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The State of Artistic Freedom 2018 // FreeMuse

March 26, 2018



In a first-of-its-kind report assessing the global state of artistic freedom, Freemuse warns of the emergence of a new global culture of silencing others, where artistic expression is being shut down in every corner of the globe, including in the traditionally democratic West.

In 2017, 48 artists were serving combined sentences of more than 188 years in prison. Spain imprisoned 13 rappers – more musicians than any other country. On average, one artist per week in 2017 was prosecuted for expressing themselves. Egypt, Russia and Israel accounted for one-third of violations against LGBT artists and audiences. Seventy per cent of violations against women artists and audiences were on the grounds of indecency, a rationale used in 15 countries across Europe, North America, Asia and Africa. And artists from minority groups suffered violations of their artistic freedom in a near 50/50 split between countries in the global North and South.

The State of Artistic Freedom 2018 report documents and examines 553 cases of artistic freedom violations in 78 countries in the 2017 calendar year, combined with an analysis of legal, political and social developments that shed light on the motivations and rationales behind the violations.

Through this comprehensive analysis we have identified 10 countries that have exhibited alarming developments in how they treat artists and their freedom of artistic expression, and are ones to keep a watch on throughout 2018. These countries are: China, Cuba, India, Iran, Israel, Mexico, Poland, Spain, Venezuela and the US.

The report takes a further in-depth analysis of seven other countries, reviewing their laws, policies and practices that continue to sustain their troubling record of silencing freedom of artistic expressions, and take a closer look at emblematic cases that expose these continuing violations. These seven countries are: Bangladesh, Malaysia, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia and Turkey.

Read The State of Artistic Freedom 2018 report here

Open Letter on the Resignation of Laura Raicovich from the Queens Museum (New York, US)

February 1, 2018

Laura Raicovich, as president and executive director of the Queens Museum, has galvanized the museum field: she has demonstrated how cultural institutions can responsibly and creatively embrace artistic as well as social and political matters crucial to their local constituencies while contributing to the field at large. We have been inspired by her work with art, artists, and communities relating to important cultural issues such as immigration, cultural diversity, education, and equity. The example she set will continue to inform our own work.

We are writing to affirm the leadership role of cultural institutions in advancing cultural and social as well as political public discourse. As stewards and advocates of contemporary and historical cultural expressions, we directors, curators, and staff members of cultural institutions, as well as the board members to whom we are accountable, have a particular obligation to facilitate the free and safe exchange of ideas about our contemporary world with art as the catalyst.

In times of political polarization, arts institutions must fully commit to our responsibility to act as empathetic forums in which we come to understand human history, creativity and society. Art institutions must respond to pressing issues facing our communities — this is not simply a right but an obligation, especially for those supported by public funds.

We call on the boards of our cultural institutions to embrace the civic role of our institutions by supporting and empowering courageous and caring leaders such as Laura Raicovich, regardless of their gender. This is more necessary now than at any other point since the civil rights era in the 1950s and 1960s.


Regine Basha
Chloë Bass, Social Practice Queens
Omar Berrada, Curator and Director, Dar al-Ma’mûn, Marrakech, Morocco
Rashida Bumbray, Open Society Foundations
Harry Burke, Artists Space
Johanna Burton
Gonzalo Casals, Executive Director, Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art
Mary Ceruti, Executive Director and Chief Curator, SculptureCenter
Ken Chen, Executive Director, Asian American Writers’ Workshop
Galit Eilat
Anne Ellegood
Charles Esche, Director, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands
Deborah Fisher, Executive Director, A Blade of Grass
Lynn Gumpert, Director, Grey Art Gallery, New York University
Kemi Ilesanmi
Jamillah James, Curator, Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
Carin Kuoni, Director/Chief Curator, Vera List Center for Art and Politics, The New School
Lucy Lippard
Lydia Matthews, Director, Parsons Curatorial Design Research Lab, The New School
Helen Molesworth, Chief Curator, MOCA, Los Angeles
Alyssa Nitchun
Amanda Parmer, Curator, Vera List Center for Art and Politics
Christiane Paul
Sheetal Prajapati, Director of Public Engagement, Pioneer Works
Laurel Ptak, Executive Director & Curator, Art in General
Silvia Rocciolo, Curator, The New School Art Collection
Jay Sanders, Artists Space
Lucía Sanromán, Director of Visual Arts, Yerba Buena Center of the Arts
Ingrid Schaffner
Paul Schmelzer, Managing Editor, Walker Art Center
Gregory Sholette, Social Practice Queens
Joshua Simon, former Director and Chief Curator, MoBY Museums of Bat Yam, Israel
Manon Slome
Marvin J. Taylor, Fales Library, New York University
Diya Vij
Joanna Warsza, Artistic Director, Public Art Munich 2018, Germany
Martha Wilson, Founding Director, Franklin Furnace Archive, Inc.
Yukiko Yamagata


