Blog Post #3

YBCA Field Trip: Tania Bruguera, Damon Rich and Jae Shin Exhibits

Over the weekend, I visited the amazing Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in San Francisco. YBCA is one of the nation’s most progressive contemporary arts centers that focuses on utilizing culture as a catalyst for social change. The center strongly believes that it is the duty of arts institutions to support societal movements in their communities. Founded in 1993, YBCA upholds five key pillars that differentiate itself from its peers (YBCA):

The presentation of leading edge contemporary art
The incubation of game changing creative ideas
A commitment to inquiry, and asking the urgent questions of our time
Convenings that bridge people, communities, and sectors
Civic coalitions that create lasting change and policy shift

Key figures Tania Bruguera, Damon Rich, Jae Shin, and others express the political, social, and economic issues of their communities through Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

On the first floor of the center reside Tania Bruguera’s short-term, long-term, and lifetime projects. Bruguera is a Cuban installation and performance artist whose projects encapsulate issues of power and control, along with interrogations of the Cuban political landscape. Her work allows for a model of institutional self-criticism that reconstructs institutions observed as fixed to transitional institutions that are influenced by the masses (Archibold). Perhaps her most noteworthy contribution is the idea of Arte Útil /Useful Art, a concept in which art is utilized to imagine and achieve constructive social outcomes. Due to the dedication to her work, Bruguera has been arrested and freed three times between December 2014 and January 2015!

Tania Bruguera’s “Self-Sabotage” Exhibit in YBCA

Bruguera’s short-term work “Self-Sabotage” immediately stood out to me at YBCA. This project is shown as it was originally presented: a wooden table with Bruguera’s firearm and written reflection facing a room full of plastic white chairs. Self-Sabotage is Bruguera’s lecture-performance in Paris that demonstrates the role of artists in society and the role of their actions as instruments of reality. The inspiration for the piece came from Bruguera’s engagements with various artists whose definitions of “politically engaged art” highly differed from her own (YBCA Pamphlet #1).

To demonstrate the disconnect between creating art that acts as a façade of activism versus one that boldly spurs society to action, Bruguera developed the project in her series Culture as a Strategy to Survive. In this suspenseful demonstration, Bruguera reads her criticisms on the purpose of political art while holding a .38 caliber pistol with 9mm bullets to her head. She pulls the trigger twice in a Russian roulette manner, illustrating the total sacrifice of an artist when he/she forfeits the authenticity and unrealized potential of their work to abide by the constructs of society (Bruguera). She shows that for art to be revolutionary, it must have tangible consequences (i.e. the artist risking her life for the sake of the performance).

This piece fascinated me above all others because it truly opened my eyes to the positive socioeconomic impacts that art can actualize for society. In our reading, “The Power of Social Media”, Clay Shirky substantiates that social media is a powerful tool for political participation in our highly digital era — especially for citizens in repressive regimes. More importantly, social media is eradicating the top-down control of the political realm, allowing for a democratic approach to inciting change (Shirky). Bruguera’s Self-Sabotage is a perfect example of this claim, as her spine-chilling demonstration evokes an emotional response and curiosity that renews her audience’s resolve to become active agents of change in their environment.

Her more recent piece #YoMePropongo /#IPropose en Cuba, a video in which she proposes herself as a candidate in the 2018 Cuban Presidential Election, equally demonstrates this concept. In this project, she challenges the audience to imagine what they would do to create a better future Cuba, if they were elected president. To date, Bruguera received 70 video responses from everyday Cubans expressing their desires to reform the corrupt government, include affordable housing, improve their weak economy, etc (YBCA Pamphlet #1). These video responses are crucial in giving Cubans horizontal access to information and revealing the true conditions of their country. It is impressive how Bruguera offers her art as a political tool to encourage the masses to work toward a greater goal.

Damon Rich and Jae Shin’s “Space Brainz — Yerba Buena 3000” Exhibit in YBCA

On the second floor of the center resides Damon Rich and Jae Shin’s exhibit “Space Brainz — Yerba Buena 3000”. While I did not spend as much time in this exhibit, I was extremely intrigued by the dystopian representation of the un-idealized city, Greater Newark. The exhibit consists of various constructions in Space Brainz society, from urban renewal areas, shopping centers, riverfronts, and offices to foreclosed houses, water, and garbage disposals. Though the exhibit initially suggests a rainbow utopia full of possibilities, upon further inspection, we see the messy materiality of projects and the limited reach in achieving society’s needs due to the constraints of money and politics (YBCA Pamphlet #2). This relates back to our reading “Encyclopedia of Social Media and Politics”, in which Kerric Harvey conveys the increased sophistication, invasion, and ubiquity of politics in our society. Moreover, the exhibit itself endorses Harvey’s notion that everyone can use social media to express their opinions, as Rich and Shin have done. Space Brainz successfully demonstrates the challenges of achieving collective success in a community due to individual actions and conflicts.

Reflecting back on my visit to YBCA, I see that institutions such as the government, judicial system, and legislative system are not immune to the demands of society. Nonetheless, our technologic era must push past the comforts of passivity and clickvitism in favor of an active approach to change. As I move forward, I am more re-invigorated than ever to play an assertive role in shaping my community’s socioeconomic reality.

  1. Archibold, Randal C. (2015–01–01). “Cuba Again Arrests Artist Seeking Dissidents’ Release”. New York Times. 2017–09–13.
  2. Bruguera, Tania. “Self-Sabotage”. web. 2017–09–13.
  3. Harvey, Kerric. Encyclopedia of Social Media and Politics. SAGE Publications, 2013. (Introduction)
  4. Shirky, Clay, “The Political Power of Social Media.” Foreign Affairs, January/February, 2011.
  5. YBCA. YBCA: About Us ( 2017–09–07.
  6. YBCA Pamphlet #1. “Talking to Power: Hablandole Al Poder — Tania Bruguera”. 2017–09–11.
  7. YBCA Pamphlet #2. “Space Brainz — Yerba Buena 3000: Damon Rich and Jae Shin”. 2017–09–11.