Dignity Does Not Rest: An Interview with Tania Bruguera

The artist describes her 2018 arrest for protesting the Cuban government’s Decree 349, and why she plans to continue fighting.
Tania Bruguera. Untitled (Havana, 2000).
Tania Bruguera. Untitled (Havana, 2000).

Earlier this year at The Museum of Modern Art, the artist and activist Tania Bruguera installed Untitled (Havana, 2000), a major work she first exhibited at the 7th Havana Biennial in 2000. The Biennial that year was one of the first major cultural platforms since the Cuban Revolution to which an international audience was invited. Conscious of this increased global exposure, and critical of the country’s post-revolutionary politics and abuses of state power, Brugera included media images of Fidel Castro at the center of her charged installation. The work was shut down by censors within hours. Much has changed in Cuba in the interim, including the death of Castro in 2016, but much has not.

On December 3, 2018, Cuban police detained Bruguera and other Cuban artists for protesting Decree 349. This new law, called “dystopian” by Amnesty International, would prohibit independent artists from operating in private and public spaces without the approval of the Ministry of Culture. MoMA Chief Curator of Media and Performance Art Stuart Comer and Director of Editorial and Content Strategy Leah Dickerman were able to reach Bruguera in Cuba to discuss her experience. In the audio conversation below, Bruguera describes her arrest, explains how Decree 349 would affect the artistic community in Cuba, and connects her current activism to her work as an artist.

Bruguera: Óla.

Comer: Tania?

Bruguera: Yes?

Comer: Stuart calling.

Bruguera: Hey, my love. How are you doing?

Comer: Good. So, now that you’ve got a little bit of perspective on what happened last week, could you tell us, from your point of view, what 349 is?

Bruguera: Yeah. Well, the 349, they want to control the circulation of art, and for contemporary art, that also means the content of art. So one of the first thing is that no artistic service, they call it—but it’s exhibitions, concerts, reading a poem. None of that can be done without the authorization of the Ministry of Culture.

Why people have reacted very badly to that? First of all, we know that the Ministry of Culture will only approve the work that they feel feed their policy of the moment. Second, that invalidates the idea of independent art in Cuba.

Included there, they say there cannot be private galleries. There cannot be private production for cinema. Nothing can be done on your own. You have to have the permit of the state. The other thing that they are saying is that they will not permit—they call it this way—quote unquote, “intrusionism,” let’s say. People who intrude in the art. People who are not graduated from art schools, people who are not artists, on their view, cannot be in art spaces. That is very dangerous, because who classifies what’s art and what is not art? They have taken the role as Minister of Culture, of deciding what is art and what is not art, who is an artist and who is an intruder.

The other thing that people are really upset about is that they have formed, for the first time, like an army of inspectors. They call them like that. Inspectors. Inspectores. Everybody was very upset that people who are not trained as art historians, who are just bureaucrats that have no artistic preparation, are going to go to the houses of the artist, to the centers, to the galleries, to the art events, and decide to close or not the events. If you do something in your house, they have the authority to also take your house, take your permit to do your business, but also take your house, or if you use your car to do the event, they have the authority to claim your car as a goods that you use for the activity.

There is no space for you to fight for it, because the decision is taken by the Minister of Culture. So there is no space legally for people to complain, or to appeal the decision, you know?

That’s very dangerous. They’re trying very, very, very hard to confuse people. The minister and the Vice Minister of Culture and all the people who work for them, are claiming that this decree was done to avoid violence, pornography, kids having access to all of these. We think the artist, if they want to do something pornographic, they have the right to do it. It’s just that you have to put the label that says, “Caution,” you know? In this case they’re going to censor completely. So this law is the legalization of censorship.

Dickerman: How did you organize in response to this?

Bruguera: A lot of artists have united, because everybody feels damaged by it. Artists from all of the disciplines have demand meetings with the Ministry of Culture. The actors and cinema people, the writers, everybody, the visual artists, everybody. There are more than 200 artists who have signed the latest letter, and they have felt the pressure.

What the artists are asking is two things. First, give us an answer. What did you do with all our demands? Second, we want to eliminate 349 and do a new one, where the artists are involved, because the problem is that the artists were not invited to elaborate the first document.

Another question artists are asking themselves is, why are you doing the 349 right now? And I think what happened is that they are very nervous, because art has become completely independent. I just went today to see a movie in the festival, and everything was independently made. They are afraid of artists, because they are out of their hands. They cannot control them. People have their own money. People have their own spaces.

Dickerman: What happened that resulted in your arrest? Can you describe that experience?

