As we saw in the essay introducing El Ciervo Encantado, “The Altar-Spectacle and the Vision of Cuba,” this group’s theater is performative. As its own director states, “on stage, one does not represent, one is” (Pérez Vera 2008, 33). In the following sections, though, we analytically approach El Ciervo Encantado’s performances and interventions that take place in public spaces, rather than theatrical ones. Cuban performance art is a tradition originating at the end of the 1970s and is connected with Latin American visual arts, as well as conceptual art. During the 1980s, many performance artists participated in different interventions in which they took over public space—the streets, as well as art galleries and institutions—questioning the power of official cultural politics, transforming aesthetic boundaries, and pushing the limits of artistic freedom. By the 1990s, however, performance in public spaces had largely disappeared, and most of those artists moved abroad (Manzor 2012). We will analyze El Ciervo Encantado’s performances and public interventions as heirs of 1980s Cuban performance art through Rancière’s theories of space and the political and Maryse Condé’s poetics of the mangrove in order to understand how they create a space for freedom, not within the actor/performer[1] in his or her theatrical work, but in the public space of the community.

Public space in Cuba is a highly regulated and disciplined field, in which everyone knows his or her normative place. Even when we look at the masses in the Plaza de la Revolución for the First of May festivities (International Labor Day) or in front of the US Interests Section in Havana, it seems clear that everyone follows a script that admits no deviation or improvisation. Everyone knows what can and what cannot be said in the public sphere. Jacques Rancière has suggested that in all systems of government, the masses, as in the ancient Greek demos, are conceived as the collection of members of a community in which the whole is a sum of its parts: “It is the manifold identical with the whole: the multiple as one, the part as the whole” (2005, 24).[2] The individual disappears as such; he is erased and transformed into the people (demos), which, in the Cuban case, is a concept constructed ideologically under the banner “the people united shall never be defeated.” For the French-Algerian Rancière, all governments and hierarchical structures function as a police order: “The police…is primarily a form of intervention that prescribes the visible and the invisible, what can and cannot be spoken” (2006, 70). Each body is accounted for and knows its place, what it must do, and what it must say. In other words, the essence of all governments (police orders) is to identify “the whole” with all its parts in their due place. Rancière refers to this knowledge of one’s own place as the “distribution of the sensible:” “society consists of groups devoted to specific modes of doing, in places where those occupations are exercised, in ways of being that correspond to those occupations and those places. In the regulation of the functions of places and ways of being, there is no room for empty spaces” (“Política” 71).

It is within this distribution of the sensible in contemporary Cuba that we will situate El Ciervo Encantado’s performances and interventions presented in this dossier. In all their performances, the members of El Ciervo Encantado burst into public space and transform it into a space for the manifestation of subjects that reconfigure the distribution of the sensible through performance; they intervene as individuals and interact with others, thereby constituting “the people,” which, as Ranciere suggests, “is always more and less than the individual. It is the power of the one-more” (2006, 18).

Café-Theater: Inside and Outside the Theater

Café-Theater La Siempreviva began in 1998 with the objective of advancing an artistic and creative dialogue with the Visual Arts Department of the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA), in whose conference room the group had settled the previous year. The abandoned space had become a junkyard, and the labor of cleaning and conditioning the space gave the group visibility. Although the collective had originated in the classrooms of the then-called Performing Arts Department of the ISA, the displacement to the Visual Arts Department, after a brief nomadic period through several spaces in Havana, would mark a new direction in the creative strategy of the group, especially regarding its dialogue with different types of artists. They refashioned that junkyard into a theater, where they worked until they were expelled; from it, El Ciervo Encantado created a series of café-theaters that overflowed the boundaries of theater as a genre. In this space with porous borders, beings that were born in theater pieces presented themselves independently as beings/performers who shared their story in the audience’s here-and-now.[3] They performed, accompanied by the improvisations of young musical artists, visual artists, and theater artists, who have always been loyal followers of Nelda Castillo. The need to contribute a space for professional-level artistic interaction in the Instituto Superior de Arte—an interaction that had nearly disappeared during the economic and social crisis of the 1990s—largely motivated the conception of the café-theaters. The performances that took place in this new space were called Café-teatro La Siempreviva. Continuing with the effort to recover cultural memory, those involved took the name Siempreviva from one of Severo Sarduy’s characters and the first Cuban literary journal, founded by Antonio Bachiller y Morales in 1838. That monthly publication, directed mainly to the youth of Havana, aimed to “express good ideas in a simple style, ideas that would otherwise never penetrate in the popular masses; …to stimulate, with short and scientific digressions, the effort of young people devoted to literature and science, and lastly, to publish our local observations on customs” (La Siempreviva 1838, 3). Like the 19th century publication, Café-teatro La Siempreviva performances were directed mainly at young people looking for a place that would grant them entry at a reduced price and that would enable the exchange of creative ideas and the debate on many other topics essential for artistic training and social critique.

