Ordo Amoris Cabinet ‘The eternal object: Notes on a film’ by Sarah Lightbody –2004
SECTION 1: SYNOPSIS & TREATMENT (film synopsis – 32 minutes/B&W 16mm). The Eternal Object addresses a shift in Cuban art practices during the 1990’s toward issues concerning a crisis in national identity in view of Perestroika and the unrelenting American embargo. The film documents the construction of an art project built at the Banff Center for the Arts in 1997 by the Cuban artist duo, Ordo Amoris Cabinet (Francis Acea and Diango Hernández). The voiceover interview with the artists, recorded in 1999 on L Street in downtown Havana, positions the film within Cuba’s pre-millennial economic devastation—the officially designated ‘Special Period’; this period was a direct result of the collapse of Cuba’s trade partnership with the Soviet Union. The film addresses the emergence in the Cuban market place of products constructed out of the disassembled parts of Cuba’s fractured 20th century national identity. The jimmy-rigged mechanism of the continually reused and renovated1950’s pre-blockade industrial American product has been re-imagined once again through the fluid assimilation of its millennial Soviet other. Constructed and understood as the means to serve ends, these strange hybrid handcrafted products are representative of la crisis mas abberrante.
The project documented in The Eternal Object involved the production of 400 “original Cuban cups” and the simulation of a Cuban display counter and market environment. The work of Ordo Amoris Cabinet aims to empower the spirit of Cuban popular production, and to situate this spirit within a poetics of possibility resistant to the lure of globalization. In so doing, this project illuminates a difficult paradox: these cups come to function as “vehicles of desire” or “vessels of longing,” reflecting the reality of the absent American product but also, through occupying the figure of its approximation, the sign of its longing.
Original score by Do Make Say Think
The Canada Council for the Arts
Media Arts Section
The National Film Board of Canada
Considerations of style and narrative treatment
The actual documentation of the construction of the Ordo Amoris Cabinet Banff project was simple. I operated my own camera and lighting, and very easily followed the two artists around from location to location. The real work didn’t begin until I was back in Toronto and had to come up with a post-production strategy for what appeared before me in the Toronto Film co-op’s edit assembly room as a mass of garbled and virtually destroyed celluloid materials. I distinctly recall Teresa, a sound production friend of mine standing behind me with her hand on my shoulder. Quietly she stated, “you, Sarah Lightbody, are one of the early ‘spirit children’ of the Phillip Hoffman School of filmmaking.” She then kissed me on the cheek, turned and left me alone in the darkness.
Philip Hoffman is the unparalleled Canadian independent filmmaker who runs a small summer film school out of his farm in Mt. Forest, rural Ontario. The barn behind the old rockwork house houses both a darkroom where students are taught to improvise their own film labs through processing their film stock in big buckets of chemistry, and a screening room where students are able to view their work by 16mm projection. Upon processing the stock in the darkroom, these “hand-made films” are then hung to dry on a laundry rack that cascades across the front meadow. Given this unique pastoral setting, which generously extends the ability to work and learn without the limitations of lab costs or industry standards, students have the freedom to experiment, make cost-free mistakes, and are always encouraged, in what occurs more often than not, to find some manifestation of cinematic beauty in the projected image of “the mistake”.
And therefore, though shot and processed at the Banff Center for the Arts, my thesis project, The Eternal Object was schooled in Mount Forest, and thus has the appearance of being somewhat chaotic, a result of its unpredictable flight into episodes of silvery solarization, and also at times close to the point of complete destruction where large chunks of the emulsion have crudely fallen off the film surface. Set apart from the poetics and discourse of Phil Hoffman’s farm, my initial reaction to the footage was one of absolute revulsion. Fucking hippies. Why had I not waited and used a professional film lab like most filmmakers? I had a similar reaction when I first listened to the audio recording of the interview I conducted with Ordo Amoris Cabinet in downtown Havana. The constantly changing background noises, banging, yelling, drilling, and roosters crowing, was shocking to me, not to mention the fact that the artist Francis Acea who did most of the talking seemed to completely drop all of his vowels. I remembered the interview as quiet, in a peaceful room where our hostess brought us coffee and cookies. How could this have happened?
Complicating matters, I learned that because I shot the film on “reversal stock” (a positive not a negative) the lab could not make the necessary negative for post-production purposes unless I reversed my lefts and rights, and was willing to lose a significant amount of resolution detail. I was opposed to this reversing because of where the film is set – the Canadian Rockies, with its very specific landscape formations. Also, all depicted lettering (signage etc) would appear to be written backwards. My only procedure could be to re-shoot my footage, frame by frame, with an optical printer. As it happens, this procedure used up all of my remaining financing, and took an exceptionally long time.
Today, I cannot imagine the look of The Eternal Object in any other way. It was through the course of the optical printing post-production phase that I began my research into twentieth century aesthetic discourses concerned with the relation of art to revolution. It was through the scrupulous process of studying the artists frame-by-frame movement that every cinematic aspect chanced the benefit of rather fetishistic reconsiderations—breaks of black leeder became Malevichian black squares; arrangements of glued glass objects became ephemeral configurations of Utopian transparency; repetitions of gestures of labor became redemptive messianic moments. Reviewing this footage in microscopic frame-by-frame detail, the varying stages of the artist’s construction of their project, the object of the film itself – the documentation – gained a new critical aspect in my understanding of the Ordo Amoris Cabinet final installation. I understood that the fact of the artist’s labor had a critical relevance to their final installation and could only be revealed or emphasized through a process of documentation. Therefore, though I had been down to Havana three times and collected masses of 16mm footage, it became increasingly clear that the film did not require anything extraneous to the depiction of the construction of the installation. It was my feeling that the Cuban footage would weaken this process-of-construction aspect, which was best delivered in as straightforward a manner as possible.
