Event and retreat: on the autonomy of the Cuban contemporary art scene. by Gerardo Muñoz

Event and the problem of sequence. According to Carlo Diano some historical epochs are prone to being inclined towards events rather than forms; that is, they allow the proliferation of states in the world rather than allocating forms to make sense of what has taken place [1]. Since 1959 – but also before this historical demarcation if one considers the failure of the bourgeois Republic and the apparatus of transculturation – the Cuban Revolution was poor in both form and events. Indeed, the institutionalization of the revolution has attempted at all costs to police the excess of both of these poles of world-making. On the one hand, the historical development of 59 secured an event that translated itself as historical and national necessity to legitimatize the production of a new “revolutionary subject” (el Hombre Nuevo); and, on the other, it assigned the supreme form of political unity in the charismatic authority of the Fidel Castro as the principle of a new political legitimacy [2]. It is against this historical frame that the event of 27N that gathered young artists, intellectuals, and writers at the doors of the Ministry of Culture should be measured up: the November gathering was an exodus from the total narrative of the revolution by insisting on the contingency of an event that affirmed a relative autonomy from the state as well as a separation between state and civil society. More than a set of clear demands at the level of objectives, political calculation, and cultural reabsorption to the logistics of the state; the 27N event in its outermost radiant potentiality was a breakthrough as a vital discontent of the youth that attuned itself to an experiential politics that have characterized the cycle of recent revolts of the past five years or so from Paris to Santiago de Chile and Quito, to the hinterlands of United States that no longer seek a modification of the social, but more fundamentally a thorough exodus from it.

I am not saying that they all recent revolts are homologous processes (or events of the same intensity or destructive vocation), but they do share the ecstatic vitality that posits experience over the technified and well-organized planning proper to the vanguard artist invested in mass conduction. Of course, giving primacy to the force of the event raises the question about both temporal and spatial sequence: in what way could those fragments, affects, and gestures transformed by the event mitigate their swerve without succumbing to the re-totalization of political recognition? There is no doubt that this has happened to the 27 Movement by virtue of the actualization of the phantasy of a movement. But a movement is the force that unifies political will, concentrates degrees of intentionality, and crafts a specific subjective discipline against any deviation from its rectilinear force [2]. We can call the phase of the “movement” a mediatized sequence that limits the possibilities of autonomous forms to effectively renounce the limits of totalization. Rather, given the experiential dimension of the contemporary events, it seems to me that the emphasis today should be placed at the level of genesis of forms, which implies connecting rhythmically the fragments within a sequence as a response to the metaphorical articulation of parts into a ‘movement’. In this sense, the sequence in the aftermath of an event must rethought against the grain of the category of ‘movement’, which in political modernity dialeticized the parts into in a temporal suspension unto the homogenous field of historical reabsorption. The force of the event, on the contrary, is what can render destitute the seduction of historical narrativization; or, for that matter, the assumption that political action still has transformative capacities within the set of developmental strategies of subjection, sacrifice, and voluntarism, all elements at the service of the metaphysical grid that constitutes the infrastructure of the philosophy of History. 

The hypothesis of the artistic legal turn. It should not come as a surprise that the limits of the movement demands that we raise questions about the functionalization of the militant in contemporary artistic practice. We should be willing and able to abandon the figure of the militant as always already positioned as a reactionary subject, which transfers military force to unified energies of the cause established by the movement [3]. It should be remembered here that the theoretical grounds of “activist” relational aesthetic was rooted in the transposition of the post-foundational theory of hegemony in Laclau & Mouffe’s theorization as a regulatory principle in the field of artistic practices [4]. But the price to be paid here is enormous, given that the artistic gesture and the possibilities of imagination are now folded unto the ground of “political action” recasting the old semblance of vanguard to achieve cultural domination. But since no cultural hegemony is ever fulfilled, it follows that political hegemony becomes a vector for the valorization of available strategies. It is no surprise, then, that artistic practice, once it turns to activism, becomes a pedagogical tool for and by militant subjects to stabilize the ascesis of self-consciousness. In sacrificing the autonomy of forms, militant subjectivity mirrors an intra-communitarian domination premised on policy and calculation to the idea. In other words, situating the set of strategies at the level of hegemony means necessarily that we have to accept the conditions already in place. What really changes is merely the site of subjection. It seems to me that this same issue is behind a nascent “legal turn” by which the artistic practice centers around drafting, contesting, and exercising pressure against the state by means of its own legal pathways. The problem with this strategy is that, as any jurist knows well, law is constituted of the pole of legality the pole of legitimacy. The turn towards legality becomes accepts the pragmatic conditions of norms and rules but leaves untouched the crisis of legitimacy that it seeks to transform.