Two of the characters/beings that would later appear as protagonists in the group’s first performances/interventions—The Accompanist (Mariela Brito) and Cubita (Lorelis Amores)—were born in the second café-theater in 2004. The first one, baptized as Enriqueta, had her own number in Café-teatro La Siempreviva. Her performance as an accompanying pianist was inspired by real-life people who were well known to ISA’s students and professors. The starting point of this creation was a complete high-social-status mask. The staged vignette was a classic exercise of the grotesque in direct communication with the audience. The intensity and baleful glance of the pianist, as seen from the front, were in direct contrast with the torn dress through which we could see her naked back, including her rear end, not covered by underwear. The badge from the first congress of the Saiz Brothers Association, an organization that brings together young creators and artists from across the island, and a briefcase full of items for personal hygiene, coffee, and cigarettes from the basic food market available for nonconvertible Cuban pesos (CUP) [4] completed this image. The reselling of these household items established a social caricature highlighting the quotidian precariousness of music professionals.

The Cubita character was first created to serve drinks in the intermissions of the Café performances. Following the traditions of Cuban vernacular that Nelda Castillo knows so well—she worked during the 1980s in the Teatro Musical de la Habana (Havana Musical Theater) with Carlos Pous, one of the renowned “negritos”[5]—Cubita wore blackface and a dress designed by the actress herself, tailored with the scraps of products that are only accessible in the Convertible Cuban Peso (CUC). Cubita called attention indirectly to the disadvantages faced by Afro-Cubans at the beginning of the 21st century. In this case, the group also voiced a critical reflection on the double-currency system, which would reappear in other works.

In 2007, after their expulsion from the space created in ISA, the group found a new space—almost derelict, but more centrally located—in front of the Villalón Park in El Vedado neighborhood. The group constructed its new theater, the Chapel of the Ciervo Encantado, in the old chapel of the house where the Dominican Máximo Gómez—the general of the Cuban army in the wars of 1868 and 1895—passed away. To bid farewell to their former space, they once again chose the format of the café-theater, with a performance now entitled Café-teatro La última cena (Cafe-Theater The Last Supper). Ironically, despite its title, there was more than one performance of The Last Supper in the chapel. As the announcement that was circulated in February 2014 read: “Due to difficulties with the cement supply in the country, our relocation to our new space in the corner of Línea and 18th Street has been delayed longer than expected.” Once again, the performers transformed the chapel into a multi-purpose space for the convergence of all the arts. This café-theater was structured to include a variety of styles—from dance to music, performance, and visual art—which were interwoven among nine numbers performed by different members of the group. These unexpected couplings—lyrical song with rap or jazz, for example—were fused with an updated rereading of Cuban vernacular theater, in which characters with real life referents, icons of Cuban popular theater, and other beings gave their accounts of different aspects of contemporary reality.

At this gathering, Mariela Brito premiered a new character in the piece “Orden en el parque de los suspiros” (“Order in the Park of Sighs”). Armed with her loudspeaker and wearing a badge of the US Interests Section (USIS), she acted as a doorwoman and organized the line of waiting spectators, whom she classified according to a ticket they had been given previously, just as people awaiting a US visa are classified. Divided into the categories of “Definitive Departure,” “Family Reunion,” “Political Asylum,” and “Lottery,” the audience members were placed in the position of thousands of Cubans seeking to migrate to the United States, the North American neighbor with which the island sustained a conflict that lasted for more than half a century (finally ending on 17 December 2014).

As with Café-teatro La Siempreviva 15 years earlier, The Last Supper inaugurated a space in which both emerging and renowned artists were equally welcome. Beyond fostering a dialogue with young students and professionals of the arts, the café-theaters created a place for the formation and development of actors—either members of the group or students of the several workshops Nelda Castillo taught—which broadened the reach of the collective’s cultural mission. Both café-theater pieces sought to recover a space for bohemian Cuban nightlife, which practically disappeared after the Revolutionary Offensive of 1968 closed down more than 900 small bars and businesses, considering them both—the space and the bohemian circles—politically incorrect (Espinosa Mendoza 2009, 19). However, in contrast with the bohemia of the 1950s and 1960s, El Ciervo Encantado’s café-theaters have been places for dialogue and creation, where the naturalized order is interrupted through the generation of a space of interaction by and for those marginalized from that order. The ability to informally share and co-create in a “simple” style ideas that are otherwise unspeakable in other places renders every instance of the café-theater into an event in which “that which should not be visible is made visible” (Rancière 2006, 30).

