A text commissioned by Sophia Bartholomew, for a sculpture titled Resolute Parka, exhibited at the Havana Bienale, june 2015.
Also published by LAUGH Magazine, London, UK, September 2016
A text dedicated to Tania Bruguera
Sophia sent me an invitation to contribute to her relational piece titled The First Winter; a series of art shows and performances exhibited inside the many pockets of her red Resolute Parka, during a Banff residency, where we met, in 2013. The following spring, she sent me episodes of the next season; The Thaw, informing me that her red Resolute Parka was going to travel to the Havana Biennale in early June, as part of a symposium and exhibition series that looked at new configurations for exhibition sites. New con-fi-gu-ra-tions.
The program she was participating in was titled “art present: mapping space that could return to earth again", a research residency about unregulated exhibition spaces, also known as "Zona Autónoma Temporal". Return to the earth again. The earth. Temporary autonomous zones. T.A.Z. some twenty-five years after the fact. What happen to Hakim Bey? "Art as crime. Crime as art". She said that my text did not have to speak about the Cuban episode.
The biennale was happening around the time of the thaw between American-Cuban relations, after Obama officially announced a détente between the two administrations ( “détente”…Relax Max! Tranquille Émile! A l'aise Blaise! Cool Raúl! Calm Down Everyone!) The Thaw. The whole earth is thawing!
The new spa-détente inspired Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, to test the terrain with semi-current trends of artivism, folding art into specific socio-political agendas through performative gestures, exposing black and white subjects in capital letters such as FREEDOM OF SPEECH, DEMOCRACY and other basic urgent things in the name of past and upcoming insurrections. News items, such as Anti-Terrorist Laws, touch both unrelenting Capitalism and Totalitarianism at once, in equal-non-inversed proportions. As we saw protest aesthetics, with the resurgence of Marxist texts dominating the art world in the past decade, (romantic-Marxists paying lip service to a possible revolution (still yet to happen), (I met someone at Banff who actually introduced herself as a Poet of the Revolution, a Revolutionary poet) (Poet Extraordinaire), but when it comes to good old- fashioned dictatorships, in olive green uniforms with beards, the résistance, through art, is a nosh more intense than the usual slow motion marches / cardboard signs / teargas / mosh pit dialectical vibe of the North.
When an open mic is a provocation to "friends of the revolution", (Pffff! friends of the revolution, comrades, pals, street gang, la mafia de la revolution) artists, prisoners of one ‘revolution’ (because the more we revolve, the dizzier it gets) tend to look beyond traditional street confrontations, for other tools such as poetry and absurdism found in the Russian soc-art with the Pop-Conceptualists, in ironic demonstrations consisting in replaying fascism, by mixing all the codes: Komar and Melamid with their Stalinist Kitsch Dictator Kamp. They understood then, as early as the 1970's, that if artists were going to fight a political tragedy, it had to be funny.
Drawing from Dada (because art never really surpassed Dada) (because Dada emerged during a war that had reached new levels of absurdity), Soviet Realism had reached a new hilarity, so funny that Komar and Melamid were arrested in their Moscow apartment in 1974 (just as Tania Bruguera was arrested in her own apartment this year for coordinating a reading about anti-totalitarianism), during a performance called Art Belongs to the People. Komar and Melamid's Double Self-Portrait (similar to dual portraits of Lenin and Stalin) was destroyed by the Soviet government, along with works by other nonconformist artists, at what became known as the Bulldozer Exhibition; an exhibition bringing art to the street, where government bulldozers were used to destroy the artwork displayed in an open-air setting. Bulldozers destroying menacing little pictures hahaha…xa-xa-xa…хи-хи-хи…How spectacular ! Dictators produce breathtaking art….with unlimited means and good collaborative partnerships with the military, they surpass themselves.
Ultra-right wing Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori, in line with new Anti-Terrorism Laws in the early 90's, publicly exhibited rebel-militant Abimael Guzmán, inside a lion cage, dressed in cartoon prisoner stripes…"why a striped suit?" Fujimori says…."prisoners in Peru do not wear that kind of uniform! But since we see it so often in movies" he explains…."I thought that showing him like that behind bars would illustrate well that the Shining Path is finally defeated". Illustrate. Here, the dictator speaks the same allegorical language as artists, while the shouting revolutionary, wearing dark sunglasses inside his cage, is announcing a third world war or a coming insurrection. (How did the dictator-artist accept that his prisoner-actor wear cool dark sunglasses with his striped attire remains a mystery).
