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Mas Surrealista que Socialista

Florian Zeyfang

4D - 4Dimensions, 4Decades in Pabellón Cuba, Havana

The exhibition 4D - 4Dimensions, 4Decades, held during the 8th Biennial of Havana, and preceding the publication PABELLÓN CUBA, created a specific surface (1) that - from a variety of perspectives - was devoted to the city of Havana, as well as to the history of it's biennial. This provided a frame in which the desires and realities that can be associated with the grand concepts of the past four and a half decades in Cuba were given a form and a narrative.


How to work in a country that is subject to so many different projections, always "yesterday's news" and same-time "talk of the month," a field full of traps for art-making? A country in which a political and social alternative to the West had once been presupposed and to which, since then, so many ideas of difference have been dedicated. A country of which one was aware that it had mounted a revolution and, surprisingly enough, went through no further system changes, no 'counterrevolutions,' since then; a country whose ruling party one knew capable of a number of oppressive measures but also of some good ideas, and whose resistance against all the U.S. blockades of the past decades already sufficed to arouse a certain amount of sympathy in the short term. The prospect of working in an environment in which the economy plays a different role than in the countries of the so-called industrialized world was also a challenge. Then there was the desire to deal with the fact that art in Cuba has always been connoted, more than elsewhere, in a political way and has always been called for (required and utilized) politically, in a variety of senses: by authorities as well as within strategies of cultural subversion. Perhaps the idea that art might have a meaning for the broader population and not just the elite was also of interest; one was aware that the latter existed in Cuba, but wished it to be somehow different, maybe more 'devoted’. The country's acknowledged popular cultural policy indeed includes many international cultural events, in addition to the biennial, for instance the Festival de Cine Latino-Americano, the Festival de Teatro, the International Festival of Ballet and the International Festival of Jazz, among many others, which in toto, being far away from any elitist approach, have progressively created a systematic expectation from Cuban audiences and made for a quite diverse panorama of cultural options for the Cuban population.

On the other side, these projections were confronted with reality. The lack of system change, as one consequence, rendered the notion of 'Revolution' less and less dialectical, instead, the Revolution was equated with nation and fatherland and therefore any kind of criticism with a dismantling of the homeland. The younger generation of the 1960s, willing to change society with the means of dialectics, saw itself confronted with growing dogmatism and the rejection of doubt and critique as a means of change. In addition to official censorship, Cuban intellectuals developed a mechanism of self-censoring, and society a "doble moral" of changing opinions, depending on whether they were voiced in public or private. And in regard to a country without a money economy, one in fact had to deal with four currencies at the same time, after the government legalized trading in U.S. dollars next to the Euro (until 2006), and two different peso currencies also had to be handled.

How can this disparity be dealt with? As far as the Revolution is concerned, perhaps one can describe the attitude of many participants with the wish to seek out or encounter standpoints that represent "a sophisticated balance between dedication to the Revolution and critical judgment of it when its ideals had been betrayed"1. The director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea is a case in point in regard to such an attitude, whose film Memorias del subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment, 1968) (2,3), together with the exceptional architecture of the National Art Schools, could stand as an aphorism of the endeavor 4D - 4Dimensions, 4Decades. In full knowledge of Cuba's achievements in providing the population with education, health services etc., on the one hand, and of the limitations of freedom of speech, movement and - for political or economical reasons - personal development, on the other, one could situate the artist subject between Revolution and expanding tourism; for example Sergio, the protagonist in Memorias del subdesarrollo: A strangely detached and uncommitted being around which reflections on present-day politics, concepts, utopias and ideals unfold.

For instance, one could insist that the revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989 are not declared the only relevant ones from now on; that while they may have been revolts by the people, they were also the revolutions the Kohls, Yeltsins, Bush seniors took advantage of. Or include reflections on the changes in the leftist movements in South America, whether extra-parliamentary like the neo-Zapatistas or elected to power like Hugo Chávez (or Néstor Kirchner and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and by now, Evo Morales, Rafael Correa and Michelle Bachelet), equally playing with the possibilities of media propaganda. Using the figure of Sergio, who would wander a bit diffused through the otherwise so clearly staked ideological claims, one could also address the paradox that in Cuba not only the self-proclaimed "last communist state" exists, but also the U.S. prison camp Guantanamo, manifesting the contradictoriness of the USA's conception of freedom.

The state of the world which is increasingly perceived as 'urgent,' and at times squeezed into art events, doesn't have to be invented in Cuba, for a feeling of urgency is omnipresent here: the urgency of acquiring things necessary for life, the urgency of defending one's own way of life against a system of bureaucratic over-administration and the official control of meaning, while at the same time defending the country against the blockade policy of the United States, the world's greatest military and economic power, and other obstacles. What is also present here is the paradox of the necessity arising from this urgency, namely, to take one's time when there is actually no time left.2 This apparent contradiction necessarily comes to the fore - in the area of small politics, the daily routines, where patience is needed everywhere, and in the area of big politics, in face of the debates now triggered by Fidel Castro's illness and the discussions on potential scenarios of succession.


