Counter-surveillance. Interview with Coco Fusco

Despite the fact that in recent years it has been appearing a series of contributions ―articles, essays, anthologies, exhibitions― that help think about the cynical and often servile space between intellectuals and power on the island, the recent book by the artist and essayist Coco Fusco, Dangerous Moves: Performance and Politics in Cuba (Tate, 2015) can be considered, from now on, one of the essential books on the subject. Not only because of the graphic documentation it provides (from the beginning of the Revolution until 2015) or because of her thoughts on the issue, but because it is one of the few books that focuses on art: civil society, works, artists, and institutions. And it does it from the perspective of performance, that war machine halfway between desire and denunciation.

For years, labels such as “ideological diversionism” or “brainwashing” were devices widely used by the Cuban state to punish or neutralize any “deviation” that could be inserted in the education employed to try indoctrinate each successive generation. To what extent do you think this experiment (first, that of creating the New Man and then that of building an atmosphere of fear, punishment and disinformation) has had repercussions on the island’s art from Volume I to the present day?

The artists of the generation of the 80s wanted to present themselves to the world as critical beings who have managed to overcome the stage of “ideological diversionism”. But the fact that generation escaped from the island in the early 1990s indicates that their attempt failed. Today there are still artists in Cuba who are considered problematic. At the same time, the state treats artists differently than it did before. The state has less to offer due to budget cuts, so its power is expressed through control over artists’ access to foreigners who offer travels, sales, and other professional opportunities.

There is a piece by Yeny Casanueva and Alejandro González that I did not remember and that you mentione profusely in your book: Obra-Catálogo #1. It includes police files that show “how high-profile Cuban artists, foreign curators, and diplomats had been monitored by State Security during the 2006 Biennial”. This counter-surveillance, from the watched to the watchers, could it be understood as the political (and anti-Castro) performance par excellence? Are there any similar works in Spanish-American art today, works that put the secrecy-state into play?

I argue in my book that the counter-surveillance of Yeny and Alejandro is indeed a performance, and that the videos that Gorki Águila has made showing how the police watch his house are also political performances. As for your question about the works of Latin Americans who put the secrecy-state into play: most of the examples that come to my mind right now are related to film and literature, not to the plastic arts. There are many directors of the New Latin American Cinema who are obsessed with right-wing dictatorships and have made films that explore various themes related to political repression, secret prisons, etc.

For example?

Rojo Amanecer by Jorge Fons, Memorias de la cárcel by Nelson Pereira Dos Santos, Qué bueno tenerte viva by Lucía Murat, Acta general de Chile by Miguel Littin, El caso Pinochet by Patricio Guzmán…

And in the Cuban world ―apart from the aforementioned Yeny and Alejandro― what other artists do you consider important within this counter-surveillance?

Ruslán Torres and the DIP group, for example. Humberto Díaz, Gorki Águila and some musicians… I should mention that at one time José Toirac also made installations that touched on the subject of state security officers.

Do you remember the year?

During the 90s. I saw them at an exhibition at the Cuba Pavilion, although I don’t remember the exact year.

The actions of Cuenca, Artecalle, Art-De, etc., helped to give body to one of the most “Potemkin” eras of the Cuban revolution, the 1980s. Were there any performances or actions by Cuban visual artists before this decade that helped to deconstruct the island’s civil-aesthetic straitjacket?

I understand why you think the anti-establishment works of Cuenca, Juan-Sí, Arte Calle, and others from the 1980s represent a “Potemkin,” creating the impression that in Cuba there was a freedom of expression given by a liberal and educated revolution. However, those artists were censored and harassed by the police and cultural officials ―with the help of many artists who swore that those taking risks were not true artists. Official critics at the time attacked them in the press and spoke badly of them (or failed to mention them) to researchers visiting Havana. I think that if we are going to give the title of Potemkin Town, we have to give it to the Havana Biennial, the real showcase created to seduce foreigners and convince them that Cuba is a paradise for artists.