Exit the Stage, Take to the Street: El Ciervo Encantado Faces the Return of the 1970s

When El Ciervo Encantado was forced to give up the space in ISA, they did so with a performance/ritual titled Humo en las altas torres (Smoke in the High Towers) (2006). The group took the virgin statue from Visiones de la cubanosofía (Visions of Cubanosophy) and carried it in a procession from ISA’s Department of Visual Arts to the library, where a small exhibit about the last decade of their work was being shown. This performance marked their exit from the stage; afterwards, they began taking to the streets and challenging cultural institutions in order to confront the specter of the 1970s in Cuban culture.[6]

In January 2007, Cuban TV broadcast a program paying homage to Luis Pavón Tamayo, the director of the National Council on Culture from 1971 to 1976 and the censor responsible for the period euphemistically referred to in Cuba as the “gray half-decade,” which saw the persecution of hundreds of artists due to their “improper conduct” or their homosexuality. When he viewed the homage to Pavón, the writer Jorge Ángel Pérez wrote an email to several artists maintaining that “Luis Pavón, one of the most horrid and atrocious characters in the history of Cuban culture, is receiving lavish praise from Cubavisión’s Impronta program.”[7] His email prompted a “little email war” in which hundreds of artists, writers, and intellectuals, both inside and outside of Cuba, voiced their opinions on Pavón, discussed the possible meaning of his televised feature at that specific moment (Raúl Castro had been named interim president while Fidel Castro convalesced), and debated what intellectuals needed do to prevent the return of a hard-line cultural policy along the lines of the 1970s. In response, Desiderio Navarro, the director of the Centro Teórico-Cultural Criterios and the editor of the journal Criterios organized the conference cycle “The Cultural Policy of the Revolutionary Period: Memory and Reflection.” Many of the victims of the Pavonato (as the “gray half-decade” has also been called) participated, along with some younger people who had not been born yet in the 1970s. There were many who could not attend the conference due to lack of space or invitation—especially young people who did not belong to any organization and those branded as dissidents in Cuba.[8] These conferences were interpreted in different ways: for some, they were a way of “ensuring that the snowball follows the path we have chosen for it, not to let it deviate so that, instead of clearing the space of residues, it destroys with its weight everything we have already achieved” (desdecuba.com). Others considered them a way of domesticating the open debate that unfolded spontaneously on the Internet.[9]

For Nelda Castillo, “the debate was reduced to something byzantine and inconsequential because there was no real reflection on the problem and, therefore, no solution” (Pérez Vera 2008, 40). It is in this context that El Ciervo Encantado participated in that moment of memorialization and reflection on the specter of the 1970s, through staging the performances Enriqueta al debate intelectual (Enriqueta to the Intellectual Debate) (2007), Cubita luchando la firmeza (Cubita’s Adjudication Struggle) (2007), and La lista de Schindler (Schindler’s List) (2009). In all of these performances, the being/character created by the performer presented herself in public space wearing several different masks, aiming to participate not so much in the discussion of what had happened in the gray half-decade, but rather what was happening in 2007. Enriqueta had already appeared in the café-theaters as the piano teacher, elegant but lacking even the basic resources to mend her dress. Now, she presented herself in her place of work, the Instituto Superior de Arte, during the assembly organized for the young people who had been left out of the first conference.[10] Even though she did not speak a word, her actions and interventions in the forum said more than anything expressed in the forum itself: socioeconomic inequality and censorship are not things of the past.

Cubita, who sold soft drinks payable in the national currency in the café-theater, presented herself now as a woman residing in a low-income neighborhood who wanted to move out. But in order to move, she needed a legal document (referred to as la firmeza—adjudication)[11] and decided to attend a conference of the architect Mario Coyula, “El trinquenio amargo y la ciudad distópica: autopsia de una utopia” (“The Bitter Trinquennial and the Dystopian City: Autopsy of a Utopia”). The audience and some employees did not know how to react when Cubita asked Yoandri, the community architect, to help her resolve her problem. Cubita was carrying a sign with a flag, and it was through her sign and her multiple interactions with the audience that she put forward her issue: “Cubita is asking for something very specific: an exchange title for payment currency. She offers her salary, but demands at least 50 percent of it in CUC. This character does not want to hear anything because what she needs is this exchange title to resolve her problems, to feed her children. She says, ‘Do not speak more about the city that is falling apart when there is a problem as basic as the fact that I cannot even live off of my wage’” (Pérez Vera 2008, 40). With the performance in the space where Coyula eventually spoke, Cubita reminded the audience about the current marginalized victims of the system—the Afro-Cubans and the socioeconomically disadvantaged who barely survive from what they can scoop up in the trash. As Nelda Castillo rightly notes, “When we are talking about the way in which you scrape a living, how you feed your children or your family, it makes no sense to talk of the architectural disposition of the city” (Pérez Vera 2008, 40). Cubita embodied and gave a face to the dystopia that Coyula was discussing with intellectuals behind closed doors; “The city is ever more dystopian… We see ourselves reflected more and more in a cruel mirror that reveals a withered face, animated long ago by the utopia convoked in its ideal no-place” (2007, 21). In other words, the audience that day might have seen in Cubita the specular and spectacular image of themselves.

