Last month, Havana artist and curator Sandra Ceballos and Cuban-American artist, writer, and scholar Coco Fusco launched a campaign in support of Espacio Aglutinador, Ceballos’s independent art space, and a new international program hosted there. Cuban Art News spoke with Fusco about the plans for Aglutinador and how they’re proceeding.
Tell us about Espacio Aglutinador. How would you describe its place in the history of contemporary Cuban art?
Aglutinador is the longest running, most consistently maintained independent art space in Cuba. It’s been in operation since 1994. That, in and of itself, is amazing. Sandra always finds new and different ways to exhibit work and present programs, to nourish young artists and artists who are in one way or another outsides the mainstream.
From the beginning, Sandra’s proposal was to aglutinar, which to her meant to bring everybody together. She’s been faithful to that goal. There’s nothing else like Aglutinador in Cuba. There have been very interesting, ephemeral exhibitions that organized in other artists’ homes, but no one else has committed themselves to showing the work of other artists on a continuous basis.
Long before Galería Habana or any other state-run institution began to recuperate artists who had left Cuba in the 1980s and early 1990s, Sandra was already doing that at Aglutinador. The gallery operates as a networking space, and a space of intergenerational exchange—it’s an important part of history of contemporary art in Cuba.
Now, you and Sandra are looking to create a more formal structure for Aglutinador and its programs.
We have been discussing viable business modes for Sandra to be able to continue with Aglutinador for a while. The public sector in Cuba is shrinking rapidly, living costs are rising rapidly, and philanthropic goals in Cuba are changing. Artists have developed a variety of economic models to ensure their survival. Most artists who can travel abroad, sell some work, and then bring the money back—it goes a long way when you live in Cuba.
But Sandra’s work doesn’t take her outside the country. Aglutinador is rooted in Havana. She has, over the last 15 years or so, been the recipient of small grants from entities outside the country. But the philanthropy community has shifted gears with respect to Cuba since the rapprochement between Obama and the Cuban government, and is focusing on working with government entities rather than the private sector.
A combination of rising costs of living, shrinking public resources, and diminishing philanthropy possibilities has meant that Sandra has to find another model that works. She cannot get a cuentapropista license as an art dealer. In Cuba that’s not allowed. You can only sell your own work out of your house, you cannot sell other people’s work.
So what are you thinking of doing?
There is a growing number of students who are traveling to Cuba and are interested in Cuban art. Some of them come through exchange programs that give them extended stays at ISA, the University of the Arts. But others come for one week of cultural tourism in Havana. And very often, teachers bring those students to Aglutinador, but in an ad hoc manner. Now we want to take charge of that by organizing workshops and mini-courses.
We want to create courses in English for visitors who want to learn about Cuban art and offer opportunities to dialogue with the many critics, art historians, and curators who Sandra has collaborated with over the years.
We anticipate lectures by people like Magaly Espinoza or Orlando Hernández, as well as younger curators like Giselle Victoria, and artists like Samuel Riera, who has collaborated with Sandra on some projects. In addition, we want to organize talks by artists who work regularly with Aglutinador, and have these presentations translated into English.
It’s an interesting model. What’s the first step?
Repairs and equipment upgrades to the space. The last show I worked on with Sandra there, we had to remove the works from the wall every time it rained, because of leaks. That’s crazy. The water causes immediate harm but the humidity in the space creates long-term problems. A lot of work just can’t be shown there.
We have to renovate the space to be able to expand the programming. That includes improving the electrical system, so that we can run more power – more lights, more speakers, more projectors, etc.. We need to improve the communication system so that Sandra can have a more consistent online presence.
Beyond that, we need equipment upgrades, so that we can have multiple monitors going at the same time in the space. There are many young video artists in Cuba. If you have only one rented beamer and one screen, it means you can’t show that much in an exhibition, or keep the videos up for long. We need better sound equipment for readings and lectures and screenings.
What are you envisioning for the archive—the 24 years of documentation that Sandra has at Aglutinador?
We have to digitize the archive. We have to digitize organize everything so that scholars can make use of Aglutinador as a resource. We have to translate the catalogues as well.
What impact has Hurricane Irma had on the project?
The hurricane has complicated everything in Cuba. I don’t know if it’s going to scare away visitors—we just don’t know yet.
What I do know is that it’s going to slow down our ability to get the infrastructural work done. Because all the carpenters, construction workers, and electricians will be busy conducting repairs in the coming months. This may have an impact on our ability to get repairs done quickly. We just have to wait and see.
Originally, our plan was to launch a course after the opening of the Bienal in the fall of 2018. But the Bienal was just postponed to 2019. So Sandra and I have to think about the best thing to do.
Did the Aglutinador building suffer much damage in the hurricane?
The ceiling is weak, and every time there’s a major storm it starts crumbling and falling in. There was lots of rubble on the floor of Aglutinador after the hurricane.
You’re in the midst of an online fundraising campaign to get the project launched. Tell us about that.
There’s been all kinds of support. We’ve received small amounts from people who support Sandra in spirit but aren’t very wealthy as well as some very generous gifts. Lots of people have helped spread the word as well, by talking to friends and colleagues, posting on social media, and endorsing the campaign. This has all been really good.
We just hit our $15,000 goal, I’m very proud to report. We’re going to keep fundraiser open, but my basic need was to make $15,000 to get this project off the ground. We reached that today. Sandra and I are ecstatic!
[NOTE: As of yesterday, October 10, the goal was raised to $20,000, due to an assessment of damages caused my Hurricane Irma.]
I’m lecturing in a number of locations this fall and I want to keep the campaign open while I’m traveling—I mention it everywhere I go, in the hopes of securing more donations. But I want to close the campaign out before end of year. Then we start investing in the equipment and materials so repairs can begin in 2018.
Congratulations on meeting your goal, and on launching such an ambitious project.
My experience with Cuba over 30 years has taught me to go one step at a time, and be patient. Don’t get frustrated. The American business model presumes that I can show up with my briefcase and get everything done in a week—that doesn’t work. People there are not used to thinking or working that way. And there are too many logistical obstacles that emerge daily to be able to work quickly.
The idea is, in the long term, to develop a sustainable model for Aglutinador. Having to depend on whether this foundation or that embassy decides to open its wallet is not a good way to work—not after 24 years.