Speculation around the opening of Cuba
The Havana Art Biennial has probably been a place, ever since it was created in 1984, where collectors seek what is best in young Latin American art. According to Leonor Amarante, the Havana Art Biennial deserves highlighting especially because of the position achieved by Latin American art in significant American collections and in the world. There is speculation in the market due to the easing of the economic embargo and of the travel restrictions faced by Americans when visiting the island, apart from the prices that were once attractive. Publicity over the straightening of relations between Cuba and the United States, as well as an easier access, has increased the price of artworks. Works that, in the previous Biennial, achieved a selling price that ranged from US$ 1,000 up to US$ 5,000, in this latest edition have sold for amounts ranging from US$ 5,000 up to US$ 20,000. Expecting higher earnings, artists have put their works up for sale at unrealistic prices. In this latest Havana Art Biennial the video-art installation by a young Cuban artist, which took up a bathroom, ended up with no negotiation because the value of US$ 3,500 was considered too high. Knowing that digital art production has a reduced collectionism character, I wonder how this kind of art production has been doing in Cuba, what discussions legitimate it and what the possible future steps to lead it forward are.
And what about the market of digital art?
Bearing in mind the market division regarding contemporary art and digital art, if merely talking of the existence of a digital art market in other developed countries is something difficult in itself, it would be even more difficult to talk about such a market in Cuba. The question of valuation and acquisition of digital production is still uncertain, on the island and beyond it.
However, demand on the island for the treatment of post-production images in filmmaking and of posters has been increasing, although pioneering and the production of digital art by Cuban artists and producers, who have never dreamed of an international market, cannot be explained by this factor. It is possible that demand for an international market of contemporary art, along with an economy that did not favour the maintenance of equipment, hardware and software, have made artists lose interest for the production of digital art in Cuba. Ease of migration and the proliferation of immaterial works that reached distribution outlets outside the Cuban context, crossing physical barriers beyond port districts, was what used to attract those artists.
Political and Technological Pillars of digital art in Cuba
On my visit to the Art biennial in June 2015, I was surprised to find efforts towards a Digital Art, such as the 11 Digital Art Salons in Cuba promoted, in previous years, by the Cultural Centre Pablo de La Torriente Brau. Certainly, in the Biennial, there were video installations displayed and other interactive works involving Arduino programming. There was even one, sovereign, communicating with a possible archaeology of the media in the region: El Organo Habanero.
But the production of digital art in Cuba is far more complex, politically speaking, than just the occasional pointing out of interactive work here and there. Before going round the 12th Havana Art Biennial, looking on its website for links to works that could direct my visit, I found a video for the 2009 performance O Sussurro de Tatlin. The performance, by the artist and blogger Tânia Bruguera, had been made in 2008 and presented in 2009 at the La Habanera Biennial.
At first I believed it to be a current work using the internet as its support and action strategy. Later, in Havana, while questioning a Cuban curator about this work, the answer I got was laconic and dry. Antagonistic perceptions float around the artist and her performances. The artist is under political vigilance and in previous years had her passport held and, therefore, not allowed to leave Cuba. Whereas the MoMA executives in New York consider her a relevant artist because she challenges the regime, politically and socially, and reveals the barriers on the freedom of expression in Cuba, Cubans regard her as frivolous for acting out a show for the media positively received by the international community. Her attitude would be wrong. According to Leonor Amarante, the power cord between the artist, provoking, and the police, repressing, would be old and worn out rhetoric.
The artist meant to re-enact the 2009 Tatlin´s Whisper nr. 6 on this latest biennial, which had been presented that year and on other occasions outside Cuba, inviting the public to speak whatever they wanted on the microphone. The performance was planned to take place in the Revolution Square, on the opening of the 2015 Biennial, and the artist intended to test the repressive Cuban apparatus. As it had been newly repressed, the artist´s performance comprised of reading out the book The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt in her house, on a reading that was suffocated on purpose by public works breaking up the road with stone crushers. Upon leaving her private space with the book, the artist was approached and again taken for interrogation.