It also became clear that whatever it was that I was hoping to find or express with the Cuban footage existed already in the rawness of the Havana interview. I resurrected the interview and forwarded it to a sound engineer who was able to clean it up to a point where it was audible, but clearly set within a dynamic downtown Havana context. She reassured me that not only was it extremely interesting, but could be used as the central expression and guiding narrative of the film. With the addition of the interview and the discarding of the Cuba footage, I was left with only the voice and bodies of the artists themselves, though inflexibly severed from one another through the fact of their being produced in wholly disparate locations. When experienced together, with each other as their only reference, they create a distinct formal tension that builds in the first twenty minutes until the interview closes and the music starts. The interview is loud, the accents are strong, and the content is heady. It is a lot for the viewer to take in. The intriguing serenity and stillness of the mountains (in addition to some extended breaks of silence) assist in ensuring that the interview doesn’t simply implode in its own fracas of activity. Thus the locations of production are deliberately left ambiguous until the end when a closing text states the name of the artist duet as well as the two locations and dates of their production. In addition to resolving this formal tension of disparate location, the positioning closing text also brings into relief the somewhat bizarre privilege of the Cuban artist, who, like the high ranking functionary of the Castro government, is able to respond to invitations, and travel abroad to attend residencies and exhibitions. I touch on this privilege in the next section of my paper.
It was through this process of reviewing, discarding and in the building of the film narrative, that I came to see this film as an intrinsic aspect of the Ordo Amoris Cabinet piece. This was both good and bad. The film very clearly breaks down into separate sections the progressive stages of construction that go into the making of the cups; the aforementioned attention to the labor aspect is critical to the meaning and essence of the Ordo Amoris Cabinet simulation of the handcrafted Cuban product. Of course the film is able to detail and represent this aspect in a way that the finished products by themselves do not. The caveat, it seemed, was that I came to see the film as intrinsic to their work, and not necessarily mine. I therefore made a decision to bookend what was to be a black and white film with two distinct sections of pink. The introductory close-up of boxes of glass bottles and the final seven-minute sequence with a musical score created by Toronto’s own do make say think, were both adjusted by the film lab to take on a rich raspberry hue.
Through the process of looking to position the film within a cinematic reference, I turned to the history of Cuban cinema where it soon became clear that any low-budget filmmaker who’s content brushes with notions of documentary and revolution must look toward 2 filmmakers.
The first being Santiago Alvarez, the well loved Cuban filmmaker whose extremely raw and rather jazzy but hard-hitting documentations of the Cuban revolution served to inspire an anti-American and anti-racist agenda. And secondly, his Soviet precursor, Dziga Vertov, whose form and structure of Man With a Movie Camera are now heralded as “the synthetic articulation of the Marxist project, concretized in every detail of an unprecedented complexity of cinematic design.” My approach to the graphic layout of the film, for example, the use of bold inter-titles to make clear and distinct the stages of the artists process of labor, as well as the use of an inexpensive and therefore high-contrast black and white film stock, consciously exercises the very singular look of the kinopravda newsreel.
Yet in contrast to this masculine imaginary of revolutionary proclamation, a colleague suggested that there is something specifically feminine in the aesthetic of my film. It exists most immediately in the particular hue of the pink – like raspberry ice cream is what I continually told the color timer, the background is like the cream part and the bodies are like the berries… but it exists also in the voyeurism of the camera exempt of any optical tricks; the cinematography is quite unremarkable with respect to style, yet there does exist a compulsive detailing of the physical movement of the male body engaged in its project over which, whether intentional or not, I don’t know but I have shaken my head muttering “good lord” more than once. There is sensitivity also to the process of collaboration itself. In the final seven-minute pink sequence depicting the building of the market display, the studied placing of glass cup upon glass cup in the structuring of the cascade, the exiting of one figure from the frame while the other enters, and the coming together and moving apart in moments of decision and agreement reflect the more physical and spatial aspects of bodies working within the symmetry of alliance. This sensitivity toward the collaborative process is seen also in the editing process of the interview. In this more cerebral element, much of the speaking unfolds as one artist speaking in Spanish while the other translates into English. While the primary speaker is speaking English, and this is an English film, the Spanish speaker was included, without sub-titles, in the final edit. Though I was encouraged to edit out the Spanish speaker as the English that follows creates a redundancy, it made no sense to me as the translation of the one for the other illustrates a warmth of love and understanding that is central to the feel of the film. One final point on the feminine perspective is in the specific content. While there was no question of the Marxist platform in Santiago’s Now, for example, or Dziga Vertov’s Three Songs of Lenin indeed they view as bold, straight-up ideological manifestos, but quite differently, the time of Ordo Amoris Cabinet is post-perestroika pre-millennial Cuba – Fidel Castro’s ‘Special Period’. The era of the manifesto is over, or at least for now has hardened into a format characterized by slippage, irony and failure. Though a bad time for political revolutionaries, it is perhaps a good time for art, and even for artists. The Ordo Amoris Cabinet Banff project is not inspired by national triumph and new beginnings, but by national shame and a crumbled festering feeling of desperation and sense that there is nowhere to go. The handcrafted object that is the subject of the film is an abject object. An untidy object leaked by necessity through an aberrant and disconnected mode of popular production. The abject object has never belonged to masculinity and strength, but alternatively has always been ascribed to the deformed, the ugly, and the bodily-ness of women.
SECTION 2: THE INTERVIEW
voiceover interview– 20 minutes/final edit
part I – political context for the interview
Here I will address the important anachronism – a time lapse of seven years, which dates The Eternal Object very specifically as “pre-millenial.” It is important to note that the film was shot in 1997, the interview was conducted in 1999, the post-production wasn’t begun until 2002, and the film has been completed in 2005. Historically speaking, the Ordo Amoris Cabinet Banff project and the subsequent interview with Ordo Amoris Cabinet mark a point in contemporary Cuban art practice which sits on the cusp of the millennial turn: a time when post-revolutionary Cuban art was enjoying a “second” renaissance of international popularity, the first emerging in the 1980s with an eruption of performance and installation-based works exploring themes of daily life and Cuban identity.
