e-flux journal issue 68: “Cuba: The Fading of a Subcontinental Dream”

e-flux journal issue 68: “Cuba: The Fading of a Subcontinental Dream”

e-flux journal

Cover image: El Sexto.
December 2, 2015
e-flux journal issue 68: “Cuba: The Fading of a Subcontinental Dream”

guest-edited by Coco Fusco 

with Ernesto Hernández Busto, Danilo Maldonado Machado (El Sexto), Iván de la Nuez, Juan Carlos Cremata Malberti, Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, Sandra Ceballos, Enrique Colina Alvarez, Lázaro Saavedra, Antonio José Ponte, Amaury Pacheco del Monte


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After a short prelude in last summer’s four-month Supercommunity issue for the 2015 Venice Biennale, we are pleased to present Coco Fusco’s full special issue of e-flux journal focusing on Cuban artists and intellectuals’ intricate navigation of a myriad of experiments and obstacles in an era when the hopeful prospects of the late 1950s Cuban Revolution recedes deeper into history. In recent months, as many in the world applaud Raúl Castro and Barack Obama for normalizing relations between the two nations, the apparent reconciliation of Cuba’s ideological hermeticism with US hegemony is understood by many in Cuban cultural circles in more complex terms. For many Cuban artists and intellectuals who have seen their works censored and their peers repeatedly imprisoned, economic liberalization may prove to be merely a more sophisticated tool to supplement or enhance political stagnation under a different name. But the oncoming changes nevertheless bring an opportunity to revisit the conditions of cultural expression at a time when, if Cuba is joining the rest of the world, the rest of the world may also be joining Cuba, for better or worse. The issue is composed of recent essays translated from the Spanish, and we would like to thank Ezra Fitz and Ernesto Suarez for their splendid work.

—Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, Anton Vidokle

In the spring of 2009, during the 11th Havana Biennial, a recent art school graduate named Hamlet Lavastida stenciled a quote from a famous speech by Fidel Castro on the steps of Galería Habana and called his piece Intellectuals Without Words. The quote reads:

“The existence of an authority in the cultural sector does not mean that one should worry about abuses by that authority. Who would want, or who would desire for this authority not to exist? If we continue with that line of thought we might begin to wish that there were no militia or police, that there were no state power.”

The quote is from “Words to the Intellectuals,” a speech Castro gave at Cuba’s National Library in June 1961 to an audience of illustrious literary figures. It included the well-worn phrase “within the revolution everything, against the revolution nothing,” that instantly became the benchmark of Cuba’s cultural policy regarding expressive freedoms. Though the phrase reads as an absolute commandment, it is vague—and perhaps purposely so. Who sets the border between inside and out is not made explicit. What exactly constitutes antirevolutionary expression is also not specified. The lack of concrete detail gives the mandate a plasticity that has facilitated arbitrary decisions and sweeping dismissals ever since.

Fidel Castro gave his “Words to the Intellectuals” speech in the aftermath of the first major censorship case of the Cuban Revolution—over the documentary short P.M., made by Sabá Cabrera Infante and Orlando Jiménez Leal. The film shows a largely black crowd of Cubans socializing in a bar in Havana’s port area, and lacks the moralistic voice-over that came to characterize the revolutionary newsreels of the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry—ICAIC). Authorities at ICAIC claimed that the directors were celebrating counterrevolutionary activities associated with tourism, organized crime, and prostitution. At the time the country was in an uproar over the Bay of Pigs invasion and the severing of diplomatic ties with the United States. Fidel’s speech was meant to put an end to the fracas over the film’s confiscation. Although the speech at the library was followed by a long discussion, the publications of the proceedings left out the retorts and entreaties made by several Cuban intellectuals. For the purposes of politics and posterity, Fidel got the last word. The filmmakers in question chose exile, as did several of the writers whose publishing outlets would soon be shut down.

Lavastida’s quote on the steps of Galería Habana alludes to an historical moment when filmmakers lost their film and intellectuals were left without words, and it does so by drawing our attention to the irony in Fidel’s rhetorical question about public trust in the state’s administration of revolutionary justice. A phrase that was originally designed to suggest mass approval for state authority now hints at a generalized fear about speaking out against abuses by the state. Lavastida created the piece for the same biennial in which Tania Bruguera first set up her open mic for Tatlin’s Whisper at the Centro Wifredo Lam, and subsequently faced public excoriation for supposedly offering a platform to counterrevolutionaries. Not surprisingly, Lavastida’s stenciled words were removed shortly after they were installed. While popular phrases and double entendre abound in contemporary Cuban art, the political right to speak publicly and the authority of the state were unwelcome subjects during an international event that showcases Cuba’s artistic talent and guarantees a significant influx of cash.