Finally, in Schindler’s List, staged two years after Pavón’s feature on TV, Mariela Brito and Lorelis Amores, assuming the masks of integrity and pain visible in the images of the millions of victims of the holocaust, stood guard in the entrance to the room in the Criterios Theoretic-Cultural Center, where Norge Espinosa Mendoza would read his lecture. As guardians of memory, they handed each visitor a list with the names of the artists who were victims of the parametración (a Cuban equivalent of black-listing).[12] They were not aware of the content of Norge Espinosa’s presentation, which argued: “The black-list is a kind of open secret, and there is no dearth of those who, in the current context, would want to add their name to it, pretending to have been the victim of a persecution which we have taken so long to denounce” (2009, 35). The performance subtly denounced and named hundreds of victims of the blacklisting. I do not know whether they had previously read Victor Fowler’s email, in which the critic noted that “in the end, no matter how much pain it may have caused, we are not dealing here with Adolf Eichmann organizing ‘the final solution’” (desdecuba.com) or the text in which Abelardo Mena suggested the creation of a Black Book of the Pavonato’s Practices of Cultural Violence, where the names of all the victims and perpetrators would be catalogued to promote a “conceptual dismantling of the implacable ‘social engineering’ that the Revolution implanted in the country” (desdecuba.com). What is undeniable is that El Ciervo Encantado knew how to performatively intervene in a public debate rendered semi-private by unpacking the category of victim into a list of individual subjects, recording the names of all the artists who were disappeared from public space during the 1970s.

At the conference, Espinosa Mendoza concluded by referring to the mask as an image: “I am learning, thanks to them [the blacklisted artists he had interviewed for his study] to recognize their faces as opposed to the masks over the grayness” (2009, 51). A skillful follower of El Ciervo Encantado, his lecture unmasked the the cultural policy and the “masks of grayness” of the period, mirroring El Ciervo Encantado’s approach to the mask. Each performance serves the group as a journey of initiation and as a means to recapture memory and to penetrate into the most traumatic zones of the Cuban past and present. This performative research entails a search for a superior level of expression on the part of the actor/performer. Through a psychophysical training, each actor proposes a mask through which she will connect with the world without annihilating the artist who lends her body and energy for the creation of an extraordinary reality (Gómez Triana 2012). For the group, the mask is not just the object that one wears to cover one’s face, but also the mask that the very body of the performer creates to cover/hide the personality of the actor and, in the words of Castillo, serves “as a corkscrew, to spray out that impulse, that which is dormant, that which you really are” (Pérez Vera 2008, 34). That mask is dress and makeup as much as it is voice, gesture, and pose. It implies, moreover, a specific work with the energy of the performer. With their performances in public space—in the doorways to those closed rooms of the intelligentsia—Mariela/Enriqueta, Lorelis/Cubita, Mariela, Mariela-Lorelis/survivors (of Pavón), and Nelda remain alongside all those left out of the debate, the subjects who have no place within the distribution of the sensible in contemporary Cuban cultural politics.[13] It is precisely in the convergence in the same space of those who distribute roles and those who refuse the place assigned to them in the distribution and in the mask/pose of the performer that reveals what the rest pretend or prefer not to see that I read the political impulse in El Ciervo Encantado’s performances.[14]

Without Borders: Actions in the Gallery

The group has also made an effort to occupy public space in fine art galleries, collaborating with national and international artists and erasing the borderlines between visual arts, performance, and video art. We will only concern ourselves here with the performances in which the group has intervened in public space.[15] Ausencia justificada (Justified absence) is the title of their intervention in the 2007 Moisés Finalé show “Se fueron los 80” (“The 1980s are Gone”). With that exhibition, Finalé—an artist who has lived in France since the late 1980s—sought to put an end to the myth of the golden 1980s in Cuban visual arts, a decade which began for him with Volumen Uno and ended with the cancellation of his exhibition in the Castillo de la Fuerza, his last show in Cuba.[16] One of the important pieces in the show was a wooden trunk in which people could deposit an object that represented the 1980s. In that suitcase/coffin/reliquary (Crespo 2008) the audience, co-authors of the installation, deposited (made an offering of?) everything from a Sputnik magazine to a seal commemorating Arnaldo Tamayo, the first Cuban/Latin American to travel to outer space.[17] To this shipwreck of the arc of the 1980s, El Ciervo Encantado brought the absent protagonists who had no place reserved for them in this recounting: the émigré artists. To do so, they transformed the gallery into a work center and the exhibit into an emulation of a proletarian workday. They embodied three archetypal characters of revolutionary rhetoric: the comrades José Manuel Gutiérrez/Eduardo Martínez and Chela Domínguez/Mariela Brito, representatives of the National Secretariat, and the student Marilin Gutiérrez Domínguez/Lorelis Amores. They brought along a huge banner with the list of the most important artists of the 1980s. After reading a notice prepared for the moment, they called roll to confirm the absent artists and to acknowledge the best known of those present: Moisés Finlay Adeco/Moisés Finalé. The performance parodied the acts characteristic of a once triumphalist labor rhetoric, with the presence of the comrades/masks and their gestures, acts, and words serving to reveal the “acts and behaviors that appear as increasingly false, threatening, and emptied of meaning in our own day” (Pérez Vera 2011, 48). It also worked as an exorcism of sorts by highlighting the series of attitudes displayed by the audience hearing the roll-call, “from those who knew those names perfectly well and the reasons why they had left or had been forced to leave (justifying their absence), to those who could not recognize exactly all the names in the list but ‘read’ the importance or significance of what was happening precisely because of the labor rhetoric and the ‘official act’ format, the repetition of a performativity that is exclusive of power (the platform, the exhortation, the awards) that the audience recognized very well” (Fundora Castro 2014).[18] Ultimately, El Ciervo named all those who left in the 1980s. By individualizing every artist, the performance vindicated those who were absent and publicly recognized their absence as more than justified.

