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Tania Bruguera, the Cuban artist who won’t be silenced

Invited to London by Frieze, the activist-artist explains why she is determined to return to Havana—if she’s allowed

The Cuban artist-activist Tania Bruguera, who is due to give a talk in London tomorrow at the invitation of Frieze, tells us that she is determined to return to Havana despite her eight-month-long ordeal earlier this year. After she was detained by the Cuban authorities and had her passport confiscated, Bruguera suffered harassment, surveillance and physical abuse. Her “crime” was proposing to restage Tatlin’s Whisper #6, a performance piece about free speech, in Havana’s Revolution Square. “Political artists have to go to the places where we are most useful,” she tells us. “In Cuba, I felt like a useful artist. Maybe [it] isn’t the easiest place to be, or the most politically correct place for my career, but that is where I feel I have to be at this moment.”

Bruguera’s return to Cuba could be difficult—or impossible. Before she left, the authorities handed her a document that permitted her to return, but officials warned the artist: “If we don’t want you to, you will never enter [Cuba] again.”

Because of this year’s “life-changing experience”, Bruguera believes now more than ever in the potential of socially engaged art, or arte útil (useful art), the subject of her talk at Frieze. Her first work since leaving Cuba took place in Toronto a fortnight ago. Untitled (Referendum) addressed one of the world’s burning questions. “The problem of the refugees [and] of immigrants is the number one issue to resolve,” Bruguera says. The result of her “referendum” was surprisingly close: 2,667 were in favour of opening national borders, while 2,686 voted against.

Bruguera believes that refugees and migrants must be empowered to rebuild their lives. By giving them political rights, she says, governments grant them “the possibility of changing their own situation without depending on other people”. In July, Bruguera was appointed the artist-in-residence at New York’s Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. She plans to develop ways to encourage undocumented residents to register for IDNYC, the city’s identification-card programme, so that they can access some public services.

Bruguera has also gone back to university—to Yale, no less. “It is the best medicine after everything that has happened, because it is an environment where everything is being processed intellectually, where the most complicated issues in the world are seen objectively,” she says. She has time to think, work and take classes, including one called History of the Present, in which students see if they can change historical events through simulations. “It’s been a revelation. One can see ways in which art could change the outcome of a situation,” she says.

Bruguera plans to make the Hannah Arendt Institute for Artivism, which she launched in May, her main focus. The pedagogical project “is not an artwork” and will be “very complicated and expensive”, she says. Her “first action” for the institute was a 100-hour-long reading of Arendt’s 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism. “I think we are living in an age of a global totalitarianism; not just one in Cuba, but a totalitarianism that is all-encompassing, that even takes hope and rights away from people,” she says.