Try Not To Be a Bystander

May 6, 2015

This is not an abstract question for me. Tania Bruguera is a dear friend. She is a Cuban artist who is being prosecuted for attempting to perform one of her works publicly in Havana. She faces a myriad of charges that could result in lengthy prison time. While awaiting a sentence that is always postponed, she is not free to travel outside of Cuba or communicate freely.

This turns the question into the first person: should I boycott the Havana Biennial? 

This also brings up a few follow-up questions: should I engage instead? How can I boycott a show that I am not part of? Would my actions help Tania? 

I was recently informed that one of my works in the collection of the Bronx Museum of Art in New York City will be included in a show titled Wild Noise. This loan from the Bronx Museum to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana is a historic first. The show will run concurrently with the 12th Bienal de La Habana. Both shows open on the same day, and are discussed in the same breath. The two exhibitions are intertwined. So I could indirectly boycott or engage the Biennial.  

In a different context, the scholar Michael Berenbaum said: "Try not to be a perpetrator. Try not to be a bystander. Try not to be a victim." I don’t want to harm Tania, I don’t want to get myself in harm’s way, and I don’t want to stand by while my friend is harmed. I want to do everything I can to help a friend in need. 

I am asking myself if I should boycott or engage; and the reality is that boycotting is a form of engagement. It is not simply an act of negation or refusal. Negation would mean calling the Bronx Museum and asking them to please quietly take me out of the show. I would not create any trouble; nor would I feel that I have been complicit in supporting a government that is criminalizing the art of my friend. But the lack of visibility of my actions would have turned me into a bystander. 

Another option would be to show my work in the exhibition. This would be engagement; but this particular work of mine does not engage the public or institution on matters relating to Tania’s situation. I would be a bystander again. 

I could show the work while letting everyone know that I am opposed to the Cuban government’s prosecution of Tania. However, I am not in the exhibition–my work is. It has the platform. I don’t. I am still standing by. 

I am however at this very moment engaging through a call for a boycott. I can publicly ask that my work not be shown at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes as long as the government it represents continues to press charges against my friend. In this instance, my work and my call together are engaging in a conversation relevant to Tania’s situation. 

I am so happy that there are new relations developing between the United States and Cuba. This opening means that we can now engage in cultural exchanges that will finally include friendship and dissent. The situation is being normalized, which means that we can expect a full and rich range of expressions and opinions. 

I am included in a show called Wild Noise and I want to do just that–make some noise. I call for the museum to take down my piece from the show as long as charges are being pressed against Tania Bruguera. Furthermore, I would plead with my fellow artists in the show at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes or in the Biennial to do the same. 

Don’t be a bystander.