Artist Tania Bruguera spent eight months in Cuba after being detained just prior to the new year. She is now back in the U.S. after having her passport returned — but says she will return to Cuba in the future. (Tania Bruguera / #YoTambienExijo)
For months, the case of Tania Bruguera has been a protracted drama that has played itself out on the international stage. The artist — a Cuban national — was detained in Cuba just prior to the New Year, for attempting to stage a performance about freedom of expression in Havana’s Revolution Square. And while she was soon released, Bruguera had her passport confiscated, and was later detained on various other occasions. All of this was happening during a historic political moment — when the U.S. and Cuba were coming to a rapprochement.
Bruguera, who works primarily in the U.S. and Europe, is now back in the U.S. She landed in New York last Friday, after getting on a flight without previously alerting friends or family. Her return puts an end (for now) to an eight-month-long political and artistic drama that, for a time, appeared as if it might go on indefinitely.
The artist is currently in New Haven, Conn., participating in the Yale World Fellows program, where she will be working on a new project (yet to be determined) and participating in various activities at the university.
She took time to chat via Skype on Wednesday to discuss her whole Cuba experience. (“I am still digesting everything,” she said.) In our conversation, which has been edited for flow, the artist said she would return to Cuba. But first, there are a number of projects that will keep her in the U.S. for the time being — including one that will bring her to L.A. and the California Institute of the Arts.
You left Cuba very quietly. In fact, I understand that you only let friends and family know you were leaving once you were in the air. Why the secrecy?
I have been surveilled for eight months. At one point, I thought, “No, I’m being paranoid. Of course they don’t care about me anymore.” But in the meanwhile I suspected that someone very close to me was one of the informers. So I didn’t tell anybody that I was leaving. I did tell that person the night before. And then in the morning I did normal stuff, like I’m not leaving. I go to the house. I go here. I go there. And immediately in the morning, I have five people — friend and friends of friends — calling me saying, “When are you leaving?”
And I arrive at the airport and [a pair of Cuban state security officials], Javier and Andrea, arrive — literally, 10 minutes after I get to the airport. They couldn’t do anything because I was leaving. But [one of the officials] asks me what happened with this conference in Puerto Rico. It was this conference of dissidents. He says, “What did you hear?” I said, I didn’t know because I didn’t go.
He said to me, “Can you give me your number in the United States?” I said, “Thanks to you I don’t have a phone anymore because I lost my line.” And he said, “Can I have your address?” And I said, “Well, I lost my apartment too” — my apartment in Corona, Queens [in New York]. He said, “I might be there in September.”
It’s like until the last minute they want to mess with your head. They want to make you paranoid. At one point he said, “Someone close to you works for us.” I said, “You’re not going to make me a paranoiac. I’ve been here for eight months and I am not a paranoiac.” I understood they were watching me. But I would not let them make me a paranoiac. That’s what they do, they make you paranoid, they isolate you.
What did it feel like as your flight took off for New York last Friday?
The first thing I was like, there’s Internet! Free Internet. That really was almost a shock. It was very intense not to be able to communicate freely with anybody you trust. I made drawings of where all the public telephones were located. (While I was in Cuba, I started drawing again.) You could use a public phone, but only once, because then they would be monitoring. Or you’d have someone stand right next to you and they would [be listening in]. So I drew where all the phones were and which ones I used.
At one point, you said that you would not leave Cuba until you had a written guarantee from the government that they would let you back into the country. Were you able to get such a confirmation?
I didn’t get exactly what I asked for. But I did get a letter that says that they’ve closed the case. The lawyer I worked with said it was the first time they’d seen something like this. The thing is that [state security does] things and then there is no record. They ask you to sign papers, two copies of papers and then they keep both copies. You have nothing. So this is extremely good.
I also had my things returned. Everyone is very impressed they gave me my computer back. I’m going to use it as an artwork now. The one thing I learned is that [the Cuban government] gave a different meaning to my work. That’s fine. My work is about that. Setting the scene and seeing what happens. The government was the one who wanted to participate. I was fighting for the authorship of my piece with the government! [Laughs.]