The fact was witnessed by a Biennial curator Gerardo Mosquera (Jorge Fernandez Torres was the head curator and president of the Biennial Promoted by the Cultural Centre Wilfredo Lam). This time the political censorship and the low connectivity resulting from the Cuban minimal optical fibre system have helped muffle the incident, which had barely any record on the internet, another political problem. Despite the optical fibre wiring network in Central America, the island is connected only by a subterranean optical fibre cable, from Santiago in Cuba to Venezuela. The lifting of the economic embargo, promised for an upcoming future, is eagerly awaited by American telecommunication companies for the expansion of their business activities.
Between the years 2003 and 2010 the artist was a professor at the Chicago University with works shown at the Pompidou Centre in Paris and at the Venice Biennial as a Guggenheim fellow. In 2011 she lived a time of deprivation in a small apartment at the Queens with five illegal immigrants and their children. Facing a budget restriction, without credit or health insurance, her intention was to reveal the vulnerability of immigrants and the system failures.
Fluctuation of the swinging movement between liberalism and repression by the totalitarian regime has propelled the artist even further on the international scenery and interest by collectors increased. In 2015 alone Tânia has been awarded a grant with the Artists in Residency in New York city, on a project financed with private and public funds by United States Cultural Relations. Her 2000 performance Untitled has been recently purchased by the Museum of Modern Art, MoMA. On this performance, which took place in the tunnel of Fortaleza y Cabaña in Havana, the naked performers walked on a ground covered with decomposing sugarcane and, at the back, the only source of light was a TV showing the image of Fidel Castro.
The Biennial exhibition and digital art representatives
The biennial curators could have focused on the political and technological issues of the limited access to the internet in Cuba and of the censorship that turns a better flowing exchange between peers into something unfeasible. Malla _ Net 2.0 by Rodolfo Peraza, it seemed, was the only work to touch, with irony, the issue of traffic for internet access in Cuba. The artwork, set up in Wilfredo Lam Centre, attracted a young population looking to be informed of the schedule for the “game” that required 3D glasses.
Laying aside the political aspect of access to WI-FI internet, the Duodécima Bienal de La Habana set up, in a single building at the Desarrollo Centre for Visual Arts, works that were considered technological and representative of a digital art. The installation art, nearly all of them with sound, had the privilege of isolation inside this building in Plaza Vieja: in the first room was a work titled Música Concreta displaying an open dissembled piano and in front of it a cube that had been built from its keys. Interrogation, 2009, by the Lithuanian/Norwegian artist Ignas Krunglevicius, was a video installation about language as a tool of consciousness and it had the projection of two texts simultaneously, showing, to the right, the answers given by a woman under interrogation and, to the left, the questions asked by her interrogator. It was the case of a wife, a university student, mother of three children, who shot at her husband, who was a minister, several times. A work by the Argentinian artist Leonelo Zambón was installed under an aesthetic of decay, in the dusty rooftop room with windows that don´t close, named Piano Fantasma e Todo lo que se sueña moverse. That installation had several non-functional inefficient gadgets performing a series of silly tasks such as throwing sand onto a corner, or getting a music-box to start playing a tune, all executed with Arduino platform and gambiarras.
Another installation, the one by the Peruvian artist Jose Carlos Martinat consisted of an empty hall with a technological laud-speaking gizmo that ran along the whole extension of the room on a handrail kind of track, talking about space. There was still another installation by another artist showing something like water pipes with openings that were shower-heads which, rather than releasing a water flow, produced sounds of testimonies. In the counter flow was the stunning work by Antonio José Guzman, from Panama and Holland, El Organo Habanero, Tradición Del Milênio, sponsored by the Mondriaan Foundation in Holland, was an eighteenth century organ which played music scores in recycled perforated cards.
Bringing young artists together at a side event
The Cultural Centre Pablo de La Torriente Brau, institution in charge of the Digital Art Salons, and of the publication of Arte Digital: Memórias (RELOBA, 2012) (Digital Art: Memories), a book which I have been using as a source of research, took part as a side event in the La Habana Biennial exhibition with a sound installation named Puertos by the young artist Raymel Casamayor Bello. Puertos gathered various sounds of port cities, from four neighbourhoods in Havana: Old Havana, Centro Havana, Vedado and Guanabacoa-Regla, and it was shown three times on the 19th of June 2015. Rather an experimental concert than an installation, this work also attracted the local public. There was an international audience of visitors to the Biennial and also young Cuban intellectuals who went to honour the artist. It was an event for those at home and for the ones who came from outside. If we regard it as an installation, then certainly audience and place are important factors. The installation took place at the courtyard of the open space in the Cultural Centre, which is shaded by two gigantic Cecropia trees and surrounded by high walls sprayed with concrete poetry.