Bruguera: They took me and took the other people. They put me in the police station. They didn’t want to put me in prison. They told me, “We’ll never put you in prison so you don’t say it.” That’s what they told me. But I said to them, “But I’m in prison because I cannot leave,” and the second day I was...since 9:00 a.m. to 3:30 a.m, p.m., in a car without being able to go away from the car. So yeah, I’m not in the prison, but I’m in the car.

At some point they brought me to a very, very far away place, and they asked me at some point in the trip to put down my head and close my eyes. It was very, very scary, because I couldn’t call anybody. Every time I asked for a telephone, for a call, they say no. It looked like those movies where somebody’s being kidnapped, because I had no idea where I was. Nobody in the world knew where I was, and I was alone with, like, I don’t know, six or seven people in this house, you know?

It was quite scary. At the same time, they’re doing this thing where they treat you well. It’s not like torture. But you are, you know, in the middle of nowhere, you know? So we all decided to be on hunger and water strike, and they were doing things like eating in front of me and putting me stuff, and ice cream. You know, and at some point I said, “You know, this is torture, because I am in hunger strike.”

Dickerman: How, and under what circumstances, were you released?

Bruguera: I think the pressure was so big. I mean all the embassies from European Union were calling to see how we were. So the pressure, the international pressure, was really, really big, and I think that’s the thing they feared the most. Every time they released me, I went back to the Ministry of Culture because I knew that I was the one person people know the most in the group, and that I have to use that in order for the other people to be released. Otherwise they will be still in prison right now, you know?

Comer: And they were not released until the very end, correct?

Bruguera: They were released on the third day. The third day.

Comer: But they were not released multiple times like you were?

Bruguera: No. They were only taken once, and the first group was released...we did the protest on Monday. The first group was released on Tuesday, and the last two people were released on Wednesday.

Comer: Why are you all staying in Cuba?

Bruguera: Because why not? It’s our country, and also, this is unfair. If everybody leaves, who’s going to change it, you know? That has been the government solution. Every time there is a big, let’s say, internal pressure, they open up the borders, so people leave, so there is a relief. This time it’s no. People don’t want to leave. People want to stay here, have their businesses, have their lives, have their freedom, do their work, you know? And we have the right to live in our country, you know?

Dickerman: Tania, I think some of the people who read or hear this would be interested in hearing you talk about the relationship between your practice as an artist and your practice as an activist.

Bruguera: The other day when I was in prison, actually, I was thinking about the piece I did at MoMA, and how political time doesn’t pass here, how 20 years ago, and we’re still in the same situation, in the same situation where they’re trying to make everybody a ghost, everybody a slave, everybody a machine that doesn’t think.

As an artist, I feel like you have to be living in your political time. You cannot be living oblivious of the political time you are in, and artists are the people who can actually say what other people have not yet formed.

Comer: Because you had that beautiful phrase that we used for the advertising campaign here, “Dignity has no Nationality,” if you were to change that to a little bit of a puzzle, where “Dignity has no” blank, what word would you use right now?

Bruguera: Dignity has no rest. Dignity doesn’t rest.

Comer: Dignity does not rest. That is what your work has consistently fought for, and it’s the moment when your work is most clear that they crack down on it.

Bruguera: It’s very beautiful in the sense that I’ve been fighting for this for so long, and many, many, many years I have been doing this on my own. You know? Like, people think I was crazy. And now finally I feel like I have the peers of friends and colleagues that are also doing the same work, you know, that before they started, was not necessary, you know?

Comer: This year you’ve had major projects in New York and London, highly, highly visible artworks that had a very political...

Bruguera: And that went quite well, actually, so far.

Comer: But this coincidences with a moment when the world, in general, has turned towards severe populism and far right behavior. I just wonder to what extent institutions really do have a critical role to play, and why it is so sinister that, you know, the governments would try to silence those kinds of institutions.

Bruguera: Absolutely. First of all, I think in circumstances where neoliberalism and proto or neo dictators start popping up, institutions have the obligation to actually enact what they were born for, because when everything is beautiful and time is good, sometime institutions could play around, forgetting a little bit what they were born for. But I think right now, institutions have to position themselves as the guardians of values, of moral...not moral in the sense of morality, but in the sense of, like, humanistic values.

Because what happens with dictatorship is values start to be razed, and substitute by feelings that are not complex feelings, like the good and bad, and black and white. You know? So I think the institution has a huge, hu –

[Phone disconnects]

Dickerman: Oh.

Giliberti: Let’s call her back.

Bruguera: Sí? Hello?

Dickerman: Hi, we’re back.

Bruguera: I think now they know that we’re talking so..

Comer: I was thinking the same thing, yeah.

Dickerman: Do you want to keep going now Tania?

Comer: Tania?

Phone recording: El numero que tu solicitar esta fuera de servicio. The number you have been trying to reach is out of service….