A non-visit to YBCA

Tania Bruguera is a Cuban installation and performance artist. She studied art at the Instituto Superiro de Arte in Havana and received a Masters of Fine Arts in performance from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Currently, she lives and works in both New York and Havana, Cuba. Her work is on display and a part of various permanent collections of various insitutations including the museum of Modern Art, the Bronx Museum of Arts, and the National Museum of Beautiful Art of Havana (Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana). Brugera also established the first performance studies program in Latin America called Catedra Arte de Conducta, literally translated to behavior art school.

When analyzing Bruguera’s art, it is important that her art is seen through the lens of her background and upbringing. Her father was a high official in Fidel Castro’s government. During the Civil War in Cuba, she lived in Paris, Lebanon, and Panama, before returning to Cuba. Her art is a fusion of visual and performance arts that is often intertwined with social commentary. Brugera never shies away from nudity nor crude, controversial language. The artist always creates socially charged performances, installations, and dialogue that taps into the structure of power within society and how it affects underserved individuals. According to the YBCA website, her work “exposes the social effects of…power, migration, censorship, and representation…”. Bruguera is one of the most acclaimed Latin American artists as she was selected as one of the 100 Leading Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine, and was the first artist-in-residence in the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

In 1997, her work The Burden of Guilt (El peso de la culpa) is Bruguera’s interpretation of a folklore story. This story states that the indigenous people of Cube promised to only eat dirt rather than become slaves of the Spanish conquistadors. In the performance, Bruguera stood naked with a lamb carcass hanging from her neck, creating both a physical and symbolic burden. For 45 minutes, she consumes soil mixed with water and salt representing tears. After doing some searching on social media, there is not much content that has to do with this piece that has gone viral. This piece was not as controversial nor as well spread. Although there were a couple of literary magazines that picked up on this artwork, social media did not exist, and therefore, her audience was usually only primary (individuals seeing her performance first hand) or secondary (individuals reading about her performance or hearing about her performance from a friend or news source).

In 2015, Tania Bruguera was prevented from preforming in Havana’s Revolutionary Plaza. She was not allowed to perform despite the fact that diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba were resolved — still, the government does not allow citizens to express their political views in public. At the time, she wanted to preform her piece Tatlin’s Whisper #6, which was a performance where she presents a megaphone to the public to express ideas about the country’s future. When the government prevented her from performing, she created the hashtag “#YoTambienExijo, which means in English, I also Demand. Thus, she used the internet as well as various other social media sites to share her voice with the rest of the world.

In June 2017, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) decided to collaborate with Tania Bruguera in her exhibit entitled: Hablándole al Poder (Talking to Power). According to the YBCA website, ybca.org, this exhibition presents all of the artist’s long term engaged art projects to date. In addition, the artist opened a performance art school in the galleries where she teaches weekly classes and other prominent artist-educators about power systems.

Throughout her Bruguera usually connects social media and ‘virality’ to her work in every way shape or form possible. For Performa Art’s first Digital Commission, Bruguara engaged followers as “online citizens with the hashtag #instacitizen”. She uses this hashtag in order to connect social media channels from Twitter to Instagram. Though this performance, she demonstrates the power of performing online. Bringing her performance to an online audience allows her to share her ideas and vision with individuals all around the globe that face the similar kinds of oppression that the people in Cuba felt under Castro. Performa-arts.org states that this sort of performance is unique because, “Following the live performance, the project continues to live beyond Bruguera’s initial instigation, allowing her followers to serve as their own agitators of online activism, creating a wide-reaching and self-propelled platform towards social change.”

Although I think that Bruguera’s efforts are vastly interesting, I am not sure how successful she is, or will be. I think that she was successful as she captured an international audience — she captured enough of an audience to be featured at YBCA. However, she tried to launch a social media campaign in the country where individuals are not often connected to the internet. In fact, most Cubans, despite better diplomatic relations with the US do not have access to the internet nor telephones. However, despite the low social media virality in Cuba, she did receive support from around the world. Many individuals have written about similarities between Bruguera’s project and the Occupy Wall Street movement; however, Bruguera’s efforts were not nearly as successful. Until today, Cuban law states that individuals can not use public spaces for cultural events or protests without authorization.

