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A week in Havana at Tania Bruguera’s INSTAR/ Instituto de Artivismo Hannah Arendt (Hannah Arendt Institute for Activism)

January 4, 2018

A week in Havana at Tania Bruguera’s INSTAR/ Instituto de Artivismo Hannah Arendt (Hannah Arendt Institute for Activism) *

December 19 – 26 2017

By Gregory Sholette and Olga Kopenkina   

* Excerpted from greg’s blog:



Let’s discuss our experiences here in Havana this past week Olga.

Isn’t that a bit narcissistic?

No. Not self-indulgent. I really think people will be interested. The fact that you grew up in a sister socialist country of Belarus during the Soviet era, I think that has made people here ask “what do you think of Cuba today?”

Day One: Arriving at INSTAR in Old Havana we meet a group of wonderfully engaged and enthusiastic artists who greet us in a modest seminar room Tania Bruguera has carved out of her home not far from the National Museum. Still, it’s a busy street immediately outside so a mix of traffic noise and street banter occasionally overpowers our conversation making the translator Tania has hired work extra hard.

I start with my standard picture-heavy presentation about my own, NYC-based cultural activism with PAD/D (Political Art Documentation/Distribution, 1980-1988), REPOhistory (1989-2000), and most recently Gulf Labor (2010-ongoing), before moving onto such concepts as Dark Matter, Bare Art, and interventionism. Olga discusses contemporary artists from the post-Communist cultural situation, particularly Russia. It is clear that Olga’s connection to the Cuban socialist experiment is far more intense than my experiences as a cultural dissident in post-68, neo-liberal USA.

All in all, day one went smoothly with about ten students present and an initial discussion that pivoted on the differences (or lack thereof) between art and political activism. It’s notable that in the US and Europe this distinction remains a largely academic matter, while in Cuba there are real consequences for being perceived on one side or the other of this divide as we soon discovered in an immediate and direct way.


Day two’s presentation started with a missing projector cable that actually made the event more intense because those present were forced to crowd around the laptop screen to see images. Noise from the street right outside the door of the presentation room was at times defining so this huddle also helped the translator do his job. After the talking and debating ended for the night several people wanted to attend a theatrical presentation scheduled to take place in a private home in the Vedado section of Havana. Sadly, when we arrived undercover state security men stood outside the house preventing anyone from entering. When several members of our group first challenged this blockade verbally and then attempted to cross the line the situation escalated. Ultimately four people, including Tania Bruguera were taken away by police cars. It truly seemed excessive given the event was an avant-garde performance, not a dissident meeting In the midst of the melee the theater director improvised a dramatic street performance. 

Vimeo video of events:



Day Three. The next morning after returning to our room (a modest Casa Particular INSTAR arranged for us) from breakfast at our favorite spot, (Gusto Ristorante a few blocks away) the landlady handed us formal papers left by authorities requesting our presence at their offices later that afternoon. Tania also received one. When the time came we found a taxi driver willing to take us to the Immigration Police station some distance away, in a factory district, and wait for us to take us back again. We sat outside for about half an hour before being escorted inside. I killed time by sketching our waiting taxi and workers at a nearby construction site.


Waiting for authorities Havana 2017

Three men, one in uniform, took our phones (yes, even my antiquated flip-phone) and placed us in a small white room with what appeared to be a mirrored wall to our backs that was covered in floor-to-ceiling blinds. One man translated as the uniformed military officer firmly explained in Spanish explained that we were not to attend INSTAR or any unofficial events and should not spend time with Tania or her students. After all, we are not in Cuba to teach because, as they pointed out correctly, we are traveling on tourist visas. 

Russian Embassy Sketch other 3

Furthermore, they informed us that INSTAR is not licensed as an educational space and that Tania Bruguera is not considered an artist in her home country, but is instead viewed as a political figure. We pointed out that her art hangs inside the city’s National Museum of Fine Arts and she is well-known as an artist around the world. They acknowledged this yet the obvious contradiction did not seem to register beyond a shake of the head. They concluded their hour-long visit/lecture by warning us that we would be punished and deported if we returned to INSTAR.


