During the 12th Havana Bienale 2015 I walked a lost river in Havana, Cuba. The walk took me through an impoverished part of Havana that was not far from the center but somehow well concealed. I discovered colorful shanty houses, a stark contrast to the colonial architecture that characterizes most of Havana, odd sacrificial objects nailed to trees, offerings to the pantheon of Santeria gods and the old port area, yet to be revitalized by the influx of foreign investment pouring into Cuba. A characteristic of this type of work is the unpredictable discoveries made as one walks a route not available on any contemporary map. This work, Caminando vias de agua (Walking Waterways), was my contribution to a group exhibition organised by curator, Claudio Sotolongo Menendez whom I had met many years previously. Other artists involved included: Alessandro Celante (Brazil), Heather Freeman (USA), Herve Constant (France) and Mariana Branco (Brazil).
It has been my experience that much of the reclaimed land where waterways once existed is prone to flooding, and is used for public facilities such as car parks, sports grounds and parks but in some cases housing for poorer communities. As I neared the location where the waterway would have drained into the sea, I was informed that the flooding in this part of Havana can reach 2 meters.
Caminando vias de agua involves identifying waterways in urban settings that have all but disappeared from view, usually having been subsumed by the urban infrastructure, rendered invisible. Despite this erasure, traces remain: the shape of the land, the propensity for flooding and the way that the reclaimed land itself is used. These traces when paid attention too, can reveal what was once there.
The process involves the utilisation of maps from the 19th Century in order to identify the location of the waterways and then embedding this information in a contemporary map so that the waterway can be walked. A mobile phone with a camera and the ability to send an MMS is used to document the walk. This documentation is transmitted during the walk and appears in close to real time on a representation in the gallery space, through the website http://peripato.net.
In 2003 I had visited Cuba for the first time to exhibit and present a paper at the V Salon Y Coloquio Internacional de Arte Digital. Little did I know that this was the beginning of a long engagement with Cuba, its music, culture and most importantly, its people. I participated in the subsequent VI Coloquio and maintained contact with the organisers for many years, culminating in being invited to participate in the 12th Havana Bienale.
The curatorial theme of “the Biennial intends to involve architecture, design, the communicational phenomena, science and the forms in which the habitat is constructed” to which my work was a good fit. This iteration of the ongoing series of walks grouped under the project heading Peripato Telematikos, was one of many that had taken place in many parts of the world, including Sao Paulo, Brazil and Istanbul, Turkey.
The curatorial team wanted the Bienale to spread out into public space, and it did this successfully except for one major hiccup. Tania Bruguera, a Cuban national, artist and activist tested the limits of the curatorial premise by re-staging a participatory performance piece in a prominent public space, Plaza de la Revolución, despite not being granted permission to do so. This landed her in jail and months of house arrest. Many locals supported her, whilst others felt that she had stolen attention away from the biennale itself. Whilst under house arrest, she performed a public reading of Hannah Arendt’s ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’.
At the time Cuba was in the midst of renewed negotiations with the US and the lifting of decades long restrictions. Bruguera’s incursion was intentionally testing the waters. Was the renewed negotiations with the US an indicator of a loosening of the strict control by which the Cuban government had reigned for decades? Not so, in that particular case. Some of my own experiences reflected this. I had been held up at customs for 4 hours because I needed to bring a wi-fi modem into the country. I had a letter from the Minister previously organized by the curator, but even this was not going to smooth my entry. I later discovered that this was because many Cubans were creating unauthorized internet access points and this was illegal in a country where the internet is very restricted and censored. I had also been warned about the photographic content of my work. There were unsettling times when soldiers would come running towards me, blowing a whistle, for photographing a building or landmark. The curator had conveyed to me warnings he had received from Bienale organisers, regarding the photographic component of my work. As he argued, thousands of tourists traipse through Havana every day taking many photographs that no one seems to worry about. But these warnings were not to be taken lightly so some anxiety prevailed.
On my way home, I received a message from a curator I had worked with in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where I had staged a waterways work in 2009 at the Museum of Image and Sound. He informed me that since about 2010, there was a large interest in the hidden waterways of Sao Paulo. Apparently, this was triggered by a water crisis in Sao Paulo, but the curator wanted to acknowledge my work that preceded. I suspect it was simply coincidence but it is humbling to think that I may have had a tiny influence.
Upon returning to Melbourne, I discovered that a friend was walking the whole length of the Murray River. I accompanied him for a day. The walking continues.
Greg Giannis <giannis.greg [at] gmail.com>