Well, I wasn’t saying that Cuenca’s or Art-De’s work was a “Potemkin”, I was referring to the era, one of the most confusing and cosmetic of the Revolution. To the point that many remember it as one of the few moments of well-being under Castroism when, in truth, on a civil and political level, it continued to be as repressive as the previous ones…

Everything is relative. I visited Cuba several times in the 80s. I was told by many that it was a time of stability and abundance compared to the 70s, and then to the Special Period. Compared to the “Quinquenio Gris”, artists had more possibilities and opportunities. They began to travel abroad, etc. In other words, I prefer not to generalize and say that conditions in Cuba have always been the same. You have to differentiate between each period.

Speaking of each period… In Pasos peligrosos, you point out that there is a “before and after” Angel Delgado, of that action in El objeto esculturado (1990) where he defecated on top of a Granma newspaper. What existed before this event of AD in the island’s art world?

When I spoke in my book of a “before and after” Angel Delgado’s performance, I was referring exclusively to the artistic context. What I try to explain in my analysis is that in the 1980s there was more than the famous “boom” in Cuban art, there was also the emergence a generation of artists who demanded more control over their work, more acceptance of their appropriations and their interpretations of avant-garde trends in the capitalist world, more freedom to express their critical vision, less intervention in culture by politicians. These demands coincided with the projects of other intellectuals of the same generation who worked in the fields of literature, journalism or philosophy. Among these were some who tried to develop openly activist projects ―for example, the Alternative Criterion group. But within the plastic arts sector, the only attempt to launch into political activism that I know of is the case of Juan-Sí González. The others did not dare, they only sought to broaden the possibilities within the field of art.

It is curious, as you point out in your book, that Angel Delgado’s performance did not arouse any solidarity in the guild of Cuban painters and artists in the late 1980s. Why do you think this happened?

Some were afraid, and others simply didn’t want to be associated with problematic characters so as not to harm their prospects. Also, one of the criticisms that often came up in order to knock down artists working on sensitive subjects was that their proposals failed for aesthetic reasons. In other words, they were demagogic and therefore made poor quality art. At that time, there were conflicts between artists who thought they had to concentrate on opening up paths within institutions and others who wanted to work outside the institutions ―on the street, or independently. Those who wanted to work inside the institutions were afraid that the others, because they wanted to go over the heads of the officials, were going to cause problems for everyone, and therefore they were opposed to what they were doing. I would like to point out, however, that Rafael López-Ramos, who at that time was the representative of the plastic arts for the Hermanos Saíz brigade, did take risks, did try to defend the artists who were in many occasions censored and harassed. He also confronted Soledad Cruz in the press to celebrate the efforts of the artistic vanguard.

For a totalitarian and nationalist-retrograde state like Cuba’s, what is articulated or endangered by performances that use bodily waste such as blood, semen, poop, or that attempt to take place in emblematic places of Castroism, like that of Tania Bruguera (which did not happen) at Revolution Square?

There will always be some conservatives who will reject the use of non-traditional materials. They only want to see paintings painted in oils and sculptures in stone or metal. That attitude is not only present in Cuba, it exists everywhere. However, there are artists on the island who work with blood, excrement, saliva, etc., who are accepted because their way of using these materials does not imply a criticism of the government. In the case of Ángel Delgado: he decided to crap on the newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party and was not invited to the exhibition where he turned up ―that was the problem.

As for Tania Bruguera’s proposal to use Revolution Square, we have to analyze carefully what that implies. There are other artists who have worked with the sacred figures of the Revolution and with the graphics and slogans of the state. Not all of them have been censored. If they make a very open criticism, yes, but many find refuge in ambiguity. The issue of using Revolution Square is that is complicated. It is a high security area due to the presence of the ministries that surround it. It is the equivalent of the area around the White House in Washington, where access is denied to the vast majority of artists and activists and all public activity is controlled. Tania chose a way of doing things that was going to cause problems and she should have known that before she arrived in Havana: she announced her performance on the Internet without asking for permission, something she would have had to do in any country. And she kept insisting that she was going to do her performance even after officials refused to grant her permission. In my opinion, the government’s reaction was excessive, but I am not surprised that she was not able to do her performance. Nor was I surprised that they took her passport away for a few months: in the United States, if you have a trial pending, they also take your passport away to prevent you from escaping the country. I am not defending the Cuban state ―again, I stress that their reaction was excessive. But I understand that freedom is conditional in many contexts and that many governments limit the ways in which we can protest.