The renaissance of the 1980s has indeed developed a kind of singular mythic status, as these artists were the first generation to mature under revolutionary Cuba, therefore having no personal memory of the Batista era, and were able with the support of intellectuals as well as the state to establish a freedom of expression not explicitly bound to state ideology. Their identification with the initial revolutionary moment was understood through family photographs and memorabilia, which some incorporated into their work. The primary inquiry of these artists was directed into the daily life of the Cuban vernacular. Recycling, the bric-a brac of kitsch and Afrocuban ritualism informed a practice that took art out of the gallery setting and into the streets of Havana, emphasizing the performative, the diaristic and the ephemeral qualities of everyday existence. This movement was seen as a distinct break from the Cuban modernism of the past, which was influenced primarily by cubism and surrealism and depended upon the institution of the gallery setting for its exhibition. In his extremely useful book, New Art of Cuba, first published in 1994, Luis Camnitzer discusses this moment quite positively stating that to the international art community, the work of the 1980s “did not elicit discussions about dogmatism and sectarianism but produced wonder about how a culture presumed to be dogmatic and sectarian by the information media could produce this degree of freedom of expression.” His fondness for the 1980s he attributes also to the Ministry of Culture of that time, which he states was full of “doves”.
The stage for the mythic 1980s was perhaps first set by the establishing of the Ministry of Culture in 1976, with one of its main projects being the establishing of the first graduate art school of the Americas, the Institute Superior de Arte (ISA). As Vancouver curator Scott Watson notes, this initiative represents an “extraordinary commitment” on the behalf of the Castro government to the fostering of a vital and engaged community of artists and the recognition of the importance of a critical art discourse. The exhibition Volumen 1 mounted in 1981 was the first large-scale painting exhibition representing the first series of graduates from the ISA. What was noted specifically about this exhibition was that it was composed of a style discussed as “photo realism”. The discourse surrounding this exhibition was important not only for establishing a contemporary critical discourse for the art movement of post-revolutionary Cuba, but also because it saw itself as set apart from the rather static movement of the socialist realism paintings of the Soviet Union. Socialist realism, established during the Stalinist era of the 1930s, represented to the international art community the height of artistic asphyxiation. The Volumen 1 paintings considered themes of colonialism, family history, racism and spiritualism and were quite distinct from the more dogmatic and propagandistic themes of the state directed Soviet socialist realism that dominated the arts of the Soviet Republic for most of the twentieth century. In 1984 the first Havana Biennial was established, open only to artists of Latin America. Its enormous success enabled it to expand its second biennial to include artists of the third world. The spirit was leftist in so far that it engaged in questions of colonial imperialism, racism and was critical of American consumerism and America popular media. The rest of the 1980s saw a flurry of experimentation with respect to form, and the work was widely celebrated both locally and internationally.
Equipped with the knowledge of hindsight perhaps, Watson holds a more skeptical take on the period of the 1980s referring to Herbert Marcuse’s notion of “repressive tolerance” on all sides. On this point, it is important to note that while the 1980s was clearly a decade of aesthetic experimentation, it was also a time of policy-making and defining what the role of art ought to be in the new Cuban society. Thus, though Camnitzer is more celebratory than Watson, he does acknowledge the potential for “self-censorship” based on a certain conflict of interest, as both the artists and ministry policy-makers of that time came from the same social milieu and therefore were more likely to try to get along, or come to some collaborative understanding of what kind of work would be considered free, experimental and additionally, good for the state. Camnitzer notes also that the “promotion effort” for Volumen 1 by the Ministry of Culture was criticized by artists of the later 1980s as “premature sainthood” and a sell-out to international cosmopolitanism.
Whatever the opinion of the actual quality of the work, and regardless of the potentially repressive content or the over-determination of the state, the pure fact of the creation of this work – in part because it was endorsed and sanctioned by the state – was beginning to be understood by important European and American gallerists, benefactors and collectors as a practice that held all the necessary context and conditions for expressing the qualities of an emotive and newly inspired Utopian imagination. This uniting of free expression with the reality of socialist new beginnings had not been witnessed since the very early 1900s with the suprematist, futurist and constructivist movements of the early Soviet Republic. It was at this point that the international art world really took notice.
As it goes however, a myth only becomes truly mythic when its moment loses its striking reason to exist. 1989 marks the year of the crackdown. After the fall of the Berlin wall, life changed in every way in Cuba. Sweeping instability and economic hardship provoked the development of controversial work. The controversy reached a height when in 1990 the artist Angel Delgado performed a piece where he defecated on a copy of the newspaper Granma, deliberately going against the outlined “alliance with the institutions” policy published in the exhibition catalogue. Censorship was invoked on a broad scale, important exhibitions were cancelled and most of the doves lost their jobs or otherwise resigned. In 1990 it also became illegal for artists to receive payments in dollars for the sale of their work. Ultimately what happened was that this 1980s group of artists, whose work had become very much in demand internationally, all defected. They left their legacy as something to be contended with by both the next generation of artists as well as the makers of historical narrative.
Camnitzer’s stance on the health of the Cuban art scene shifts substantially in his epilogue of the book’s “revised edition” in 2003. After grimly establishing the Elian Gonzales affair as the “unexpected pinnacle of kitsch” he goes on to state that,
…most of the artists mentioned in this book are not only no longer in Cuba but worse were unable to sustain the communal spirit that informed their production while they were there. Much bickering destroyed many of the links, not only with their country, but also among themselves, as a consequence of the ruptures and trauma of exile, alliances with anti-Castro clientele, personal neuroses exacerbated by exile, and the pressures of the previously unknown dynamics of the free market.
