At the end of 2014, Cuban artist Tania Bruguera was detained in her native country for staging a performance art piece called Tatlin’s Whisper #6 in Havana’s Revolution Square, a site heavily associated with Fidel Castro. On the surface, this act of dissent was nowhere near a Pussy Riot-level provocation; it didn’t even directly denounce the Cuban government. In Bruguera’s piece, a podium is set up and members of the public are invited to stand up and express themselves freely for one minute. Yet Bruguera, who often travels for work and to teach, was detained and released several times by Cuban authorities for this performance. Currently, she is not detained, though her passport has been confiscated, and she is up against criminal charges.
In honor of Tania and all artists around the world who are unable to express themselves freely, a couple of American arts institutions (along with the Witte de With museum in Rotterdam) staged a performance of Tatlin’s Whisper #6 this afternoon. Both the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, who titled their event “#YoTambienExijo: A Restaging of Tatlin’s Whisper #6,” and Creative Time in New York organized performances from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m.
I arrived at Duffy Square in Times Square just after the start, and already there was an impressive crowd of people gathered, only a few of whom appeared to be curious passersby. “Do you know who he/she is?” (I heard a few people asking in regards to the rotating speakers, who included well-known poets or artists, Hans Haacke, Pablo Helguera, and Dread Scott among them.) A Creative Time employee carried a clipboard with the names of volunteers written on a piece of printer paper; every minute she would dart in the center and call the next person. As each person spoke, a man held up a white, living dove in his hand directly behind their right shoulder.
Writer Nikki Columbus’s speech included the following:
“In Florida, the Department of Environmental Protection are prohibited from uttering the words ‘global warming’ and ‘sustainability.’ In Wisconsin, officials are not allowed to talk about climate change. The truth is, in the United States, speech is no longer free. It’s expensive—very, very expensive. It’s become the preserve of the Koch brothers…when billionaire corporations are allowed unlimited influence on politics, they speak at a level that drowns out all other voices. And we, the people of the United States, are no longer heard.”
When she came down from the podium she was crying a little.
I talked to Nato Thompson, the chief curator at Creative Time and the organizer of today’s performance, for a few minutes. “Not being able to speak your mind,” he said at one point, “is a ridiculous thing.”
ARTnews: Tania was released from detention back in January. Why did you decide to put on bicoastal performances now, in April?
Nato Thompson: She’s facing criminal charges, and if convicted, she could go to jail.
ARTnews: Anyone can go up and speak, right?
Nato Thompson: Yeah, you just have to sign up first. It doesn’t have to be about Tania, it could be about anything.
ARTnews: Like a filibuster.
Nato Thompson: Yeah! It’s just supposed to be an open social platform. You know, I don’t want to make it seem like we’re targeting Cuba only. People might say [America has] been beating up on Cuba for a long time, and that’s true, and I’m really sympathetic. But this [performance] is ultimately testing the boundaries of freedom of speech, and it’s really important to stand up for each other internationally. The freedom of speech is the freedom to express oneself politically, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a communist government or a capitalist government—we still need to protect those rights.