As the cultural calendar increasingly becomes a feast of opportunities to fly off the beaten track, the Panorama series travels the world through the eyes of writers and artists. In this issue, Gean Moreno speaks about Cuba’s new normal.
Someday someone will write the grotesquely carnivalesque and tragic story of the relationship between Miami and Havana since 1959. It will include downed airliners, political prisoners, family betrayals, international persecution, secret CIA deals and car bombs. At the moment, sentimentality and imaginations dwindled by false hope prevent such an enterprise. What may be possible in our stirred ambience, instead of a great thriller, is to look from this side (Miami) on the “normalization” of relations between the US and Cuba, which began in December 2014 and crescendoed with president Obama’s recent visit, through the tainted lens that proximity and tangled relations afford. After all, “normalization” implies, above all else, a swivel of the camera, a turn toward a new storyline. The endless milking of old struggles, the symbolic capital of being peripheral and poor and besieged, the narrative of representing something other to capitalist self-perpetuation—all this collapses. Now, we are looking at a Havana, racing to catch up to the other Latin American capitals, leaving behind the discourse of American aggression and overreach (which of course ceased to have much currency when China became a major international trading partner with most of the countries in the hemisphere, and the IMF was relegated to a negligible position). That is, we are looking at a Havana that comes to match the way Cuban international artists, all deeply enmeshed in the market and endowed with all kinds of privileges, live. They have their refurbished houses, their beach properties, their fully staffed studios and substantial production budgets. What is as significant in this period of “normalization” as the reopening of the American embassy is that Galleria Continua has opened a location in Havana’s Chinatown; that CIFO, a foundation based in Miami, sponsors a significant number of institutional shows on the island and funds projects during the Havana Biennial; and that Chanel just held a runway show on the famed Paseo del Prado. These things, repeated I’m sure in other sectors of the society, all point to the fact that a class structure has already reasserted itself. “Normalization” is just another opportunity for the consolidation and reinforcement of a state capitalism that delaminates a privileged elite from a population that remains subjugated to the expire tenets of a planned economy and falling buildings. A few of the more entrepreneurial among the locals will benefit and prosper, but we would be naive to expect substantial readjustments at the macro scale.
A paradox in Cuba has been that in a country with such a centralized and monitored institutional landscape, there is always a tiny fissure through which brilliant and furious things escape control. Even if these wild things that flee power are quickly squashed, they leave a mark, stratify into a history of opposition. This fissure, I’m afraid, will be sealed with the surplus money that will now begin to circulate and trickle down into all quarters of cultural production. Market demands rather than state censorship will foreclose on the possibility of wayward production. An artist such as Ezequiel Suarez may never be possible again. No one is claiming, obviously, that penury is a fabulous thing, that artists should flee the infectious vibe of commerce and the reward of proper standards of living, but the impulse to cater to good foreign taste will dull the world a little bit more. Conceptual pauperization that favors the anecdotal and the jokey, a tendency that has been intensifying over the last decade, will continue. And, in the process, beautiful things will be shaded over: popular practices that are not translated (and diluted) through high art for an international market; the re-emergent anarchist movement which seems to hold the only sound left political position for the conjuncture; truly alternative art spaces, such as Locación Cristo Salvador, or even the venerable and contrarian old “institution” Espacio Aglutinador; and, finally, artists who refuse to partake in the euphoria that “normalization” has generated. I’m thinking of someone like Tania Bruguera, who has been rendered “officially” invisible in all this, relegated to the margins on a national scale and forced to crowd-fund her projects. (She has only been seen through self-generated oppositional gestures, such as the establishing of the independent Hannah Arendt Institute for activist art practices.)
Cuba’s paradox is that there is always a tiny fissure through which brilliant and furious things escape control.
In light of all this and Brugera’s own engagement with education throughout her career, one wonders if the collectives that grew out of pedagogical projects, such as Grupo Dupp in the early 2000s, which itself was reviving the spirit of collective production of certain groups from the 1980s, will continue to appear? One wonders what the fate of a younger generation of artists will be, especially the very thin sliver of the generation in its late ‘20s and early ‘30s, which has been repoliticizing its practice. I’m thinking of artists such as Hamlet Lavastida, who is mining the Revolution’s archive in order to remind it of all its betrayals and wasted opportunities. Or of Fidel Garcia, who is starting to think of the labile apparatuses that networks produce, far superior to the things the panoptical lack of imagination of the regimes of the 20th century came up with.
One of the prevalent fantasies during this period of “normalization” is that imminent widespread access to the Internet, as soon as the island is plugged in, will convulse the social plane and liberate a whole new sets of desires and possibilities. This fantasy would be hilarious, if it wasn’t tragic. Google has just partnered with Kcho, the regime’s favorite artist, to create a tech center in his studio. It has become one of the island’s most notorious wi-fi hot spots. To think that this tech center will not be one of the most regulated portals to the outside world is to pretend ignorance of a long history of monitoring and repression. Google is in Cuba only because it agreed to being introduced into the territory through one of the government’s proxies. This is not to say that the activist journalism of the last few years, which has been disseminated through a network of blogs hosted abroad, is not a real irritant for the powers that be. But it is to say that communication technologies will be deeply regulated until they become structures through which value creation becomes more significant than dissent activity. The Internet is coming to Cuba, without a doubt, but first the island itself has to become a social factory in which data and affective production can be monetized. Dreams of free access and distributed networks and shared production will soon make way for the realities of cyber-portals monopolized by a state in a quest to find ways to turn them into profit streams.
Is there hope in any of this? One leaves the question to artists like Michelangelo Pistoletto, who is hard at work developing projects of long-term engagement with the island, in deep conversation with Raul Castro, through his Cittadellarte Foundation. One leaves it to the organizers of the Havana Biennial who, at a recent symposium in a Miami museum, proposed that they can keep the next iteration from looking like an art fair by returning to a focus on micropolitics and peripheral populations. One leaves it to the young anarchists who in the middle of all this still struggle for a world without masters. One leaves it to the hackers who will sidestep the grotesque Kcho-Google configuration and create their own tropical deep web. From this side, however, bleakness colors the horizon.
Gean Moreno is curator of programs at ICA Miami and is on the advisory committee for the 2017 Whitney Biennial. He previously worked at the non-profit galley Locust Projects, Miami, and served as artistic director at the Miami arts non-profit Cannonball.
All images: Leandro Feal, Almost blue. La Habana, 2011; Tratando de vivir con swing. La Habana, 2006–2008