Reflections on a Performance Art Project by Artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Curator Catherine Sicot
N.B. To view the project discussed below, please visit the following links:
In your opinion, why is a project like “Indian Summer Diary” significant?
Catherine Sicot: From a Canadian standpoint, Indian Summer Diary addressed the issue of othering in Canada. The project aims to peacefully “protest,” and make public, the conditions surrounding the Canadian Immigration Services’ double denial of a 3-month and then of a 10-day visa for Cuban artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara. The artist was supposed to participate in On the Road, a residency I designed with the collaboration of multiple art partners in Canada and the US.
Indian Summer Diary used social media, particularly Facebook, to stage the “enactment,” a one-minute video per day, of 10 days of travel in Toronto and surrounding areas that the artist was not able to undertake as a result of his visa denial. The 10-day program was initially designed to provide the artist with a framework to “test the waters” of an art and cultural scene and explore the social and political realities faced by various communities in Ontario. For this trip, Luis was supposed to attend contemporary art projects in Toronto, meet key players of the art scene, and visit local heritage sites amongst other activities.
Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara: First, as an artist, the majority of my work is the result of my direct encounter with the reality of a physical or mental space, wherever I find myself. A large part of my work is a personal questioning or critique of mankind, what they have been and are capable of generating around them. This project was born out of frustration and a number of emotions that I felt after being twice denied a temporary visa to Canada.
Why did you and the others working on this project believe that an artistic response was necessary after the double denial of Luis’ temporary visa?
LMOA: For some Cuban artists, especially youth (I make this distinction because of my lack of knowledge of foreign cultures), the sense of confinement that comes from living on the island of Cuba, marks both one’s work and life, from the geographical, institutionally political, the disconnection from the outside world at a digital level, and the lack of free expression and thought. Because of this, the opportunity to bring your work to other spaces becomes something you long for, provoking your own construction of a world of personal and professional illusions before you face culture shock. The visa application process adds more stress to the matter because there is such a high chance of being rejected and an official gets to decide if you are a possible emigrant or not.
Of the feelings that were most present when the visa was denied, helplessness was the strongest. These emotions stem from standing face to face with power and observing how it defines your future either immediately or in the long run, and feeling vulnerable when having to accept the decision with your head lowered and without objections or other options for how to rescue a project two years in the making.
But, the programming of other foreign countries continues and thousands of other artists from first-world countries with passports free from censure also wait in line. All this evokes thousands of similar stories; so to bring about catharsis and to try to be the voice for these stories, you resort to your closest tool at hand, art. It is a language you have already tested, making many people reflect, able to change mindsets and power structures when done well.
In this moment, I wanted to produce a work that was aggressive and direct, leaving me carried away by my own anger. But Catherine returned to Cuba and we had long planning sessions with a close groups of friends and peers including our curator, Yanelys Nuñez Leyva, art historian and my girlfriend, Claudio Peláez, filmmaker and my close friend, and Vivi (Brigitte Campeau), a Canadian friend. Through these meetings, we arrived at the idea for the project that we ultimately carried out.
CS: The letter sent by Canadian Immigration to Luis gives rather vague reasons to deny a visa to an individual; the perception that Luis has an unstable situation in Cuba that generates a fear that he would not return after his residency in Canada. The authorities were suspicious of a personal relationship between Luis and I that could lead to his decision to not return to Cuba. While this topic came up in Luis’ discussion with a Canadian Immigration officer, the official letter stated only that the reason for his visit to Canada was “not good enough” and that his unstable family and professional situation in Cuba (no full-time job) would not ensure Immigration services that he would return after the completion of his residency.
When we learned that the visa was denied a second time, I went to Havana to discuss with the artist the course of action we should take. Luis was disappointed and had an urge to react, a need to perform or to post something on Facebook, and one of his ideas was to perform at the front door of the Canadian Embassy. I felt that it was important to act, rather than just react. I had a double motivation to respond as the curator and co-producer of a residency project that would not be able to run and as a Canadian citizen. I felt similar emotions to Luis although I was indecisive as to what kind of action should be undertaken. I also wanted Luis to gain something from this situation in which he was at great loss. In 2015 in Cuba, I had been in a similar situation with Luis when the project I proposed to him fell apart. But, he rebounded and proposed to me a new starting point which became the performance Welcome to Yumas1...So, I knew Luis’ high potential to rebound creatively.