In 2008, a group of independent artists, including several visual art students from ISA, decided to put together an exhibition entitled “Referencias territoriales” (“Territorial References”) in an abandoned pier in the Avenida del Puerto. These young artists, conscious that the National Council on Fine Arts wields the power to decide where exhibits are held, had opted to locate themselves “on the margins of the conventional legitimizing circuits of ‘Cuban art’ and ‘national culture’” (Casanueva y González). The participating artists shared a conception of art as a representation of real situations based on their own personal experiences. It was therefore not a coincidence that the coordinator invited El Ciervo Encantado to participate in the exhibit, although the invitation was later withdrawn for unknown reasons. Nonetheless, in spite of the withdrawn invitation, the group “invaded” the exhibit the night of the opening with the performance of the fisherman, one of the characters from Visions of Cubanosophy. The performance ended with the fisherman perched on a rock reading Severo Sarduy’s poem “Black Hole IV”. Just after the performance, the police, together with the authorities of the Port Captainship and State Security Agents, barged in and ordered that the exhibition be evacuated, despite the fact that the organizers claimed to have all the licenses necessary for the urban intervention. None of the works shown were of an openly political or counter-revolutionary character. Perhaps the granters of the permits realized too late that the intervention of public space had a specific territorial and temporal reference: it was on another fifth of August, in 1994, throughout the length of the Avenida del Puerto, that the popular Havana protest known as the Maleconazo took place.[19] El Ciervo Encantado’s performance in “Territorial References” brought to light once again the important role played by alternative artistic proposals that resignify life in the city, “questioning who, what, where, and in what circumstances culture is produced… to polemicize, to construct another reading of the quotidian without an official spokesperson. They teach us, then, to see urban space as a democratic space of contemporary life” (Antonacci Ramos 2009, 1579-80).[20] In this case, the invasion of the uninvited group into the space of the exhibit, which was itself invading urban space, doubly threatened “officialdom.” “Territorial References” anticipated by four years the XI Havana Biennial, in which the opening of a “new” space for the exhibit “Detrás del muro” (“Behind the wall”), precisely in the Malecón and the Avenida del Puerto from the Castillo de la Punta to Maceo Park, was announced as a newsworthy event.[21]

Four days after “Territorial References,” El Ciervo Encantado sent a “Rapid Response” via email alluding to the cancellation of the event. Titled “Hueco negro en Referencias Territoriales” (“Black Hole in Territorial References”), the email juxtaposed phrases from the Sarduy text read in the performance with pictures of the event. This virtual action, similar to the I-Meil Gallery that Lazaro Saavedra started during the email war, was above all a subtle artistic reference to the “Quick Response Brigades”—pro-government groups that take to the streets to undermine or physically and verbally attack people labeled as dissidents. The association of Sarduy’s text with the images of the performance that took place amid the works of the exhibit underlined the intention of “Territorial References” (both exhibit and performance): the transformation of an empty and abandoned urban space into a gallery that took the ruins—the rubble, trash, and rocks—as raw materials for a work of art that ontologically and epistemologically questioned the meaning of art and the line between art and being. The fisherman/Lorelis Amores, sitting with her book in front of the piece “Cuban Art” or by the altar/installation created from mounds of white sand and containers of products purchased in convertible currency, both formed and did not form a part of that black hole. From the disappeared Lorelis, in whose body the fisherman was reincarnated, and from the ruins transformed into art only to be demolished once again, we did get signals, even if they were electronic. The performance—ephemeral repertory of emptiness—and the annihilation of the work of art that questions itself as such resisted disappearance in “Rapid Response.”

