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Coco Fusco

by James Elsey

Born Juliana Emilia Fusco Miyares in New York in 1960, Fusco is a Cuban-American interdisciplinary artist, writer, publisher and curator who explores the relationships between war, politics, race, women and society. She is the Director of Intermedia Initiatives in the School of Art, Media and Technology at Parsons, with her practice correspondingly flowing between digital media, projections and live performance. Much of her perspective is rooted in the intricacies of Cuban society, which lends her a natural appreciation of the nuanced, conflicting nature of post-liberatory politics across the world.

One of Fusco’s most famous works is her 1992 performance The Year of the White Bear and Two Undiscovered Amerindians visit the West, in collaboration with Guillermo Gómez-Peña [see above]. The two artists created a fictionalised indigenous group, whose ‘traditional rituals’ were a satirical mix of American consumer culture and a melange of stereotypical native motifs. Their enclosure in a cage, toilet trips on a lead, and recollection of glossolalic folklore in exchange for donations points to both the historic and contemporary subjugation and dehumanisation of native peoples: through their conquest, or reduction to spectacle.

 

Coco Fusco, Operation Atropos. 2006. Video // image via https://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/30/arts/design/30fusc.html

The 9/11 attacks and ensuing War on Terror brought a new militarised status quo to American domestic and foreign policy. The use of Guantanamo Bay as an extralegal space, a space of exception in Cuban territory, to detain and interrogate terror suspects had begun to receive attention in the media, and Fusco’s 2006 piece Operation Atropos engaged this culture by immersion. The artist, within a group of women, signed up to an interrogation workshop which saw them subjected to a simulated kidnapping, in which they were forcibly taken, dressed in orange jumpsuits and intimidated into confessing information. The goal of this project was to help Fusco understand the psychology of soldiers, who routinely conduct such operations in the War on Terror. These women placed in an abject situation recalls Giorgio Agamben’s concept of bare life as humans as mere living bodies, as opposed to legally recognised citizens – and even in simulation reveals the profound emotional degradation of this state.

Coco Fusco, Dangerous Moves: Performance and Politics in Cuba. 2015. Publication // image via https://www.thing.net/~cocofusco/publications.htm

Fusco is a highly respected author and publisher, with a corpus that spans decades. A close reading of these books would find a sustained study with vectors criss-crossing Cuba through history, politics, art (history), and identity, acting as triggers for further thought and responses. Published in 1995, English is Broken Here: Notes on Cultural Fusion in the Americas grapples with the challenge of Latin American identity: particularly as conceptualised through the normative categories of American society. Breaking through preconceptions that homogenise the particular into racial categories, Fusco explores the work of artists including Ana Mendieta, Andres Serrano, Lorna Simpson and the Black Audio Film Collective in a series of discussions.

Her more recent 2015 title Dangerous Moves: Politics and Performance in Cuba engages themes that converge on the subject of the body as a locus of resistance, through (performance) art, poetics, activism and the contradictions endemic to Cuba where an ostensibly revolutionary state paradoxically seeks to quell subversion.

Coco Fusco, The Empty Plaza/La Plaza Vacia II. 2012. Digital Chromogenic Print // image via http://www.alexandergray.com/exhibitions/coco-fusco

Fusco’s 2012 piece The Empty Plaza/La Plaza Vacia II compares the contemporaneous Arab Spring to the revolutionary fervour that once filled Cuba’s squares. However, the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana is shown starkly devoid of the people who would assemble en mass for Castro’s proclamations. What is inferred from this comparison? Did Fusco anticipate the sour, dystopian turn the Arab Spring would soon take in many countries, imagining a time in which the public might fear to group in town squares?

In Cuba this contradictory nature of public participation intersects with the art scene in a peculiar way – as Fusco explains: “During the Biennial the controls on political speech are loosened within the realm of art for two weeks to help give foreigners the impression that Cuba is an endless party. But dissidents and artists working in unofficial contexts are kept out of that context, and members of marginal subcultures are swept off the streets by police near tourist areas before the Biennial begins.”[1]

The opening up of Cuba’s art scene to international audiences, Fusco relates, brings nuances that are not always positive. As rapprochement between the US and Cuba took steps forward towards the end of the Obama administration and Fidel Castro’s death, Fusco writes in 2015 about the incentive for artists to turn their identity into a spectacle: “Unlike Cuban athletes and dancers who leave the country in search of better pay and working conditions, Cuban artists fare better financially when they keep the island as their home base, enacting a drama of national belonging for a foreign audience.”[2]

2018 saw the #00Bienal de la Habana, Cuba’s first non-state-sponsored biennale, which attracted controversy due to the government’s friction towards it. The Havana Biennale, the official, established, fair was postponed due to Hurricane Irma, and organisers Luis Manuel Otero and Yanelys Nuñez Leyva decided to provide an alternative. However, the Cuban government, Fusco writes, confiscated artworks at customs, denied visitors entry to the country (including her), and threatened participating artists… “Cuban government officials view independent artistic activity as a threat to their control over their art world. They will not relinquish power over an asset that is dear to them in symbolic terms as one of the revolution’s few success stories.”[3]

 

[1] https://bombmagazine.org/articles/coco-fusco/

[2] http://supercommunity.e-flux.com/topics/cuba/

[3] https://hyperallergic.com/441963/cuba-deport-artists-00bienal-de-la-habana/

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