This sudden departure, not to mention the personal difficulty of the artist’s exile, is often privileged as having a key influence for the Cuban artists of the 1990s. There are two important factors to consider here. The first is the extent to which the artists of the 1990s were haunted by the ghost of this much more celebrated time of state-endorsed freedom of expression. The second is more practical and arguably much more opportunistic. It can be understood as follows. The mystique and prestige that these 1980s artists had gained in the international arena led the artists of the 1990s to understand their specific Cuban context as holding a cache that could prove quite lucrative given the harsh new economic conditions. On this point, it is important to consider for a moment what was happening more broadly in the country at that time.
On the national front, the new reality called for a series of state reforms and thus the era of Castro’s ‘Special Period’ was officially declared in 1991. Primarily what this meant was the appearance of small-scale private business, the legalization of the American dollar and the heavy bolstering of the tourism industry. On both an ideological scale as well as in the practice of every day living, Cuban life was becoming increasingly more complex. Cuban art critic Gerardo Mosquera points out that the average Cuban simply could not survive on a state salaried position and therefore,
Systematic stealing, trickery, and prostitution in the broadest sense, became habitual occupations and therefore mentally accepted. But the principal source of income for Cubans came from the remittances sent by family members in exile or brought into Cuba during their Santa Claus-like visits. Thanks to the Latin-American culture of family solidarity, the exiles support the regime they oppose.
This normalization of criminal daily existence together with the state’s broadening up and ultimate compromising of the initial terms of the revolution, came to create what has popularly come to be understood as the “double life” of basic Cuban survival. This double life, or in the Cuban vernacular the doble moral, had now become ingrained in the Cuban psyche as a fundamental symptom of the Special Period. Mosquera continues, “people say one thing and think the opposite; they think in one way and live in another.” The 1990s double life established a theme of widespread schizophrenia and cynicism, particularly among the younger generations whose furthered distance from the early spirit of the revolutionary moment had reached a point where its pervasive reference became mediated by an acute sarcasm. The extent of desperation and government distrust met its popular metaphor in the confounding human drama of those perilous voyages of the mid-1990s where thousands of Cubans met their death in their jerry-rigged vessels bound for Miami. The shockwave sent through the western popular media surrounding that crisis of exodus has perhaps only recently met its chilling equal with the breaking story of the human abuses at Abu Graib.
While the 1980s generation was the first grouping of artists to be reared and educated under the institutions of post-revolution Cuba, the 1990s generation found itself facing extreme measures of ideological crisis, economic fallout, and the still recent memory of a vibrant community where both artist and functionary joyfully mixed in a common language of creative expression that imagined possibilities of what revolutionary Cuba could be. Mosquera, the critic largely responsible for mobilizing the Volumen 1 exhibition and also pivotal in establishing the first Havana Biennale, states that though many opinions have been offered on the difference between the 1980s generation and the 1990s, “the main difference has not been stressed: the dollar.” He also suggests that the early 1990s reversal of the ban on the sale of artworks for dollars is the reason why the “artistic diaspora” has now almost completely ended.
As the country called for new measures of corruption for dealing with new measures of poverty, artists were doing extremely well relatively speaking. Camnitzer states “Given that a monthly salary is around $10, the sale of one single painting puts the artist above the normal yearly income of the average citizen”. It is often stated that during the 1990s, the Cuban artist held one of the more profitable vocations that included the bonus perk of international travel. In her introduction to Art Cuba: the new generation, Holly Bloch muses that, “one hears stories such as the one about a doctor who quit his job because he made more money on the weekends selling his paintings at a street market”. In addition, the increasing global focus that the Havana Biennial had taken over the decade of the 1990s meant that Havana had come to establish itself as a world-renowned international showcase for both the local as well as established international artists. The growing success of the Biennial has been like most things in Cuba, a contradiction. Expensive ticket sales and remote locations made it difficult to get to by local transport thereby alienating the local population for whom it was first designed. Yet the explosion of art tourism had become an industry unto itself, managing to raise millions of dollars annually for the local economy.* While exhibiting within Havana had become a bureaucratic hassle where the prospect of censorship was always in the air, exhibiting internationally was both profitable as well critically rewarding. Many artists began a practice of staying abroad for stretches at a time while keeping their home base in Havana. In Havana they could live cheaply and as Mosquera notes, they are able to retain their “third world appeal”. Their practice in Havana however retreated out of the Cuban public space and became less associated as an art for the people and more about the private practice of the studio.
The artists of the 1990s expressed also the doublespeak of the Special Period, moving away from depictions of obvious controversy toward a language of camouflage, cynicism, and the ambiguity of double meanings. The practice of recycling and the jerry-rigged distressed object became metaphors for the suffering body. The camouflaging of political content became a delicately master-minded aesthetic unto itself, and the object of the ready-made developed a popularity for its duplicitous ability to both immediately perform as an art-object reflecting a nation in diabolical crisis, and to quickly recede thereafter to its original landscape as and when required. The strategy of the inverted image was used in several cases including a large scale installation by Ordo Amoris Cabinet first exhibited at the Ludwig Foundation in Aachen Germany in 1999. For this installation fifty radio-antennas were built from materials found in the alleys behind the artists Aachen apartment and were then installed upside down hanging from the ceiling of the gallery. The piece was a comment on the inability to state or communicate anything directly, but only through a sort of negative, or rear entry approach. One of the youngest artists of the 1990s generation, Kcho, was quickly picked up by the prestigious Barbara Gladstone Galley in New York City for his tiny raw assemblages of floating vessels constructed out of bits of detritus collected from the archipelagos north of Havana where most of the defector balseros (rafters) push off . Manuel Piña’s incredible series of mural-scale black and photographs entitled Aguas Baldias (Water Wastelands) completed in 1994 depict lone figures seen diving off the Havana Malecon into the ocean. But here the ocean is no longer a space of freedom and safety that both separates and protects the island of Cuba from the evil watchdog of the United States. The ocean is now either a prison wall or alternatively a place of torment and death. Conceptual art was coming to reach new depths of complexity, ambiguity and strategically veiled expressions of political critique. Thus while the international art world celebrated the Utopian spirit of the those artists that came before them, it now relished at the truth that these artists of the Special Period expressed – that the self is born out of the paradox that is the contradiction of splitting and suffering.