The Digital Art Salon of La Habana was started in 1999, when 30 Cuban artists were brought together, and 11 salons that had not been set up in 2011 for logistic and financial difficulties, were then made. Cuban Digital Art could have had its beginning in concrete poetry, as it was hinted with the making of the exhibition: Digital Poetry Art on the third Salon, in 2011. But while reading the book Digital Art: Memories, its genealogy is attributed to etching, the artwork printed on paper. Many of the theorists trying to track back the origin of digital art have certainly been doing it through photography, as it operates through the sensibility of chemical reaction to light, where it differs from engraving, which uses several instruments, even chemical procedures, to physically change the matrix. On the three procedural stages for the creation of images, namely the handmade, the mechanical, and the technological or digital one, the digital art is certainly found in the latter (or, as named by Lucia Santaella, 2005, these would be related to the pre-photographic, the photographic and the post-photographic ones). Such would have implications in terms of the logistics it faces not in expography or design of the digital art salon, but especially as to the laboratorial conditions for the production of such an art in Cuba.
The identity of the Digital Art Salon
Hector Villaverde was the creator of the identity for the logo of the Digital Art Salon. By a logo that used the initials in the signature of Albrecht Dürer, A and D, the Flemish renaissance artist who made several etchings and was regarded as an innovator in his days, Villaverde maybe wanted to highlight the conceptual aspect of digital art. Digital art, as it happens with etching, is an art with a process fractioned in stages that add up. As Victor Casaus puts it in the introduction of the book Arte Digital: Memórias, making an art exhibition and call it Digital Art was a test for incredulous Cubans doubting the computer art (although such term is not used in the text) for whom the work came from a machine and not from an artist´s direct manipulation.
Searching for a suitable taxonomy
It was only on the IV Salon, in 2002, that the Net Art taxonomy was used for the presentation of a “multimídia de cibercultura” (cyberculture multimedia) project named La nueva ciudad de Dios, which was not clear whether it was a work by Alex Lamikis, editor of the cyber culture magazine Bitniks. Thus, in the same edition there was a taxonomy record of “interactive dancing” with the work Opus # 1 by the Italians Ariella Vidach and Claudio Prati. Not by chance, it seems that it was in this salon that two categories were opened for the first time: printed and audio-visual work, which included digital animation among other formats. The audio-visual work category was meant to comprise interactive works, net art, installations, audio-visual works, videos, physical computing, which were limited only by the logistics of the equipment available, as Victor Casaus puts it (RELOBA, 2012, p. 76).
Still regarding the taxonomy used, it seems that it was only in 2003, on the V Salon, that a more suitable use, of possible terms defining what is digital culture, was achieved. In this salon a “simultaneous” work was created through the net (Alicia Candiani from Buenos Aires, Deena Dês Rioux from New York, who, in other testimonies, is not said to have taken part in the event, Guto Nóbrega from Rio de Janeiro and Eduardo Moltó from Havana) on the 18th of June 2003 at 3pm Cuba time, which was named El mistério de La mirada virtual. The action had the organizing support of the Cultural Centre Pablo de La Torriente Brau, Cubasí, ENET and of the Palácio Central de Computación (Central IT Palace). Out of the presentation texts for the V Salon, the one by Luisa Marisky points out the different memories, the machine memory and the human one, by the use of key-words such as cache memory, speed, search, information, virtual world, temporary files, “mala manipulacion”, control, cluster, android, circuit, electronic music (by Edesio Alejandro), audio-visual, while the text by Jorge R. Bermúdez only discriminates the fields that are a priority of artists: 4 for engraving and 2 for painting.
