“What we see and what we don’t see, what we don’t want to see. It was about responsibility about what one wants to see and why.”
The rise of identity politics since the late 1960s has dramatically widened the gap between history and memory. While the former is perceived as the universal understanding of the linear organization of the past, and only the past, that favors objectivity and continuity, the latter is the subjective and fragmented interpretation of the past through the lens of the present. Such movements as feminism and post-colonialism have opened new identity discourses that question reductive identification in the past by illuminating individual experiences, underlining the relationship between memory construction and identity formation. As theorized by Paul Connerton, memories are maintained and transfer through performances, not in the theatrical sense but rather as the materialization and representation of memories, it continues to be mediated across time and space. Connerton maintains that, like history, memory is constructed within the socially defined parameters, one chooses what to remember and forget in order to develop and maintain his or her identity within the community. The recall and transmission of memories therefore can be considered as part of the identity performance governed by social contracts. It is in this constant negotiation between institutionalized history and individual memories that identification takes place and transforms, which also means that the act of memory involves agency; it is more than a natural reflex, it is a choice. In its performative nature and ability to materialize the connection between the past and the ever changing present, contemporary art is instrumental in mediating and transmitting memories in the elusive fissure between history and memory. As Mieke Bal puts it, contemporary art is “memory work,” which realizes the presentness of the past and represents it in the present sociocultural context.
Rather than situating the discussion in the global context which has long been the stage for the heated debate of identity politics, this paper studies the works by Cuban artist Tania Bruguera who, despite her presence in the international art scene, takes as her locus of identity discourse the violent history and hidden memories of local Cuban culture. She explores the push and pull between remembering and forgetting, and rehistoricizes the living past to criticize the socio-political situation in the present. As globalization and digitalization bring forth homogenization and what Pierre Nora calls the “acceleration of history” where our idea of what was is rapidly being renewed by “trending” topics thanks to the convenient access to information across the globe and ubiquity of mass media, it is all the more important to understand identity formation in relations to one’s own cultural heritage. The notion of intersectionality and hybridity embraced by recent identity discourses can only be fully realized only if we peel off each layer of individual experiences and understand the situatedness from which subjectivity is formed. Through the deconstruction and reconstruction of both personal and collective memories, Bruguera reveals the complexity of Cuban identity as the nation gradually emerges on the international stage.
Cultural memory is the interaction between the individual and collective understanding of the past in the sociocultural context based on the conditions of the present. There is a reciprocal relationship between remembrance of past events and our new experiences as well as personal and social remembrance. To enact, transmit and ultimately transform cultural memory is to represent the past through subjective selection and mediation that connect to the here and now. This paper examines the approach adopted by Bruguera through which the artist revokes repressed memories and the forgotten past to produce new knowledge and meanings in order to challenge the dominant historical representation. Such undertaking can be best described by what Diana Taylor terms “embodied praxis and episteme,” the knowledge and performative practice of storing and transmitting cultural memory and identity that are excluded or unable to be captured by official archive. In her analysis of the performances of embodied memories, Taylor distinguishes the difference between the two forms of records of the past; while the archive is understood as official history mentioned above, the “embodied praxis and episteme” is the “repertoire” of practices and knowledge that are passed along by performative acts rather than written official records. Thus they are subject to individual interpretations and their meanings change over time. If official archive is a box that conceals individual and social memories, then the works by Bruguera are the keys to unlock the box and reveal the multiplicity of cultural memory embedded in individual and collective identities.
