Artists Demand Freedom for Cuban Artist Tania Bruguera in Times Square

Artists Hans Haacke and Dread Scott stepped up to the microphone.

Artist Dread Scott speaking in support of Tania Bruguera in Times Square today.

Dozens of artists, museum staffers, immigrants rights activists, and others gathered in Times Square from noon to 4 p.m. today to speak out in support of detained Cuban artist Tania Bruguera.

The action was a restaging of Bruguera’s performance piece Tatlin’s Whisper, which she aimed to organize recently in Havana’s Revolution Square. The piece offers a microphone and a minute of free speech to all comers. She was arrested before the performance was scheduled to take place, and has had her passport confiscated. (See How Tania Bruguera’s Whisper Became the Performance Heard Round the World, Tania Bruguera’s Arrest Slows the US–Cuba Thaw and Cuban Government Brands Tania Bruguera a Criminal.)

During the first hour, attended by artnet News, artists including Hans Haacke, Pablo Helguera, Ahmet Ögüt, Paul Ramirez Jonas, and Dread Scott took to the microphone, along with arts professionals like art historian and critic Claire Bishop; NYC’s cultural affairs commissioner Tom Finkelpearl; and Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg.

New York public arts organization Creative Time, which arranged the event, had provided a small crate as a soapbox for speakers. It was none too stable a perch, and speakers often teetered. A better metaphor for the fragility of the right to free speech could hardly be found.

“It’s precarious!” Dread Scott joked as he took to the soapbox, but he wasn’t joking for long. He choked up as he pointed out that despite a litany of names of black men and boys murdered by police (Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and so on), only one man has gone to prison: Ramsey Orta, who filmed the homicide of Eric Garner on Staten Island, and was later arrested on gun charges. (For what it’s worth, he wasn’t entirely correct; Michael Slager, the policeman who shot a fleeing, unarmed Walter Scott eight times, is in jail and will be charged with murder.)

“As an artist who has had his work outlawed by the U.S. Congress, I know what it’s like to be persecuted,” he said, referring to his 1988 installation What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?, in which visitors are allowed to stand on an the Stars and Stripes. “What’s precious about Tania Bruguera is that she protests against unjust power. And that’s what’s needed here.”

Scott wore a T-shirt emblazoned with a parody of a traffic sign; in a yellow diamond are outlines of a police officer shooting a man with raised arms and the words “DANGER: POLICE IN AREA.”

(See After Ferguson, A New Protest Culture’s Challenge to Art, Police Remove Guerrilla Performance Protesting Eric Garner Death From Armory Show, and Pussy Riot Release Haunting New Song in Honor of Eric Garner).

He wasn’t the only one to use Bruguera’s imprisonment to call for greater freedom of speech and equality in the U.S. and elsewhere. Venezuelan artist Deborah Castillo used her time to read a partial list of political prisoners in Venezuela. Turkish-born artist Ahmet Ögüt told the crowd to imagine a place, like his homeland, where grade-school children are put under investigation for taking part in a school project related to the International Day of Peace.

Writer Nikki Columbus pointed out that freedom of speech is under threat in America too.

“In the state of Florida, staff of the Department of Environmental Protection are prohibited from uttering the words ‘climate change,’ ‘global warming,’ and ‘sustainability,’” she said. “In Wisconsin, state officials are not allowed to talk about climate change, no matter what they call it.”

Speech is no longer free, she added, but rather has become the privilege of the very wealthy, such as the Koch brothers (see Scientists Tell Natural History Museums to Shun Billionaire Donor and Climate Change–Denier David Koch).

Haacke pointed out a photograph gracing the cover of yesterday’s New York Times and showing “two smiling presidents,” Obama and Raul Castro. “Castro jokingly covers his ears under a barrage of questions,” Haacke pointed out, hardly needing to underline the image’s meaning, showing a dictator deaf to cries for freedom.

One speaker brought the dictatorship’s reality to Times Square especially poignantly.

“I am Cuban,” said Jose Gutierrez Solana, an elderly man in a gray suit who took to the soapbox early on. “I spent a long time in prison in Cuba. What you have there is the worst thing that can happen to any country.”

His offense? He complained about the change from democracy to Communism, he told artnet News, resulting in a ten-year prison term. After his release, he left Cuba for Venezuela in 1979 and then came to the U.S. in 1986.

Solana is skeptical that anything will change in Cuba despite a thaw in relations with the U.S.

“They just want money from tourism,” he said. “Castro has said that they won’t change anything. They know that if they offer a finger, we will later take the hand, and then the whole arm. But if they are removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, they will have access to international credit.”

MoMA PS1 curator Peter Eleey was similarly skeptical, pointing out to artnet News that Bruguera’s arrest came just after the announcement of a denouement in U.S.-Cuba relations. He wondered whether further crackdowns will follow the handshake this past weekend between Obama and Castro.

According to old friends still in Cuba, Solana said, “It gets worse every day.”

The speakers continued as Solana talked to artnet News. All around blared ads for Broadway plays like Aladdin and Chicago. Giant video screens conveyed images of star athletes wearing Beats by Dre headphones and skinny models in clothes from American Eagle. A few feet away was the TKTS booth, where cut-rate tickets to Broadway shows can be bought.

It was hard for speakers to compete, and a crowd of a few dozen gathered tightly around, straining to hear them. An English tourist nearby admitted that while he was curious, he couldn’t make out what the protest was about.

“We could have asked for amplification but getting that permit would have been a more complicated process,” Creative Time director Anne Pasternak told artnet News. “She could be sentenced any day, so the idea was, let’s not delay.”

A few feet to the South of where Pasternak stood, a man with his face painted green stood by, wearing the costume of the Statue of Liberty. No one seemed to pay him any mind.


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