As part of the public programs for the exhibition Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, Tania Bruguera recently spoke about her work in a conversation with U.S. performance artist Karen Finley. Her comments offered a revealing look at her artmaking over the years, and how her thinking about it has evolved.
Bruguera came to the U.S. to enroll in an MFA program at the Art Institute of Chicago—“the only place they were teaching performance,” she said. But she had a “highly problematic relationship” to the school’s “North American-centric” perspective. As a result of her experiences there, she said, “I stopped calling myself a performance artist.” Instead, she called what she does “arte de conducta”—behavior art, or conduct art. “And I always say it in Spanish,” she said, “because I wanted, as a calculated attitude, to force people in the art world to say it in Spanish, instead of me trying to use English to describe everything that my work is about.” She sees her work as aligned with “a tradition in performance that works with behavior,” citing Vito Acconci and other artists.
The conversation moderator, Christina Yang of the Guggenheim, showed a video clip from an early Bruguera work, Cabeza abajo (Head Down, 1996), a performance inspired by a poem by Carlos A. Alfonso. Bruguera was a little disconcerted to see it. “When I was doing that work,” she said, “I was trying to mobilize the public as one of my tools, to work with the idea of a universal symbol as a way of trying to escape the borders of the actual moment I was working in. And then I realized that that was not the way I wanted to go. So I never showed this piece. So it’s kind of weird to see it now,” she said with a laugh. “I even think it’s a wrong kind of work.”
Bruguera’s main interest, she said, was “the limits of art . . . what is art and what is not art, and what is in between.” Following a newspaper project in Cuba, which triggered what she called “some big censorship,” Bruguera returned to the realm of the symbolic with The Burden of Guilt(1996-1998), about the native inhabitants of Cuba who “could not confront the Spaniards and decided to suicide massively by eating dirt, and only dirt, until they died.” Bruguera performed the piece in her home for the 7th Havana Biennial. “It was very interesting to see how people in Cuba in 1997 understood what I was talking about in terms of censorship and sacrifice,” she said, noting that the international art audience was “having a very different take on it.” From this experience, she said, “I realized the symbolic is not working for me. I had to do a big shift. I actually consider that part of my work a mistake, which is interesting.”
Instead, she said, “I always said I wanted to do performance because I wanted to go into peoples’ lives. I wanted to stay in people’s memory. My ideal way of documenting a performance is not a video or photo, it’s just somebody remembering their experience of the work. And going back into permeating the real life, the public sphere, for me is more interesting to me than having this very clear, performative act.”
Bruguera performed The Burden of Guilt and other works in the nude, which prompted another important shift in her thinking. “When I started doing performance with my body, I realized that it was not about sex or the sexualized body, but about the vulnerability of the human being. Once I realized that I was no longer vulnerable in that state, I thought, why should I do it? I had a shift in which I went from using my personal body to the social body. That was very important.”
As an example, Bruguera pointed to Crowd Control in Force (Tatlin’s Whisper #5), presented at the Tate Modern in 2008. “I had two mounted police, real mounted police, coming into the space of the Tate to use all the crowd control techniques they use when there are uprisings and manifestations, with the audience of the museum,” she explained, adding that “I don’t work with actors. It’s very important for me not to work with someone who represents something, but with someone who’s actually working at something. They have reactions that it’s impossible to teach someone. Like in this piece, they were getting the crowd to move, and this one girl wouldn’t move, and [snapping her fingers] immediately they started being the policemen. You cannot teach somebody to do that.”
“The other thing I like about the piece is that it wasn’t announced. From the beginning, my work has dealt with, not the ego of the artist but the idea of authorship. I question it. I told the Tate, ‘I don’t want my name anywhere, I don’t want it announced in the program. I don’t want to be part of the show officially.’ So no one was expecting it.”
The series “Tatlin’s Whisper” is “all about taking something from the news that we don’t feel connected with, or that we feel anesthetized about, and making you feel it as your own personal experience. So the next time you see, it you have a personal relationship with it.” [Video documentation of Tatlin’s Whisper #6 (Havana Version), 2009, is on view in the Guggenheim exhibition.]
The Tate has purchased Crowd Control in Force (Tatlin’s Whisper #5) for its collection. Part of the purchase agreement, Bruguera said, is that “this is not a piece that you can do whenever you want. You have to have special news happening around the world—not in your country, but around the world—so the reaction is, okay, maybe I’m also in that danger. That’s important.”
Crowd Control in Force (Tatlin’s Whisper #5) is what Bruguera characterizes as a short-term project, one that can happen in an art institution. Long-term projects, which take place beyond the institution itself, are more about “trying to change something.”
“I have the naïve idea that art can change reality,” she said. “It’s very rare, but I’ve seen it happen. As an artist, you need to have a lot of patience, and a sense of how long it takes for real change to happen.” An example of that is Bruguera’s Immigrant Movement International project, started in 2011 with support from the arts organization Creative Time and the Queens Museum. That project is ongoing and is expected to continue into next year. This engagement has helped shape Bruguera’s thinking about what she calls arte útil—“útil as useful,” she said, “but also as a tool.”
The Francis Effect (2014), Bruguera’s performance work for Under the Same Sun, also takes the global immigrant population as its focus. Bruguera and her associates stand in front of the museum, canvassing passers-by in an attempt to accumulate 10,000 signatures asking Pope Francis to grant Vatican City citizenship to immigrants.
“The whole idea is to address the Pope as a head of state, not the head of the Church,” she said. “These three or four years of working on the immigrant project have been very frustrating. Transnational corporations have a lot of benefits, but transnational people have a lot of trouble with mobility. This project is basically asking that people receive the same rights that corporations have.”
Bruguera’s approach, she said, is “a very simple exercise. I follow the propaganda, and then I see the cracks.” Francis has been hailed as a pope attuned to the needs of the people. “In this case,” said Bruguera, “well, if you’re so good, just give immigrants citizenship in Vatican City. It’s the only place that is a nation recognized by the UN, and at the same time a transnational nation.” Bruguera and her team have accumulated some 5,300 cards and signatures to date.
Bruguera takes particular delight in performing as a street canvasser, someone “nobody wants to talk to. I have to fight a lot of social constructions and social-political languages that people don’t want to deal with. I really like that.” It’s also important, she added, that “I’m showing the work as an imaginary. Seeing people’s reaction. They get it. Instead of showing something, it’s having the person internalize the piece, and hopefully having it stay with them.”
Bruguera and her associates will perform The Francis Effect through the run of the Under the Same Sun exhibition, which ends October 1.