Further reading: Queens Museum Director Laura Raicovich Resigns Amid Political Differences With Board

Open Letter on the Future of Documenta (Kassel, Germany)

January 15, 2018

Courtesy of Documenta, Kassel

Statement on documenta gGmbH’s separation from Annette Kulenkampff

To the members of the board of documenta und Museum Fridericianum gGmbH:

Oberbürgermeister Christian Geselle (Vorsitzender)
Staatsminister Boris Rhein (stellv. Vorsitzender)
Staatsministerin Eva Kühne-Hörmann
Stadtverordneter Dr.Rabani Alekuzei
Stadtverordneter Marcus Leitschuh
MdL Karin Müller
Stadtverordneter Axel Selbert
Stadtverordneter Gernot Rönz
Hortensia Völckers, Vorstand der Kulturstiftung des Bundes
Alexander Farenholtz, Vorstand der Kulturstiftung des Bundes
Staatsminister Axel Wintermeyer
Staatssekretär Dr. Martin J. Worms

January 14, 2018

Through this letter we wish to express our concern that the recent considerations and decisions made by the documenta supervisory board have considerably damaged one of Germany’s internationally active and influential cultural institutions and thus also the image of Germany abroad. Local and state politicians, who form the ranks of the supervisory board in particular and are the shareholders of documenta gGmbH, haven taken a financial deficit(1) that they themselves effected as a cause to openly debate the restructuring of documenta in the direction of a pure commercialization and marketing of the documenta brand.

A first consequence of these considerations was the dissolution of the contract with Chief Executive Officer Annette Kulenkampff. No other reason can be given, as there has been no proof whatsoever of her culpability for the above-mentioned deficit, which arose through a program concept for which all involved parties shared responsibility.

Moreover, these are the same politicians who have remained unable to respond to the derailments of the right-wing party AfD, which described an artwork by Olu Oguibe as “disfigured art” (entstellte Kunst), clearly referring to fascist terminology.

The political deliberations now sparked range from a repeal of the non-profit status of documenta gGmbH to the integration of public relations work into city marketing and to a redistribution of the financial risk burden. Ultimately, this means relocating responsibility, concentrating revenues on the public purse, and at the same time minimizing freedom of the arts. The planned legal framework aims at nothing other than to align conceptual and artistic freedom with purely budgetary restrictions.

It would be absurd for anyone to doubt the benefits of an event unique on the international stage that boasts around 900,000 visitors, with its significance for the mediation of art going far beyond that of any other art venue. In this regard, it seems almost absurd that the “documenta city” of Kassel and the state of Hessen now presume to question a model of success that has grown over many decades and is already well rooted in history books, all because one single edition of the project could easily be bashed politically as it was partially held in a different European country. Ignoring the advice of all experts, the mayor and the state of Hessen have unnecessarily raised doubts about whether Kassel is still the right location for documenta.

Indeed, the idea to blame Annette Kulenkampff and the second location in Athens for the deficit of documenta 14 is patently false.(2) All involved parties were aware of the fact that the selection of a second site can incur additional costs. The cost risk was communicated in a timely manner. No other reason for the vehement interference by local and regional politicians can be identified than the attempt to take possession of an independent structure and, in the process, to first rid themselves of the very person, Annette Kulenkampff, who had sought to ensure, in a particularly uncomfortable way, the artistic and scholarly autonomy of documenta.

Her groundbreaking plans for the academic research into and mediation of the documenta archive, for the proper care of artworks in public space, and the contemporary renewal of documenta as a globally operating institution are counteracted by this misguided discussion. The desire of the documenta exhibitions since 1997 to offer a stage to non-Western and non-market-oriented positions and to consider this stage in conjunction with other locations is equally counteracted.