Fujimori, sitting in the audience at the top of the warehouse auditorium, (I think the scene is staged in the port, yes, of course, before he is dispatched to a remote prison on the island of San Lorenzo, off the coast of Lima) (with his orange life-jacket over his striped uniform, sunglasses, sitting on a rattan chair before boarding the boat, surrounded by the military, Guzmán has a wealthy eccentric vacationer air, while hundreds of automatics are pointed towards him as the most dangerous man in the country) (most photographs of Abimael are close-ups in front of a very potent bookshelf) (strange he was wearing a life-jacket for a life sentence)…
Fujimori, sitting in the audience at the top of the warehouse auditorium, smiling, dressed in a Peruvian version of a Japanese kimono, calmly states in a small megaphone, "we are taking a crucial step in our struggle against terrorism. With this arrest we have beheaded, we have removed the brains from the organization's body"….But Guzmán says that even if they kill him, the brain will still live in spirit, with others. He looks Japanese himself. Kind of Hungarian-Japanese. At that point, he was more pro-China then pro-Soviet, in favour of a peasant led revolution. Later on, in the video document, he is shown shirtless, for governmental headshots. His gaze has kept all its lucid dignity.
Without new so called Anti-Terrorism Laws, he could have been released after a few years. Anti-Terrorism Laws. To be fair, Guzmán, a passionate revolutionary, did use the language of terror as a main material. The rebel was married to Augusta La Torre who is known for bringing women into the foreground of the rebellion. She died in 1989 (same year as USSR) under unclear circumstances. It has been rumoured that she was murdered by Elena Iparraguirre, Guzmán's lover, with his complicity. Both have refused to talk about La Torre's fate since their imprisonment. While in prison, Guzmán proposed to Iparraguirre, one of his long time lieutenant who is also serving a life time sentence in a different prison. After fighting for the permission to marry with a hunger strike, the couple was wed four years later, imprisoned forever. Marriage, prison, revolution, as institutions.
Less romantic-idealistic, Komar and Melamid, whether they created their own Republic or their own Corporation Inc., refused clichés of all tones, insulting history Left and Right, without expecting much. This not-expecting-much-attitude reminds me of a recent piece I saw titled "They Can Take the Chairs", by collective KSSS KSSS based in Vancouver and Estonia, where the two artists are sitting in a gallery on invisible chairs, crossed legs, still pondering, conversing, thinking, smoking, panning, joking. Take everything you want, you will not take our souls! Sarah Seburn, from KSSS KSSS says ‘’we are completely invested in the absurd; how inverting and almost humiliating your situation somehow makes things clearer. As well, the act of acting and myth-making your real lived life, not giving any straight answers’’.
The difference between Soviet poetry, Cuban poetry (the Chinese version will follow)…The difference between Russian red, Cuban red, Chinese red…
In Cuba, the street is the site of suspicion and Tania Bruguera understood that. In Havana, anything critical happening in the street is liable, and automatically attracts Halloween-like events such as cops under cover, military police in moustaches, Fidel-dictator-chic clones, wannabe transgender interrogators, zombies who sold their soul for a cool vintage military jeep, all converging towards the same costume party, the same play, every time an artist is arrested as the enemy of the revolution.
Tania Bruguera was arrested for an open mic, because anything to do with free speech, occurring in the street of Cuba, is considered dissident. When arrested for the second time during the Havana Biennale, the artist held in one hand, a white dove, and in the other, a copy of the "The Origins of Totalitarianism" by Hannah Arendt…
(which was originally titled Anti-Semitism, The Origin of Totalitarianism, Part One) (The best cover is the 1966 version - black, burgundy and baby blue) (and the 1979 version; black, with a double vertical stripe of pink and red) (pink and red)
(Russia, Cuba, China, the End of History). (The End of Art).
(Aesthetics of Politics Faculties in University Departments…lots of half-baked Oktober PhDs over-imposing monochrome analysis on power point lecture halls for nothing else than their own canned-retirement benefit plan) (which colour fits that plan? In which font?)
