The Observer Effect or Why I went to the 13th Havana Biennial 

Letter from Thale Fastvold, artist, curator and chairwoman of Forbundet Frie Fotografer, based in Oslo, Norway.

*Please note that the ideas expressed in the letter are the author’s.

I am deeply concerned about the current political situation for artists in Cuba, and still went to the 13th Havana Biennial. On boarding the plane to Cuba before launching into a semi-voluntary digital detox which lasted until I was back in the US or Europe – I am so jet-lagged I can not remember – I just managed to read Tania Bruguera’s letter [published in Hyperallergic]. The letter clearly and eloquently explains why Bruguera, a Cuban artist, is not going to visit the biennial. At 28 degrees celsius (84 degrees fahrenheit) the weather in Havana was hot, and the cultural political climate was close to boiling. I went to the 13th Havana Biennial as part of the IKT – International Association of Curators of Contemporary Art’s annual congress, which was held for the first time in history, not in Europe. The first part of the congress was in Miami, the second in Havana and was planned three years ago. In a group of about 40 curators heading to Havana, there were many of us, myself included, who visited Cuba for the first time. Havana is far from Oslo, Norway.  The organizers of this stretch of the visit, specifically curators from Cuba or those who work closely with Cuba, did an amazing and impressing diplomatic job showing us as much as was technically possible during the 3 days we were there. All the members of IKT are cultural producers, curators, thinkers, people who move around and continually see situations from different global perspectives –we read, we write, we have conversations.

I’ve known of Cuban art through art related press and publications about prior biennials, and as a fan of literature I have always loved the idea of Havana through Hemingway’s eyes. [In fact, while there] some of us spoke about, while walking in the streets of Habana Vieja, that it is very hard not to romanticize this beautiful and highly vibrant city. However, I also admit to participating in whispered conversations about the huge problems concerning the new Decree 349. Naïve as it may sound after being in Cuba for such a brief time, I learned so much from those few days through the art that I saw, the art that I did not see, and all the art I knew could not be shown at the 13th Havana Biennial. 

Specifically, my colleagues and I spoke directly about all the art that [could not be made or shown] without complete freedom of expression. I believe art needs to be free and the new Decree 349 is contrary to artistic expression. Coming from Norway where we have the right of free speech I was deeply shocked to experience limits to this freedom. As we know from historyartists have always been fluent in their own [visual] language to say what one wants to say with everything but words*. I was only passing through this time yet, will now carry a bittersweet taste of Havana and of the artistic conversations which are not possible there due to the Decree with me to all the other places I will pass through, to other conversations in the art world and other situations on my way forward.

I believe in the power of enlightenment – if you shine a light on something it will create changes. In physics, the Observer Effect is the theory that by observing a phenomenon or situation, you will influence necessary change of the outcome of said situation. Science says this works in quantum mechanics too. As an artist I quote scientific concepts rather freely and am applying it in this example to the concept that energy goes where people go, into what we talk about, and what we write about. So I do think it is good for Cuba and Cuban artists that the rest of the art world sees what is happening there, to understand something that one needs to learn about, and facilitate care about somewhere [that may not have been visited prior].  Having been there, I feel the urgency to talk about Havana, and all of this right now. So this is my perspective, written in haste on a balcony back in Oslo well aware of all my privileges here, trying to shine a light on the precarious situation in which Cuban artists are currently living.

Thale Fastvold (right) in conversation with artist Esther Aldaz (left), in her installation “What we talk about when we talk about the future” (2019) at the 13th Havana Biennial, Cuba, Image courtesy the author.

The Havana Biennial is open from April 12 through May 12, 2019.

The Havana Biennial was established in 1984 and its first edition was dedicated to artists of Latin America and the Caribbean. Since the second Biennial of 1986, also artists from Africa, Asia and the Middle East have taken part. This tradition, which has remained during each of the subsequent editions, turned Havana into an important venue for the gathering and exhibition of ‘non-Western’ art. The Havana Biennial has focused its attention on the artists from the South whose works represent concerns and conflicts – many times of universal scope – that are common to their regions. (from the website)

*Note, censorship has always existed in art and throughout art history. The author experienced it for the first time in Cuba, arguing that the experience, even if unpleasant is important to foster curatorial and artistic vision for those visiting from abroad. ~KDH