You write: “the privileged position of artists due to the international attention they receive creates room for the justification of the surveillance they are subject to”. What exactly does this mean?

My reference to the privileged position of artists and the rationalization of surveillance towards them rests on many factors. There is the history of the suspicion with which the state has looked at the Cuban intellectual-artistic sector since the 1960s ―both Fidel and Che saw them as selfish bourgeois who only wanted to criticize the Revolution and worry about their freedom of expression. The intellectual-artist sector was also associated with the homosexual world.

Intellectuals and artists have been portrayed as a threat, but the state depends on the success of its artists and intellectuals worldwide to create the impression that Cuba is a cultural power and to clean up its image. Cuban artists travel and have frequent contact with foreigners, which for the state security officials implies that the artists have opportunities to denounce the regime outside the island and get information that other Cubans do not have. Furthermore, plastic artists were the first in the cultural sector to have the opportunity to sell their works directly to foreign people and gallery owners, which is why today they belong to the country’s new elite.

Is there a “culture of vigilance” in Cuba?

I think there is an internalized culture of vigilance that makes most Cubans mind what they do, keep their distance from the opposition, and not get involved in dangerous activities. People know how far they can go without getting into trouble. Cubans have been socialized, on the one hand, through their political education and, on the other, through the presence of state security and the threat of “social death”: losing jobs, privileges, ration cards, permission to live in the capital, etc. Cultural officials interpret their duties in relation to the Party orders and state security controls.

By the way, it is striking that in your book you barely refer to the world of literature. Specifically, to some performances made by writers like Carlos Augusto Alfonso or Omar Pérez at the end of the 80s, or later, the Diáspora(s) group or Juan Carlos Flores in Alamar…

That is due to the fact that I became specialized in plastic arts and I have never approached the Cuban literary world, with the exception of having made a video about the poet María Elena Cruz Varela and her activities with Alternative Criterion. Juan Carlos Flores was the founder of Omni Zona Franca and through them I was able to get to know his work.

To conclude: Are we in danger in Cuba ―following the logic of Boris Groys in The Total Art of Stalinism― that beyond all the spaces of transgression, the different periods of direct confrontation with the ideological, a society that increasingly sees in performance a strategy of reflection and denunciation (even if this does not come directly from aesthetics), that in the end, the one who will be considered as an avant-garde artist, a total creator, übermensch, is none other than the one who kidnapped the Cuban society and invalidated its rights and knowledge, the tyrannosaurus Fidel Castro?

Obviously there are many who think that the number one performer was Fidel and that Raúl, because he is not charismatic, cannot influence much inside or outside Cuba. There are dozens of commentators who have written about Fidel and who have been hypnotized by him. Although it may be true that Fidel has been the greatest example of political performance, I did not want to write about him. I wanted to analyze the artistic production and rescue the spirit of protest that has manifested itself in the artistic sector. That tendency is not what the Cuban state wants you to see. Today, almost all artists have become businessmen and know that the state allows them to enrich themselves if their work does not touch politics and, moreover, that the international market prefers an art from the “global south” that mixes the conceptual with the anthropological and leaves politics out.

And do you have anything to say about Groys’ thesis?

Groys has several books and often publishes in magazines like Eflux Journal. Many of his comments have been very useful to me as a teacher and critic.

Carlos A. Aguilera (Havana, 1970). Writer. In 1995 he won the David Poetry Prize, in Havana, in 2007 the ICORN Scholarship of the Frankfurt Book Fair, and in 2015 the Cintas in Miami. His latest published books are: Umberto Peña. Bocas, dientes, cepillos, restos (monograph, 2020), Teoría de la transficción (anthology, 2020), Archivo y terror. Operaciones entre literatura, política, teatro y arte (essay, 2019), Luis Cruz Azaceta. No exit (monograph, 2016) and Matadero seis (nouvelle, 2016). He co-directed the magazine Diáspora(s) between 1997 and 2002. He coordinates the FluXus collection at Rialta. He lives in Prague.


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