Thus the work of Ordo Amoris Cabinet, beginning in the early 1990s, grows out of this entirely new set of circumstances for making art in post-Perestroika Cuba. When I first met these two artists at the Banff Center for the Arts in 1997, they were not yet at the height of their game. Their collaboration continued to take them across the United States and Europe where they were invited to create projects through their participation in various residencies. Their final collaborative piece was built in the summer of 2003, specifically commissioned to be included in a group exhibition entitled Stretch, which took place at the Power Plant Gallery in Toronto. It was their fate at this time to both defect and to dispand. One of the artists Diango Hernandez now lives in Trento, Italy and the other, Francis Acea, lives in Miami, Florida.
Part II – my treatment of the interview
It is important to note that the interview with Ordo Amoris Cabinet does not specifically address the Banff project, as the interview was recorded two years later. Thus the interview makes no mention of the construction of the 400 “original Cuban cups” but speaks of their art practice more specifically within its context of post-Perestroika Cuba. Comprehension and the ease and flow of the narrative takes place gradually as it becomes increasingly clearer both what the artists are saying in the interview, and what the artists are doing in the picture. I will state also that at the time of editing I was in a position where I knew the film could only accommodate a maximum of 20 minutes of audio interview. Therefore, what follows has been edited down from a two-hour interview and my voice and questions have been edited out. I have taken great care in removing words or concepts that I found misleading, inappropriate or redundant, and I have strategically reconstructed sentences in order to condense and retain what I viewed as the main issues. I purposefully excluded any mention of the word “Cuba” or the title of their installation, “Hiking” because I believed these words interfered with the pacing and subtlety of the film and unnecessarily complicated the experience of the viewer. The artists have approved my final edit.
An introductory written text appears to be read on screen before the title comes up. This clearly situates the context as Cuban, and positions the piece within the time of the Special Period.
The texts reads as follows:
I could say that the political scenario which existed at the beginning of the nineties left Cuba on the verge of economic collapse, with one stroke losing the markets, credit resources, and support that it had always enjoyed in its relationships with the Soviet Union and the other “sister” countries of the Eastern European bloc. This situation was further aggravated by myriad internal and external factors; among these, a slumping national economy and the routine hostility of the United States toward the island, underscored by an ancient commercial and economic embargo–”the blockade”–”el bloqueo”–as they say in Havana. …Official Cuban terminology baptized this crisis “The Special Period” although the impact of the emergency was experienced in the ordinary and everyday.
Antonio Eligio (Tonel) 2001
The Art Of Passion, A Reckoning
I have divided the final interview edit into eight tracks with varying pauses between.
The tracks begin as a series of abstract ruminations, the most critical being the relation of revolution to time introduced in track one. The idea of a revolutionary time that stands in opposition to the notion of time as a linear continuum is central to understanding the Banff project. This opposition is the main formal reference that the artists make use of in their approach to the figuration of the Cuban marketplace to which they address themselves. Revolutionary time is precisely the absence-of-time and stands in contrast to linear time, which belongs to the world of Americanization and globalization from which Cuba has been severed.
The absence-of-time refers to the picture of Cuba in 1958. This picture entails an understanding that the 1958 Cuban revolution halted all forms of visible evidence that the island’s urban landscape was transforming in any way similar to its American neighbor only 250 km north. Thus the picture of the absence-of-time is also the spectacle of contemporary Havana, a city miraculously untouched by the modern beacons of civilization: no McDonalds, no The Gap, no Starbucks. The buildings and industrial products of the 1950s have essentially stayed the same – though crumbling and jerry-rigged, they are today what they were then. The absence-of-time refers also to the new entrepreneurial economy of the Special Period. The new economy is non-industrial and survival-driven. The products created for the market do not develop or evolve in relation to a changing market economy, they supply a need, and they stay the same and function like that, all the time.
Track #2 introduces the individual psyche of the Cuban entrepreneur who crafts products for the local marketplace. The materials that these handcrafted products are constructed from is made clear toward the end of the final track. These materials are the dismantled parts of the industrial products of pre-blockade America and the Soviet products up until the events of Perestroika. Thus the two historic faces of twentieth century Cuban national identity are found in the materials of the handcrafted product. These two faces can be seen as signs of the external process of globalization, and therefore as a constant reminder of the alienation of the entrepreneur from the world movement of products and capital. In terms of cause and effect, these products created during the Special Period find their seed in the erection of the blockade, but find their necessary utility as objects for the Cuban people as a direct effect of the events of Perestroika. The collapse and disavowal of the Soviet Union’s socialism meant not only the collapse of the customary trading partnership – the exchange of Cuban sugar for Soviet goods – but also the end of vital dividends and support structures that were the direct result of an allied socialist and anti-American agenda. With the events of Perestroika the island of Cuba became designated as a kind of lunatic ideological remainder, and eventually during the 1990s as the doors increasingly opened for tourism, Cuba came to be seen as a bizarre curiosity, a must-see spectacle completely archaic and cut-off from the rest of the world. It is within this context that the artists put the question forth: of what is the craftsperson thinking at the time he makes his product? The question is answered through the move to a discussion of the object as a vehicle for the fantasy of transport – the object carries that longing of its maker to go to another place. It is this dream of an alternate existence that leads the artists to stress the importance of context for perceiving the work. Thus the relation of the psyche of the maker to his or her handcrafted product is the critical object of the artists concern.
Beginning in track #4 the figure of doubt as a psychological dilemma emerges as the central paradox of the piece. Doubt is articulated as the acute crisis that emerges in the psychology of the maker at the time that he is creating his product. The product is discussed as having a porous quality – behaving as a vehicle of desire that contains the longing for the American product through the maker’s desire to approximate its shape. You want this that you made? Or you want the real one that you are thinking about? Thus the morphology of the American product is retained in the handcrafted product. It is through the expression of the maker’s doubt that the handcrafted mimetic product is then revealed as abject – the site of a desperate aberration (aberrante) through its attempt to double and therefore occupy the site of the absent authentic object.