In other words, whereas artistic imagination should be able to destitute the objective conditions of any given reality to new set of operations of transformation; the strife over legality ends up, at times counter-intentionally (and in a preserve way, generating unintended consequences), those very goals that it wants to endorse. In the Cuban case this is even more so, given that “fidelismo” far from being a set of original ideological principles or an unambiguous political philosophy guided by principles, has morphed into an all-encompassing institutional fabric that sustains the total state vis-à-vis a juristocratic operation of the legal order. Borrowing the terms from the discussions about the limits of constitutional transformation in Chile in the wake of the post-dictatorship transition to democracy, one could argue that the performance of the legal operation becomes the juristocratic tool to transform the relations between political life and imagination within the framework of given social relations [5]. Hence, if the artist pretends to incarnate a new version of the old paradigm of the “artist as jurist” soliciting the sovereignty of the creator over the vocation of the politician, one should expect the boundaries of the legal dominium of the state to expand, as it has happened with the reiterated executive administrative decrees deployed to normalize the rule of the state of exception. To break this cycle of legal administration, the artistic practice must affirm a disjointed zone between life and artistic autonomy over the excessive boundaries of the law. In fact, legality and policing should be understood as the two poles of the optimization of control once legitimacy no longer works to bind a political community. 

Retreat and obstruction. The minimal condition of any sequence in the aftermath of the event resides in how we protect the surround against the logistics of state policy, cultural administration, and political militancy [6]. These three vectors are the agents of hegemonic intervention against the unregulated proliferation of forms in the wake of the event. Recently, I have called this autonomous self-defense of forms a diagonal that moves against and outside the political demand [7]. The failure of not retreating from the foreclosure of subjective politics (of reducing a form of life to a subject of the political) entails that action will always be on the side of reaction. As Elena V. Molina has brought to attention on several occasions, the reactive action is so not because of ideological color or political affinity, but rather because it remains inscribed within the coordinates that the state has assigned it in order to generate responsive relays or bring to exhaustion the emergence of a new sequence. Rather, in the gesture of retreat (which can be read in the works of Camila Lobón’s infantile books, the opaque graphism of Esequiel Suarez, the sensible violence of Raychel Carrión’s drawings, or the youthful vitalism of the Mujercitos Collective), the possibilities lay on the side de-subjection against both the movement and the state in favor of an infinite practice of autonomy driven by the turbulence of the imagination. What is at stake is a radical abandonment of the historiographical machine that delimits and polices the mediations between culture and state in order to open up a new reservoir of existential gestures in order to break from the previous historical epoch.

The growing autonomy of the contemporary visual arts scene announces this oblique passage from willful political dissent across ideological lines proper of the Cold War to a play of gestures that unleash a new vitality capable of defictionalizing the historical process of the state and its moral demands. Contrary to the notion of action, the gesture does not seek mimetic repetition and reproduction, but rather the preparation of an experience here and now. In a society that is subsidiary on moral conducts and expectations; the gesture, in the words of contemporary Cuban artist Claudia Patricia Pérez, becomes a way to obstruct the efficacy of power relations [8]. There is no doubt that the force of the gesture is a nascent strategy for transforming contemporary Cuba, but the scene of the visual arts is the vital field where the storming of the imagination can unclutter a hastened path outside the ruins of the civilization of the state and the stagnant epochality of the revolutionary process.  

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Notes

1. Carlo Diano. Form and Event: Principles for an Interpretation of the Greek World (Fordham University Press, 2020).

2. Nelson Valdés. “El contenido revolucionario y político de la autoridad carismática de Fidel Castro”, Revista Temas, N.55, 4-17, septiembre de 2008.

3. Giorgio Cesarano wrote in Chronicle of a masked ball (1975): “Neo-Leninists perceive the disintegration of the capitalist system as if they could anticipate, in their methods, their role as true inheritors of power…the distance between militants and militarists is only expressed as a transfer of force.”

4. This was Claire Bishop’s argument in her essay “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics”, October, 110, Fall 2004, 51-79.

5. On the notion on the “crítica de la operación efectiva del derecho”, see my conversation with Chilean philosopher Sergio Villalobos-Ruminott, “Soberanía, acumulación, infrapolítica”, Lobo Suelto, 2015: http://anarquiacoronada.blogspot.com/2015/04/soberania-acumulacion-infrapolitica.html  

6. Stefano Harney & Fred Moten. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Autonomedia, 2013).

7. Gerardo Muñoz. “La diagonal que nos separa de la política”, Columna Cultural, mayo de 2021: https://in-cubadora.org/2021/06/02/gerardo-munoz-·la-diagonal-que-nos-separa-de-la-politica-un-comentario-a-la-conversacion-con-leandro-feal

8. Personal communication with the artist, June 2021.

  • This text was written as an intervention in the panel “The Art of Protest” organized by the Biennial of the Americas, Denver, June 24, 2021. Image: Collage by Claudia Patrica Pérez.

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