Regardless if Bruguera’s social media efforts were successful or not, her arrest prompted 14 prominent artists to write a letter to The Guardian condemning the arrest. When this occurred Bruguera became the center target of the social movement with the hashtag #FreeTaniaBruguera populating multiple social media sites. It was at this point that Bruguera bridge the gap from being an artist to an activitst at the epicenter of free speech in Cuba. From biographical information to initial artist education to performance life, I think that it extremely interesting how Bruguera was able to participate in Cuban policy as both an artist, social media master, and ultimately become the center of a free speech movement in Cuba.

In contrast, Damon Rich and Jae Shin are two very different individuals who interact with social media and their art in a very different capacity. According to the YBCA website, Damon Rich is a designer, artist, and partner at Hector, a prestigious design firm that specializes in civic arts and has designed works such as the Newark Riverfront Park Signage and Mifflin Square Park and Neighborhood plan. Rich is also the Chief Urban Designer for the City of Newark and founder of the Center for Urban Pedagogy. He has won various awards and fellowships such as the American Planning Association National Planning Award and the Cooper Hewitt National Design award. Jae Shin is a part of the New York City Housing Authority and hopes to combat issues of housing inequality. She is a driving force on a team that is working to increase the amount of safe, clean and connected communities. She has experience being a professor at New Jersey Institute for Technology, and is influential in working to strategically rethink the ground floors of New York City Housing Authority Buildings. She is targeting issues such as racism and inequality and her work pushes forward social movements in order to help provide housing for four hundred eighty thousand people, in addition to enabling this project from start to finish. Jae Shin’s three year mark in this fellowship is also colliding with the inaugural NextGen neighborhoods, a strategic program being backed by The Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellowship.

The exhibition Space Brainz, displays the disrupting in the urban environments. Through the exhibitions both designers uses space in order to take people to a new sate of being — this transformation both physical and social allows people to collaborate and become more plugged into community planning and social organizations.

In Rich’s blog post “Every Museum Needs a Community Organizer” Rich discusses the importance of using space and art in order to empower social movements. He discusses the “Red Lines Housing Crisis Learning Center” and his goal of using this space in order to spark a conversation surrounding housing, the broken down housing system, and possible ways to fix this issue. Rich discusses the many avenues in order to expand the social reach of the museum. This can include bussing in non-profits working in this space, creating public programming, opening dialogue with influential, and embedding the complexity of the problems into the dialogue of the center.

Rich does not only create work and spaces for the purpose of community organizing, but also he creates spaces with different identities in mind. These identities are picked up by various activists on social media. For example, Hector, an urban design, planning, and civic arts studio whose recent projects include a memorial for an eco-feminist nun, a riverfront park, a 14-foot city model celebrating the 350th anniversary of the founding of Newark, New Jersey, etc. Much of his work has been tweeted, facebook-ed,etc. on social media as a conducive place for individuals and community members to congregate and work together.

I think that it is really interesting to think about the fact that the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is inviting these two artists to work on The City Initiative. The YBCA is known for its past of being a part of the gentrification of the mid-market area in San Francisco. Perhaps this exhibition will receive social media coverage as there may be some connected themes between how YBCA uses its space to give back to underserved communities paired with the commentary that Shin and Rich provide on their laboratory for dissecting “how power works through built space.”

Overall, I think that these two artists have the potential to make a very large impact on society through the social media impact of their work. Tania Bruguera has the potential to impact the lives of her fellow Cubans and affect positive and sustainable change in Cuba. However, I am not sure what the affect will be of creating social media buzz at the YBCA in San Francisco, California. Jae and Damon are focusing on innovation, and bringing unique innovation into the housing sector. They are strategically thinking about how she can accomplish her goals, while incorporating this innovation into the NextGen program.On the other hand, Jae Shin and Damon Rich hope to shift public perception in order to show them that investing in public housing is indeed an avenue that can create meaningful change, affect people’s lives, and have the feasibility for completion from start to finish.

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