Tania Bruguera's second arrest…when told to "get in the car"…she let the dove fly away…but the dove flew into an adjacent façade and dropped to the ground, more confused than ever. Upon the sight of this unexpected development, the artist violently threw the anti-fascism book, which also landed on another near by building, making a very loud resonating sound against the general silence surrounding the scene, before she got in.
For Tania, who mostly lives in America and Europe, in and out of regimes is not a life threat, but a life style. She can afford the risks. In and out of repression. In and out of revolution. She is doing it for international awareness. Fair enough. While she was aware that her interventions were only completed, like good performances often are, by the audience itself, here, part of the participating audience was in deed the cops, pushing her head into the car…but more interesting was the ‘audience’ hired by the state: a staged choir that shows up after any altercations between the cops and the enemies of the revolution.
As the car disappears into the street, here comes a bunch of third-rate citizens, starting to chant songs of the revolution all in perfect tune….this is not part of the artist's plan at all…it is a staged choir hired by Raoúl's administration, to sing in favour of the "revolution". Jajajaja. Again, spectacular dictator art. This is beyond surrealist absurdism, it is simply diabolical! Tania should have known better.
Since, as part of her performance, she basically staged her own arrest, to fully bring her point across, she missed the opportunity to stage her own last word…Theatre is all about the last word, honey! I think the Bella Ciao song would have been a good fit here, if she had staged her own choir singing over the government's choir. Bella Ciao is a resistance song used by Italians during the civil war leading to Mussolini's death. Originally it was a folk song about harsh working conditions of a young girl in an Italian rice plantation, who later commits to the Resistance. The song has a definite klezmer twist, perhaps of Tzigan origin. Surviving WW1 and WW2, the song was then turned around again and again and became the song of all historical resistances, including the hymn for recent funeral for the free speech carnage of Charlie Hebdo journal by Muslim terrorists.
She said I did not have to speak about the Cuban episode.
The Cuban Missile Crisis, October 1962; USA and USSR at odds about nuclear missiles pointed towards the USA via Cuba (after USA had their own missiles in Turkey pointing towards USSR). Both powers seemed determined to push the other across the fatal line of launching a nuclear strike. The fate of the world hung on Cuba, a troubled island state in the Caribbean, dancing rumba under a threatened sky. A little stressed out situationism which almost brought the eruption of WW3. WW3 is part of our collective unconscious.
This confrontation tested the limits of pacific coexistence ending up with USSR retreating in exchange for removal of American rockets stationed in the Baltic. The Red Phone, a direct line linking the two superpowers, White House to Kremlin, in the aim of avoiding the apocalypse. A red phone! Moscow-Washington hotline. The threat to self-propelled apocalypse is probably the most cartoony moment in the history of humanity. The earth exploding POUF!
In 2008, China and America decided to install a red phone as well. Famous hotlines were also created between USA and UK, Russia-China, Russia-France, Russia-UK, India-Pakistan, USA-China, China-India, China-Japan, North and South Korea, and the most recent, operating this year, USA-India.
During Cuban Missile Crisis, there is a rumour that the line was equipped with one-time-touch-pads carried by diplomatic suitcases. La valise diplomatique is a very good temporary autonomous zone; an alternate exhibition space, more discrete than the red Resolute Parka, but barely, as the red suitcase is also part of our collective unconscious. Humanity has internalized the neurosis of the red phone and the red suitcase.
In Topaz, a 1968 Hitchcock film about the Cuban Missile Crisis (also known as Hitchcock’s dog film, because the plot is a bit flat and without real turns of events, no Hitchcokian twists, for the simple reason that the plot is based on real events, an espionage fact called the Sapphire Affair…an enormous, deeply embedded network of Soviet spies at the heart of the NATO alliance. A senior KGB defector had revealed that his agency had penetrated the highest levels of the French government, military and intelligence services – but when the French agent tried to act, he found himself blocked at every turn by his own superiors.
In the film Topaz, the suitcase containing the Russian plans in regards to Cuba were found in a red suitcase. Red is the colour of revolution, desire, danger, murders. The red dress of the Cuban lover, a fictive character in the film inspired by Fidel’s sister, Juanita Castro, who, disillusioned with her family's government becoming a puppet of the Soviet, accepted to collaborate with the CIA to eventually defect to America in 1964.