On my part, I wanted our response to be assertive yet not aggressive and I believe Indian Summer Diary accomplished this. It raises awareness of the situation with an additional curatorial statement in which we dedicated the project to Canada Immigration services, unveiling only at the very end of the video series why Luis was not in Canada. We also posted the letter provided by immigration services to the artist on Facebook. The message we sent to Canadian Immigration Services was simple: a wish that creativity would be recognized as an integral element of intercultural dialogue and taken into consideration in the evaluation of visa applications to visit Canada.
“Indian Summer Diary” is called a sublimation project. What interests you in the act of sublimation? Why did you select to use this term to explain the artistic processes that went into this project?
CS: Sublimation was at the core of another art project I was curating at the time. I initially used the word as a joke. If no travel was possible, what “better” than traveling could result from this situation? Something special needed to happen, and we had a lot of energy to rechannel. An energy generated by a year of developing the project, building partnerships, fundraising and fighting Canadian Immigration; energy resulting from the anticipation of such travel for an artist who was just starting to step away from his island.
LMOA: The term sublimation is Catherine’s observation, as she sees this project as a way to transform a negative or disappointing situation into something positive, like a work of art. For me, this is not art; there is not a hedonistic objective in which the visual-aesthetic outcome is the most important. This project is a sign of protest and an attempt at emancipation because all of my work is the result of my suffering, grievances, and troubles with the world, especially with my close reality. I would prefer to paint flowers if reality were pure comfort, to bleed art is the result of observing a people suffering under the egocentric decisions of politicians.
Departing from how the Cubans working on this project saw Canada, as well as some experiences that our Canadian friends and others shared, this project resists destroying an illusion. We criticized and made visible the censorship and xenophobia of a country that sells itself to the world (or at least Cubans thought so) as an open, multicultural country that supports culture and relationships between nations. We channeled all of this into a work that is fun yet full of stereotypes; the ghost of interactions between cultures is almost always negatively applied to the less favored and folklorized nations. But, the main message that we wanted to send is to not kill one’s dreams or the illusions that live in our minds over a fucking official.
What role did each of you play in the production of this project? What were some of the particular challenges faced in the process?
CS: For Indian Summer Diary, we started the discussion with Luis’ idea of performing under the windows of the Canadian Embassy in Havana. I thought it would be risky for him given that he was already in trouble with the Cuban authorities for his recent project El Museo de la Disidencia en Cuba co-authored with Yanelys Nuñez Leyva. I also sensed that it was important to address the visa denial issue in Canada with Canadians. Indian Summer Diary was born from this perspective, but became an interpretation and enactment of the program that Luis was to take part in and was presented to the wider public on daily Facebook posts. The project was to start on September 28, 2016, the day Luis was supposed to arrive in Canada. This was the same day I returned to Toronto from Havana, so I discovered the daily productions on Facebook at the same time as the general public.
Derision and black humor set the tone of Indian Summer Diary, rooted in the artist’s ongoing exploration of cultural clichés through the embodiment of various personas, and the project is also marked by Luis’ use of recycled material in his practice of sculpture and installation. I was enthusiastic about the fact that Indian Summer Diary would give Luis an opportunity to bring all these various facets of his artistic practice into one single project.
LMOA: We made this project in the apartment of a friend of mine, Alejandro. The search for a location was somewhat complicated given the housing problems within the island and also because we needed to modify the space each day of the 10-day video performance. But fortunately this great friend of ours lent us his home for the project [...]
The day-to-day of this project was a very fun but very difficult and exhausting experience. We had to coordinate with Claudio Peláez Sordo, the audiovisual director, to find times that he was available to shoot. We were building with found materials, homemade lamps, cardboard boxes, wood, colors, fabrics, and whatever else appeared and our imagination could take advantage of; creating a setting that corresponded to the artistic residency program.