If Kassel wants to continue to see itself as a site for a documenta that is irreplaceable on the international stage, then the following requirements must be addressed:

1. The supervisory board must be enlarged by an international expert advisory board, which, in close cooperation with documenta gGmbH, will develop a forward-looking, binding catalogue of criteria for documenta.
2. The legal status as a non-profit GmbH must be maintained.
3. The progressive plans for scholarly research into and mediation of the documenta archive, for the proper care of artwork in public space, and the contemporary renewal of documenta must be continued.
4. The budget of documenta must be adapted to the requirements of a global art event with worldwide impact that is unique in its dimensions.
5. The supervisory board must offer Annette Kulenkampff a continued post since she has given documenta such a promising orientation.

First signatories:
Marion Ackermann (Generaldirektorin der Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen Dresden)
Silke Albrecht (Geschäftsführerin des Württembergischen Kunstvereins Stuttgart)
Lotte Arndt (Theoretikerin, Kunsthochschule Valence, Paris)
Inke Arns (Künstlerische Leiterin des Hartware MedienKunstVereins, Dortmund)
Michael Arzt (Halle 14 Leipzig, Vorstand der Arbeitsgemeinschaft Deutscher Kunstvereine, ADKV)
Elke aus dem Moore (Leiterin Kunst, Institut für Auslandesbeziehungen, Stuttgart)
Zdenka Badovinac (Director of Moderna Galerija + Museum of Modern Art, Ljubljana)
Nuit Banai (Professorin für neuste Kunstgeschichte, Wien)
Bassam El Baroni (Lecturer Dutch Art Institute, NL, and Independent Curator – Manifesta 8, 36th Eva Int. Ireland’s Biennial)
Ute Meta Bauer (Gründungsdirektorin des NTU Centre for Contemporary Art, Singapur)
Meike Behm (Direktorin Kunsthalle Lingen, Vorstand der Arbeitsgemeinschaft Deutscher Kunstvereine, ADKV)
Ralf Beil (Direktor des Kunstmuseums Wolfsburg)
Andreas F. Beitin (Direktor des Ludwig Forum für internationale Kunst, Aachen)
René Block (Leiter der Kunsthalle 44Moen, Askeby)
Monica Bonvicini (Künstlerin, Berlin)
Reinhard Braun (Künstlerischer Leiter, Camera Austria, Graz)
Sabeth Buchmann (Professorin für Kunstgeschichte der Moderne und Nachmoderne an der Akademie der bildenden Künste Wien)
Manon Bursian (Vorstand und Stiftungsdirektorin der Kunststiftung Sachsen-Anhalt)
Binna Choi (Director of Casco – Office for Art, Design and Theory, Utrecht)
Hans D. Christ (Direktor des Württembergischen Kunstvereins Stuttgart)
Cosmin Costinas (Executive Director / Curator of Para Site, Hong Kong)
Alice Creischer, Andreas Siekmann (Künstler_innen, Professor_innen an der Kunsthochschule Berlin Weißensee, MA Raumstrategien)
Janneke de Vries (Direktorin der GAK Gesellschaft für Aktuelle Kunst, Bremen)
Ekaterina Degot (Intendantin des Steirischen Herbst, Graz)
Chris Dercon (Intendant der Volksbühne, Berlin)
Ulrich Domröse (Leiter der fotografischen Sammlung, Berlinische Galerie, Berlin)
Iris Dressler (Direktorin des Württembergischen Kunstvereins Stuttgart)
Katja Diefenbach (Professorin für Ästhetische Theorie an der Merz Akademie, Stuttgart)
Ines Doujak (Künstlerin, Wien)
Helmut Draxler (Professor für Kunsttheorie an der Universität für angewandte Kunst Wien)
Övül Ö. Durmusoglu (Guest Professor for Curatorial Theory and Praxis, Nuremberg Academy of Fine Arts)
Bettina von Dziembowski (Kunstverein Springhornhof)
Yilmaz Dziewior (Direktor des Museum Ludwig, Köln)
Silvia Eiblmayr (Kunsthistorikerin, Kuratorin, Wien)
Charles Esche (Director of the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven)
