a device by which people can enter the house of power, not the other way around. I’m talking about bringing to a centre of political power an energy that mobilises people for their own benefit, not for the benefit of the government. But of course, sometimes without intending it, we may be giving government the tools with which they will fuck us up and it is our responsibility as artists to keep in mind who benefits from our work.
Nevertheless, if you do a social art project that gets taken to the city council or an activist institution, the work returns to people with less erosion of its meaning than if it goes to an art gallery. It can go back to the people for whom it was originally made without losing the core meaning of the work. It also creates an expanded understanding of the role of art, one that proposes to do something where art involves more than creating something merely to look at. In terms of appropriation from the state, one of the biggest challenges is scale and the distorting ef ect it can have on the artist’s intentions. When something becomes completely commodified – and this includes all kinds of art genres and all kinds of appropriators – are people really seeing it? Commodification interferes in the reading of the work, making it dif icult to grasp the original intent of the artist. The work is almost kidnapped.
Would the shif of the IMI headquarters into community selfmanagement be an example of the work returning to the people? Yes, and within this kind of work you need allies. You can’t just pass the project back to the immigrants and say ‘it’s your problem now’. This process is not about passing responsibilities to others but about giving them the possibility to shape the work even more to their needs. It is not about programming or perpetuating a structure of events and activities, it is about the development of an ecosystem. As the initiator of the project along with all the people involved, you need to create an ecology that sets the tone for how people feel, not just emotionally but also in terms of the opportunities they want for themselves and the respect they deserve, the work being about how to become viable interlocutors within one area or another of society. That kind of ecology is hopefully about not having to perform but about understanding how well you can be with yourself and how art can be a tool for this. This can take two weeks, three month or five years; as an artist working with them, you have to feel it and understand the condition of constant transformation of such work, because the needs for the work to exist change. We did a transition with the IMI HQ in Corona where the museum staf agreed to continue their support. We sat down with the community and the museum staf and asked how we could carry out the transition, and we decided that the best way was to set up a school of art and activism, with two main leaders to teach. Everyone attending was paid. The course was open to the whole community and we did this course weekly for six to eight months. I took the decision not to be part of the school, but I was still going to be around in order for it to be a gradual transition, one that understood the ‘tempo’ of this specific community and the natural ways the decision-making structure could be transferred.
How does this issue of duration relate to your earlier performances, such as Tribute to Ana Mendieta, 1985-96, which lasted more than a decade? Do you see this interest in endurance/duration as a continuation? I divide my work into two main strategies: short-term pieces and longterm pieces. I am interested in the immediate power of images, but I also want to see whether art can really change something. I’ve seen it happen, so I want to try. With flashy, quick, intense experiences, the unpacking happens af er – on your own – when you go from being an audience member to being a citizen, whereas in long-term pieces everything gets unpacked together. For those projects, a long period
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is needed because the tempo of art consumption is not in sync with the tempo of social change. Forcing the tempo of the work of en creates ethical clashes. This is why so many political and social art projects have failed – and not in a good way; they have failed in the sense of creating mistrust and exploitation. The temporality in the art world is: ‘I get it. Next.’ The temporality in society is: ‘First, how can I trust you?’ Trust takes time, but it is what ensures that the work is done within a sense of community.
You have developed the category of Arte Útil (Useful Art/ Art as a tool) to describe projects like IMI. How do you see this working in relation to other terms that have proliferated since the early 1990s like socially engaged art, collaborative art and social practice? Arte Útil comes from the same interests, but there are a few dif erences. Arte Útil does not want to make things better, does not want to ‘fix’ the system, but wants to change the system. It is a little more ideological, let’s say. I have an exercise I use when teaching Arte Útil where I ask students to choose a successful piece of social art, and then to imagine how it would be transformed into Arte Útil. Then you understand the dif erence. While in socially engaged art a lot of energy is put into getting people to understand why something is the way it is, or to show the world the way a certain group of people experience it, in Arte Útil we also do that but only as a first step of the work, we do not stop there. We don’t want to show how things are, we want to change how things work. In that sense, the idea of gesture is in contrast to that of performativity. A lot of socially engaged art is performed, whereas Arte Útil is a social, political or economic gesture.
Finally, the big discussion in socially engaged art about authorship is not present in Arte Útil because we understand artists as initiators. Already through this you acknowledge how the work owes itself to the people you are working with; it also entails the potential permeability of the project if it is continued af er the initiator leaves the project. In Arte Útil we want to implement prototypes that can be reproduced by others. Contrary to the idea that Arte Útil disregards the importance of art, it wants to rethink art’s functions and the place it occupies in society. It is about putting art back into a position of social and political respect.
In a recent interview you described thanking the Cuban secret police for making your work #YoTambienExijo better through the interrogations you were subjected to af er your recent arrest (Artnotes AM383). You compared this experience with instances within the history of performance that were based around endurance. You also described #YoTambienExijo as fitting with your earlier practice of Arte de Conducta (Behaviour Art) rather than Arte Útil. Can you say more about this distinction? #YoTambienExijo uses political collective memory. People in the arts in Cuba remembered the earlier performance of Tatlin’s Whisper #6 (Havana version), 2009, but this time I wanted to see what would happen if we did it in the street – where it really matters – rather than within the safe walls of an art institution. It was the perfect example of my concept of Arte de Conducta because it was experienced through people’s responses and reactions; these were the generator of the meaning of the work. Yes, the Cuban secret police and the fear of the current government became materials of the work, their simplistic reactions were also Arte de Conducta; the behaviour of the government itself gave meaning to the work. I think their stubbornness made the piece better – it became a power game between the impact of art and the impact of a state. #YoTambienExijo exposed clearly another concept of my work: political timing specificity, which means that the work is generated and defined by the political conditions and urgencies of the place and time.
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