FORO CUBANO Vol 3, No. 27 – TEMA: ANÉCDOTAS I –
Anécdotas de Marilyn Volkman
Marilyn Volkman is an artist and curator based in Vienna. She is the co-creator of the United States/Cuba exchange project ARTE NO ES FÁCIL (2008-2016 with Dan Paz), creator of the RITUALISTIC TECHNOLOGY exhibition series (2019-current), and often appears with OUR LITERAL SPEED. Volkman received an MFA from the University of Chicago in Visual Arts, and an MA in art and design from the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam. She taught from 2009 to 2012 at Roosevelt University in Chicago, and was visiting lecturer at The Institute of Superior Arts (University of Arts of Cuba) in Havana in 2013.
Volkman’s curatorial and collaborative projects have been exhibited at Sometimes Art Space, Fábrica de Arte Cubano, Noda Estudio, and The Center for the Development of Visual Arts in Havana, Cuba. Her video and performance work has been featured internationally at The New Center for Fashion & Design (Shanghai, China), Het Hem (Zaandam, the Netherlands), the Bergen Assembly (Bergen, Norway), Banff Centre (Banff, Canada), The New Gallery (Calgary, Canada), Whitney Independent Study Program (New York, NY), Renaissance Society, Hyde Park Art Center, Weinberg/Newton Gallery, and Logan Center in Chicago, Illinois, among others.
1. How did the idea of studying or working with Cuba arise? Can you describe the project within which this happened, and your role in it?
In 2009, I took a trip with fellow graduate students from the University of Chicago to see and document the closing exhibitions of Cátedra Arte de Conducta, and most importantly, to meet the individual artists showing work. At the time, Tania Bruguera was my advisor during my master's at the University of Chicago, so in initially preparing to see the “Estado de Excepción” exhibition, I imagined a kind of sister-artistic-community on two sides of her life as an educator. What we would experience through the curation of the exhibitions, however, was an introduction to the varied practices of individual artists working politically with personal and social realities in Cuba. Over the two years that followed, project collaborator Dan Paz and I edited and translated countless hours of footage and interviews we had recorded with exhibiting artists in 2009, learning about their practices, and looking for what would perhaps be meaningful to send back to those whose work we documented. We also opened the project up to more Havana participants based on recommendations by the artists we already knew.
We decided to lean into the problem of working across contexts, and committed ourselves to finding ways of building meaningful relationships despite the barriers between our two locations. Trust became a huge factor in the project. Only after a couple years of working between Havana and Chicago were, we able to identify our role and connect artists between the United States and Cuba to make new work together (or alongside each other) for three months of exhibitions at Links Hall in Chicago. Twelve Cuban artists flew to Chicago for that chapter of the project, and three years later, Dan and I co-organized a symposium and exhibition series at F.A.C. and Sometimes Art Space with Solveig Font, bringing sixteen North American participants to Havana. This project developed into an eight-year effort with the work of over 80 participants and organizers involved. The project was called ARTE NO ES FÁCIL, later named ART PRESENT, and it lasted from 2008-2016.
2- How would you describe the context (interaction with the host institution, access to sources, logistics) in the field of study? What opportunities and constraints did you face?
This is a complex question. Since I've worked with different institutions, private individuals, and other spaces in Havana over the last ten years, I can't describe it all at once. That said, from a personal side in the context of co-curating and co-organizing in Havana, I have learned from my collaborators and Cuban colleagues to look at my own intentions critically, problem solve in the face of obstacles and prioritize trust. The restrictions I have personally faced are ones that trickle down from the Cuban government into daily life while working—immigration unexpectedly appearing at my residence and requiring new paperwork, long interviews with uniformed officials about my activities, enforcement of rules related to 349, restrictions on showing independent art in private space, crackdowns on holding private gatherings, confiscation of my personal equipment, and control over where I can reside in Havana while researching or teaching. Finally, as a United States citizen, other restrictions have been the result of the U.S. embargo; for example, limited or no access to funds while in Cuba, complicated travel logistics, monitoring of banking by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control.
3-Did you have key events, situations, contacts or experiences? Can you narrate any as an anecdote?
In 2013, I arrived in Havana to teach a seminar as a part of the course offerings at ISA. Upon landing at the airport, I was held for over two hours at customs. During that time, officers meticulously inspected the contents of my baggage, opened books to look at notes in the margins, questioned me about my personal and artistic affiliations, and noted the serial numbers on my electronic equipment. By the end of this session, customs had confiscated two hard drives and taxed me 100 CUC. After lengthy paperwork and multiple visits to offices at the edges of Havana over the course of the next two months, I received permission to retrieve one hard drive. The second was never returned. Fast forward to 2019, and there was an added element of perceptible surveillance surrounding the events I had organized. I experienced direct tracing of my visits with artists and monitoring of the casa particulares/Airbnb lodging I booked for international artists visiting Havana. That year, I had come to Havana for a private exhibition I had co-curated, set to happen during the Havana Biennial. It was an independent exhibition bringing new works from Europe and North America to be exhibited alongside works by emerging Cuban artists. On the day of the opening, I was tracked down on multiple phone lines by immigration who required me to appear at a barricaded immigration complex where my cellphone was taken out of my possession and I remained for 2 hours of questioning until my mobile was returned and I was released.
4- How did your initial perceptions vary during the stay?
There have been many stays—so I will answer in a general way to cover a span of time. Initially, my perceptions of working in Cuba were ones of confronting my own misconceptions, and finding ways to clarify and communicate my intentions in a complicated context that is not my own. I was 23 years old, and there was a lot to learn in developing mutual understanding and earning trust between emerging artists working in the U.S. and Cuba. From the United States’ side, it is relevant to note that when we first planned to do research in Havana, U.S. citizens still had to apply to the U.S. government for a specific license under the Bush administration. We did a lot of stretching and tweaking of the project description to frame our activities to meet the paperwork requirements of the U.S. government, and I think that had an impact. This changed significantly when President Obama took office, but when hosting Cuban artists in the United States in 2011 and 2012, the struggle to obtain visas and secure funding to work with Cuban artists continued and prevented some invited Cuban artists from traveling to create work in person. After years of working with artists in Havana, relationships have grown personally and I’ve felt fortunate to have been welcomed by Cuban colleagues and friends who are willing to share knowledge, ideas, time and resources in finding new ways to work together.
The situation in Cuba now, however, is different than ten years ago. People lived continually with different kinds of threats then, yet today, restrictions are formalized, stretched and brutally enforced in ways I didn’t personally observe a decade ago. Independent Cuban artists, journalists, peaceful protesters and the people close to them are intimidated, detained, criminalized and actively deprived of fundamental human rights and the freedom of expression regularly. Even from a distance, the consequences of 349 and related legislation are now right in front of your face on social media. The situation is increasingly urgent and delicate. For me, the intention was always to foster space for long-term working and shared learning, and I feel a continued commitment to doing that with artists in Cuba.