Matthias Flügge (Rektor der Hochschule für Bildende Künste Dresden)
Martin Fritz (Rektor der Merz Akademie Stuttgart)
Katya García-Antón (Direktorin des OCA, Office for Contemporary Art Norway)
Gerrit Gohlke (Künstlerischer Leiter des Brandenburgischen Kunstvereins Potsdam, Vorstand der Arbeitsgemeinschaft Deutscher Kunstvereine, ADKV)
Cristina Gómez Barrio, Wolfgang Mayer / Discoteca Flaming Star (Künstler_innen, Professor_innen für Bildende Kunst und Intermediales Gestalten an der Staatlichen Akademie der Bildenden Künste, Stuttgart)
Søren Grammel (Leiter des Museums für Gegenwartskunst, Basel)
Ulrike Groos, Direktorin des Kunstmuseums Stuttgart
Elke Gruhn (Leiterin Nassauischer Kunstverein Wiesbaden, Vorstand der Arbeitsgemeinschaft Deutscher Kunstvereine, ADKV)
Krist Gruijthuijsen (Direktor des KW Institute for Contemporary Art Berlin)
Jan Peter Hammer (Künstler, Berlin)
Hou Hanru (Artistic Director, MAXXI, National Museum of 21st Century Arts, Rome)
Annette Hans (Künstlerische Leiterin, Kunstverein Harburger Bahnhof)
Markus Heinzelmann (Direktor des Museum Morsbroich, Leverkusen)
Fatima Hellberg (Künstlerische Leiterin des Künstlerhaus Stuttgart)
Gabriele Horn (Direktorin der Berlin Biennale)
Hans Dieter Huber (Professor für Kunstgeschichte der Gegenwart, Ästhetik und Kunsttheorie an der Staatlichen Akademie der Bildenden Künste, Stuttgart)
Lanna Idriss, Member of the Board of BHF Foundation
Gregor Jansen (Direktor der Kunsthalle Düsseldorf)
Jean-Baptiste Joly (Direktor der Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart)
Alice Kögel (Konservatorin für Gegenwartskunst, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart)
Alexander Kluge (Autor und Filmemacher, München)
Alexander Koch (Die Gesellschaft der Neuen Auftraggeber, KOW Galerie)
Kasper König (Kurator, u.a. künstlerischer Leiter von Skulptur.Projekte Münster 1977-2017)
Christian Kravagna (Professor für Postcolonial Studies an der Akademie der bildenden Künste Wien)
Andres Kreuger (Senior Curator, M HKA, Antwerp)
Katia Krupennikova (Freischaffende Kuratorin, Amsterdam)
Elisabeth Lebovici (Art critic, Paris)
Mathias Lindner (Direktor Neue Sächsische Galerie, Neue Chemnitzer Kunsthütte, Vorstand der Arbeitsgemeinschaft Deutscher Kunstvereine, ADKV)
Thomas Locher (Künstler, Rektor der Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst Leipzig)
Dirk Luckow (Intendant Deichtorhallen Hamburg)
Mark Nash (Co-curator of Documenta 11)
Antje Majewski (Künstlerin, Professorin der Muthesius Kunsthochschule, Kiel)
Florian Malzacher (Kurator, Impulse Theater Festival 2013-17)
Nina Möntmann (Kunsttheoretikerin und Kuratorin)
Matthias Mühling (Direktor der Städtischen Galerie im Lenbachhaus, München)
Vanessa Joan Müller (Dramaturgin der Kunsthalle Wien)
Heike Munder (Direktorin des Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst Zürich)
Joanna Mytkowska (Direktorin des Museum of Modern Art Warschau)
Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung (Künstlerischer Leiter von SAVVY Contemporary, Berlin)
Anh-Linh Ngo (Mitherausgeber von ARCH+)
Olaf Nicolai (Künstler, Berlin)
Ruth Noack (Kuratorin der Documenta 12, 2007)
Angelika Nollert (Direktorin Die Neue Sammlung – The Design Museum, München)
Hannelore Paflik-Huber (Kunstwissenschaftlerin, Vorsitzende des Künstlerhauses Stuttgart)
Peter Pakesch (Vorstandsmitglied der Maria Lassnig Privatstiftung, Wien)
Christine Peters (Kuratorin des Kunstgebäude Stuttgart, 2017)
Britta Peters (Künstlerische Leiterin von Urbane Künste Ruhr; Kuratorin der Skulptur.Projekte Münster 2017)