Bruguera considers herself an activist artist, her works address the embodied memories that silently yet continuously shape the present, and they are currency to provoke changes in current socio-political situation. Both backward and forward looking, her politically charged works can be analyzed through Michel Foucault’s methodology of genealogy, which is an approach to examine history by looking into individual past experiences that are overcome by mainstream narratives. By calling it “the history of the present,” Foucault emphasizes that the evaluation of the past can lead to the “revaluing of values” in the present, which then sheds light on the problematic totalization of hegemonic power. Elsewhere, in applying his power/knowledge framework in the discussion of social resistance, Foucault describes that, “the famous dazzling effect of power – is not something that petrifies, solidifies, and immobilizes the entire social body, and thus keeps it in order; it is in fact a divisive light that illuminates one side of the social body but leaves the other side in shadow or casts it into darkness.” The philosopher describes such manoeuvre as counter-memory, an engineering of historical perspective that unavoidably oversimplifies and objectifies social memories. Therefore, to question dominant knowledge is to counter history and uncover the other side of the story. Finding herself in the silenced “shadow”, Bruguera traces “the history of the present” through her performances in which she deploys her subjectivity and sensibility to counter the history created by the “the dazzling effect” of hegemony. Drawing from Taylor’s idea of the performativity of “the repertoire” and Foucault’s view of counter-history in power relations, the paper aims to demonstrate that Bruguera’s works, in unravelling the past of Cuba through enacting embodied memories, not only destabilize history but also contextualize the fluidity of memory and complexity of identity formation. It argues that “unofficial knowledge” generated by embodied memories is also a type of knowledge that, according to Foucault, constitutes power in the production of meanings in the present, which in turn allows it to interfere with and even undermine dominant discourse. It should be emphasized that, rather than merely representing the past through the contemporary lens, Bruguera’s approach is in line with Foucault’s genealogy that it places its focus on current conditions while tracing to the past. It works backward in order to reexamine the present and even empower the future.
Born in Havana in 1968, Bruguera came of age in the chaos following the collapse of Soviet Union and the fall of Berlin Wall, leading to the breakdown of the socialist bloc. As with other revolutionary rhetoric, the leader Fidel Castro packaged this period as the “special period in the time of peace”, where he introduced a series of new social, political and cultural measures that only added to the burden of the Cuban people. Far from being peaceful, the Cubans had to suffer from shortage of resources and live on rations. Political instability and deep economic crisis forced tens of thousands of Cubans to leave the country. Bruguera was among the group of young artists who chose to stay and resist the authority through their art. It was against this background of the promises and failures of the Cuban revolution that she developed her conceptual art practice which pivots around the issues of identity, censorship and power dynamics. Through her multimedia installations and live performances, she interrogates the institutionalization and self-serving gesture in the organization of Cuban history by the authority.
As mentioned by Nora, mass media plays a significant role in shaping our view in history. As an antithesis to the production of official history and control of media as ways to contrive social remembering and forgetting by the authority, Bruguera produced an artwork in the form of newspaper in 1993, inserting new chapters in history and performing what Foucault terms “an insurrection of subjugated knowledges‛ to undermine the unity of dominant narratives. In the wake of an unprecedented economic and social crisis in Cuba mentioned above, Bruguera launched the art project Memoria de la Postguerra I (Postwar Memory I). The underground newspaper mimics the state-owned journal Granma on appearance but advocates the freedom of speech in context, publishing facts and ideas that are denied and silenced by the state owned media. In collaboration with Cuban artists and critics from local and abroad to discuss controversial social issues in both ironic and witty fashion, and reveal the lives in exile of artists from the older generation which the government has taken pain to suppress, the newspaper “appropriate[s] the tools used by power to offer a parallel reality. It has to do with the possibility of interweaving art with society in a hyperrealist way.” The work brings individual experiences and repressed memories onto “daily news”, rendering the presentness of the forgotten past through the very means that tries to erase it, directly challenging the authoritative silencing and the contradictory rhetoric of “the special period in the time of peace.” Although the project could not escape censorship in the end, it has nevertheless reversed and rewritten history by bridging the spatial, generational and informational gaps of the Cubans. An invisible dialogue is made possible between the older artists who left and the younger ones who stayed, in which Bruguera poses a deeper question of what it means to be a Cuban; does being forced out of the country make one less Cuban? If so, what does it make of those who stay but disagree with the government? The work illuminates how history is told and cultural memory constructed, conveying a sense of urgency in the relationship between history, memory and identity that sets the tone of this paper. In what follows, this paper further examines selected works by the artist to highlight the malleability of memory through their representation of the past in relation to the present. It posits that memory as a “function of subjectivity” is continuously mediated through the performance of identities, which in turn is subject to power relations. The significance of Bruguera’s artistic practice lies in her ability to bring the “off record” past to criticize the present through visceral, corporeal, and participatory staging; most importantly, she deploys “the repertoire” as a way to fix the gaze of viewers to what have been wilfully ignored, triggering the reflection on the self and how it relates to the others, with the hope to shape a different future. Such counter-historical strategy to “deconstruct memory-as-history” continues to inform her artistic activism for decades to come.