Day Four. We took the next day off not wanting to provoke things further.

With a tip from American artist Terrance Gower we set off to visit the Russian Embassy in Havana, said to be an extraordinary piece of institutionalized post-war modernist architecture. By complete chance the driver we encounter standing near our place of stay leads us to a vintage Soviet-era Chaika limousine. It’s not too long of a drive down around the Malecón to the Miramar district where the building sits nearby other national embassies. Our driver waits for us as we jump out for a closer inspection. Designed in 1985 by Aleksandr Rochegov who was later awarded People’s Architect of the USSR in 1991 (this according to Wikipedia though curiously the USSR dissolved a year earlier in 1990, go figure).

After we arrive Olga speaks first:

It looks like a brutalist-constructivist hybrid, no? 

After a couple of camera clicks each the Russian embassy guards notice us and insist on no more photography. We oblige.



Birds and conversation on Prada:

Day five.

The day after that we decided to meet with students informally in an outdoor location on the Paseo del Prada, a tree-lined boulevard that sits between Centro and old Havana. A gaggle of songbirds roosting in a nearby tree played a cacophonous soundtrack as late afternoon turned to dusk and then into nighttime. Several cell-phones illuminated Olga’s presentation in the darkness. By now the birds were asleep. This was undoubtedly the most robust discussion of the entire trip as the young Cuban artists were keen to know how their no-longer-socialist peers were treated in Russia and Belarus. Olga discussed the works of Petr Pavlensky, Pussy Riot, and Viona. The energy present spoke volumes.



Day Six. Our final INSTAR related encounter took place in a home-art gallery (that we were later told is also “illegal”) and included a workshop were we provoked those present by suggesting that when father is gone the niños y niñas express their true feelings about him, no? But we wonder who then becomes the new parent once the mutiny ends?

NO MORE PAPAS! The artists present virtually chorus.

Screen Shot 2018-01-04 at 4.46.03 PM.png

Yes, of course, we should all be orphans, but in the US of the 1960s’ young people massively rejected the culture of their parents. Except some ten years after and with no one to rebel against there came a consumer-oriented “me” society that has made all of us highly isolated despite the emergence of cell phones, social media, and the Internet.

In Russia, Olga adds, we also lost the papas in the early 1990s, but eventually, Putin and the oligarchs stepped in as replacements.

Hmmmm…so is capital becoming the new papa after Fidel? This is when I ask what would you say to Cuba ten years hence? [See the previous blog post for some of the responses.]

Still, I continue, what seems most missing today amongst artists is not just the absence of fathers (or mothers) post-1960s, but the long-standing claim of futurity itself. This previous but now missing association is or was, I assert in full professorial mode now, the invisible link between avant-garde politics and avant-garde art.

One of the artists comments that the early avant-garde did not always focus on the future, for example, the Dadaists were more intent on destroying the past, no?

This is when I complete my transformation from mere tourist to “visiting INSTAR professor”:

Yes, the Dadaists were anti-establishment, and yet they also sought to clear space for something totally new to emerge (and perhaps that was Surrealism’s faith in the liberated unconscious life?). We know too that the Italian Futurists called for flooding museums, all the while claiming to envision the emergence of a technologically-focused new society. And needless to say, the Russian avant-garde –the constructivists, productivists, engineerists and so forth– embarked on a collaboration with the Soviet state in order to design a new world for a “new man.” But the art world those of us on the cultural Left have had to live with for decades is far darker. While we may be more realistic than our counterparts from a century ago, that dark futureless is grinding us down fast. The artists seemed agreed that they are facing the same futurlessness, given the rampant privatization of their economy, which does create a niche for creative millennials, from which, however, only few will benefit.