Philippe Pirotte (Rektor der Staatlichen Hochschule für Bildende Künste, Städelschule in Frankfurt am Main)
Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Franz Boas Professor of Anthropology & Gender Studies, Columbia University
Raqs Media Collective (Monica Narula, Jeebesh Bagchi & Shuddhabrata Sengupta, New Dehli)
Oliver Ressler (Künstler und Filmemacher, Wien)
David Riff (Schriftsteller, Kurator, Künstler, Berlin)
Walid Raad (Künstler, Professor an der Cooper Union, New York)
Kathrin Romberg (Sammlungsdirektorin Erst Bank Österreich, Wien)
Anda Rottenberg (Direktorin emeritus Zachenta National Gallery of Art, Warschau)
Rasha Salti (Independent Curator of Art & Film, Curator of La Lucarne for ArteFrance)
Hedwig Saxenhuber (springerin, Wien)
Nicolaus Schafhausen (Direktor der Kunsthalle Wien)
Georg Schöllhammer (, Wien)
Ursula Schöndeling (Direktorin des Heidelberger Kunstvereins, Vorstand der Arbeitsgemeinschaft Deutscher Kunstvereine, ADKV)
Sabine Schulze (Direktorin des Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg)
Nathalie Boseul Shin (Chief curator of Total Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul)
Andrei Siclodi (Direktor des Künstlerhauses Büchsenhausen, Innsbruck)
Jennifer Smailes (Künstlerische Leiterin, Kunstverein Harburger Bahnhof)
Ruth Sonderegger (Professorin für Philosophie und ästhetische Theorie an der Akademie der bildenden Künste Wien)
Björg Stefánsdóttir (Direktor des Icelandic Art Center, Reykjavik
Simon Sheikh (Programme Director, MFA Curating Department of Art Goldsmiths College, London)
Bettina Steinbrügge (Direktorin des Kunstvereins in Hamburg)
Barbara Steiner (Leiterin des Kunsthaus Graz)
Hito Steyerl (Künstlerin, Professorin für Experimentalfilm und Video an der Universität der Künste Berlin)
Wolfgang Suttner (Vorstand der Arbeitsgemeinschaft Deutscher Kunstvereine, ADKV)
Nina Tabassomi (Direktorin des Taxispalais Kunsthalle Tirol)
Michael Taussig (Professor at Columbia University, New York)
Ana Teixeira Pinto (Autorin, Kulturtheoretikerin, Berlin)
Thomas Thiel (Direktor des Bielefelder Kunstvereins, Vorstand der Arbeitsgemeinschaft Deutscher Kunstvereine, ADKV)
Haakon Thuestad (Director of the Bergen Assembly)
Wolfgang Tillmans (Künstler, Berlin, London)
Nasan Tur (Künstler, Berlin)
Wolfgang Ullrich (Freier Autor und Kunstwissenschaftler, Leipzig)
Philippe Van Cauteren (Director of S.M.A.K., Museum for Contemporary Art, Ghent)
Anton Vidokle (Artist, founder of e-flux, New York/Berlin)
Christoph Vogtherr (Direktor der Hamburger Kunsthalle)
Marianne Wagner (Kuratorin für Gegenwartskunst des Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kultur, Münster)
Joanna Warsza (Kuratorin, Public Art Munich 2018)
Peter Weibel (Vorstand und Direktor des Zentrums für Kunst und Medien Karlsruhe)
Thomas Weski (Kurator der Stiftung für Fotografie und Medienkunst mit Archiv Michael Schmidt)
What, How and for Whom / WHW (Ivet Ćurlin, Ana Dević, Nataša Ilić and Sabina Sabolović)
Axel John Wieder (Direktor, Index – The Swedish Contemporary Art Foundation)
Matthias Winzen (Professor für Kunstgeschichte und Kunsttheorie an der Hochschule der Bildenden Künste Saar, Saarbrücken)
Florian Wüst (Film- und Videokurator der Transmediale, Berlin)
Regina Wyrwoll (Kuratorin Peter und Irene Ludwig Stiftung / Findungskommission documenta X)
Misal Adnan Yildiz (Direktor des Artspace NZ in Auckland, 2014–2017)
Octavio Zaya (Director and Executive Editor of, Cocurator of Documenta 11)
Nina Zimmer (Direktorin des Kunstmuseum Bern, Zentrum Paul Klee Bern)
Franciska Zólyom (Direktorin der GfzK, Leipzig)