“What we see and what we don’t see, what we don’t want to see. It was about responsibility about what one wants to see and why.” This quote of Bruguera summarizes the artist’s concern about the consequence of our selective remembering and wilful forgetfulness that she manifests in her two works The Burden of Guilt and Untitled (Havana, 2000). Staged during the sixth and seventh Havana Biennial respectively, both works exhibited their subversive undertone upfront in the way they grappled with the exhibition; The Burden of Guilt (1997) had to debute in the artist’s own home because she was excluded from the biennial, she wanted to take the opportunity to draw the international crowd; on the other hand, Untitled (Havana, 2000), part of the biennial this time, was forced to close one day later on the grounds that nudity was prohibited. Ironically, these difficulties only adds to the potency of both works.
The Burden of Guilt is a live performance in which, in front of what looks like a Cuban flag but in wrong colors and orientation, Bruguera sits with a decapitated lamb carcass hung around her neck and ritualistically mixes soil with salted water, she rolls the mixture into a ball and slowly swallows it. She repeats the gesture for approximately 45 minutes. The act of eating soil has two layers of meaning. Firstly, it is an enactment of the myth of Cuban indigenous people who resisted their Spaniard conquerors by committing collective suicide as a passive act of rebellion. Soil is a symbol of a nation, its history and heritage. The tragic tale is not only about conquest and resistance, but also the defence of one’s tradition and culture. In their genocidal invasion, the Spaniards were able to take over the land but not their identity and culture, which the natives took with them in their final journey, as Bruguera describes it, “it’s like erasing oneself,” taking control of one’s own soul. By reenacting this noble sacrifice, the artist traces the genealogy of Cuban history. The salted water symbolizes tear, which suggests guilt and remorse, when mixed with soil, it becomes the guilt embodied in Cuban identity. The artist shows that the origin of the nation began with mass killing, and this guilt of colonial brutality and political oppression have never left the consciousness of the Cubans since, as represented by her continuously act of soil eating. As she swallows the mixtures, she takes viewers down the memory lane of Cuban history characterized by the power dynamics between external powers – the Spanish colonization, the political and economic domination of the Soviet Union, the military rule and the subsequent isolation of the United States. Each mixture, each of these occasions of foreign manipulation, is a confrontation to Cuban identity. The lamb carcass symbolizing obedience, on the other hand, speaks to the weight the Cubans have to carry for being submissive to foreign power. As noted above, Bruguera does not revisit the past to stay in the past, her theatrical performance viscerally and cerebrally renders the disappeared and the forgotten visible, forcing viewers to share the historical baggage of political oppression, but most importantly, she complicates the relationship between power and domination by underscoring the present situation of Cuba, the time when the Cubans are truly by themselves or, in revolutionary rhetoric, “the special period in the time of peace,” which leads to the second layer of the meaning of the act.
Bruguera allegorizes the tragic tale to criticize the present situation of Cuba by literally enacting the traditional idiom “eating dirt” (comer tierra) which means “to suffer strong hardship.” As part of the project Memoria de la Postguerra mentioned above, the performance comments on the dire situation into which Cuba was put after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. She juxtaposes the self-effacing act with the symbol of the heroism and promises of the revolution served as the background of her performance the whole time – the large Cuban flag that is made by and of Cuban people (figure 2). The flag is made out of human hair that the artist collected from local people on the island, the hair is rolled into small fabrics which are then collaboratively sewed onto the flag. On one hand, each strand of hair not only emphasizes the individuality of Cuban people but also the exclusion of the exiles in forming the country; on the other hand, the collective act of sewing alludes to the time of the revolution where women would gather and sew Cuban flags together as a way to express their desire for independence and to contribute to the revolution in their own way. The connotation cannot be made more ironic – the Cuban people are “eating dirt” for the nation they have so gloriously fought for. Turned downward and its original blue and white color stripes are substituted with black and white ones, the flag is at once the celebration and burial of the nation. By presenting this contradiction, Bruguera further explores the dichotomy in identity formation. The negotiation between the personal and the collective, the expatriates and the locals, the male and female roles in the revolution, are all manifested in the compelling performance.
