Media Arts Program

Thursday, January 17 at 7:00 p.m.

$8 general, $6 students/seniors, $5 members

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Lynn Hershman Leeson

Tania Libre

Tania LibreTania Bruguera wearing a t-shirt reading ‘No to Decree 349’, 2018. Courtesy: Tania Bruguera
Tania Libre Tania Libre

A Documentary Film by Lynn Hershman Leeson
(2017, 73 minutes)

This screening is made possible by special arrangement with the director.

Just last month, dissident Cuban artist and free speech activist Tania Bruguera—the subject of this 2017 documentary by Lynn Hershman Leeson—was in the news again for her protests with fellow artists against the Cuban government's Decree 349, for which Bruguera was arrested and released three times.

Here's an excerpt from Coco Fusco's recent reporting for the 17 December 2018 issue of Frieze:

"Between 3 to 6 December 2018 the state arrested Tania Bruguera three times for her repeated attempts to sit in front of the Ministry of Culture. Reggae musician Sandor Pérez was detained for several hours on 3 December—a night that saw several detentions of prominent artists and journalists. Amaury Pacheco, Michel Matos, and Yasser Castellanos were also arrested as they arrived at the Ministry and were released the following evening. Yanelys Nuñez Leyva and Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara disappeared at dawn on and were released three days later. Yoani Sánchez, editor in chief of the digital newspaper 14ymedio reported that patrol cars were also stationed outside her office that evening.

"Last week, the Cuban government finally staged its official public response to the political upheaval prompted by Decree 349. Vice Minister of Culture Fernando Rojas went on Cuban television on 6 December and also spoke to the Associated Press to assure that, though the decree would go into effect the next day, it would not apply until several modifications were added. He insisted that the decree was not designed to target artistic creation. At the same time, Rojas referred to people who manipulated or misread the Decree as an attack on state sovereignty in a not-so-veiled swipe at the protestors. The following day, Minister of Culture Alpidio Alonso Grau, Rojas and UNEAC (The National Union of Cuban Artists and Writers) Fine Arts Chair Lesbia Vent-Dumois spoke on the Cuban TV show Round Table. This time, the discussion was geared towards creating the impression that there was a consensus among Cuban artists that the Decree was needed to protect the arts from 'shoddiness and vulgarity.' They argued that this new law was just an update of prior legislation from the 1990s, completely ignoring that Decree 349 extends the Ministry of Culture's control into artists' private homes. Rojas suggested ominously that there were some adversaries out there who under the guise of protesting the decree were actually challenging the right of the revolutionary institutions to exist.

"The protestors have publicly declared a limited victory, asserting that the government would not have had to explain itself or agree to make changes if they had not taken to the streets and the Internet. With only five months to go before the next Havana Biennial, it is unclear how the Cuban cultural ministry will balance its need to attract liberal-minded foreigners with its imperative to control who they will be permitted to engage with. Those who flock to Cuba with their 'I'm not into politics—I'm here for art' blinders on may recall that, during the last Havana Biennial, Tania Bruguera was under virtual house arrest and her reading of Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) was interrupted by state workers who showed up unexpectedly with jackhammers to tear up the pavement outside her house. Ultimately, it will be up to foreign visitors to decide what they are going to Cuba for and what it means for them to be there in the midst of political turmoil. Those who continue to cling to the idea that they can step around the minefield that is Cuban culture should consider whether state policies [such as Decree 349] that curtail the activities of artists matter as much as state institutions that enable Cuban artists to achieve international acclaim" (Coco Fusco, Looking Back on the Year in Art and Protest in Cuba: It is not unusual for Cuban artists to grumble about excessive state meddling, but it's rare for complaints to be aired publicly and collectively, Frieze, 17 Dec. 2018).

Here is an excerpt from Vanessa Thill's May 22, 2017 Art in America review of Tania Libre on the occasion of its screenings at MOMA in NYC, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and elsewhere in spring 2017:

"What happens when a performance artist struggling against state censorship goes to therapy? In her new film Tania Libre, Lynn Hershman Leeson lets us eavesdrop on Tania Bruguera's session with Dr. Frank Ochberg, a leading psychiatrist and PTSD expert. Their conversation is slow in tempo as it unfolds over the hour-and-a-quarter-long film, but it raises provocative questions about abusive familial structures and the ways that traumatic experiences of betrayal can play out on a larger political scale. Static camera angles of Bruguera and Ochberg relaxing on easy chairs have a drowsy visual impact as their discussion rambles between anecdotes and responses. But Bruguera's stories are highly useful for interpreting her work, and although the mood of Tania Libre is sedate, its ideas are keen.

"Since the 1980s, Bruguera has found creative ways to test the limits and contradictions of various power structures through performances and collaborative projects. Her practice is impossible to pin down; sometimes it involves horse-mounted police officers herding visitors around a museum, or Bruguera reading aloud the entirety of Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism. In one of her most well-known pieces, Tatlin's Whisper #6 (Havana Version), presented at the 2009 Havana Biennial, members of the public were invited to speak freely for one minute each at a podium. Footage of the performance is included in Tania Libre. In the doctor's office, Bruguera fondly reminisces on the sentiment from one participant in Tatlin's Whisper, who expressed his hope that 'one day freedom of expression in Cuba will not be a performance.'

"Two weeks after President Obama announced the end of the American embargo against Cuba in 2014, Bruguera attempted to restage the performance again in Havana with the title #YoTambienExijo, but was arrested and detained by the Cuban police before she could begin. Hershman Leeson heard Bruguera was in jail and decided to produce a film about her. 'I simply wanted to help,' Hershman Leeson explained to me. 'As an artist I felt empathy for the censorship and repression of her confinement and imprisonment that generated from an attempt to do her work.' Hershman Leeson's unusual film focuses less on the political impact of Bruguera's provocative performances than on the relationship between the manipulative tactics of the Cuban government and the fraught psychic underpinnings of the artist's decisions made throughout her practice" (Vanessa Thill, "The Trauma of Political Engagement: Lynn Hershman Leeson's Tania Libre," Art in America, May 22, 2017).

Like Coco Fusco quoted above, Lynn Hershman Leeson is a long-time friend of Hallwalls who has shown her work here multiple times, including (on a double bill with her 2002 feature Teknolust) a work-in-progress screening of Strange Culture, her hybrid docudrama in support of Buffalo's own legally prosecuted and ultimately exonerated dissident artist Steve Kurtz, of the Critical Art Ensemble (CAE). Hallwalls also screened the finished film at the Market Arcade Film & Art Center on September 8, 2007 as a benefit for the CAE Defense Fund. We also showed her 2010 feature documentary !Women Art Revolution: A Secret History, which documents the rise of the feminist arts movement, chronicling what sparked the collective actions against cultural institutions, and the landmark exhibitions, performances, and installations of public art that changed the entire direction of art, and featuring rarely seen archival film and video footage, an original score by Carrie Brownstein, and the music of Laurie Anderson, Janis Joplin, Sleater-Kinney, The Gossip, Erase Errata, and Tribe 8.

Lynn Hershman Leeson at Hallwalls.

Coco Fusco at Hallwalls.