(1) In fact, Christian Geselle, the former city treasurer and now mayor, didn’t seem to have any qualms, in his function as a council member, about defending a deficit for the Hessentag 2013. This was a three-day event of regional provenance, which took place in 2013 in Kassel and caused a deficit of 4.63 million eurosOn this, see “Komplizierte Fest-Rechnung: Hessentag beschert in der Regel Defizit,”, November 11, 2016,
(2) Such a picture becomes heavily imbalanced when one takes the added economic value of city and land into account. See “Kunst als Standortfaktor: So viel Geld spült die documenta nach Kassel,”, May 11, 2017,,documenta-wirtschaft-100.html.

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

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Abuse of Power Comes as no Surprise (Bucharest, Romania)

December 13, 2017

My name is Mihaela Varzari, I am a contemporary art researcher from Romania based in London. Recently, I had a very unfortunate experience with the National Museum of Contemporary Art (MNAC) in Bucharest and its director, Mr.Călin Dan, which I consider a professional abuse.

In 2016 the museum launched an open call for projects. I was selected together with three other curators and researchers of contemporary art. My residency in Bucharest was initially to last for 6 months, however, it was shortened to 4 months by the museum which cited “meteorological conditions”. 

Two weeks before the 1st of May 2017, when I was supposed to begin the residency I received an email informing me that my residency was canceled because of budget cuts. I am not an expert on budgets, I believe any changes usually affect the following year, not the current one. I was not offered any explanations, or compensation to produce the show I was invited to do. It is important to note that the other 3 residents were able to finalize their projects. I consider this a discrimination against me.

After numerous attempts to contact Mr.Călin Dan through email, phone, face-to-face or my lawyer, I recently posted an open letter, which was finally answered. Since then numerous other people who had collaborations with the museum contacted me to share similar stories. I believe the director’s attitude demonstrates an abuse of power, compounded with an unprofessional attitude and lack of respect, not to mention disregard of basic ethical rules, especially since it is a public funded institution. This year, the museum launched a similar open call, without inviting me to participate.


My open letter on FB dd 22/10/17

Dear Calin Dan,

My name is Mihaela Varzari one of the 4 international curators and researchers in residence selected as a result of the open call launched in 2016 by MNAC under your directorship.

I was looking forward to carrying out my project in Bucharest when 2 weeks prior to the starting date I was informed (in a 2 line email) that my residency was canceled because of the budget. My many attempts to discuss alternatives with you didn’t get anywhere as you never endeavored to respond to any of my emails, letters or phone calls. I even met you face to face, by sheer coincidence, at an art opening, but you told me you were too busy to discuss my situation. Only once someone from MNAC called to let me know that it was not a cancellation but a rescheduling. Nothing was followed up, despite a number of emails I sent in the hope of getting the ball rolling.

I can’t help but think now that the promise of re-scheduling my residency was a tactical way of evading the problem altogether in the hope that I would eventually lose interest in pursuing this opportunity. My reaction to this cancellation and the treatment on behalf of yourself and your staff was one of immediate shock and disbelief. A publicly funded institution decides on a whim to discriminate against 1 of 4 residents (the other 3 residents carried out their respective projects) without feeling it at all necessary to offer more than a 2 line explanation and what transpired to be a false promise.

In preparation for my time in Bucharest, I had organized to sublet my room. As a result of the cancellation, I had nowhere to live for a month and was forced to stay at friends and pay for a room with Airbnb . The initial explanation was in relation to the budget but recently I just noticed that a new open call was launched my MNAC which indicates the opposite.

For any art practitioners who have encountered similar things or understand the ethical dimension, a national museum is bound by:

What avenues are there at my disposal for interrogating such unprofessional attitudes verging on abuse of power? Does MNAC have any responsibility to explain itself, especially since it’s a public institution when asked to? What kind of legal format does such a relationship between an invited resident and such institution can take? What about the social contract or just basic human decency?

P.S. If any of you are lawyers, please offer me some advice. Please feel free to share on FB, it would be great if this letter actually reaches them.