As argued by Taylor, it is impossible to separate cultural memory, race and gender, for it is the bodies that perform the acts of transfer of embodied knowledge and memory, and gender and race in turn affect how these bodies operate. Using both her body and the bodies of the Cuban people (represented by their hair), the artist evokes the embodied knowledge of Cuban myth, idiomatic expression, and the memory of the revolution in The Burden of Guilt that foreground her Cuban heritage and female subjectivity. At the same time she “insurrects subjugated knowledges” to disrupt Cuban history, reconstructing a social imagery that provokes reflection on individual, gender and national identity. The artist literally carries the open wound of Cuban history and lays bare the complexity of Cuban identity as she digests the guilt of her country. Moreover, her deft use of traditional myth resonates with Foucault’s remark that counter-history uncovers the repressed and the darker side of the story by charting not their victory but their defeat. It is through learning the tragedies of our ancestors passed along in the forms of legend, myths and religious stories that the progression and linearity of official history are questioned. By evoking the cultural memory of the traditional myth and situate it in the contemporary context, Bruguera constructs an alternate temporality where the Cubans are put face to face with the indigenous people, confronting the violence of colonialism and political oppression that are still present today.
If The Burden of Guilt collapses time and brings the past and present into one dimension, then Untitled (Havana, 2000) expands time ad infinitum, trapping viewers in a perpetual cycle of now and then, where the future seems to be forever out of grasp. Emphatically displaying the connection between senses, site and memory in the work, Untitled (Havana, 2000) is a multisensory installation and live performance that allows Bruguera to further explore sites of memory in relation to identity formation in the contested ground of historical construction. Set in the Cabaña Fortress, a military defence building built by the Spaniard colonist and was turned into a jail and a site of torture for the counter-revolutionaries during the Cuban Revolution, the installation site is loaded with history of political violence and contradictory notions of Cuban revolution. In her poetic depiction of the work, Bruguera writes, “you remember every story you’ve ever heard about this place, about the time the Spaniards conquered Cuba, about the need to defend against unseen enemies. As happens so many times, what was supposed to protect you from others has been turned against you.” In this work, the artist treats the fortress as the integral part of the performance instead of merely an exhibition site. She juxtaposes the permanence of the physicality of the architecture with the ephemerality of the remembrance and meanings inscribed onto the historical site. Colossal and immobile as it is, the fortress doubles as the passive witness of the fleeting moments in the past and an active player in the construction of history in its constant reconfiguration based on conditions of the present.
In a pitch dark tunnel lined with uneven layers of sugarcane husks that emit a distinguished smell that is at once sweet and nauseating, viewers proceed by trampling blindly through these tokens of colonial exploitation, guided only by the faint blue light in an unmeasurable distance. As their vision and sense of smell are finally adjusted to the environment, the viewers are met with flicker of light emanated from above, it is an overhead TV screen repeatedly playing official video footages of the Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The hero of the Cuban revolution turned tyrant is portrayed as beloved, approachable, fatherly and even vulnerable. He is seen giving speeches amid the enthusiastic applaud of the Cubans, spending time with his family, swimming in the ocean and unbuttoning his shirt to show that he is not wearing a bullet-proof vest even during political crisis. The video roughly follows a chronological order where Castro is shown aging but his heroism and charisma never fade. Turning away from the TV screen and back into the darkness, four naked individuals are found standing on both sides of the tunnel repeatedly making awkward gestures without interacting with each other, as if they want to release their struggle and sense of vulnerability through their body movements. Have they always been here? Viewers leave the time tunnel with the lingering feeling of uncertainty and the conflicting imageries of idealism and inquietudes.
