Heterogénesis - Magazine of Visual Arts - 2006 nr 55-56


Andrés D. Abreu
Rubén del Valle Lantarón / PHOTO: Pedro Juan Abreu

Rubén del Valle Lantarón, director of the Center for Contemporary Art Wifredo Lam and of the Havana Biennial, considers the re-thinking of the organizational and curatorial strategy with which the show inserts itself within the contemporary context to be the main turning point of this renown event.

The Wifredo Lam Center organized the Ninth Havana Biennial this year. The ce-lebration made it possible to extend the history and the socio-cultural and artistic contributions of an event which, since its birth in 1984, has opened a space for the alternative, for the counter-discourse and for the promotion of various creative areas that are generally excluded from the dominant artistic circuits. Changes in the world’s political-economic system, financing hardships and other phenomena belonging to the local context have obstructed the permanence and development of the Cuban Biennial, but the most recent edition set itself as a goal to demonstrate the persistent resistance of the show as a relevant and respectable event in the midst of polemics that question its future life. Rubén del Valle Lantarón, who for the last five years has been Vice-president of Cuba’s National Council of Fine Arts and today is director of the Wifredo Lam Center and the Havana Biennial, .answers to some of these debated matters.

What is your opinion on the recurrent questions about why an international gathering of artists still is being held in Havana under the Venetian concept of biennial when it no longer takes place every other year and each time conforms less and less to the traditional Western ideas that define an art biennial, and even here the concept has been questioned?

Historically, the following matters have been discussed: the periodicity, or the very concept of biennial. Although it is true that the last edition was almost a biennial with regard to its time interval, in other occasions it has been a triennial. But this is not the most important issue, neither is it it how to call it. You can call it biennial, triennial, encounter of forum, the fundamental is to distinguish its foundational principles as an alternative to the mainstream. We are engaged in discussing the new role of the Havana Biennial in the new international context, in a world that has changed very much since the 1984 edition: the structures, the power relations, the very artistic environment.

The emergence of the Havana Biennial set a landmark on the international visual context of the 80’s, becoming the only big scene for the promotion of art from the Third World, and it ruptured with the dominant, colonial, hegemonic discourse. One can even talk of a before and after the Havana Biennial even today, when the concept of the Third World has been blurred and a polarization between North and South prevails. This new denomination of the global differences is neither pure nor easy to define; many of the phenomena of the so-called ‘North’ affect the South and vice versa. Examples of this are the situations gene-rated by the hurricane Katrina in many states in the US, or what happened in France with the huge protests of the immigrants: It no longer was a revolution inspired by existentialist philosophers but the revolt of an excluded population, which the French Minister of Interior called an action of the Parisian ‘mob’.

Facing this new World landscape, and in a growing number of international art encounters, biennials and triennials, we are forced to re-dimension, deepen and revolutionize our discourse in order for the Havana Biennial to succeed in keeping its identity as an event taking place inCuba and in the South; to implement our ideology of resistance taking off from two fundamental principles: continuing to be an alternative space that doesn’t repeat the schemes of the big circuits and persevering on our engagement in the spiritual development of both the Cuban people and our visitors from abroad. Our strategy, I insist, can only be viable if it preserves the ethical and aesthetic principles that set the grounds for this gathering in Havana – however you want to call it.

Even though the aspect of participation has been widely acknow-ledged, other concerns have been recurrently expressed as to how and why guarantee, in spite of the significant reduction of the budget that has caused so many problems (such as the changes of the dates, problems with the curatorial studies and the general production of the event), an event of such a wide degree of convocation?

When we called for this ninth edition, we practically had ten months time. The term biennial implies that you have two years to carry out an organizational process bestowing of various and complex phases; but this time, due to the structural and financial difficulties, the public announcement happened very late. The first incertitude concerned the response of the artists to such a late call. After that, waiting for the confirmation of those who had been chosen to participate once the process of selection had concluded in the beginning of October.

However, within two months the vast majority of those convoked gave an affirmative answer and sent all the complementary information needed to have the catalog ready for printing by December 31st. Only three of the artists were not able to accept the invitation, mainly due to economic problems. This res-ponse counterfeits any previous comments condemning The Biennial as a dying event doomed to disappear.

How can an event that shows this capacity to convoke people be about to die? How can an event that neither finances the production of works nor the transportation of the artists maintain such a level of engagement and interest among the artists? Our Biennial is grounded on a special kind of mysticism, not on the millions that other events spend in production, but by persisting as a place convergence and exchange for a vast number of creators who in many cases are excluded from the big circuits of artistic promotion. The installation and assembling, and the very program of activities of the event become a vast workshop that propitiates dynamics of exchange where many of the primordial concerns of today’s visual universe meet or confront each other.

The level of participation achieved in its main theoretical event, Forum Idea 2006, convoked even later, succeeded in gathering prestigious and well-known international theoreticians together with other, less known scholars, achieving significant contributions in both cases. The dialog and the debate generated in those discussions serve as a measure of the influence and authority of the Cuban Biennial as a center for the emission of art and ideas, even in spite of the financial and organizational difficulties we must overcome.