In view of the apparently unquestioned dominance of capitalism, the acceptance of a lacking alternative or, in a rare contrast to the latter, the seemingly inevitable confrontation with hegemony, what also stood behind 4D was the wish to take one's time to find those signs and concepts that no longer exist or that have not yet been invented to replace the old words of critique of both capitalist methods and post-revolutionary strategies. To find some - if subjective - signifiers also for the conceptual contradictions of a country in a state of socio-cultural transformation, for a society in transition and the associated ideas in Cuba related to the sequence of international and local socio-political events during the 1960s and 1970s - the Cold War period.3 It could be that 4D - 4Dimensions, 4Decades took place too early for these words and signs to emerge, but the participants were on the search, and with Alea's figure Sergio, if he would indeed search, this quest could begin with a kind of 'indifference' in contrast to a constant alertness in dealing with the state. Is it possible in the field of culture to contrast state-demanded commitment, like in Cuba, which eludes all aesthetical judgements, or the identification with an 'against,' or any kind of commitment for that matter, with methods of 'indifference’, "neither cynical nor naive towards power, but in-difference to it" (Avery Gordon4)? Within the event of 4D, strategies of art were practiced which entered into such a "being in (a) difference" instead of "being in opposition:" strategies of poeticization, situation-related activities, music, performance, etc. Being in difference as the possibility of being involved via a potential distance of indifference, or - to mix two sources for the usage of this term, via a "freedom of indifference" (Jaques Rancière5) - establishing through this distance a rejection of all systems, to then be able to make a statement and a connection to the locality and projections - to commit oneself.

In the texts of Rancière - who describes art and politics as realities that are neither fixed nor separated from each other - reference is made to the necessary difference between the equality of indifférence and politically demanded equality. His indifférence insists on arbitrariness, or even apathy, and on the equivalence of everything to everything, as a precondition of dissent, without which neither politics nor aesthetics can evolve6. In Cuba, dissent is often avoided by means of tactical bureaucratic delays and the omnipresence of an unquestioned, hierarchical system, with the latter negating any kind of equivalence and in which reference is made to upper tiers whenever a decision - and thus the confrontation with another decision - is undesired. Consequently, according to Rancière, on such an official level, due to the lack of dissent there would be no politics in Cuba. In difference to that surface, it would rather exist where official politics do not exist, when following his logic of the political, which is defined through the opposition to the dispositifs of administration, police repression and mere institutional regulations. Such places of dissent and politics must be carefully balanced between certain aesthetical solutions, ambivalent languages, and ambiguous statements.

In face of the - demanded or adopted - over-identification with the biennial (or with an 'against'), a being in-difference and distance possessed a function for all participants, whether they were from Cuba or elsewhere. Perhaps the two concepts already had a conscious or unconscious impact on the invitation policy of the biennial heads, who had to come to an agreement with an external group of curators, in which only one member was from Cuba (actually a former co-curator of two previous Havana Biennials), an attempt which was not repeated the next time. The artists who responded to the invitation from Cuba - not always with the knowledge of the biennial directorate - were able to formulate their ideas, relieving them from the biennial's official policy of representation via the distance established by the work with the team of guest curators (and often without their knowledge).

The Island (Republic of Scholars)

The exhibition's architectural design formulated a distance to both the structure and the metaphor 'Pabellón Cuba’, materializing the limits of approaching an environment - a country, an idea, a utopia - and at the same time reminding one of the (often-cited) grand dreams of revolutionary art, namely, to no longer produce art but to create spaces and buildings dedicated to the new life. Models existed in the form of the pavilion and other post-Revolution buildings in Vedado, between which the outdoor activities of 4D - 4Dimensions, 4Decades took place. What can count as a further point of reference, albeit for other, less distanced methods of artistic approaches in 4D, are the National Art Schools in Cubanacán (4,5), a district of Havana. Moving around the huge area of this institution, one has the feeling of experiencing the architecture of a fantasy novel. Access is restricted: The state shields the complex, which is located on the grounds of a former golf club, as if it were an island, a republic of scholars. The students move about the strange and beautiful buildings, erected in the early 1960s, playing loud, seemingly uncoordinated music and communicating with their teachers, as if they were part of a stage play dealing with better teaching in a freer society.

The dream and the failure of a model of society could be preserved in this experimental architecture; at minimum the (for the most part poorly maintained) National Art Schools serve as an ideal object for all domestic and international projections of a different outcome of the developments of the past fifty years in Cuba. The idea to build these art schools evolved dynamically in the first year following the revolution, and its construction commenced along with the campaign against illiteracy. Ricardo Porro was commissioned as the head architect. In retrospect he stated: "I was in love with the Revolution, and it was this emotional response that prompted a new direction in my architecture. (…) In the School of Modern Dance, I wanted to express two very powerful sentiments produced by the first stage, the romantic stage, of the Revolution: the exaltation, collective emotional explosion, but at the same time a sense of anguish and fear confronting an unknown future."7

