Interview with Marilyn Volkman and Dan Paz, and the project Arte no es Facil, CUBA/USA
1. How did the project Arte no es Facil start, and could you explain the meaning behind the title?
Marilyn Volkman (MV):The title comes from the phrase “no es facil’, an expression that’s used all over Cuba. It’s a response to impossibly difficult situations. In the way we understand it, it’s also a way of accepting difficulty to the point of moving through it. It’s like okay, nothing is easy, there are roadblocks, but let’s just figure out how to do what we want to do anyway. We heard the phrase so often in 2009 that we started using it ourselves. It’s a thing you say when nothing is spoken, and ‘Arte no es fácil’ became a go-to phrase for the project from the onset. It was Vanessa Ruiz, one of the original contributors that actually suggested it as a title after we returned from Cuba the first time. I think it’s fitting. While working on the project we’ll inevitably run into something and someone will say, “Augh… no es facil,’ and then we’ll all just laugh. It’s like when the title of a movie is said inside of a film.
In all seriousness though, nothing about Arte no es fácil’ has been easy. You just have to accept that in order to continue a project like this one. It really makes you thankful for those moments when everything comes together — When the show opens, the materials arrive after passing through the hands of so many couriers, and when, after countless phone calls, impossible lines at the embassy, and endless rejections, the visa is finally granted. It’s the instant when the artist comes down the airport escalator and you see their face for the first time… It’s in that moment that everything actually feels easy.
Dan Paz (DP):
In terms of how the project began, we initially went to make a documentary on the 2009 Havana Biennial, which in 1984 was the first biennial of it’s kind in that part of the world. We also went to specifically see the work of emerging artists participating in the exhibition series of ARTE DE CONDUCTA, called Estado de Excepción. With the support of the University of Chicago and permission from the US State Department, we traveled as students to Cuba and set out to make the documentary with a group of 5 artists and 2 art historians. Then fast forward to 2011, and the documentary project turned into a series of connections among artists working in video, performance and other sorts of time-based media. We paired artists to collaborate and present their work for a series of exhibitions in Chicago at Linkshall in 2012. We were fortunate enough to be able to bring 11 Cuban artists to the US with the support of LinksHall and The MacArthur Foundation.
2. Why did you choose Cuba as a scenario to dialogue about contemporary art and in relation with US?
It was by chance that we originally became involved with Cuba, and in time, we realized what we had entered into was a conversation among artists that would reflect on the effects of the longstanding socio-political situation between the United States and Cuba. As artists, we could interact with one another without having to name or label that interaction in ways that had been done in the past.
It was through this reflection on our respective relationships that the stage for the development of the project was set. It was important for us to see how contemporaries of ours were affected by the same situation, but from the other end… From another perspective. We started to discover, in later chapters of the project, that what we thought was the same history was actually a very different one, and there was a past that we were being exposed to that we never knew, or at least never had access to. We uncovered this through the process of collaboration–both our own and while facilitating the collaborations of others. It was almost like we were intervening at a really potent moment on a historical past, and somehow forging a path for dealing with what it means, or could mean to talk about it now.
It’s interesting… Although we originally went in 2009, after Obama had been elected, the Bush Administration licensed our first trip. So when we first made arrangements to travel to Cuba, we had a presidential candidate whom people were labeling a socialist. The word ‘Socialist’ was being thrown around as an incendiary term–a hot topic of debate.
3. What is the current state of the project?
The project has been in a productive state of flux, a state of living. Since the exhibitions at LinksHall in 2012, people have moved to different places, engaged in different projects, etc. Some artists have stayed in touch and others have not. We never wanted to obligate artists to a life-long tenure in the project, but if they wanted to continue to be in conversation with us, or with their primary collaborator, they could. We also gave ourselves a little time to settle in and do the same.
At the close of the Chicago exhibitions, we knew that we’d have to go back to Havana to fulfill the other half of the project and realize a mirror series of exhibitions. Last winter of 2013/14, we traveled to Havana to secure an exhibition space with El Centro Desarollo de las Artes Visuales, an organization dedicated to the promotion and research of contemporary Cuban Art, and programming centered on global exchange. At present, we’re back to working at a distance between the Netherlands and Chicago, and planning the next steps in re-connecting artists for the 2014 exhibitions.
4. Do you believe art can change any sort of society systems?
Yes. But I think it’s important to disperse the myth of art. It’s not art that changes systems it’s people. A group of individuals following a feeling that something meaningful is being done has the potential to do big things. What’s important to me is that this big ‘something’ remains critical. You have to be full of desire and self-reflexive at the same time. That’s not easy. And when it gets hard, you have to believe in it, so much so that you can’t stop doing it. If you can do this you will repeatedly hit moments in which you realize that you are doing exactly what you ought to be doing–and there’s no fighting against that. It might sound silly, but if ‘it’, and by ‘it’ I might mean art… If ‘it’ becomes consuming in a big way, to enough people, ‘it’ will be able to change systems. We just have to be careful not to recreate the very ‘systems’ we want to change.
I believe art can engage in multiple truths. A big question for me might be the efficacy of art for certain audiences. When art can have multiple lives, I have to believe there can be longstanding, cumulative effects that can rub up against any system of organized life or larger hegemonic structures. This is one of many routes that art can take. I think knowing who the work is for and your aims can be extremely valuable in understanding the expectations of what you want art to do, if anything. So yes, I hope.