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Art as an agent for social change: Tania Bruguera at TEDGlobal 2013

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Tania Bruguera grew up in Cuba, where she was surrounded by the contradictions between propaganda and reality from an early age. She has channeled these tensions into creating artwork that navigates a path between the two. She starts her TED Talk with a personal story of life in 1993, when she somewhat unexpectedly found herself publishing a newspaper. Even today, there’s no such thing as an independent press in Cuba, and her efforts attracted attention from the authorities almost immediately. Her father, an ambassador, was told to take care of his little problem, and that led to the awkward experience of Bruguera Junior being interrogated by the secret police while her father looked on.

“I never revealed who printed the newspaper, or where I was doing this. I knew it would have consequences,” she recalls. “I looked at my father and I could not understand the expression on his face.” When the interrogation was over, the two left in silence, never to talk of the matter again. But it made an impression; censorship became a core theme of all her work from then on.

She plays video from an installation at an international art event in Havana for which she built a podium and invited visitors to speak at the microphone for up to a minute. And speak they did, scandalizing those unused to having a forum for free expression. Sad and ironic that only an art event could provide this space for open speech, she says. “This is why I believe so fiercely and intensely in art as an agent for social change.”

Bruguera describes her work as “political timing-specific art”; she aims to help her audience transform from being passive passers into active citizens. She shows another museum piece, in which mounted police used crowd-control techniques to organize the museum’s visitors. In the six times this performance was staged, only one person questioned the police action. Sobering.

The final piece she shows is her work on the Immigrant Movement International, for which she combines art and activism to highlight the plight of immigrants. “Reality is changing, becoming mobile and global,” she says. “For that new global world we need to build a global civic society. Globalization should not only be about the economy but about the freedom and rights people have to move, to decide where and when they want to contribute with their work and knowledge.”


Photo: James Duncan Davidson

As part of this work, Bruguera was recently invited to the UN to help develop a document on cultural rights and artistic freedom. There, she heard much discussion of censorship, and recalled her experience with her father some twenty years ago. “I made sense of the expression on his face,” she says. “In our last conversation, he said ‘I’m proud of you.’ I learned from him that confronting censorship makes us stronger. I hope he understands from my work that art is useful, and through it we can start building a world that works differently.”