The effect of Untitled (Havana, 2000) is decidedly disorienting. By rendering instability and uncertainty, Bruguera creates an unexpected encounter that highlights what is hidden behind superficial narratives. At first glance, the brightness of the TV screen seems to be the only agent on which the viewers can rely to proceed; however, the unsettling smell and crudeness of the path provide them with a sense of spatial awareness, instead of focusing on the light, they need to pay attention to what is immediately in front of them. The revelation that there are four naked performers standing in the tunnel all along again changes the viewers’ initial perception of what was thought as an empty tunnel. In the interplay between the sense of sight, smell and space, Bruguera has viewers participate in the struggle of Cuban history and experience its contradiction engendered by the ceaseless power play on the island. Just as mass media is a manipulative tool for controlling social remembrance, political sites are also part of the constructed narrative. As a symbol of political power – from being a site for Spain to anchor its colonial power to serving as a place of threat for the revolutionaries to eradicate oppositions, the fortress symbolizes national power and identity, yet the artist fills the hollowness of such institutional gestures with unexpected encounters and personal emotions, shedding light on hidden memories and the interconnection between past and present. All the sensory elements and their associated memories overlap with each other, what is thought to be the past continues to linger in the present, the stench of political oppression from colonialism continues to permeate after the revolution, the promising future constructed by the media is over your head and forever unreachable. Bruguera shows that identity is more complicated than what is portrayed in history, only when one stays long enough in the dark is he or she able to look back and realize the obscured but ever present individual struggles and memories. Taylor asserts that cultural memory is “an act of imagination and interconnection,” it is inscribed on the bodies through different senses, which then bridge the personal with social, public with private, the embodied with the official. Sigmund Freud’s recount of the visit to the Acropolis provides a good example of such notion. In his Letter to Romain Rolland (1936), Freud mentions the simultaneous provocation of his personal repressed memory and a collective memory triggered by the mesmerizing view of the historical site. It recalled the collective memory of Greece being the cradle of democracy and enlightenment in the West, at the same time it evoked the memory of the poor relationship with his father who, uneducated and struggling to make ends meet, would not have dreamed of bringing his children to this part of the world. As part of his psychoanalytical study, Freud’s own experience reveals the multidirectionality of memory recall process, and that sensory stimulation can produce affective experience that override our conscious and presumptions. Applying these observations on Untitled (Havana, 2000), its immersive and multisensory approach can be conceived as the materialization of the interweaving network of personal and collective memories that connect the past to the present.
As a response to the curatorial theme of the biennial, “Close to One Another,” Untitled (Havana, 2000), taking both senses of the word “close”, contrasts the fiction of revolutionary ideal with the reality of the Cuban people by activating repressed memories and complicating the relationship between personal and national identity. The embodied memory of the site is recalled to evaluate the condition of the present. As part of the reform to strengthen tourism in order to stimulate the economy, the fortress has become a tourist attraction lined with museums, restaurants and souvenir shops. Every night, the cannon is fired as a memorial act of the colonial period where the sound of the shot was used to signal the closing of the city gate, it is then followed by performance in which actors sing and dance in colonial costumes. The fortress is also home to many cultural events, such as the biennial and book fairs. All these spectacles are constructed not so much for remembering as forgetting, obliterating the memory of the violent past. Through her subjective representation of a politically charged site, the artist denies the reductive understanding of the historical construction of a nation that presupposes progression and resists wilful forgetfulness and “intentional blindness.”