In La tempestad y la calma, (Tempest and Tranquility) (2009), the fisherman/Lorelis Amores returns with two characters from De donde son los cantantes (From Cuba With a Song), El Cristo-Sarduy/Eduardo Martínez and Auxilio/Mariela Brito. The three characters used bicycle taxis to ride down the very central Galiano Street to reach the Galiano Gallery and participate in the opening of visual artist Áisar Jalil’s exhibition “Tempest and Tranquility” in the context of the Tenth Havana Biennial. Jalil’s paintings present zoomorphic figures that allude to the “animalization” of individuals and the multiple metamorphoses of being in the Darwinian struggle for survival. The impact of the urban environment on the individual and the consequent moral exhaustion are the pretexts for Tempest and Tranquility. El Ciervo Encantado’s performance, which shared the visual artist’s concerns, seemed to invert dizzyingly Jalil’s proposal. The first words pronounced by El Cristo-Sarduy/Eduardo were: “The street is destroyed.” Making references to a bygone era in Cuba, he saw in the post-Soviet bicycle taxi the coach car of the past. As she arrived in the gallery, Auxilio/Mariela did not understand why there were so many people. “I think we will make a good impression,” she said to Sarduy before entering. “We will leave with an invitation to MOMA.” Once inside the gallery, the confused Auxilio asked: “What is this? Where have you brought me?” And Sarduy, responding eloquently, made it clear that “this is an exhibition of modern art.” Like Sarduy’s cobra that bites its own tail, the performance took the individual back to the street in order to explore the effect on the urban environment and on the citizens of those performers/beings who embodied and were the result of an investigation about the effects of urban and cultural degradation in the individual. The questions about the meaning of art were combined with comments/gossip about daily life, culminating in the key moment of dizzying inversions when Auxilio saw “the shameless one” or the “bald one” (death), a character from De donde son los cantantes (From Cuba With a Song), in one of Jalil’s paintings.[22] We will see the epitome of the animalization of the individual in El Ciervo Encantado’s last performance, Rapsodia para el mulo (Rhapsody for the Mule). Finally, Tempest and Tranquility once again anticipated works shown in the ninth Biennial, transforming a mode of public transportation—the bicycle taxi—into art to question the line between art and reality. But Ciervo Encantado did so without official intermediaries and without necessarily creating an artistic bicycle taxi such as the vehicle created by Liudmila López Domínguez’s (Lud) and Sandra Pérez to be driven by Jorge Perrugoria, the actor from Strawberry and Chocolate, in the 2012 Biennial (Armas Fonseca 2012).

These shipwrecked coffers, territorial references, and tempests and calms suggest a relation to another distinctively Caribbean poetics: Marysé Condé’s “poetics of the mangrove” and its reformulation in Alexandra Vásquez’s essay “Learning to Live Miami.” Condé’s 1989 novel Traversée de la Mangrove introduces the mangrove as a living figure that symbolizes Caribbean adaptation and writing/art as a process. The mangrove, as is well known, is an ecosystem that takes its name from the mangle, the main tree that sustains it. The mangrove is both tree and bush, lives in both salt and fresh water, has roots that are also aerial, and feeds from the wastes that flow its way. Vásquez suggests that “no matter what is done to [mangroves], they still grow up and out into mineral-rich, mangled structures that carry the smells and sounds of antiquity and futurity. Mangroves must form some kind of adaptable relationship to whatever comes their way… Mangroves offer an alternative sense of those geographies that blur the acá/allá (here/there)” (2014, 859). This ecosystem erases the line between land and sea, and the labyrinth/mangle of its roots evokes the concept of the rhizome that Edouard Glissant takes from Deleuze and Guattari and transforms into a metaphor for Caribbean relationality. The poetics of the mangrove, as an ecosystem and as El Ciervo Encantado’s performances, does not admit dualisms or fusions. It is a poetics of construction on the basis of residues from that which is disposed and recycled, on the borderline between the civil and the marginal, the public and the private, on the frontier in which these binaries disappear. El Ciervo Encantado’s poetics of the mangrove is relational and rhyzomatic. As Rancière suggests, “In ‘relational’ art, the creation of an indecisive and ephemeral situation requires the displacement of perception, a shift from the status of spectator to that of actor, a reconfiguration of places…. The specificity of art consists in effectuating a new distribution of material and symbolic space. And that is how art bears upon politics” (2005, 6).

Battlefield Diary

In 2012, to celebrate the 15 years of El Ciervo Encantado, Jesús Ruis, together with Nelda Castillo and Mariela Brito, organized a retrospective exhibit on the group’s oeuvre in the Raúl Oliva gallery titled A la eterna memoria (To Eternal Memory). The exhibition opened with a performance in the group’s headquarters, in which they carried the virgin statue from Visiones down Línea Street to the gallery. A month later, another performance took place: Mesa redonda performativa (Performative Round Table) in which critics talked about the group’s work. The performance and the language used by comrade Chela/Marcela Brito to recount El Ciervo Encantado’s “15 years of victories” parodied the well known Cuban television show La mesa redonda (The Round Table).[23] The performance ended with a gesture of gratitude and solidarity when Chela handed each critic a potato—a product that had “disappeared” at the time from the marketplaces. Once more, El Ciervo shared a wink of complicity with its audience: honorable comrades like Chela, as well as artists, had no choice but to participate in the informal economy or black market, both operating on the basis of the convertible currency (CUC). The parody of this parody of “The Round Table” unfolded in the last Café-theater of The Last Supper, in which the actors of the group embodied the critics to reveal the way in which each one’s characteristic language is governed not just by generational differences but by the institutions they “represent.”