The camerawork for this project was guided by a “Chaplinesque” script for which the only planning was a necessary anchor, the program that Catherine had organized for my residency in Canada. Usually, we produced different scenes with the suggestions and ideas that came to us spontaneously as we filmed. Over the course of filming, we relied on various people including my friends, sisters, and Yanelys, who on some occasions had to do the special effects (like the snow), help as light technicians or prop-managers, as well as having to act in one of the videos. Then, the work of editing these videos became another challenge. Claudio had to edit them in the early morning, in the solitude of his studio, trying to develop the footage into one-minute clips, and thereafter, Yanelys shared the videos on social media.
To you, what does it mean to imagine and perform a 10-day trip to Canada from a studio? How do these videos present a commentary on the limits of immobility and travel restrictions between Cuba and other nations?
CS: It is more than a commentary on the limits of immobility and travel restrictions. It’s an enactment of it. But in this instance, the commentary is about Canadian policies because we have had no formal evidence that the Cuban government was involved in the denial.
The project embodies the feeling of being trapped. When we were initially sharing ideas for a durational performance, I thought that the response should not take place in public as it was too risky. We also came to realize that enacting this feeling of immobility instinctively requires a contained space as a means to be literally trapped in. Once you turn the perception upside down, that same space could also be the physical entry point of an imaginary space: the stage for an imaginary travel and the set for a film shoot.
In thinking about the enclosed space, we did talk about Beuys’ performance in 1974, I like America, America likes me, which was referred to in one of the subtitles of the project (I love Canada, Canada, love me!). So, yes, the purpose of Indian Summer Diary was to emphasize the limits of mobility, but also to celebrate another kind of mobility and freedom that one can create for themselves in such circumstances through imagination. Although trapped, Luis was able to share his perspective through the use of the internet. It was unbelievable that people actually thought Luis was in Canada. Although everything in the setting of these videos was cliché and made of cardboard, the short videos stimulated viewers’ total suspension of disbelief. It was snowing cotton in every video and Luis was dressed as if it was January wearing a knit hat, but meanwhile in Toronto, we were in our flip flops at 28⁰C[…]
What role has an increased access to Internet had on questions of mobility and circulation of Cuban arts? More specifically, what role did social media play in the distribution of “Indian Summer Diary”?
LMOA: The opening of Cuba has resulted in the expansion of an insufficient and poor internet. But in my experience, I have found social media to be a tool that gives a small amount of freedom since it allows you to strategically connect and communicate with hundreds of people who belong to the art world, or even people who do not. As an artist, I am most interested in working in public spaces, but each day it is more difficult to do so because of censorship and Cuba’s institutional bureaucracy that manages it. Therefore, even though the Internet is not an intimate site, this public virtual space is naturally favorable for my own experimentation and circulation of my work. Creating virtual graffiti, this is my way of overcoming some of this physical immobility that the structures of power have imposed on us.
For this project, I was most interested in the web as our means to share this work. The internet allowed me to reach a wide audience that for the most part lives outside of the art world, and in using social media, this project created open and spontaneous reflection and dialogue in real time. Additionally, the Internet allowed me to play with a daily hyperreality of dreams, illusions, and the whole world that is created in the virtual space of social media.
The most stressful moment of this project was during the afternoon or middle of every workday when we had to upload the videos and photos online, materials whose distribution could not be delayed if we were to maintain and defend our project’s narrative. In order to avoid our own and others’ disappointment, we could not have breaks in the project. Experts on Cuba know the country’s internet problems, that it is very slow, super expensive (one hour is equivalent to 9% of a monthly state salary), and that generally, Cubans are only able to connect in Wi-Fi parks. All of this made our work very stressful. We would spend one, two, or more hours trying to upload videos to the Internet, and then sharing the videos and responding to comments online…as the Internet connection fell, the laptop crashed, or we were left without computer battery and the video stopped uploading and, with patience, we would have to start the process from the beginning again. But thanks to our own persistence, we were always able to share the videos in cyberspace.
