists benefit from subsidised workspace, enabling them to live with less money and less pressure to engage in non-art employment than their counterparts elsewhere do. Were it not for these benefits, Cuban artists would have little reason to consider maintaining ties to their country in spite of the material hardships and political restraints.
These benefits notwithstanding, power in Cuba remains centralised in the state and is carried out by institutions that operate in its interest. State power manifests itself through the exercise of force as well as the production and distribution of resources. The making of revolutionary subjects in Cuba over the past five decades has been an effort at social engineering with enabling and punitive dimensions: Cuba is famous for extreme feats in both areas. On one side of the equation are its campaigns to eradicate illiteracy and its impressive network of cultural and educational institutions (pp.32–3). On the other stand its elaborate system of citizen surveillance, its labour camps and prisons, and its harsh campaigns against homosexuals, the religious, political opponents, ‘uncooperative’ intellectuals and artists. Key to both these aspects of Cuba’s production of ‘the new man’ is the question of conduct: what Cubans are expected to do in public to demonstrate their identification with the revolution has been carefully scripted by the state. How Cubans actually behave in public is closely monitored and recorded, forming a catalogue of signs of political allegiance from school years onward that determines eligibility for higher education, employment, promotion and other privileges dispensed by the state. During the first three decades of the revolution, when money was of little use, commodities were scarce and basic needs were subsidised, conduct became the currency that generated greater opportunity for advancement. Even as the public sector contracted in the 1990s, proper conduct continued to be the guarantor of support for artists who still depended on the Cuban cultural apparatus. Given the political significance of conduct and its status as currency, it is not surprising that performance, as the art form that most assiduously explores the social construction of behaviour, would become an arena for challenging the ways in which conduct was shaped, valued or condemned.
It would be a mistake, nonetheless, to treat performance solely as a zone of political conflict, for the medium is also useful to the state as an active display of its largesse and its embrace of the island’s legendary exuberance. Major art events in Havana since the 1990s have showcased performances that offer a spectacle of vitality: the gyrating, hand-painted dancers of Manuel Mendive’s quasi-religious processions (pp.56–7) and Los Carpinteros’ ‘irreversible’ conga line are key examples of this approach (pp.36–7). While these works are informed by important popular performance traditions, they also serve a political function as displays of visual excess that seduce foreign audiences with tropical stereotypes, drawing attention away from the ample evidence of material hardship and repression in the urban landscape.
The more introspective and metaphorical performances elaborated by the Cuban art-student collectives in the 1990s represent another important counterpoint. Rather than staging street interventions designed to subvert the established order, these artists discreetly embellished public space as part of the ‘restoration of aesthetic concerns’ that marked a break with the political crisis of 1988–90 and paved the way for Cuban artists’ entry into the global art market.
How bodies move in Cuba has been a source of fascination to visitors since the onset of the revolution. The frenetic sexual energy of Cuban dance, the impressiveness of the mass mobilisations in the Revolutionary Plaza, the exuberance of its entertainers and the prowess of its athletes are all subjects of wonder, captured by the cameras of tourists, scholars and photojournalists on a daily basis. The dazzling impression of these bodily displays is often followed by interpretations that rely on stereotypes to explain Cubans’ extraordinary talent at choreographed movement: that all Cubans are great dancers by nature, for example (pp.50– 51), or that Cubans passionately identify with their charismatic leader and are thus inclined to express their allegiance in unison. Performance, the art form that most consistently engages in and reflects upon the social construction of the body and the codes of public conduct, offers a more complex treatment of the politics of movement in Cuban public space. I want to consider the dynamic relationship between corporeal expression and state authority in light of what cultural theorist Michel Foucault identified as biopower.
Foucault described the phenomenon as the modern state’s ‘techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations.’8 That process involves the manufacturing of consent as well as the punishment of disobedience. Consent arises from the attractive aspects of power, as Foucault notes: ‘What makes power accepted is that it traverses and produces things, induces pleasure, forms of knowledge.’9 Consent also entails identification with the disciplinary dimensions of state power and cooperation with its enforcement. These Foucauldian principles are key to my reading of Cuban performance. Throughout this study, I will be looking at how artists use performances to interpret, reproduce and reconfigure codes of political conduct, how arts professionals attempt to contain their energy and how political officials construct performance as a breaking point. In the past thirty years, Cuban performance art’s intersection with the political sphere has varied in character from conflict to collusion, from strategic evasion to tactical confrontation. The nonconformist assertions of political will that have been expressed through performance in Cuba have challenged the limits of what Cubans can express in art and in life. Unfortunately, too many artists who ventured into this dangerous symbolic terrain paid dearly for doing so, suffering harsh punishment and ending up in exile.
The Cuban art scene may have changed after Angel Delgado’s arrest, but the spirit of 1980s performance did not completely disappear. While Cuban art supported by the state since the 1990s has had a more attenuated relation to social critique, in the 2000s several young artists have sought to revive the more overtly political energies of the 1980s by creating individual and collective art projects that address censorship and policing, corruption and the contradictions of a society that grows increasingly economically stratified despite the socialist ideology of the state.
[…] 1 Videotaped interview
with Angel Delgado, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wzQsX564HTg (accessed 25