Red in Chinese culture symbolizes happiness and good luck. No wonder communism was welcome. For diplomatic reasons, because the film script was a direct transcription of reality, Hitchcock had three different endings for the film; a French one where the double-agent commits suicide in his Paris apartment; a British one where the French double-agent escapes without a trial to USSR; and an American one (never shown) where the two secret agents and childhood friends, in love with the same woman, came into a duel in a football stadium.
Fifty years later, Tania Bruguera cannot leave the country until her art case is settled. Raoúl has a new arrest policy; rather than arresting fewer people and putting them in jail for longer periods, he opted for more arrests and shorter sentences, as to avoid international lobbying. A succinct style without the sex appeal of his brother. Who knew Fidel would play such a major role in neo-settler dash revolutionary dash neo-neo Marxists poets fashion. Fascism. Modes. Expressions. Shoes tell everything.
For a lot of Cuban artists at the Havana Biennale, Tania's work, by taking central stage in the media, prevented others to enjoy the possibility of selling their work to American collectors, because the fact is, visibility, in the arena of expression, is the same in all regimes. Visibility. SALES!
If the red Parka was about alternate showing spaces, about unregulated spaces of exchange, it certainly would not go unnoticed and secretive about its activities; an Inuit on the beach. In the Cuban context, the red Resolute Parka becomes a noticeable sculpture, playing on the absurdity of everything: climate change, tourism, foreign body, hipster art, Kenny McCormick, Marxism, revolutions, red flag, mascot of the North, a wanderer, an impostor, a beating heart, a lost child?
Sometimes things are best described by their contrary. When I see a red parka on the beach, I see a red bikini in the snow.
In 1946 two French men invented the two-piece swimming suit, competing with each other about each being the smallest bathing suit in the world. One called it the Atome and the other one called it the Bikini. Same year, America invited a press conference to watch their nuclear tests on Bikini Atoll. All shores have the shape of an amphitheatre and it is hard to know who the audience is; the people on the shore, or the people on the boats? The first bomb was called The Able bomb, stencilled with the name Gilda and decorated with an Esquire magazine photograph of Rita Hayworth, star of the 1946 movie, Gilda. The second bomb was called Helen of Bikini. Helen, ‘’the face that launched a thousand ships’’, Homer wrote during a brief stop-over in the small island of Kranai. The fiction of the real of fiction. "Art is what makes life more interesting than art" (Filiou).
One of the inventors of the bikini was fashion designer Jacques Heim (who ran his parent's fur boutique and was part of the Resistance). He hired skywriters to fly above the French Riviera advertising the Atome as "The smallest swimming suit in the world". The other bikini inventor was Louis Réard, a car engineer whose mother owned a lingerie store. Réard, to quickly undo his rival, designed a string bikini with newsprint fabric and skywrote over a Parisian pool: "Smaller than the smallest bathing suit in the world", because his version of the two-piece was revealing the navel and was supposed to fit through a wedding ring.
Even though it was Jacques who had truly introduced the idea of exposing the midriff ten years before, in 1936, when no model dared to wear it). Diana Vreeland, fashion columnist at Harper’s Bazaar at the time, said ‘’the bikini is the most important thing since the atomic bomb’’. While two men were fighting in a race to uncover the woman’s body, the very same year, others were focused on fabricating means of atomic mass destruction on the Bikini islands.
The Fiction of the Real never stops generating itself in all directions.
The history of the atomic atoll starts with several cameras, exposing the King of Bikini Atoll, Juda, to the nuclear idea as "the American scientists wanting to transform a great destructive force (king of USSR) into something beneficial for humanity in order to end all possibility of the end of the world". (Avoiding details of nuclear race, each trying to build bigger bombs).
A camera immortalized the scene, asking King Juda if he was ready to sacrifice his islands for the good of humankind. The king answered that "all is good in the hands of god". The governor reiterated that "since everything is in the hands of god, it's all good in deed". The American army filmed more mise-en-scenes, redone several times, to prove that the American government does everything in its power to offer good conditions to the inhabitants of Bikini Atoll, while they are evacuating and relocating the population a few times with the promise of an eventual return after the nuclear tests were conducted.
