When is being cynical or perverse useful?
Gemma-Rose Turnbull: This is sort of a tricky question. But I think perhaps it sounds more challenging than it is.
Tania Bruguera: I’m not sure that the outcome cynicism can provide is always useful in art; instead, to be perverse is definitely very useful. The weakness I see in cynicism is that in order to be understood and fully enjoyed, it should be done mostly for those who already think closer to the statement you are addressing cynically, otherwise the point is lost, or it automatically becomes perverse. Cynicism is more preaching to the chorus that it wants to admit and it creates a sort of complicit association that is not very productive, so I’m not so sure how empowered a cynical attitude is in general––for me it is a little passive. Instead, when art is perverse you are talking to the uninitiated and pushing the ones that are on the other side of the issue.
I always prefer the honesty illegal gestures carry, the questioning of our behavior and the space that is created around things people do not understand and have to cope with. We need to do an art also that engages with the enemy, we need to enter their territory because they are very comfortable entering ours (academia, art distribution and legitimation, art history, museums, public art, art magazines, TV, newspapers, etc.), they are setting the etiquette and we need to show them that art is a place where they will be rendered accountable. We need to challenge what they are saying, and instead trying to look at what they are doing, we need to take their masks off, we need to corner them on their real purposes. I’m talking about some gallerists, fairs, curators, collectors and politicians, and yes, some artists as well. Those who are helping the establishment and favoring a conformist status quo; where the artists are dependent from a very big mechanism of control through distribution and legitimation that is made desirable and therefore dependable.
But what seems unavoidable now in art is not its aesthetic tactics or its linguistic strategies, but the imminence of giving some new sense to its existence, a new role. We need to think now about what art is for? And what would be its role in these times, when society is changing towards new dilemmas, which are very different from the ones that generated most of the art in the format we see it around. We need new forms in art because art needs to respond to new issues.
We need to bring an alternative to the formalization (or should I say banalization) of arguments (social and political) that is very often found while discussing about contemporary art in mainstream circumstances, as if they were purely formal elements instead of social urgencies people who are artists are worried about. In some places art is still one of the few spaces of social tolerance. This is important because the space for legitimation is becoming disengaged from the alternative and the underground culture. We are living in the mainstreamization era in the arts.
The second element that presses to think about is the ways in which art connects and relates with untrained/uninformed art audiences. As many have said before, especially Kaprow, the audience has to disappear. For that to happen art has to be useful for the people who approach it or who are approached, because the models of ‘participation,’ ‘interaction,’ ‘relation,’ ‘collaboration,’ ‘co-authorship,’ are not working anymore––they have not erased the barrier of the ‘expert’ who stays and the ‘temporary visitor’ those audiences become. The audiences have to transform into permanent relationships, art has to become (finally) part of their everyday life. It is not about everybody being an artist (sorry Joseph), it is about art becoming a condition of life. We need to enter the conversation with those audiences from a space where they also have something to say, where they are as ‘experts’ or more than the artist and that is respected, not as a collection of data for the artist to work with, but as the establishing of an ecology of ethics where results are not necessary but where the process is the result, actually where the culture of expert is eliminated. Once we have an art that is used as a responsible civic tool finally the concept of the audience will be eliminated.
GRT: Are you cynical?
TB: I’m not cynical at all, I’m brutally honest.
GRT: So I guess the antithesis of “cynical” is “earnest”. I wonder if you see that it is more useful to be an earnest artist?
TB: Absolutely. I think people take refuge too quickly on cynicism because there is too much fear, too much fear of feeling, and too much fear of truth. Artists and art are precisely where the sense of truth can be examined and challenged, where one cannot be paralyzed by fear but battle fear.
GRT: Looking at the history of your art making, you often do things that are outside of what we would consider standard, or expected (which is the actual meaning of the word “perverse”). And perhaps that is one of the most interesting ways you entice people to read the messages you present.
TB: I work based on what it is in the human, social and/or political arena and those are areas where things function by rules other than the art’s. Where metaphors are generated and put in motion very differently. To be honest I never think something is going to be shocking I just honor the honesty of what I’m doing and of my vision. I’m very clear about what my goals are.
I see art as research, and artists as researchers, not as makers or products. So in that sense it is almost like the research is going to go deeper and deeper and that’s where I go into new areas where maybe people feel that what I do is not “expected”. But if you see the development of my ideas about art and society it is natural and coherent––nothing is unexpected, it is a progression of an idea. But also people in the arts look too much at visual clues for coherence and in my work the clues are not visual, they are experiential, they are in the development of the conversation.
GRT: Are people confronted by the works that you produce?
TB: People are confronted with stages of a thought and a conversation they may not want to be part of because in order to enter you have to get rid of any learned behavior, to de-educate themselves so they can actually be open to engage.
So they can actually be open to the message, and try to find new responses to the same thing that has been seen over and over. Especially the political issues, and social issues cannot be questioned if one is not in a space of doubt and questioning, and that can only happen when you are not your social self. In a way I feel like an outsider and the work is too.
In Arte Útil, I find in some ways it solves the problem of audiences who are not trained to be artistic audiences, and people who are experts. It is a way in which both audiences coincide and can be completely satisfied. And that, for me, is maybe the key. I think it is very important. I think most people who are using social engagement [as a tool for art making] are bumping into this wall: “Well, you know you do it for the masses, the aesthetics suffer.” I think in Arte Útil there is a perfect balance.
GRT: Arte Útil literally translates to useful art?
TB: Yeah. In Spanish, “útil ” has two meanings. It is the tool that provides the uses, and also the act and process to be useful.
GRT: How do you see that Arte Útil fits into challenging those accepted norms or standards?
TB: Oh a lot! Because it is trying to challenge the status quo. But also trying to challenge the idea that art is entertainment or evasion. Arte Útil tries to use art as a responsible civic tool.
About the contributor: Tania Bruguera has eaten dirt, hung a dead lamb from her neck and served trays of cocaine to a gallery audience, all in the name of art. She is the initiator of Immigrant Movement International, a long-term art project in the form of an artist-initiated socio-political movement. Bruguera began the project by spending a year operating a flexible community space in the multinational and transnational neighborhood of Corona, Queens, which served as the movement’s first headquarters. She researches ways in which art can be applied to the everyday political life; focusing on the transformation of the condition of “viewer” onto one of active “citizenry” and of social affect into political effectiveness. Her long-term projects have been intensive interventions on the institutional structure of collective memory, education and politics. To define her practice she created and uses the terms Arte Útil, “Arte de Conducta” (Conduct/Behavior Art), and “Political Timing Specific” (a work method in which the piece is linked to and depends of the political circumstances existing in the moment it is made or exhibited). arteutil.net