Next evening, December 24th, Tania invites us to a lovely Christmas meal with her mother and several relatives. It’s a humble affair with rice and plantains and a few shrimps and meat. Making due with what is available is key to our sense of the Cuban spirit. This extemporaneous aesthetic and knack for creative re-engineering and reuse – including their revolutionary tanks made of the parts of sugar mills by Castro comrades, placed outside of the Museum of Revolution – permeates the lives and art of people we met in Havana on this trip. Olga points out that while she was growing up in 1980s USSR, people always had a fairly accessible black market. Those things we could not obtain above ground were available, though for a price of course. But here in Cuba not only do people have limited surplus cash, but they have learned to invent an approximation of the things they want whatever is at hand. For example, because of very limited access to the Internet and general state control of art venues Cuban artists use a combination of Blue Tooth file sharing with content-sharing apps like Zapya to generate a sort of DIY intranet, not unlike the underground cassette tape and zine culture swapping that I remember from the 1970s and early 1980s in the US.


Day Seven, December 26th, our final day in Cuba.

As we waited for our return flight to NYC three men approached us asking for our passports. Once they identified us we were escorted from the general boarding area and into another small white room located in a nondescript corridor of José Martí International Airport. One man was the military official from several days before, only now dressed without his medals, military uniform and so forth, and I noticed he had his ID tag turned around to obscure his name. Much of the lecture this time was the same, though with more intensity and greater insistence that Tania is not an artist and she should not be associated with by us or any artists from outside Cuba. I commented that I am for the revolution but it really needs a bigger heart and should embrace its critics, a gesture that would, in fact, make Cuba stronger in the eyes of many. Olga added that her own parents -Lilya and Ivan- were Soviet engineers who helped build the infrastructure of revolutionary Cuba. The authorities assured us with a bit of glee that they already knew all about this and about us.

Havana Sketch 6143

Café in Havana and Spuyten Duyvil Bridge at Inwood Hill Park, NYC.


Later that day after boarding the plane without further incident and returning to NYC it felt like the actually relatively short, three-hour flight to and from Cuba was exaggerated in its distance, and not only by our troubles with authorities but also by the sharp seventy-degree plunge in temperature as we landed at JFK.

What was our takeaway from INSTAR, from the artists we met and from this trip to Havana? Somehow it seems we really need to re-invent the concept of the public intellectual on the Left, and perhaps it is the Cuban’s aesthetic of provisionality, re-engineering and reuse that might be applied to the capitalist North in order to regenerate a vibrant, progressive, but also accessible public intelligentsia?

We also discovered after returning to what I call “Upstate Manhattan” (Inwood) that Tania was again detained and interrogated and that the state is now seeking to confiscate her home (the location of INSTAR). The steady pressure is quite cruel and unnecessary for someone who to my mind has the ideals of the revolution as her goal. To cite Fidel Castro from one of his last speeches “The equal right of all citizens to health, education, work, food, security, culture, science, and wellbeing, that is, the same rights we proclaimed when we began our struggle,” Still, in a radical socialist society equal right to culture should not mean access only to art that is certified by the state. After all, as Marx commented 170 years earlier in one of his rare proposals for the future:

“In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

Though that ideal communist subject is ever harder to imagine as we are increasingly surrounded and permeated by a desperate and voracious form of what Peter Fleming calls the “smash-and-grab era of capitalism,” the cultural arena remains one space where such prefiguration should not only be possible, but demanded, especially in a revolutionary society pre or post Fidel. INSTAR seems to be an attempt at making up a new type of public culture out of the remnants of a society undergoing tremendous changes.

Havana sketch 7148

Screen Shot 2018-01-04 at 4.52.30 PM


One Comment leave one →
  1. J. Sheldon permalink
    January 5, 2018 11:24 AM

    But you don´t answer the main questions: what imperialistic institutions are funding the INSTAR? why Tania became a heroine for the extreme right exile in Miami?


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