However, by 1958, the high level of radioactivity had killed all life forms in the area, including three islands completely deleted from the map. Plouk ! Splash ! Plouf !
In 2010, Bikini Atoll is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site; as the symbol of the human entry into the nuclear age. Today, the tourist season runs from May to October with weekly diving sessions for the modest sum of 5000 dollars, including an air conditioned room with a veranda overlooking the radioactive lagoon. There is a dining facility that serves American-style meals with a head chef, who also prepares Bikinian dishes featuring fresh seafood imported from other islands because of the toxicity of the nearby shore. A theatre about a theatre about a theatre of the real. Guests are asked to sign a disclaimer renouncing to any lawsuits if they contract cancer, promising not to eat any products growing on the island.
Same thing happened to the red Forest, the territory declared forbidden since Chernobyl’s radioactive disaster in 1986, exactly 40 years after Bikini Atoll. Because of forest fires, the radioactivity keeps increasing and scientists say that it would take fifty years to recover. Islands, forests, cancer, tourism, abstract expressionism.
In 1946, Cuba was then free, corrupted, beautiful. It is also the year of The Havana Conference, a historic meeting of the American mafia Cosa Nostra, held to discuss important mob policies, rules and business interests and took place at Hotel Nacional, a plush casino hotel owned by Meyer Lansky and his silent partner, Cuban president Fulgencio Batista. The convention was attended by delegations representing crime families throughout the United States. It is considered to have been the most important mob summit since the Atlantic City Conference of 1929. Decisions made in Havana resonated throughout US crime families for the ensuing decades. JAJAJAJA an influential mob summit.
The official cover story for the Havana Conference was that the mobsters were attending a gala party with Frank Sinatra as the main entertainment. Sinatra flew to Havana with Al Capone and his cousins, Charlie, Rocco and Joseph Fischetti from Chicago. The real problem with dictators and mobsters is that they have a definite sense of style. The Hotel Nacional was basically a Hollywood satellite, hosting movie stars and their attaché show biz with daily entertainment.
The hotel, designed by a New York firm, offered an eclectic backdrop of art deco with Hispano-Moorish references and distinct neo-classical and neo-colonial elements to drive it all home. Home of the powerful and fun, it opened in 1930 and became the Cuban chateau, receiving the usual suspects; famous actors, heads of state, princes and princesses, dukes and duchesses, mobsters, monsters, jazz musicians, illustrious physicians, signers, sinners, spies, gamblers, lovers, Olympic swimmers, Tarzans, earls and fashion designers, poets, art collectors, diamond dealers, steel magnates and high-end gangsters.
An unabated waterfall of beautiful sounding names; Errol Flynn, Maria Felix, Shintaro Katsu, Bola de Nieve, Ava Gardner, Nat King Cole, Libertad Lamarque, Leopold and Beaudoin of Belgium, Esther Borjas, René Cabel, Lola Flores, Las D'Aida, Tito Guizart, Hugo Del Carril, Sara Montiel, César Romero, Ali-Khan, Eartha Kitt, Yma Sumac; halcyon days, before the hotel became the base camp for M-26-7, the revolutionary cell led by Fidel Castro.
On the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in January 1959, the representatives of the American company that operated the hotel sadly departed, and the hotel staff happily took over the new management. The new Cuban revolutionary state reorganized the hotel and there was a drastic change in the profile of the list of guests, ranging from small farmer associations, traditional countrywomen weaving schools and similar exciting initiatives as well as becoming the site for revolutionary militias and national defense.
Traditional worker songs mixed with military training sounds was now filling empty staircases and ghostly ball rooms, with the occasional cabaret for revolutionary respite. Regular visitors included school supervisors and commandants, Che and Fidel and their poseur dignitaries, Simone and Sartre, smoking cigars behind closed blinds. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara set up their headquarters in the hotel to prepare the defense of Havana from aerial attacks and antiaircraft emplacements were installed on the hotel's hillock, with walled trenches excavated below the gardens. Hotels, chateaux, fortresses, presidential suites…
Recently, the hotel hosted the charming and benevolent personalities of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of Iran, and Bashar Al Assad, President of the Syrian Arab Republic. Maybe the next Resolute Parka season should be taking place in Saudi Arabia. Is the red Resolute Parka an eternal resolute wanderer, a forever art biennale jetsetter, or does it belong somewhere to be buried? We all have to die somewhere.