In the booklet of the exhibit titled “A la eterna memoria,” Gómez Triana writes:

Work in progress, store, warehouse, chapel, silo, spare room, temple, changing room, house, washroom, carpentry, enigma, barracks, stands, library, labyrinth, cabaret, theater, basement, sacristy, fambá room,[24] confessional, statelet within the island, altar, field after the battle, museum of eternal memory, phalanstery, temporal facility, tomb, mirror. This show is all of that and more. Do not be fooled, you are not dealing with a chaotic accumulation of antiquated objects. Everything is alive, everything vibrates, everything moves, everything speaks. There are no answers, only an accumulation of questions here: where are the singers from? (2012)

These words underline, on the one hand, the “poetics of the altars” through which the critic had read the group’s performances. But we can only find the answer to the question that has guided the performances and the investigation of El Ciervo Encantado (where are the singers from?) in the poetics of the mangrove. In the words of Nelda Castillo, El Ciervo Encantado’s performances question “Cubanness” “from the standpoint of commitment, but also of devastation, of hurt from the things that we criticize” (Provenzano and Bokser 2010, 14). Nonetheless, as we have seen, “Cubanness” turns out to be a palimpsest written on the bodies of those who stayed in Cuba, through whom one can “read” or remember the history and the memory of the bodies and the texts of those who left. But in the bodies of those who stayed behind, one can also “read” the repertoire of many others who immigrated to the island centuries before or were taken there by force and who now constitute Cubanness. In this ongoing investigation, first of the past and then of the present in order to imagine the future (remember Vásquez’s “the old” and “the future”), Cubanness in the performances studied cannot be understood as an essence, but rather as an identity in the process of becoming, rhyzomatic as a mangrove inasmuch as every answer points to another question.

The retrospective itself might be read as a sort of palimpsest/mangrove, in which one can observe the impulse of inscribing the past of Máximo Gómez’s Battlefield Diary. The audience and, above all, all of us who are assiduous followers of El Ciervo Encantado, experienced each space of the exhibit as a recreation of the different stages of this group and of the insular and international spaces in which El Ciervo has intervened and which it has transformed. There is no doubt that for this group and for the unwritten history of Cuban theater and performance after 1989, as for Máximo Gómez, “it is better to let the facts speak for themselves” (1941).

That battlefield diary to eternal memory of the slippery Ciervo demonstrated the ways in which El Ciervo Encantado’s performances erase the line between categories like inside/outside, performance/reality, and aesthetics/politics. Always in relation to an urban space (Havana), to a geographic space (Cuba/the Caribbean/island-archipelagos), and to a historic space, the beings embodied by the members of the group and its director have a dialogue with the audience and question different dynamics that are as much Cuban as they are intrinsically Caribbean: insularity and archipelago, isolation and opening, insilio (exile within) and diaspora, crossroads and detours. The unresolved Caribbean multiculturalism, always in the process of development, the relation between memory and creativity, between personal memory, collective memory, and history, and the new dialogue established between performance, the artist/individual, and the audience-turned-actor occur through the poetics of the mangrove on the basis of a game between being and presence. The language of this game/performance, as the mask the actors use, conceals in order to reveal not only personal concerns, but also social, cultural, and historical ones. For El Ciervo Encantado, to know one’s self necessitates the knowledge of where one comes from, where one is, and where one wants to be. It is here that the poetics of the mangrove and the political impulse of performance intersect. In those local and ephemeral moments of a performance, “intervals of political subjectivation” can occur: those moments in time that are formed in between identities, in between spaces that can be appropriated in defiance and recognition of the places that have been assigned to us. If the audience that follows them and the audience that stumbles upon them enjoys them despite the devastation, it is perhaps because the performances of El Ciervo Encantado in the urban Cuban/Caribbean mangrove sometimes unconsciously open a window onto Rancière’s political being: “the political being-together is a being-between: in between identities, in between worlds” (2006, 71). In a society where politics is manifest through a language of “siege” and “battles,” El Ciervo Encantado’s performances re-signify public space as a place where being-together and imagining a different politics and future is possible.

 

 

 

Works Cited

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Casanueva, Yeny and Alejandro Gonzalez. “Obra-Catalogo #1.” http://issuu.com/yeny-casanueva/docs/obra-cat_logo-correo_1.

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Coyula, Mario. 2007. “El Trinquenio Amargo y la ciudad distópica: autopsia de una utopia.” Paper presented at the Instituto Superior de Arte, Havana, Cuba, March 19. http://www.criterios.es/pdf/coyulatrinquenio.pdf.

Crespo, Cecilia. 2008. “Para sentir trazo a trazo con Moisés Finalé,” Opus Habana, October 20. Accessed on October 10, 2015.  http://www.opushabana.cu/index.php/articulos/1332-.html.

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[1] We use the word “performer” as Nelda Castillo uses it to refer to the work of her actors in these performances.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, all translations were done by the author or translator of this article.

[3] We use “beings” because, for this group, performance, just like theater, is “an event that occurs in the here and now, involving the organism of actor and spectators: a life experience and not an appearance, where the actors do not represent, they ‘are.’”