Set into this discussion of doubt is the complex theme of provisionality. In track #4 provisionality is defined as a temporary or conditional situation, set against the fact of its eternal continuance within the reality of contemporary Cuba. This paradox of provisionality is then innovated as an aesthetic that Ordo Amoris Cabinet apply to their figuration of the handcrafted product. In track #7 the provisional aesthetic of the handcrafted product moves to be understood as the national form of popular production.
In track #6 the provisional aesthetic becomes rooted in the relation of revolution to time. The provisional aesthetic is the foundational basis or the initial situation of the Cuban revolution, necessarily enacted in order to serve as that temporary condition through which the transition to communism would take place. Thus the provisional aesthetic is an increasingly pervasive and complex constellation of Cuban aspects of space and time: it concerns the solving of needs through the dismantling of objects and the using of those disassembled materials in the construction of the new object. Second, as a vehicle of desire its aesthetics of construction is implicit within the act of mimesis that is the project of the handcrafted object. Third, the provisional aesthetic refers to the condition of the revolutionary moment through which the better future will present itself. And fourth, as concerning the condition of the revolutionary moment, the provisional aesthetic refers also to the resultant isolation from the world economy, the process of which enacts the absence-of-time that gives us the picture of the 1950s eternal tableau.
In track #7 the economic crisis of the 1990s is stated as the first event to directly bring into effect the real essences of the revolutionary ideal – the remarkable innovation of a national mode of production that is not hamstrung to any other country and that does not, according to the Marxist model, alienate the individual from the results of their labor. The artists discuss the amazing absurdity that this production process, so abhorred by the Cuban people, yet curiously endorsed by classic Marxism, can be identified as the beginnings of the defining of a Cuban national identity.
Track #8 calls public attention to the process that generates the production of those products through the artists placing of those products in a gallery setting. Through the viewer’s amazement of seeing those aberrations – the same objects that he left back at home – re-contextualized within the elite institution of the gallery, the viewer is being asked to consider those everyday objects as aesthetic objects. He or she is being asked to look beyond the mere utility of the object into the process of how that object came to be constructed. The viewer is being asked to see those objects as objects of resistance to the lure of globalization. Thus the provisional aesthetic is about seeing it as so. It must be narrated as such. The viewer is being asked to overcome the weakening and shame-based figures of doubt and aberration, through newly considering these objects as vital, aesthetic and as an object of an emergent national identity.
Track #8 also addresses the materials of the products in order to make clear their supplemental meaning – as the products are built from previously utilized objects, they thus retain the trace of their former use within the utility they are now redirected to serve. It is through this retaining and redirecting that they are poeticized as “eternal objects”.
Finally towards the end of track #8 there begins a broader meditation on the truth that this form of popular production will disappear, as do many of the processes in history. The interview closes with the suggestion that the provisional aesthetic is in part the work of the unconscious; forging the possibility for something creative and beautiful out of what is named in the material world as the ugliness of poverty.
The film closes with the following text to be read on screen:
This film documents the construction of an art-installation project built in 1997 at the Banff Centre for the Arts in
Alberta, Canada by the Cuban artist duet, Ordo Amoris Cabinet.
The project involved the production and marketing of 400
“original Cuban cups.”
The interview was recorded in 1999 on L Street in the
Vedado quarter of Havana, Cuba.
note on the reading of the interview:
Please note that I have retained most of the grammatical errors as they are heard in the vernacular of the interview.
Transcription of voiceover interview
We have this definition of objects.
It’s complicated, all the production from the 50′s was meant to last forever. So the revolution came and we think they saw the significance of that kind of philosophy of production, related to their own intents to last forever. So after the revolution, they didn’t produce anything. They took advantage of that kind of production, and then that production is lasting forever, because they want it to last forever. So the revolution is an eternal object to us you know? But it is an idea that is not developed. That kind of idea, that time stops here, and that kind of object. But it’s like that, it’s a place where everything stops and we stay with everything forever.
[Diango: Talk about longing.] OK. Longing is comprised in the process also. The situation you are in and your expectations of where you want to be. That takes you to another place. That’s very important, because people that produce those products, what they want, is to transport themselves into another place, through these objects. And also, as a result of that, the product carries that longing of the producers, to go to another place.
Seeing it through the object, you take the risk of perceiving it as simple because you don’t have any reference of the environment that they came from. I know it’s simple and I know it’s very abstract, and from that perspective, anybody could perceive the piece.
First of all, provisionality is one thing we are studying. I don’t know if it’s what you could call studying, we don’t study it. We do art. We are not sociologists or anthropologists. It’s got to do with a paradox. First of all, provisionality exists as a temporary concept, and we got nothing to do with it. Just because that temporary concept, we have been dealing with it for years. Instead of disappearing, in time I think, instead of being related to another space that exists, instead of being replaced by the real one, it has been staying here forever. Like what’s provisional lasts forever. When we get to those objects we try to define them as holders of a provisional aesthetic.
Then you can find this lamp that is not a lamp, but reminds you of a lamp because it gives the morphology of the real lamp that is produced in the industry. You know, the real lamp that you have in your mind, in your memory. I mean lamps, cups, are inventions or not, I don’t know, but they’re old. Everyone knows what a cup is something to drink water from. Everyone knows what a lamp is – it brings light when you are in the dark. And the guy who makes it is keeping the same morphology that he knows from the real lamp that is not here of course. And he say, well, for me that’s not a lamp, even though I recognize that it give light. Then you get into this doubt. The expectations. What the people that made the lamp want. Do you want this lamp that you made? Or do you want the real one you are thinking of? And they usually want the real one. And they put that longing into this product they are making by keeping the same morphology of the real one. So you see it, and well that’s a provisional lamp, with a provisional aesthetic, and it refers also to a provisional state of society. But then you find out that it lasts forever, and functions. So a provisional aesthetic could refer mainly to the function of the object. I think, I don’t know.
