Tania Bruguera Still Detained in Cuba, but Her Art Project Lives on in Queens

March 18, 2015 | Carolina Ana Drake

Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera has been detained in Cuba since December 30, after attempting to stage a performance about free speech in Havana’s Revolution Square. But back in NYC, her 5-year long-term art project, Immigrant Movement International (IMI), is growing substantially despite her absence.

Bruguera, who believes art can be a useful tool to initiate social change and interact with politics, initiated IMI in 2011. Known for blurring boundaries between art and life, the artist shared a tiny apartment in Corona, Queens with five immigrants and their six children as an art project. The goal was to bring visibility to immigrant stories. When the year ended, Bruguera turned the downstairs space of the apartment, a former beauty supply store, into the headquarters for the advocacy project. It was funded by $85,000 from Creative Time, a nonprofit arts group, and the Queens Museum of Art. IMI opened as a flexible community space that blended art, education and activism.

Immigrant Movement International: Year One from Creative Time on Vimeo.

From the start, Bruguera intended IMI to gain autonomy through the years, but she didn’t know exactly how it would happen. Getting one year closer to the turning point, Director of Public Programs & Community Engagement at the Queens Museum Prerana Reddy told ANIMAL that many questions are still up in the air when it comes to funding. For example, from the start, Bruguera wanted IMI to be a political party, but to gain more access to funding, it changed its name to “Immigrant Movement.” Not all the money comes from grants, but if the project is to continue, or break ties with the Queens Museum, it will need funding. “The confrontation between a non-profit and its politics might get us to a point where it will make it less, rather than more helpful, to get grant funding in the future,” said Reddy.

Twenty minutes away from Manhattan, Corona is nicknamed “el pueblo” by some of its Latin-American residents who feel at home amidst the Ecuadorian restaurants, Colombian arepa stands and Mexican food trucks. On any given week, more than a dozen free workshops are hosted at the project’s space on Roosevelt Avenue, including Ecuadorian dance, construction safety, classical music, English language through art history, Spanish for Mandarin speakers, screen printing, immigration law and counseling for women who are victims of domestic violence. There are also twenty members of Mobile Print Power Collective who developed a methodology to teach and create printed works and public projects. The space has also served as a hub for cultural organizing initiatives surrounding the social and political representation of immigrants at the local, national, and global level.

Mobile Print Power @mprintpower

The first year, Bruguera was very involved in the project and even lived upstairs. After the second year, the project began to gain independence. More workshops and educational offerings were presented, and the community participation was big. “If you stop by in the morning, the entire space is full of mostly women taking classes. I think this space has empowered many immigrant women,” said Monica Aviles, teacher and council member at IMI.

When Bruguera left Corona to engage in other projects, the staff at IMI thought of ways to create a transition and developed a council (consejo) made of 13 community members and museum staff who decide together what courses to teach, and what visiting artists to invite into the space, among other things. “I think that this 5 year project can extend itself longer, the space has a lot of support from the neighborhood,” she said.

Monica Aviles migrated from Ecuador and has been living in Corona for ten years. She walked by IMI in 2011 when the project first started and has stayed there teaching ever since. She is currently the IMI Cultural Program Coordinator, asserted that the project has grown and empowered many people in the neighborhood. “People find IMI to be their second home. Nobody puts you at the side here just because you don’t have a higher education. You don’t need a degree to teach here. You can share with others what you learned in life.”

Consejo IMI (1)

Although IMI became a laboratory to work out Bruguera’s concept and present it as a provocation to the art world, the challenge to figure out what is the role of the project remains ongoing. “We are not Tania, we are not the artist. But if it’s called IMI, it needs to maintain that activism piece, and we have to push ourselves to do those kinds of projects, and they might, and will, look very different from Tania’s,” says Reddy.

IMI’s autonomy is sustained by the multi-faceted dimensions of the artist’s project. “On one sense, IMI is what the people of the movement make of it. On another level, it’s a platform for local and visiting artists to do projects and engage a particular immigrant community. On a third level, it belongs to the immigrants in this neighborhood in Queens,” she explains.

But not all critics think Bruguera’s project is successful as art. In an article for article for Seismopolite Journal, Brooklyn curator and independent writer Chris Mansour challenged wrote, “One equally puzzles at how Bruguera insists on the IM International being itself a work of art in progress and not simply a means to organize an underserved community.” He elaborated via e-mail, writing, “I am critical of Bruguera’s practice, on both political and aesthetic grounds. I understand that her performances seek to collapse the two realms of art and politics through what she calls ‘useful art.’ But I find this category problematic on many fronts.”

Issues of privilege are also at stake. In her article for Art and Education Net, Ellen Feis pointed to Bruguera’s privilege as a factor that prevents any “real” engagement with the immigrant community. “The project itself attempts to produce solidarity among immigrants irregardless [sic] of class or other privileges…The issue here is not Bruguera’s privilege alone, but rather that the project assumes equal use of rights,” Feis writes.

IMI Taller

Bruguera’s IMI remains an incomplete participatory political project because the community is not sure what will happen after the five-year turning point, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t also art. Aviles, who shared her own perspective of what art means, grounds her definition outside the art world and in the realities of her own neighborhood, as she told to ANIMAL:

The dances we do are art, the music played here at the youth orchestra is art. Many immigrants have discovered art for the first time. Art is also helping us say ‘no’ to the things that are not okay. For example, racial profiling and discrimination against young Latinos. The youth come here to learn a dance, but we also talk about what is happening in this country. I see the space growing a lot.

We don’t know what will happen next with Bruguera’s detention in Cuba, but it is certain that her other project, IMI, continues to grow independently. Whatever happens, its existence reminds us that artists can and will make political demands through their works, that we can appreciate their willingness to take such political roles, and that political artworks can mediate between art and life.

(Photos: Carolina Ana Drake)