[4] Since 1994 there have been two currencies circulating in Cuba: the CUP, also known as the Cuban peso, in which Cubans receive their salaries and their pensions, and the CUC, or convertible Cuban peso, which is necessary to pay for most consumer goods. The CUC is nearly equivalent in value to the US dollar and can be exchanged for 24 Cuban pesos (CUP). This double currency system has resulted in great socioeconomic differences between those who can access the CUC (mainly those who work in tourism or receive family remittances from abroad) and the majority of the population, who can only access the national currency.

[5] The “negrito” is a stock character in the Cuban blackface tradition. See Lane 2005.

[6] For information on the group’s work during this first phase, as well as their pilgrimage, see the documentaries Vía Crucis del ciervo (http://ctda.library.miami.edu/digitalobject/15795) and Mudanza (http://ctda.library.miami.edu/digitalobject/15794).

[7] The cited emails were edited in a collection published by cuba.com/polemica. As of 2015, the collection had been taken offline.

[8] The note announcing Ambrosio Fornet’s first conference and the rest of his cycle stated: “Aiming to guarantee a place for our writers, artists, and intellectuals in general in the still limited space, we have decided to reserve ourselves the right of entry through invitations that will be sent to members of UNEAC, AHS, UNHIC; professors and students of ICA, the Department of Art, and the Departments of Literature and Social Communication of UH; researchers from the Social Science Council of CITMA and the Martin Luther King Center, as well as specialists and cadres of ICRT and institutions of the Ministry of Culture.” The crowd that was left out of the conference waited until nearly midnight and enacted its own performance, shouting the slogan “Desiderio, Desiderio, listen to my Criterio.”

[9] For an analysis of the debate, see Arango 2007 and Ponte 2014.

[10] For an analysis of the meeting and the text see Arango 2010.

[11] Núñez Fernandez elaborates a clarifying study on the process of exchange titles (permuta) in Cuba in his 2008 study.

[12] This list had been preceded by a previous list they prepared for the performance “Ausencia Justificada” (“Justified Absence”), which is analyzed below.

[13] “All of us who have been close to Nelda know that both in her rehearsals and in her performances, she personally embodies the continuum of actions that her actors are enacting in front of her, from the standpoint of a seeming concentration of space, but with an absolute intensity.” (Gómez Triana 2004, v).

[14] Arango himself reads the occupation of spaces as an active intervention, following Edward Said’s terminology: “In the field of culture, the majority of young Cuban writers and artists remain today in a permanent and tense negotiation with institutional spaces, always bordering the limits of what is permissible. Faced with institutions, the artists no longer occupy a subordinate position, and frequently it is the institutions that are forced to be on the defensive.” (2010, 87).

[15] The rest of the collaborations can be found in the Cuban Theater Digital Archive.

[16] See Manzor 2012 for a history of this cancellation and Weiss 2011 for an analysis of the period in terms of fine art.

[17] “There was a Sputnik journal, a radio, a Communist youth credential that once belonged to the artist, his first passport, an aluminum jar from a ‘rural school,’ a Misha bear…the work ‘Las iniciales de la Tierra’ of the deceased and controversial Cuban artist Jesús Díaz (the founding director of the journal Encuentro), medals of the Heroes of Labor, a Vinyl of Farah María…a Political Economy Manual (socialist and printed in the Soviet Union, naturally)…a picture frame made with the wooden sticks of popsicles…a chapel of an international brigadier who went to Angola, Silvio’s Tryptich, a bottle of Georgian brandy and another of Bulgarian wine” (“Una instalación ocurrente”).

[18] I thank Ernesto Fundora Castro for this interpretation of the performance as an exorcism, as well as for his valuable comments on this essay.

[19] For an analysis of the event, see Gámez Torres 2014.

[20] Antonacci Ramos is using “democracy” in a different sense than Rancière’s theorization.

[21] The Biennial, from the moment of its founding in 1984, has tried to push beyond galleries and museums and transform the street into a meeting place for art and the audience. Nonetheless, as Juan Delgado Calzadilla, the curator and coordinator of “Detrás del muro,” noted, ‘Even though the Malecón was the object of other actions, they never reached that magnitude….[I conceived] the idea as an homage to the Cubans who, in a dialogue of faith with the sea, dream that another world is possible’” (“Inauguran”).

[22] As Jalil himself has said, “Some time before the exhibit I went to see a show of the theatrical group El Ciervo Encantado. I then discovered that the aesthetic sense of this collective directed by Nelda Castillo is very strong. Visual elements hold a heavy weight. There were many points of coincidence between my proposal and theirs, in which characters based on my iconography appear” (Estrada Betancourt 2011).

[23] The program began in December 1999 during the campaign for the return of Elián González to Cuba. It is and was the center of “The Battle of Ideas,” a series of actions and programs coordinated by Cuban cultural institutions that seek to take culture to the masses and to transform cultural spaces into political and social ones (“Programas”).

[24] A semi-secret room for sacred altars and offerings.