THE PROVACATEUR WITH TANIA BRUGUERA By Emily Westrbooks | Photography by Tom Martin TANIA BRUGUERA is a self-proclaimed artivist, pushing the art-plus-activism envelope far enough to find herself arrested not once, not twice, but three times during a performance piece last year. Mixing a degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with activism inspired by her upbringing during the Cuban Revolution, Bruguera’s works aim to challenge learned social behaviors and oppression. On October 6, the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts will host Bruguera for the 2016 Mitchell Artist Lecture. We caught up with the artivist herself for the inside scoop on the focus of her talk. According to Bruguera, becoming an artist in Cuba gave her a certain amount of leeway when it came to engaging in activism, despite the political restrictions in the country. “The fact that all potential space for dissent has been institutionalized and has been co-opted by the government is interesting because it almost mimics all the potential ways in which democracy looks but it’s actually not functioning as such. It’s more like a theatre.” Bruguera’s response to the enforced and fabricated dissent was and is to create real opportunities to start conversations about life, politics and oppression. And while her artivism may sometimes get her into hot water – or jail, as the case may be – being an artist allows her slightly more freedom to dissent than an ordinary Cuban citizen would enjoy. Bruguera is known for works designed to challenge viewers, from an open microphone at a Havana arts center that provided Cubans with a rare vocal outlet, to a performance piece in which she hung a lamb carcass from her neck while consuming a mixture of soil and salt water to remind viewers of the story of indigenous Cubans vowing to eat dirt rather than be held captive by Spanish conquistadors. She explains, “Sometimes my work is a little intense or has 48 L O C A L | september 16 some sort of shock value and impact, and people think that’s a goal. But that’s just the resource to shake it up a little bit.” KAREN FARBER, Executive Director for the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, said their invitation of Bruguera to speak this fall will add to the list of “visionary and pioneering leaders” who have given past lectures. “Tania Bruguera has built an unparalleled legacy of activism within, and outside, the art world. We are interested in learning how her work has made an impact, as well as informing Houston audiences – particularly Houston artists – about how this work may translate into local practices. Clearly, her work is timely and topical.” Bruguera’s lecture at the University of Houston next month will also shine a light on the purpose of art and her preference for art as activism, rather than traditional art for art’s sake. “I feel like we are in the 21st century and we’re still looking at art and using art as it was done in the 19th century. Hopefully we’ll see that ... people can at least start discussing what the new roles and new uses of art are in society. Are we still going to be producing valuable objects for rich people to get richer? Or rethink the tools we have to change people’s views?” A lively discussion will likely follow Bruguera’s lecture October 6. A public reception (reservations can be made online now) will be held in the Moores Opera House lobby at 6pm. For more information, please visit www.mitchellcenterforarts.org.