In the VI Salon, of 2004, there is the intention to distinguish video as a category, which had been accepted since the IV Salon, 2002, of arts in the net. The organizers are committed to make an online exhibition and another one in video with the participation of the Peruvian organization Alta Tecnologia Andina, and Hibrys in collaboration with Museu de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo of Costa Rica. The text in the catalogue of the VI Salon brings a consistent reflection with quotes by Lev Manovich and John Ippolito. The text written by Mabel Llevat “Arte Digital: nuevas esferas de circulación y desafios del mercado” talks of IT virus, of digital genetics, recursive algorithms, and the obsolescence of the new media. It points out the little interest of private collectors for “ephemeral” and “immaterial” artwork, and also the inadequate space in museums and mainstream commercial art venues such as the galleries that host them, in terms of space, of equipment or due to the lack of specialists responsible for the maintenance of software and hardware (RELOBA, 2012, p. 361). Still, according to the author, artists could be the ones responsible for the poor proliferation of these works because they have a preference for underground spheres that escape the ones legitimating the art. The usual problems found in art would be present also in Digital Art regarding unity, reproducibility, and in the proposal for a circuit still inefficient and with limited reception.
According to Mabel Llevat (RELOBA, 2012, pp. 360-363) innovations of several kinds such as the communication ones by Flávio de Carvalho, those of the penetrable (Hélio Oiticica), of the optical art and of the kinetic art, have contributed towards Digital Art. Also a few pioneer and exceptional accomplishments, such as the closed circuit performance of 1966, categorised as environments multimedia, by the Argentinian artist Marta Minujín carried out through global collaboration via satellite with artists Wolf Wostell and Allan Kaprow. Another great contribution for the development of Digital Art, according to the author, was the gigantic light-penetrable cube, seven meters wide, with light and sound effects that were activated through a keyboard (RELOBA, 2012, p. 362), a work by the Peruvian artist Francisco Mariotti in collaboration with the German Klaus Geldmacher, presented at the IV Documenta of Kassel of 1968.
The Establishment of the poetics of digital art
The VI Salon of 2004, in terms of nomenclature, seems to have given Digital Art a steady character. In subsequent years, however, the shortage of resources was not what made experimentation with digital art to be placed in the background on behalf of the production of paintings, mostly landscapes, and posters now produced for publicity and no longer as a communication tool for the government. According to Jorge R. Bermúdez (RELOBA, 2012, pp. 365-366) in his text “Diseño gráfico y arte digital: una relación bien llevada” presented in the catalogue for the IX Salon of Digital Art, from 1993, the easing down of the dollar surtaxing and the Cuban tourism industry once more have made artists turn towards more traditional support, going back to the paintbrush in response to the stimulus of eager new collectors.
Regarding Digital Art it would be important to highlight its poetics and not its formal value and technological resources, as Alicia Candiani, Argentinian artist and critic, says in her introductory text for the X Salon of Digital Art, under the title “Nuevos médios, viejas histórias: La presencia de los médios digitales en los circuitos internacionales del arte contemporâneo” (RELOBA, 2012, p. 374). Towards the end of the text, the author wonders whether it will be possible for the peripheral countries to change their condition of cultural and technological subordination. Betting on the DIFFERENCE that would overcome the conflict between High and Low Tech and would transform old stories, these would be works loaded with technological transvestism, off-price technologies, highlighting the cutting-edge technologies and selloffs that lead to the finishing of products in the stock and bring in brand new ones, and new modalities pushing tastes and profiles ahead, so that consumption does not become stagnant. Technological transvestisms and off-price technologies were the terms used by Philadelpho Menezes in his introduction text presenting the Mexican Contemporary Video Show (in the text the year was not mentioned nor was a more exact bibliographic reference). Events that would mix life with the impurity of living things, the fusion of art and technology with crafts, the digital, analogic with corporal.
In the years that followed the VI Salon, 2004, several video exhibitions from other countries were presented inside the Salon. On the VII Salon there was the presentation of videos from the Russian International Video Show of Kansk, curated by Nadya Bakuradze and on the VIII Salon, 2006, a selection of videos from the International Electronic Language Festival, FILE, from Brazil, curated by Paula Perissinoto was presented, and also a retrospective exhibition of the Carpe Dien Salon, from Venezuela, which included workshops of free software. It must be noted that the composer Juan Blanco, founder of the Electroacoustic Lab, made his pioneer concert in 1964 (RELOBA, 2012, p. 402), and was granted the Pablo award in the IX Salon, 2007. The latest Salon seems to have given space to the discussion about democratization of technology and the relationship between digital art and contemporary art (RELOBA, 2012, p. 348).