In the oscillation between the history and memory, past and present, national and individual, collective and personal, Bruguera’s anachronistic and multidirectional approach is unapologetically didactic, critically analyzing historical construction in the social and political context, what she conveys is not only the representation but also the responsibility of the past; at the same time, the staging of the works are equally affective, evoking embodied memories through intersecting spatial-temporal subject matters, multisensory stimulation, and nuanced interpretations of the relationship between the past and present. Through her works, this paper has shown that the idea of the self is intertwined in the fabric of collective narrative and national identity formation. To perform memory is to negotiate identity, and it requires “active agency,” and Bruguera attains it by enacting the contradiction and irony in Cuban life both before and after the revolution. The reconstruction of embodied knowledge becomes the power to resist dominant narrative and institutional erasure, allowing the silenced be heard. The effect of her practice can be summarized by Foucault, who writes that “[t]he search for descent is not the erecting of foundations: on the contrary, it disturbs what was previously thought immobile; it fragments what was thought unified; its shows the heterogeneity of what was imagined consistent with itself.” Bruguera blurs the line between art and life, and she realizes the agency of the past in the present. Through her art, she counters history, inspires new dialogue on the system of control and interferes with the political climate in Cuba.
 Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 36.
 Mieke Bal, “Memories in Museum: Preposterous Histories for Today,” in Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present, ed. Mieke Bal, Jonathan Crewe and Leo Spitzer (London: University Press of New England, 1999), ix.
 Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 17, muse.jhu.edu/book/69259.
 Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas, 19.
 José Medina, “Toward a Foucaultian Epistemology of Resistance: Counter-memory, Epistemic friction, and Guerrilla Pluralism,” Foucault Studies, no.12 (2011): 11, https://doi.org/10.22439/fs.v0i12.3335.
 Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended (New York: Picador, 2003): 70, quoted in José Medina, “Toward a Foucaultian Epistemology of Resistance: Counter-memory, Epistemic friction, and Guerrilla Pluralism,” 15.
 Liedeke Plate and Anneke Smelik, “Introduction: Memory/Counter-memory,” In Technologies of Memory in Art, ed. Liedeke Plate and Anneke Smelik (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 72.
 José Medina, “Toward a Foucaultian Epistemology of Resistance,” 14.
 Tania Bruguera, “Postwar Memory I”, accessed Dec 2, 2020, https://www.taniabruguera.com/cms/504-0-Postwar+Memory+I.htm.
 Mieke Bal, “Memories in Museum: Preposterous Histories for Today,” in Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present, ed. Mieke Bal, Jonathan Crewe and Leo Spitzer (London: University Press of New England, 1999), 180.
 Liedeke Plate and Anneke Smelik, “Introduction: Memory/Counter-memory,” 71.
 Tania Bruguera, “Being Cuban”, in La Bienale Di Venezia, ed. Roselee Goldberg (Venice: Prince Claus, 2005), quoted in Andrés David Montenegro Rosero, “Ghosts of Futures Past: Time in Francis Alÿs’ Rehearsal and Tania Bruguera’s Untitled (Place, Year) series,” re·bus – a journal of art history and theory, issue 6 (Summer 2013): 17, Academia.
 Octavio Zaya, “Tania Bruguera in Conversation with Octavio Zaya,“ in Cuba: los mapas del deseo, ed. Kunsthalle Wien, trans. Jimena Codina (Austria: Folio, 1999), 239 – 257, https://www.taniabruguera.com/cms/250-0-Tania+Bruguera+in+conversation+with+Octavio+Zaya.htm.
 José Muñoz, “Performing Greater Cuba: Tania Bruguera and the Burden of Guilt,” in Holy Terrors, ed. Diana Taylor, Roselyn Costantino, Leslie Damasceno, and Diana Raznovich (Duke University Press, 2003), 404, muse.jhu.edu/book/68608.
 Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas, 86.
 José Medina, “Toward a Foucaultian Epistemology of Resistance,” 15.
 Tania Bruguera, “Untitled (Havana,2000),” boundary 2, 29, no. 3 (Fall 2002), 48, Duke University Press.
 Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas, 82.
 Kris Pint, “If These Walls Could Walk,” in Performing Memory in Art and Popular Culture, ed. Liedeke Plate and Anneke Smelik (New York: Rouledge, 2013), 126-127.
 Tania Bruguera, “Untitled (Havana, 2000),” accessed December 6, 2020, https://www.taniabruguera.com/cms/ 146-0-Untitled+Havana+2000.htm#t5.
 Michel Foucault “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” in The Foucault Reader (New York: Pantheon, 1991), ed. Paul Rabinow, quoted in David Garland, “What is a ‘History of the Present?’” 372.