The Resolute Parka is named after Resolute Bay which is named after the British ship called Resolute, trapped in ice and abandoned there in 1850 while searching for the Northwest Passage. Resolute Bay is named after a shipwreck. Resolute Bay is an Arctic waterway in Quikiqtaaluk Region in Nunavut. The area showed evidence of human activities sporadically by the Dorset culture (Tunit) and later the Thule people from as early as 1500 BC until 100 BC.
However, modern Inuit did not occupy the area until The 1953 High Artic Relocation, a population transfer with extra benefits. While Canada has had a weather station in Resolute Bay since the 40's, with a population made mainly of military personnel from the Royal Canadian Air Force base, and state appointed meteorologists brought there on scientific missions, with grid and graph paper of all sizes, provided with a beige-grey-olive-steel blue life style on an infinite bluish white backdrop, the cold war tensions brought the government to force relocation of Inuit population from Northern Quebec, to be displaced to Resolute Bay so as to ensure a Canadian presence, asserting geopolitical sovereignty near by the Northern Passage, which is a source of territorial dispute and paranoid gesticulations between Europe, USA and Canada since colonial times.
The displaced Inuit families were promised homes, supply and hunting resources, but discovered no buildings and very unfamiliar wildlife with the added sudden shock of "nightlife" for six months of the year. They were told that they would be returned home after two years if they wished, but this offer was later withdrawn as it would have damaged Canada's claims to sovereignty in the area and the displaced Inuit families were forced to stay. Eventually, they learned the local beluga migration routes and were able to survive in the area, whale hunting.
Forty years later, pressured, the Canadian government held hearings to investigate the relocation program, and the following year the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples issued a report which obliged the government to pay ten million dollars to the survivors, and eventually forced an official apology another fifteen years later. Governments can do whatever they want, as long as they apologize for it, half a century later. Currently, the Canadian government, under right wing sensibilities, is creating a deep water port and reinforcing its military presence in order to reaffirm Canada's legitimacy in the Arctic.
Since the Arctic is melting due to the general thawing of the earth, the whole interest in the Northern passage is increased, because easier to navigate, intensifying issues of international traffic laws. The soldiers in Resolute Bay wear white uniforms over their usual camo. At this rate, they will soon wear bikinis.
The village is made of colourful archetypal and rudimentary houses; Home Depot orange, Slurpee lime green, communist red, baby blue, some teal, burgundy, sage, electric blue, storage unit looking, all settled in open air on the empty and vast seashore, in polar bear country, sea to sky, nowhere to hide, with six months of daylight. The Tudjaat Co-op, part of the Arctic Co-operatives, runs a grocery-retail store and a hotel. There is also an airport with a gift shop called Polar Bear Hut. Polar bear key chains. Polar bear coasters. Polar bear mittens and original local arts and crafts. The town has three hotels – Qausuittuq Inns North, South Camp Inn, and the Airport Hotel. Other facilities include a RCMP detachment, a school, which provides education from kindergarten to Grade 12, and a gym.
The current mayor is Aziz Kheraj, in a town of 250 people. Kheraj is a business baron and the epitome of the Russian proverb, “who doesn’t risk, doesn’t drink champagne”. Following in the far north’s tradition of people who’ve braved the extreme conditions to find fortune, from Indian origins, Aziz Kheraj came to Canada from Tanzania in 1974 and worked his way northwards to Resolute Bay which he now practically owns; a hotel, all the fuel distribution in the municipality, water and sewer systems, construction outlets, airport shipping facilities and more…
For diplomatic reasons, if I were to imagine three different endings for Sophia's red Resolute Parka; the French ending would be forgetting the parka somewhere, on purpose, without saying goodbye, in the Lost and Found of History. The English version would turn the parka into a museum relic of colonization, bought by an enlightened collector, soon to become a UNESCO heritage tourist attraction, accompanied by a NFB animation film titled Winterludes, with an original Native soundtrack referencing the Little Red Riding Hood story. The First Nations ending would be sending the red parka back to Resolute Bay; turn it inside out, wearing red on the inside, looking for someone in the community who needs it. Reversible art that could return to earth, again. The earth.
The Chinese version to follow…