The precursors of digital art on the island
The first Cuban artist to produce with a computer was Luis Miguel Valdés, a professor at the Faculty of Arts, head of the Engraving Department of the Superior Institute of Arts, ISA, using the first computer in 1989, a LTEL 24, without a mouse or a scanner, installed at the Institute, to create digital images and afterwards at Pinar Del Rio Pedagogic Institute, where those images were converted into a video. The artist ended up influencing the route of the future course “Arte por Computadora” or “Infografia”, and had a retrospective of his work Del azafrán al lírio in 2002 (RELOBA, 2012, p. 101). The history of qualification of artists, the ones active in digital art in Cuba, would be worthy of attention, especially since the material and immaterial difficulties for the renovation of software, hardware and accessories must have been immense. Despite the difficulty for the renovation of equipment and software, this was the interesting part because it was marked by experimentalism, when even the scanner had to be invented.
Participation in the net
The term Net, in the book, was very loosely used to point out that the Salon was gathering artists and institutions from several countries and global initiatives wanting to cooperate with the Cultural Centre Pablo de La Torriente Brau, such as HIVOS and the Committee Prográfica Cubana. HIVOS is globally active through differentiated fronts focusing on ecology and sustainability, the even division of tasks between genders, the emancipation of women, the defense of freedom of sexual orientation, and also, recently, to ensure freedom of the internet in the segment Digital Defenders Partnership / Hivos Central America, supporting bloggers and cyber activists, guaranteeing financial support and secure connection. HIVOS is the result of a coalition between United States, Estonia, Latvia, Sweden, Czech Republic, Holland, United Kingdom and the organization Freedom Online Coalition. One of their help kits include a questionnaire about held or stolen equipment, an anti-virus package, detection of account hijack and DDoS attack which knocks down the server.
The trail of digital art language on the island
The visual reading of posters and images related to the several editions of Digital Art Salons bring to light interesting aspects: the intentionality of gesture in artistic making; the artist´s task, deduced from the artist´s doing, as something primarily conceptual, for already during the Renaissance artists wanted their activity to be in the sphere of Liberal Arts and no longer deemed as craftsmanship; the optical apparatus and the systems for the transposition of a landscape onto paper or canvas, although not numeric, i.e., from visual observation to a two-dimensional record that takes scales into account; the genesis represented by Adam and Eve; the human scale; the importance and popularity achieved in arts through a single image that served as a cliché, although not anatomically correct such as the rhinoceros in Dürer´s painting. It follows that Art and Technology would be antagonist elements, and there would be a reductionism between the lines of this book regarding an appropriate language for Digital Art, as it can be read in the judgement criteria for the selection: recombination of images created on computer, adequate use of the digital resource, fusion of media, etc..
In the book there aren´t discussions about spying on the net, or the economic blockade that led to the restriction over the optical fibre cable system, nor on the foundation for an industrial park still based on material production. The promise of participation in digital culture falls short because connectivity is an illusion.
Certainly, as it was with the Salon, the book has given priority to graphic works with image manipulation. Graphic works have received invitation for the Digital Art Salon since 2006 (RELOBA, 2012, p. 412). The poster is clearly highlighted on the ten-year celebration of the Digital Art Salon with the promotion of the exhibition of Cuban posters under the title 10 x 10: 10 años de Arte Digital. It is the collection of posters that stands out in the collection of awarded and selected works at the Cuban Salons of Digital Art among other images, which were accepted for filing in a digital format in Museu Virtual do Centro. They are mostly digital images printed on paper and photographs along with a few videos.
Cubasi and Cubarte, where the virtual musem is found, are the two portals for digital art in Cuba. However, in the current Cuban portal for digital art, the pages cannot be opened, and when one can eventually be opened it gets redirected to some propaganda that has nothing to do with the proposed content. The server hosting the website with the blog for the Cultural Centre was off-line when checked  on the 3rd of July 2015.