Spanish text #1
Más a los procesos que anteceden al producto. Por ejemplo, el de la lámpara que ha sido concientemente proyectada.
[Even more, to the processes that precedes the product. For example with the lamp that has been consciously projected.]
It’s all related to the processes that are prior to the lamp.
Spanish text #2
Porque al final, cuando tu vas resolviendo cada una de estas necesidades, de alguna manera, improvisando con cada uno de esos objetos.
[Because at the end, when you go about solving each one of these necessities, some how by means of improvising each one of those objects.]
In the way you are improvising to solve those needs in the shape of those products.
Spanish text #3
Tú finalmente estás haciendo eso porque estás pensando,
[At the end you are doing it because you are thinking about it,]
Finally you are doing it because you are thinking of it,
Spanish text #4
estás pensando en que en algún momento tú vas a tener el de verdad.
[you are wishfully thinking that eventually you are going to get the real one.]
You are thinking that some day or some time in the future, you’re going to have the real
one; longing is very important.
Spanish text #5
A finalmente tú lo que tienes es ése y no el de verdad.
[And finally what you have is precisely that one and not the real one.]
And you have this that you made, not the real one.
Spanish text #6
Y, entonces, por eso que el objeto no está inscrito en ese proceso sino más bien en la idea que tiene o en la idea que se está moviendo alrededor de él. Es una cosa muy compleja.
[And then that is why the object isn't circumscribed in that process but rather is in the idea that moves around it. It is very complex.]
I mean, we could talk about provisionality also, this is a reference, when the revolution came, philosophically and socially, they project the revolutionary process as a transition state to communism. It set up a mentality that they are waiting, they’re still waiting, and they don’t care about the present, because tomorrow something will happen. Never mind, never mind about it – tomorrow.
Spanish text #7
Y ése es uno de los principios de la utopía también.
[And that is also one of the principles of utopia.]
And that is one of the principles of Utopia. I think there’s no doubt about it. And first, they get into this Utopia. I mean when you are talking to that generation and you talk against the revolution, you talk bad about the process, they say you should not mess with my memories, because you didn’t live it. It was a very deep process, so it was fucking great. And now, it’s part of their lives. I was born in ’67 and I don’t know anything about it, but I’m proud of it. I was educated in it. My teachers were from that time, and now it’s in me.
Spanish text #8
Y muy peculiar el hecho que estos objetos sean el documento… de todos los procesos utópicos.
[The fact that all of this becomes the document is very peculiar, right?…of all the utopic processes.]
And it’s very peculiar that those objects could be a document that manifests that situation.
This is the first time the real essence of the revolutionary process came to the surface – because of a real crisis. Then we get to a basic level of life and then the essences were there. The results. Those strategies rise to the surface – they are inventing, they are surviving. It’s like wow.
Spanish text #9
Y también es muy peculiar que esos objetos no se desarrollan estando aún dentro de esa mentalidad de alcanzar algo. Esos objetos pudieron desarrollarse como se pudo desarrollar cualquier objeto en la ciudad contemporánea.
[And it is also peculiar (that) being in that frame of mind one can accomplish something. Those objects could have been developed like any other object in the contemporary city.]
And the paradox goes beyond the function of the product, going into the developing of the product, as normally we know about how a product develops, you know, related to the market, or whatever. Even though they were related to the market, they don’t develop at all. They just stay in time and function like that – all the time.
Spanish text #10
Eso es lo que define este lugar como un lugar concientemente provisional, porque la gente concientemente sabe que está inmerso en un período provisional. Pero este no es…
[That is what defines this place as a place consciously provisional, because people know that the object is immersed in a provisional period. But this is not…]
That’s what defines this place as a consciously provisional place.
Spanish text #11
Y es una… no es una lucha no hay que hacer una lucha conciente. Pero puede ser una lucha en contra de lo permanente.
[And it is not a struggle. There is no need of a conscious fight. It can be a battle against permanence.]
It’s not a conscious struggle. But could be a struggle against permanence.
Spanish text #12
Pero, además hablarle sobre la definición de identidad nacional nunca habiamos sido libres sino hasta el año 91.
[But furthermore, to speak to you of the definition of national identity since we had never been free until the year ’91.]
It wasn’t until 1987 I think, that we begin to define ourselves, and our own processes. Not socialism, not communism. And um, embargo at this point means that our own processes are going to disappear, by the power of money, industry, consumerism, products, that a lot of people want and need. But with the crisis people began to produce their own goods. Then they begin to sell them. And a process of production was established. The guy who is producing these products from his perspective and selling it, and they were useful for the people and people were buying it. It was what any socialist and communist revolution wants – the Utopia of Marxism – the Utopia of those production processes that don’t alienate the individual from the results. And once they had it, they didn’t want it. It was weird. What they want is the industry and the industrial products. It was interesting because the government made everything just to get rid of those producers.
This is a very confused period to the government and to the population. Because people that made that production, that used those products, they didn’t want those products. The revolutionary process has a lot of crisis, but not like this one.
So we use processes that validate truth for history. We activate processes that deals with art history, galleries, museums. They don’t want those processes to get into history. They just turn away and they are building or writing history from other perspectives. But there are a lot of fragments, processes, social things that are happening at the same time, and they are defining for real these processes, how those people live. One thing very interesting happened, when we make this exhibition, and people just left their homes to get to the gallery, and when they get to the gallery they see the same objects that they left back at home. Then they realize, wow. How could this object be here? How could life be here? What they represent, I mean the products, is the most severe crisis that the revolution had, and they didn’t want to show that. When we try to put those objects as beautiful objects they went nuts. What are you doing? What are you doing? Don’t say that those objects exist. You crazy or what? That’s poverty. This is not poverty. Maybe resistance…and that was very subversive. And that can be political even though we didn’t want it to be political, but it is. I don’t know. But it’s complicated.
