Because the question of art’s utility isn’t new, Tania Bruguera, the Cuban artist who’s often been referred to as a “dissident” and “political activist,” conceived of “Arte Útil” from a desire to center art in a moment when there’s no choice but to be responsive. She asserts that one of art’s functions ought to be as an immediate tool for social change that could move beyond merely signaling problems by implementing possible solutions to them.
At a presentation on Arte Útil at OCAD University last Wednesday, where she spent a week as the art school’s “Nomadic Resident,” Bruguera explained that Arte Útil vaguely translates to “useful art.” “Útil” (meaning “useful,” “instrumental,” and a “tool”) is, for Bruguera, a means to “envision the potentiality of art as a tool for the world to work better.” (An audience member later asked how Arte Útil differs from design. Bruguera emphasized that while design is about making the world run smoother, “Arte Útil is about robbing the system.”)
Bruguera set up Arte Útil as an organization to mimic, amalgamate, and ultimately infiltrate the artworld’s now-traditional institutional structures. It has divisions to facilitate and leverage its projects: an archive, an association, a lexicon, a school, a museum and an office, a framework within which “artist” becomes “initiator,” “spectator” becomes “user” and “museum” becomes “civic space.” She presented several examples from the Arte Útil archive: one of them was WochenKlausur’s Immigrant Labor Issues (1995), where the Austrian group assisted seven immigrants to bypass Austria’s strict work permit regulations by commissioning them to produce “social sculptures.” The other was Taller Flora, a project that assists indigenous communities in Mexico with craft-based livelihoods to patent their creations and protect them from fast-fashion corporations.
The didactic tone of her presentation – which was free and open to the public, and packed – might’ve been a carryover of her role as teacher, that week; and when it didn’t come off like a sales pitch, it seemed to be her prototypical primer designed for an audience presumed to be unfamiliar with her vision. After defining Arte Útil and delineating its structure, Bruguera traced its precedents in the theoretical world with John Ruskin, and in the artworld with Pino Poggi, who coined the Italian term “arte util” in 1965. The impetus to make art useful is concentrated during times of economic depression and political crisis, Bruguera observed in her research, but what distinguishes her conception of Arte Útil from all these precedents is her disinterest in aesthetics. “[The] utilitarian component I’m looking for does not aim to make something that is already useful more beautiful, but on the contrary aims to focus on the beauty of being useful,” she wrote in 2011.
In the question period, I asked her why Arte Útil is branded in the way that it is, with a website, a PowerPoint presentation, and a logo, if utility is one of its fundamental tenets. “That’s the first time I’ve heard that,” she responded. But to her, these elements don’t constitute a brand: “it’s just a platform,” she said. Someone else asked about labor compensation for Arte Útil’s participants – because “time is money,” they said – and she responded with something along the lines of how time spent on these projects may simply be redirected from the excess amount of time we tend to waste on social media. She didn’t say much about how any of these long-term projects, which were sometimes carried out by artists who were foreigners to the project’s site, unfolded over time, or whether they committed to sustainability beyond their initial impact.
So I approached the interview with skepticism. However, while cynicism about the utility of art in crisis has sharpened, in the last year especially, I reassured Bruguera that I wouldn’t ask, “But what can art really do in 2017?” She laughed and added, “Or is it really art?” – a question she said she’s become used to, from journalists. We went on to discuss her negotiations with institutions as she attempts to infiltrate them (one of which will be MOCA Toronto, in its upcoming year), weaponizing her privilege to advocate for the dispossessed, and the politics of parachuting her projects into places where the stakes, for her, are low.
You’ve said that Arte Útil is rooted in efficacy, not efficiency. What are the criteria of efficacy for you?
We want to work towards efficacy not efficiency, because efficiency is a very neoliberal concept, like making things work better and easier, thinking that life should be easier. Life should be actually not about being easier or not – it’s about whether you are engaged in the problems. So sometimes we feel like this idea of fake efficiency – where it’s like, “What are you talking about? Everything is fine” – produces false happiness that we disagree with in the group. What we mean about efficacy is, how can we change what is going on? It’s not to make something work better, smoother, or easier – it’s about [stating that] “this is wrong.” The fact that we have housing problems, for example, shouldn’t be about making housing problems easier for people – no, it’s about how we could change housing problems altogether, how we could make sure that everybody is included, how we could make sure that everybody has access and has what they need. Hopefully, it is a way to insert a different vision of the system – a different system entirely – not just making it better.
You talk about the creation of ethical ecosystems, which involves replicating and infiltrating established ecosystems, which may themselves be unethical, as it could be argued that the museum is an inherently unethical ecosystem –
And it’s not working.
So not only are these established institutional ecosystems unethical, they’re also dysfunctional. But replicating them to infiltrate them is a tactic that was established by institutional critique movements in the ‘60s and ‘70s and became the precedent for socially engaged art, or whatever you want to call it. Where, for you, does the line lie between infiltration and cooptation, and how do you toe it?
Hopefully you infiltrate without being coopted – you’re coopting the others, hopefully – but it is hard. And it is true that even if we hope to be pushing and pushing, it is a negotiation. What I have learned is that you have to ask for more than what you really need, so that you get what you need.