MNAC’s response on FB dd 23/10/17 (this letter is not signed by anyone)

Mihaela Varzari, the National Museum of Contemporary Art is consternated with the public stance you are undertaking regarding this issue, which only partially reflects the situation. As with all our residents, we were keen to have you as part of our team in 2017. Our team – the Director of Development, the Residency Program Coordinator, the Residency Program Caretaker and the Management Assistants had numerous conversations with you in order to make your residency happen. Despite extended negotiations, we could not reach a consensus on practical matters regarding housing, transport and the residency period – all necessary conditions required to draw a contract. During this laborious and unfruitful process, unexpected budgetary constraints forced the Museum to reduce the scale of the residency project. Since such issues were not raised by the other three residents, their contracts were signed in due time so that their projects could be carried out accordingly.

In conclusion, having failed to reach a consensus over a long period of time, the museum was forced to suspend your residency, in the context of unexpected cuts in our operational budgets. This was not an issue of discrimination, but the sole consequence of an agreement not being met at the administrative, legal and financial levels.

Additionally, it is common knowledge that in Romania there are no multi-annual budgets, which means that state institutions cannot finance projects from a year to another. Thus, the 2018 residency project call relies on an estimated budget for the following year.


Documentation of the performance, CATCH THE ARTIST (4th floor, all floors): 23 nov 2017

Artists: Gabriela Mateescu, Virginia Lupu and Valentina Iancu

Courtesy of MNAC (National Museum of Contemporary Art) facebook page, Bucharest, Romania

Performers (foto): curator Valentina Iancu & artist Gabriela Mateescu

Disclaimer: Iancu wears an armband with the words ‘Mihaela Varzari etc’ sewed with lilac thread on white cloth in solidarity with Varzari’s public open letter addressed to Călin Dan (director of the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Bucharest, Romania). Etc stands for the multiple cases of abuse of power and autocratic behavior of the director demonstrated in his relationship to ex-employees or collaborators of the museum.


This photograph has recently been removed from MNAC’s facebook page.

ArtLeaks Gazette Launch this Wednesday in NYC

November 13, 2017
Haim Sokol

Haim Sokol, Theses on the concept of history, 2013-14

We are very happy to invite you to the launch of the latest issue of the ArtLeaks Gazette at Blue Stockings bookstore (172 Allen Street) in NYC, on Wednesday, November 15th from 7-9:30 PM.

In addition to analyzing concrete practices and campaigns, this issue engages with relevant topics related to social rights, jurisdictions, legislatures and competences, in order to develop a critique of the neoliberal formats that have been for decades perpetuating across the globe. The gazette brings together those contributions which are able to question neoliberal realities, virulent nationalisms, and austerity regimes, considering not only overall conditions in the artworld but also local specificities.

The gazette includes texts by: The Art Handlers Alliance of New York, Mike Watson, Joshua Schwebel & Catarina Pires, Rena Rädle & Vladan Jeremić, Tihomir Topuzovski,  Haim Sokol, Corina L. Apostol, and Dark Matter Games (Gregory Sholette, Kuba Szreder, Noah Fischer & Marco Baravalle).

Visual works reproduced in the gazette are by: Anastasia Vepreva & Roman Osminkin, Haim Sokol, Gil Mualem Doron and Claudiu Cobilanschi

Editors: Corina L. Apostol, Rena Rädle & Vladan Jeremić

On November 15th, we would like to initiate an open discussion around social justice in the artworld, by highlighting topics of ArtLeaks Gazette#4 and relating them to urgent issues of art and culture in NYC and the US. 

Please forward this to your friends and colleagues who may be interested! 

This event is free and open to the public. 


Launch of ArtLeaks Gazette #4: Demanding Justice: Social Rights and Radical Art Practices (Belgrade, Serbia)

October 30, 2017

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Official launch of the latest issue of the ArtLeaks Gazette at The Salon of the Unbribables in Belgrade, at Polet on Saturday, October 21st 2017 from 4-6 PM.

ArtLeaks members in collaboration with The Salon of the Unbribables initiated an open discussion around social justice in the artworld, by highlighting topics of ArtLeaks Gazette#4 and relating them to burning issues of art and culture in Belgrade and Serbia.

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