Tania Bruguera, a performance artist who was one of the first people detained in Cuba after the U.S. announced it was restoring diplomatic relations with island, staged her controversial art piece in New York City – in absentia.
About 100 people gathered in Times Square this week to witness a version of "Tatlin's Whisper #6," a performance art piece first staged in Havana in 2009 by the Cuban artist.
In December of last year, Bruguera attempted to stage her artwork in Havana's Revolution Square on Dec. 30, but she was arrested and held in jail for a few days. The artist had previously been able to come and go from Cuba, but after her release, her movements have been restricted by authorities.
So the Times Square performance on Monday was put together by Creative Time, a New York-based non-profit that commissions and sponsors public art projects. The staging was intended to draw attention to Bruguera's detention and subsequent months of limbo, as well as to pressure the Castro government to restore her freedom of speech and movement.
Staff arrived 15 minutes before noon, setting up a simple soapbox in the middle of the busy plaza, in the shadow of McDonalds' golden arches and surrounded by people—most of them immigrants—wearing cartoon character costumes in order to hustle tips from picture-taking tourists.
The performance piece invites participants to step onto a soapbox to express their grievances, especially as they relate to political systems. They are instructed that they can speak freely, without censorship of any sort, for one minute, during which time a sentry holds a white dove on the speaker's shoulder.
In past iterations, participants, including the noted Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez, have taken the opportunity to rail against the Castro regime. A number of participants in Times Square did the same, among them a man who identified himself as a former Cuban political prisoner and a woman who begged onlookers to maintain their suspicion about the regime, even as U.S.-Cuba relations continue to improve.
Some people also used the public platform to speak about other agendas.
One condemned American censorship regarding the term "climate change" in Florida. Another called for the reinstatement of a New Jersey teacher who was suspended this weekend for having students write letters to the political prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Still another, wearing necklaces bearing the words "Latina" and "Illegal," used her minute to draw attention to political prisoners in Venezuela, reading a list of names of people she said were detained "just this year alone."
In the end, the greatest number of speakers used the soapbox to express not just support for Bruguera, but admiration for her work. These included staff from MoMA and the Queens Museum as well as Pablo Helguera, a renowned Mexican-American performance artist, and Tom Finkelpearl, the city's commissioner for cultural affairs.
"This is a successful work of social art," said Finkelpearl as he concluded his time on the soapbox. "Tania is a great artist and we're all with her psychologically, spiritually and artistically."
Julie Schwietert Collazo is a freelance writer living in Havana.