Together with his colleagues Roberto Gottardi and Vittorio Garatti, Porro designed for the various disciplines of the school individual buildings that integrate in a very speci?c way local Caribbean elements, traditional building techniques and a modern conception of fluid and open spaces - a complex that appears exotic, not only in Havana. John A. Loomis saw Porro, Gottardi and Garatti working in a moment of "magical realism"8, "the moment, common to every revolution, during which the marvelous becomes the everyday and the Revolution appeared - más surrealista que socialista."9 For a moment, these institutional buildings seemed to formulate something special, the encounter of free art with a new society. Couldn't these moments of a "más surrealista" be reformulated in new strategies of dissent? In earlier years, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea succeeded in doing so; in ?lms such as the aforementioned Memorias del subdesarrollo (6) or Muerte de un burócrata he was intent on giving those a piece of his mind who "believed themselves to be the sole depository of the revolutionary legacy; those who know what the socialist morality is and who have institutionalized mediocrity and provincialism… They are those who tell us that people are not mature enough to know the truth."10

The Street

Yet Alea's lines of criticism do not unfold along positive roles, they are instead based on the story of his anti-heroes. The fact that a surrealist socialism is an extremely transitory phenomenon is what Sergio in Memorias soon finds out, just as he also comes upon his own blind spots. For a short moment after the Revolution, everything seems possible - except, of course, for those citizens who have left or are on the way to leave the country. Sergio also belongs to one of the families departing, but he stays in Cuba because of his artistic ideas: He idly traverses Havana and deems his compatriots underdeveloped, as opposed to his own model of life - that of a future author. In truth, this future is continuously deferred; Sergio is not able to allow his distance and a certain indifférence to render a positive effect - he does not acknowledge his own underdevelopment, namely, his inability to establish a connection to the city, to people and things.

Reality catches up with the artists in the form of having to make a living or pursue a career, as repression or depression, depending on the country one comes from, and not only the artists from abroad leave again - some of the Cuban artists do so as well. The idle ones and the artists are the first to abandon the Revolution, or they are abandoned by it; at least that is what bourgeois Europe wants to have observed in Russia. On the other hand, artists, whose works were still censored by the Cuban state a few years ago, today work at the Instituto Superior de Arte. At least here, the state asserts its integrative power to establish equality - something which is bizarrely unsuccessful in other respects: One only needs to think about the censorship of the press, the arrests of journalists, and the discrimination against homosexuals, just to mention a few examples.11

For a few weeks, 4D - 4Dimensions, 4Decades marked the development of a perhaps surreal, maybe even presumptuous intervention in a pavilion in Vedado, Havana, opening the structure to the street and - especially through the musical events - attracting the people of busy La Rampa to enter. The artists active in this architecture were thrown into this structure just as they worked (or did not work) from inside it. Along with DIP, Abel Oliva built a bridge between the pavilion and its surroundings with his sound installation that included voices and noises of the officially non-existent street vendors at the outer perimeters of the districts. Such exchanges between pavilion and street visualized the desire to establish a being-in-difference that precedes the formulation of new words for new movements; that provokes equality, and from there on the dissent that enables politics and art.

1 Julia Levin on Tomás Gutiérrez Alea,
2 Avery Gordon has pointed towards this paradox in an unpublished essay on "Urgency"
3 These events include, amongst many others, after the Cuban Revolution the missile crisis (October 1962), the death of Che Guevara (1967), the disaster of the planned production of 10,000,000 tons of sugar in Cuba during the 1970 campaign, the affiliation of Cuba to Third World countries on the one hand, and its affiliation to Socialist European countries on the other -among so many important historical events in that period such as the USSR's invasion of Czechoslovakia (1968), the Paris Student Revolution (1968), the Vietnam War etc. Yet they also include the loss of Cuba's backing in South America due to the political pressure exerted by the United States during the meeting of the OEA (Organization of American States), and the dictatorships in Latin America and the subsequent Latin American university students' movements.
4 Avery Gordon, "Something More Powerful Than Skepticism", in: Keeping Good Time (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers), p. 203.
5 Jacques Rancière, "Die Politik der Kunst und ihre Paradoxien", in: Die Aufteilung des Sinnlichen (Berlin: b_books, 2006), p. 83
6 Jacques Rancière, op. cit. , p. 78ff, p. 83ff.
7 Jacques Rancière, op. cit. , p. 78ff, p. 83ff.
8 Loomis, op. cit., p. 22.
9 Porro, cited in Loomis, op. cit., p. 22.
10 Ambrosio Fornet, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea: Una retrospectiva critica, (Havana: Letras Cubanas, 1987), p. 98.
11 For a short while now, discrimination against homosexuals seems no longer part of official politics. The gay community has been openly present at Malecón for years; in February 2007, the Minister of Culture, Abel Prieto, pointed out the inglorious side of official politics in Cuba. But the situation remains unclear, and police observation prevails.

aus: Pabellón Cuba, 4D - 4Dimensions, 4Decades, Ed. Lisa Schmidt-Colinet. Alex Schmoeger, Eugenio Valdés Figueroa, Florian Zeyfang,, b_books, 2008
Starship Nummer 11, Seiten 30ff