What was the audience response to the videos? Did any part of the project’s reception feel particularly challenging or generative?
CS: Given the Facebook responses, people actually thought that Luis was creating a Facebook travel log from Canada. They were astonished to learn about the visa denial. Most people in Canada who encountered the project and the story of the visa denial were very surprised. From inside Canada, the general perception is that we live in a country that has very welcoming immigration policies and that the commitment of institutions such as Ontario College of Arts and Design (OCAD) – Elegoa’s main partner for On the Road – would carry weight and count as a trustful guarantee. We have a banner of “multiculturalism” floating above Canada, and indeed, seeing the faces of people in the street of Toronto and the extensive set of programs offered to newcomers to Canada really gives you the vibe of multiculturalism. Hence, we just assume that our borders are not locked this way.
The issue that was raised on Day 6 was not related to the visa issue, but nevertheless, it turned out to be as important as the initial issue we hoped to address with the project. On Day 6, viewers raised the issue of cultural appropriation when Luis and his co-actors dressed up with mock traditional indigenous outfits enacting “traditional” activities. That day, he was telling the story of his visit to three sites: a recreated Huron Wendat village presented as “Canada’s first recreated Native village” in marketing material, the nearby church Saint-Marie among the Hurons that memorializes a bloody episode of the local history, and the Reserve of Beausoleil First Nation, all located in Huronia three hours north of Toronto in the Georgian Bay area.
...I would not have told an artist what he should or should not be doing. His reactions and interpretations were precisely the core of the intercultural investigation here. Their culture shock was visible in the Facebook comments and through discussions I had with people in Toronto who were following the project. I was unable at the time to stir up a public conversation that would address the question the way I think it should have happened – meaning, also looking at it from Luis’ perspective, from an individual and a different cultural standpoint. Judgments were passed exclusively based on the filters, history, and contemporary tensions that exist in North America around this question of cultural appropriation. So, while a message regarding the visa situation was sent to Canadian immigration services, the project also raised awareness of the urgent need for a different approach to the conversation in Canada on cultural appropriation.
LMOA: During this digital adventure in which the majority of our audience was Canadian, our audience accused us of being racist. In one of the project’s videos in which I was visiting the reserve of the Beausoloeil First Nation, I gave my most sincere interpretation of this indigenous community, the cliche of indigenous people wearing a feather headdress and loincloth. This image was not meant to make fun of the indigenous people; it was only part of my own construction of who is an Indian. The critical comments and the small moment of censorship of the project had their own counterpart: various comments and responses in defense of “Indian Summer Diary” received through the same media outlets.
In the end, it all turned out well and we finished very pleased with our work. The project had a far reach, and we humbly believe that we stirred the conscience of many different people who hold in their hands the decision about someone else’s immediate future.
How has your work with Luis challenged the limitations within Cuba on citizens' mobility, specifically as it relates to the artist?
CS: Since I started to work with Luis in 2014, my curatorial framework has had a clear agenda that is not about challenging the limitations of Cuban government policies. My work with Luis has always started with the premise of addressing the state of intercultural relations in Cuba. With Indian Summer Diary, we address the state of intercultural relations “with” Canada. It also directly challenges Canadian Immigration policies and raises the issue of cultural appropriation.
LMOA: Speaking from my own reality, in Cuba, there is an immensely intellectual art world, but there is no market for Cuban art or easy way to export this intellectual activity. The art world in Cuba is classist, and if you are not in the upper class, it is much harder to make your art or discourse visible. So we depend on foreign curators, gallery owners, or visitors to the island to promote our art. Once they see your art for the first time and you hold initial meetings, a process of developing a collaborative project begins; a project that is vulnerable to obstacles and forms of censorship that permeate our daily reality on the island, and are made much worse upon the refusal of a visa. Cuban artists and their art face an increased level of stress in this arrangement that weighs on them daily. One of the solutions we have to combat this is to participate together in the largest number of projects possible, so that if one goes wrong, we have a plan B, C, or the entire alphabet to work from.
*Bilingual interview by Lily Hartmann.