Intellectuals’ words have been prized symbolic currency throughout the course of the Cuban Revolution. The state’s legitimacy has been inextricably tied to the promotion of mass literacy and its role as a cultural laboratory. Cuba credits itself as a progenitor of the Latin American literary boom of the 1960s, as the launching pad for the Latin Grammies and Latin American Cinema, as the root origin of salsa music, and the home base for the Caribbean’s finest art cadre. During the 1960s and ’70s, when most Latin American countries broke diplomatic ties with Cuba, the support for the Revolution bestowed by an international cadre of literary luminaries substituted for diplomatic alliances. Even today, Cuba’s most powerful export is culture—perhaps not in hard economic terms but as symbolic capital that attracts tourists and counters its critics’ claims about a lack of civil rights. Because officially recognized artists in today’s Cuba are part of an economic elite that earns money in hard currency, travels frequently, and owns property, they are usually the last to complain about a lack of freedom. (Continue reading)

—Coco Fusco

In this issue:

Ernesto Hernández Busto—The Forbidden Symbols
The corpse allows the artist to rescue a time undone, and at the same time mock death. In other words: the more an artist fills him/herself with death, the more he/she transcends it. Let us remember Goya drawing among the piles of shooting-squad victims at La Moncloa, Rembrandt attending autopsies to create his two anatomy paintings, David before a freshly stabbed Marat, or Caravaggio turning a dead woman fished from the Tiber River into the Dead Mother of God; or Grünewald. The Cuban people need to overcome the death taboo and face Fidel Castro’s corpse—while also preparing themselves to bury his political legacy. To own this collective need to visualize a corpse could become a revitalizing imperative for Cuban art.

Danilo Maldonado Machado (El Sexto)—Letter from Prison
Today my art is respected mainly because I believe in it. I respected it and gave it—and still do—all my strength, dedication, affection, and love. Although I was misunderstood, and perhaps still am by some, when those around you see how much you love and how much you are capable of giving and how much you respect your art and that of others, then they start to value it.

Iván de la Nuez—Apotheosis Now
Nearly the entire world celebrated the New Deal between Cuba and the United States as the definitive burial of the Cold War. However, it could be thought of as the opposite: both contenders, far from burying the Cold War, decided to recover its effectiveness to deal with a chaotic world.

Juan Carlos Cremata Malberti—Condemn Us, It Does Not Matter: Art Will Absolve Us
What can be said about a nausea-inducing profusion of senseless events whose only objective is to sell our art abroad? Or about the hundreds of genuine “political pamphlets” we have to endure daily in real life and on television? Or about the thousands of massively wasteful public demonstrations in which bad taste, inefficiency, falseness, and senselessness are promoted?

Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo—Castrolence
All around, everyone understands the scene perfectly. They smile compassionately at Fidel. They fire fossilized photos with impunity. They feel privileged to attend the final anecdotes of a social process, his Kafkaesque social process. The difference being that, here and now, everyone can steal their way into the castle. Now, nobody wants to escape. It’s not cool to abandon the trenches. It’s not even profitable. The comandante will have no one to write to, but everyone comes to snap a selfie with him. The historic Happy Hour. The piñata of the paternal land in the pillory. Merry marketing, Fidel.

Sandra Ceballos—Artist Against Artist
Military and cultural officials are not the only ones to blame for the intense scrutiny and deliberate acts of violence against artists that result in their erasure from state  media and other systems of dissemination, of legitimization and history. Nor are the art critics and curators the only arbiters who evaluate or devalue, who elevate or bury artists’ work. Worst of all are the searing, inexcusable verdicts handed down by the artists themselves. They pit themselves against one another as they warily watch their competitors, always judging them and never tolerating their success (this idea was highlighted during the “Torneo Audiovisual” curated by Giselle Victoria for Aglutinador in 2010). But not all artists behave this way.

Enrique Colina Alvarez—On Censorship and its Demons
There may be disagreements, and at any time a theater director can decide whether or not to stage a work, whether or not to suspend or continue a production, but the anomaly here is this: If there was prior supervision with regard to its content and staging, why should censors be involved if a situation arises after the work’s premiere? In Cuba, the theater is sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, and it responds to a cultural policy whose range should be as broad as its understanding of the discerning abilities of a national audience whose educational, political, and cultural levels are officially recognized.

Lázaro Saavedra—Tania Wins, Civil Rights Continue to Lose
Can someone conceive of a performance in the name of civil rights, knowing beforehand that it will be forbidden, and take advantage of the censorship? The answer is yes, and Tania just showed that it is possible. She read Foucault a long time ago, and knows that he who controls space controls human behavior. This is applicable to all sorts of spaces, whether it is that of a “public” institution within the artistic system or a public space outside the artistic system. I do not know if the state has read Foucault, but the author’s ideas are applicable in our context.

Antonio José Ponte—The Putinization of Cuban Art
It had been dubbed the “Biennial of the Thaw” not only because it took place during the restoration of relations between Cuba and the United States, but also because there were artists who were trying to give these negotiations a bit of a push to accelerate history. As such, the steps Obama was taking were understood as a foreshadowing of the journey to Cuba that the President promised he would make by the end of his term. Umbrellas and deck chairs on the sand dumped on the Malecón were a preview of the urban transformations that will be sweeping across the island. And the Facebook sign suggested a level of access to the internet that does not yet exist in Cuba.

Amaury Pacheco del Monte—Alamar: An Oblique Approach
It all began with Máximo (the administrator of the metallurgical factory called Socialist Vanguard) whispering to Fidel Castro about the workers’ grumblings regarding the lack of housing. From that, the Alamar Plan was hatched. The revolution enters with its alchemy and its grand gesture of turning barracks into schools. Everything changed under this procedure: a middle-class Havana suburb was transformed into one for workers and technicians. This was a project supported by the ideology of the New Man and sustained by expressions of exemplary conduct, revolutionary selflessness and dedication. An architectural design reminiscent of the ghettos of Kiev or Moscow. That’s how the microbrigade movement of voluntary labor came to be.


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