As organizers of the Biennial we must work on resource mobilization in order to avoid, as much as possible, certain limitations that were evident in this edition, and which run against its nature. Afri-ca and Asia must be subjects of an in-depth field work; those are vast continents, with a rich variety, and need to be explored more deeply. Our curators must set themselves out to cover other areas, like the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, which are generating surprising artistic events practically unknown here, but so close to the questions posed by the South. We must deepen our links in respect to work relations with researchers, art critics and curators who are probing those territories and to reconstruct our “networks” so that the Biennial remains an exponent of the margined artistic world from all latitudes. That will contribute to its diversity, actuality and wealth.

There is another phenomenon constantly surfacing in the debates on Cuban Biennial about its political-cultural significance – an element that also is discussed at the time of making an evaluation of the general quality of the event. Does the Havana Biennial as an apolitical event go beyond its artistic dimension?

I think that they go hand in hand. If the political prevailed, then the respect and the diversity of expressions shown by the Biennial would not be achieved. If the artistic were the determinant criterion of value used, then we would have renounced to the alternative perspective of risk-taking and challenge that has characterized us, and which in the end we preserve among our central objectives. The idea is to bring about the strategic convergence of both aspects. Our political stance emerges precisely from the defense of the aesthetic stance of the least favored, in an alternative to the market and to the hegemonic power’s trivializing currents. On the other hand, it is a naive illusion to suppose that any action of any kind in today’s world doesn’t have political connotations. How apolitical are the events in Venice or Kassel?

In our case, this takes particular importance in the context of the revolution, the meaning of this country and its position in a global context. The Biennial has been able to transcend the realm of the political from within the realm of the artistic, from the reflection and the analysis on some of the most complex phenomena that the world has gone through during the last years, such as the human relationships, the conflict of identity, the communications and the migrations; not by issuing political pamphlets, nor partial or total discourses, but by assuming such guidelines in all their richness and plurality, always from the perspective of art, which by the way itself represents a political phenomenon.

What are the organizers of the Havana Biennial satisfied and unsatisfied with?

Being able to make it possible, living and sharing the unique experience that supposes a gathering of this kind and thus being able to test its vitality and viability are probably the first satisfactions that come to our minds.

On the other hand, the coexistence of creators of acknowledged trajectory such as Shirin Neshat, Spencer Tunick, Sue Williamson, Antoni Miralda, Jean Nouvel or the movie maker Carlos Saura, together with emerging artists who are the essence of the event, confirms to us the validity of our founding principles, since it was thanks to the discourse of the Biennial that some of the artists that participated in previous editions today are i more or less mainstreamed. The Havana gathering puts the focus on, and even validates, the social and trans-territorial discourse sustaining the success of many artists today.

We are very pleased with the high level of socialization achieved in this edition of the event. In contrast with other editions, we could notice a higher level of public attendance to the grounds of the Biennial. Studies demonstrate that the visual arts are among the less assimilated cultural manifestations in Cuba, and the Havana Biennial has started to surmount those barriers, with the decisive support of the media as intelligent mediators. It goes beyond being a matter of statistics in respects to the amount of visitors, it is about our integration with the medial, virtual world invading, shaping and permeating the life of contemporary Man, specially his visual and artistic spectrum.

Having been able to demonstrate that The Biennial and the Cuban culture, in spite of their shortcomings, still are a living space with a high degree of convocation and a gathering place for good art of international level has doubtlessly been another satisfaction. Another positive detail was the work achieved on the visual and promotional aids of the event (catalogs, spots, web, publicity and publications).

Lastly, that the Biennial was able to stimulate and promote the restoration of its principal center: The Wilfredo Lam Center.

The things we are most evidently unsatisfied with are the lack of resources and the organizational limitations that affected the results (the problems with the production were determinant). Some works distanced themselves too far away from the original project and the final outcome was questionable, sometimes deplorable.
The curators should have treated the subject of the Dynamics of Urban Cultures with more diversity, profundity and richness. We were superficial and repetitive on some topics. We were neither able to achieve a good coordination with the pertinent authorities to get permits for a good number of projects conceived for public spaces, works which, by changing of location, also changed their referents, their concepts and even their very appearance.

The museum and assemblage work resulted too obvious on some occasions, and showed very little audacity; possibilities as well as exhibition areas were thus wasted. The Fortaleza de la Cabaña has become a space that we must put into question: on one hand it is special and indispensable because of its location, its ambiance and history, ideal to place big-size works, ambiances or works for semi-public spaces. But it doesn’t seem viable for other formats. Taking the higher quality of proposals with video or other electronic media into account, those were sacrificed due to the space’s own limitations. It is undeniable the deterioration of its arched roofs and pavilions, the poor illumination, and the electrical and acoustic problems.

The very critical spirit with which we face the event is the one that has secured its survival, and there lays the root of my absolute faith on the Havana Biennial. Our self-critical discourse, from the resistance, the exploration, the willingness to take risks, the theoretical inquiry, have preserved for us a privileged position in comparison to similar events organized on both sides of the world. Our capa-city as revolutionaries, of distancing ourselves from fades (even those generated by ourselves) and at the same time daring to contaminate ourselves with new discourses strengthen and preserve the strategies of the Biennial.



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