Spanish text #13
Pero nosotros estábamos tratando de decir que no eran los objetos sino el proceso en el que ellos se habían hecho.
[But we were trying to say that it was not the objects but rather the process in which they were created, right?]
But taking those objects to the gallery, we were trying to say that not only the objects but more essentially was the processes that build those objects, that generate that production. The object is no longer playing the principle role.
Spanish text #14
Dejó de ser el protagonista y lo que está haciendo de verdad escencial es sobrevivir.
[It was no longer the protagonist, and in reality what it was doing was essentially to manage, to survive.]
And the essential stuff is to survive and to solve needs.
But there’s another idea about it, the eternal object. Sometimes objects have an extra meaning because you can codify it because of its permanence, in reality, as litre of milk for instance. A litre of milk is a measure. For us, it’s a glass container because it’s been the same since I have known it. So people began to call it the litre of milk. So if you put gasoline oil in it, it is gasoline in the litre of milk. A cup made of litre of milk. We work with basics. We don’t want to, I mean we don’t want art to assume it. That’s the point. We want it to appear there, but we don’t want to turn those objects into art. That’s an object. That’s popular production.
It’s like disappearing…disappearing the processes, disappearing the circumstances, and disappearing the results of.
Spanish text # 15
Y tiene mucho que ver, además, con la constancia en los procesos y es que la historia entonces está llena de esos procesos que surgen, se cortan y no se desarrollan completamente.
[And it has a lot to do, further more, with the constancy of the processes because history is full of those processes that emerge, that get cut out, and that do not fully develop.]
It’s got to do with the constancy of the processes, and as you know, history is full of those processes, stages of disappearing. You know, I don’t know. Objects invent forever. People invent objects, invent procedures.
Spanish text #16
Y tiene que ver además con un proyecto. Tiene que ver con lo que puede ser un proyecto inconciente de una manera de vivir.
[And it has also to do with a project…I mean, it has to do with what can be an unconscious project of a way of living.]
It deals more with the process of unconsciousness you know, like building something in an unconscious way, you know, I don’t know.
SECTION 3: CLOSING REMARKS
Susan Buck Morss dedicates a section of her book Dreamworld and Catastrophe to a painting of a black square entitled Black Square by the early Soviet artist, Kazimir Malevich. She titles this section A Short History of the Square. What she is doing is assigning a sign to the image of the avant-garde of the early Soviet republic, before all experimentation was reigned in by the orthodoxy of the Stalinist regime. Her discourse of the abstraction of the square is positioned within her argument that much of the threat that the Soviet government experienced from the early avant-garde was in the way that the avant-garde laid claim to the notion of revolutionary time. “In the process of championing the revolution, the avant-garde artists were redefining it as their own accomplishment. This entailed, significantly, an appropriation of the meaning of revolutionary time.” Such is the case with the Cuban art of Castro’s Special Period which was only able to blossom at that moment through not entirely severing, but certainly altering its ties with those functionaries who were jamming up the flow of their revolutionary time. Provisionality for the Cuban government is not the same as provisionality for the Cuban artists, but it is similar – quite similar. A woman at a party once asked me genuinely confused, how come all Cubans are artists? I answered that I had read somewhere that Castro had declared that Cuba was the lost island of Atlantis. What? You don’t believe it? It’s in the same place you know.
Buck Morss suggests that, “perhaps not the object but its critical interpretation is avantgarde.” On this point it is worth noting that the vessels of longing that express the approximation of the American product can be seen, and I should have mentioned this to the woman at the party, in all aspects of Cuban society. The painted red and white state-run fast-food chicken stands selling “Kentucky” are modeled after their mega-corporate bright and shiny American other. An article in Harper’s Magazine asks its reader what will we be eating when our Special Period comes? Taking into account the recent but persistent reportage of the perfect storm that threatens to change our lives forever with its blend of avian flue, water shortage and nuclear terrorism, the article goes on to cite the host of a Cuban cooking show who urges Cubans to fry up a steak dinner made from the marinated whites of Grapefruit peel*. Pretending… longing…that you have the real one, when what you have is the one you made is in the doble moral, and this is how it becomes lodged in the expression of the handcrafted product that is also the work of art. Before Ordo Amoris Cabinet began duplicating the handcrafted products for the galleries, their practice consisted of collecting and indexing every model of handcrafted product available for the market during the Special Period. These authentic collections became so popular with the European galleries that collectors were only interested in their purchase if they were indeed “authentic” products and not reproductions. Eventually the artists came to realize that whether they had reproduced the objects or not was of no consequence, all of the products were authentic. They were Cuban handcrafted products created for the market. The fact that their market was the international art community, likewise gave the objects a “survivalist” legitimacy – the playing field was just altered. Therefore when the artists did begin the practice of duplication, and were asked about the products authenticity, they always answered yes, they are authentic. It is a curious turning of the classic Benjamin styled artist-as-producer – one designed to play it both ways – and on either account its significance seems to lie in the interpretation, as Buck Morss suggests.
Thus not a black square but <<< Utopia >>> – the island itself is the critical reference for the post-revolution Cuban art. Contemporary Cuban art speaks with fluency the discourse of Utopia, and by Utopia I am referring to a Utopics of geographic and literary context: the figure of the tropical island, the perilous journey of the sea-faring voyage, the unrecognizable alterity of the landscape, the absence-of-time and the no-place that its creator Thomas More intended. This fluency of discourse lends the contemporary Cuban art a rich aesthetics of ambiguity and sublime evocation. Yet its hard ironies can be wily as well. The object that is the holder of the provisional aesthetic is a ready-made and thus allows it to be both an object of projection as well as camouflage; objects of utility and objects of art; objects of doubt and objects of transparency, objects of failure and objects of resistance.