Rewinding the conditions for this production
The dawn of Digital Art in Cuba was marked by a computer experimentalism, something interesting, as it was when the shortage of resources forced artists to devise a scanner, for example. Onto this experimentalism a production was overlaid, one that was already making use of applications and software, facing the market, especially for the production of advertising posters. The decline of interest by the artists for the production of Digital Art was due to the higher value attributed to the more traditional artwork, such as painting, since 1993, with Cuban industry booming and the softening of taxation over the American currency, the dollar, that brought private collectors to the island.
Video-art initiatives started in the cinema school and not in the school of fine arts (RELOBA, 2012, p. 399) and they were first displayed at the Ludwig Foundation in Cuba (RELOBA, 2012, p. 395) even before the Salon of Digital Art, which opened space for such modality from 2004. The term Digital Art and the discussion around its language have only made themselves known after the I Salon at the Cultural Centre Pablo de La Torriente Brau.
In Cuba, the lack of a governmental policy that foments the production of digital art, is not confirmed. According to the Minister of Culture Abel Prieto, strategies for the democratization and for the literacy of digital art were already on the way with the Joven Club de Computación, and the computer classrooms in primary schools (RELOBA, 2012, p. 391). According to the speech given by the Minister of Culture in 2006, the Cultural Centre Pablo de La Torriente Brau was a pioneer, and could serve as the foundation of digital art in Cuban policy (RELOBA, 2012, p. 390).
Even so, the movement for a digital culture on the island is incipient, the bloggers freedom of expression is doubtful, and there is no democratic access to the internet, etc..
The legacies of the socialist bloc could have made them a differential, such as an industrial park with Soviet and Chinese technologies and the spying apparatus that could be used in propositions different from those in other peripheral countries in Latin America. Such as in Latvia, a country with a socialist past, where artists took hold of spying apparatus and reinvented their uses. Such was the case of the satellite antennas RT-16 and RT-32 (the first of them built in Ukraine followed along the flight of the spaceship that took the first Russian astronaut into space in 1961), formerly used as support for the Soviet project of sending satellites into space, such as the radio telescope, astronomy observatory, to monitor the radiation from planets and to intercept conversations. The RT-32 (32 meters of diameter, set onto a 25 meters high tower) was abandoned because of its dimension and later used on an event that was known as RT-32 Acoustic. Space. Lab Symposium marked by the artistic expression of 35 participants from several continents, experimental musicians, amateur radio, researchers and performers of experimental music (GUASQUE, 2016).
A beckoning to global digital culture?
Talking of “digital culture” in the island is certainly of an imperialistic air. In Cuba there is no talking about Bitcoin, the encrypted currency, another mark of the global digital culture. The Bitcoin would be exactly useful for Cubans as currency for monetary fund given the ease of exchange, and as an alternative to the money exchange houses that accept Western Union money transfers, since part of the economy is based on the money transfer made by Cubans acting in the United States. But the Bitcoin currency seems to have been used for the first time recently in Cuba at a Wi-FI square, when Fernando Villar received around US$ 20 from Chris Groshong, the CEO at CoinStructive (the video on Twitter is from July 17th, 2015). According to Fernando Villar, founder of BitcoinCuba.org, technology and innovation are not supressed by the government, as he puts it in the article of July 24th, 2015 (SANDOVAL, 2015). On Facebook, the Club Anarcocapitalista de Cuba receives donations in Bitcoin. What clearly links the Bitcoin to capitalism, while on the other side, out of the island, the Bitcoin is seen as a social currency leaning to the left.
Image manipulation, cinematic post-production according to Antonio López Sanchez (RELOBA, 2012, p. 381), convergence, total art according to Hervé Fischer (RELOBA, 2012, p. 389), the Cuban digital art in search of its definition, had its development hindered not only by the scarce financial resource for production and preservation, but mostly because of the beckoning by private collectionism that once again dictated the bearings of the production.
If it depends only on consumption, Digital Art would be the heir of global capitalism because of its dependence on a constant software and hardware update. But if there are policies of digital literacy and access to the specific production knowledge, Digital Art, despite huge investment in digital literacy, will have a future, even in Cuba.
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This text was published in Portuguese in Revista Informática na Educação. Teoria &Prática. Porto Alegre: UFRGS, 2016. (ISSN: 1516-084X -ISSN: 1982-1654). Special Issue, A imagem-técnica: ontologia, arte e sociedade, editorial board Andreia Oliveira e Luiz Artur Costa.