But, for example, I did this survey show where I created a situation where the immigrant community – actually undocumented artists – were welcome to the museum and we wanted to make that a recurring thing. I do as much as I can, to make sure that they were paid. Sometimes the infiltration is: how do you make the institution think? – because a lot of institutions don’t think, they just [automatically] go into their programming – so you can make it see itself and hopefully see what you can create. But you have to understand the limitations of your actions. You’re not going to be superman and spend two weeks in a place and change anything. It’s a long dialogue, it’s tiring, and it’s a lot of boring parts, but if you can do one thing, that’s good. For me, cooptation is when you are not proud of what you’re doing, when the conversation starts going in a direction that [embarrasses you] of what you’re doing.
In your presentation you talked about how working with MOCA Toronto as an institution that is re-envisioning itself offers an opportunity for you to have a seat at the table and direct how some of these conversations might be –
I’m not having a seat at the actual table. I’m having a seat at my table. I’m just an invited artist, I’m not sitting on the board. But I set up a table.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how certain gestures of inclusion – whether of people who are perceived to be marginalized, or of practices that are perceived to be radical—make the institution look really fucking good. That’s where the question of how to toe that line comes from. So how do you take the money and run?
You mean how to use people? When they’re like, “Oh, we have a racialized person – we’re good,” so they can wash their hands and continue their normal thing? It’s funny because somebody asked me in one of the classes what I think about activists asking institutions for money, and I was like, “You know what? [Institutions] have to [pay equal] respect to other people doing other practices.” And sometimes they invite them just to wash their [own] hands and look good. So I think the thing is, how can we implement change? How can we persist in change? And yes, enjoy the little victories but wake up the next day [to attend to] the next fight, because it is true that they get satisfied with minor gestures, and most of the time those changes come out of their desire, not of the need of [marginalized] people.
With ongoing projects like Immigrant Movement International, Migrant People Party or #YoTambienExijo (I Also Demand) you’re acting as an advocate for the dispossessed. Do you see that as your way to weaponize your privilege?
I don’t have the same privilege I had 10 years ago. I have more privilege now. Maybe 10 years ago I had the privilege to enter a community without being noticed. Now it’s very hard to be anonymous and blend in. A key question for me is: how can you make your privilege become capital for others? You have to understand that everything you do creates capital – symbolic capital, cultural capital – so are you willing to give all your capital to something? That’s my attitude. When I’m working on a project I ask myself, how much am I willing to give? What are the risks I’m willing to take? And sometimes, people misunderstand me because when I’m working in certain communities, [there are] consequences and people think it’s egocentric. If I’m working with people who’ve been dispossessed then I might get imprisoned. And because of my work somebody has gone to prison. So when I got imprisoned and I was liberated and I learned that some people were still imprisoned, I said, “I’m not leaving.” I used my privilege to call a press conference. I was detained again before the conference even happened, and then when I was in jail again I said, “I’m not leaving until everybody is out.” When I finally left I told them that I wanted to make sure that they did it. Why? Because I have privilege. No one cared about those people, people cared about me. The letters [of support] were for me. Which I’m grateful for, but I needed to share my privilege. Is that the solution? No. Am I forfeiting my privilege? No. I keep being privileged. The artist Manuel Otero was detained by Cuban authorities [on November 6]. We opened [petition] signatures and today we have 300 – which is not a lot, but for Cuba it is – and they liberated him. Yesterday afternoon. Am I going to take credit for it? No. It wasn’t only me. We activated a lot of things. That’s what I mean. Do something useful with your privilege. Don’t capitalize on your privilege in money. Capitalize on your privilege in action, capitalize on it to other people’s benefit.
Is that going to change your privilege? Am I going to be Santa Teresa of –? No. But I don’t want to be. This is my understanding of privilege as a political tool. I don’t always do it well, but I’m trying. In [#YoTambienExijo], we were a group of five, and they were fucking scared. They asked me to be their spokesperson, and I became their spokesperson and never said the name of the group – until they gave me the right to share their name. And they felt bad because I was imprisoned, and it was their idea, and I said, “No, it’s fine. Don’t worry.”
I was curious about that particularly because of critiques of Tatlin’s Whisper #6 [(Havana Version)] –
What was it? That I’m egocentric?
No. That you can only take these risks in your work because you have artworld mobility and visibility –
I’ll tell you something. I do. But you have to take into consideration that the Cuban government created a series of responses to the project and disseminated it to the public. There were people saying things like, “Tania’s profiting from this” – but I have never gained one cent out of that piece. People said, “Tania’s doing this for publicity” – but I have been in the New York Times twenty times and none of the newspapers that covered it were new [to my work]. I have a 25-year career. So it was actually bad for me because a lot of my projects and exhibitions had to be cancelled because of this.
How do you negotiate the politics of parachuting?
I’m with you. I think that’s a very intense thing to solve. In Cuba I don’t feel I’m parachuting because I go all the time. I know the nuances of the place. I keep in constant conversation with people there and with my students. In Canada or in Mexico it may be parachuting, and I think that’s a dangerous situation. Right now, with this project I’m working on for MOCA next year, I think the residency I did now is serving as a stepping stone to work with a group of people where I would be a mediator between the institution and the group, instead of the author. That’s what I’m proposing, because as a parachuter you have a lot of privilege when you’re in dialogue with the institution. So you need to understand how to use it: as a person who could negotiate between what the institution wants and what the community wants, which is not always the same. That’s one solution. But I’m thinking more and more to go back to one place and just live there, because right now I think it’s important to be living in community. I think it’s important at this moment to close the parachute, and build.