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Between the Utopic and the Real: The Arts-based Research, Theory, and Practice of Tania Bruguera

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An alumna of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Tania Bruguera is a prolific artist who has spent more than three decades making art to interrupt institutional power and the political imaginary in Cuba, and discourses in the international art world. This essay traces the history of her arts-based research, theory, and practice, ending with an examination of the Documenta 15 installation she and the collective INSTAR staged in 2022.  

The artist-as-theorist framework posited by Sullivan (Figure 1) provides a useful template for examining Bruguera’s oeuvre. Sullivan asserts that there has been a “reemergence of artist-theorists as important sources of vision and voice within the cultural politics of these times… and the approaches they use that require different ways of thinking about artistic inquiry” (Sullivan 2010, 150). 

Figure 1. Artist-as-Theorist Framework (Sullivan 2010).

This framework is well-suited to describe the theorization that Bruguera engages in—a core element of her practice-based research—and the sites of her practice. At the center of the frame is the artist-as-theorist (Bruguera), who engages in a reflexive and relational practice that has transformation as its aim. Three sites of making/ areas of practice surround core: making in communities, making in systems, and making in cultures. Although some of Brugueras projects have been staged in museums, galleries, or other art spaces, it is communities, systems and cultures that are the focal sites of her work. At the vertices are the outcomes of those practices. For making in communities, the outcomes are ideas and agency; making in systems influences (and sometimes creates) forms and structures; and the results of making in cultures are situations and actions.  For actions, Bruguera would substitute the term gestures1 , but the concepts of dissonance, collaboration, critique, and visuality that are a part of that making is consistent with her commentary about her work.

Bruguera has fully conceptualized the categories of art that she makes, offering a new vocabulary to describe her practice. Arte de conducta assumes social behavior as an artistic medium, as a generator of meaning, and as a means to transform the audience into an active citizen. Political timing specific art is art that only has its form, shape, and consequences because of a specific political situation. Arte útil has a long history of being theorized, but Bruguera has revived it with a focus on “the yet-to-come;” art for the not-yet/yet-to-come is a proactive way of working, anticipating the actions of those in power. Bruguera asserts that practitioners of arte útil make work that “transforms affect into political effectiveness” (Neuberger Museum of Art 2019, 40:42). Est-ética is the final concept; Bruguera states, “My aesthetic is about creating new ethics and generating situations where they [participants] have to think about their ethics.” The precepts of est-ética include: artists as initiators, artworks as case studies, spectators as users, museums [and other art spaces] as civic spaces, and results not being produced [objects] but implemented [processes]. 

Bruguera explains why a new vocabulary was needed: 

The terminology currently used can’t fully explain contemporary art practices, so my introduction of new terms is a call to broaden our art vocabulary to avoid confusion and reduction. Today, art is redefining itself in terms of its function (what is art for?), its relationship to the audience (participants, collaborators, coauthors, users), the resources it works with (legislations, civic society, direct politics), its impact (populism, modes of alternative governance, dissolution in culture) and its preservation (reenactment, delegation, sustainability). You can’t explain these changes with medium-specific terminology, for example (Bishop 2020, 9).

Three of the four terms are Spanish by design, to disrupt art-world discourses. Bruguera notes:

My use of Spanish for [some of] these terms is a political statement: it demands that people understand terminology from other places, and claims a Latin American art tradition of actions in public space. Making art in Latin America can have real consequences for artists who decide to engage with social or political commentary; sometimes those consequences are not just legal but life-threatening (Bishop 2020, 9).

Bruguera’s thinking has changed across time, expanding and deepening. In a 2019 artist talk, she shared a concept map (Figure 2), that depicts her view of the continuum of art practice. She noted:

All my work is about this line, where I go from art to reality and I try to be in the middle. My work is about trying to make data, the hard data, an affect element. So, how can you make emotions out of data? For me, also part of my work is a double ontology, meaning it is coming out of art…but also it has to come and be born out of the political situation and be actually be working in both at the same level.  (Neuberger Museum of Art 2019, 30:40).

Figure 2.  Tania Bruguera Art Concept Map (Neuberger Museum of Art 2019, 31:55).

Fundamentally, Bruguera’s practice is about changing discourses, both in the art world and the world at large. Thus, discourse analysis is another framework to use to examine her work, as it involves examination of the material practices of institutions, issues of power, regimes of truth, and institutional technologies. Foucault suggests that institutions work in two ways: through their apparatus and through their technologies. Forms of power/ knowledge—such as regulations, scientific treatises, philosophical statements, laws, morals—constitute  institutional apparatus, and the discourses articulated through all these (Rose 2022, 253). Brueguera notes:

Art and politics have many things in common. They both imagined the future, they both use emotions and manage the power of symbols. Art like politics affects people and I am interested in that space where they both coincide, so we can transfer social affect into political effectiveness (TED Talk, 2017)

Examining forms of power and sites of production are central to discourse analysis. According to Rose (2022), the site of production is central to interpreting visual materials; again for Bruguera those sites are communities, systems, and cultures (that is, the sites from the artist-as-theorist frame). Discourse analysis also asks questions about who makes something, how, when, for whom, and why; for Bruguera these questions precede the making of any work.

Each work in Brueguera’s oeuvre resolves those questions in different ways and addresses a specific discourse. A selection of works is summarized in Table 1.

Artwork (date)Discourse [vocabulary]
Tribute to Ana Mendieta series (1986-1996)State erasure of ex-pats and exiles from cultural landscape
Cuban history and identity/ on and off island
Official art and the people’s art
[political-timing specific]
Untitled (Havana Biennial, 2000)Self-surveillance
[political-timing specific, art for the not-yet/ art for the yet-to-come]
Cátedra de Arte de Conducta (2003-2009)Institution as medium– performing an institution 
Discursive learning environment
Compensatory, liberatory and imaginatory space
Institutional critique – irrelevance of standard academy
[arte de conducta]
Taitlin’s Whisper #5 (Tate Modern, 2008)
Taitlin’s Whisper #6 (Centro Wifredo Lam, 2009)
Relationship between arts and power
Complacency relative to the spectacle of the news
Understanding the experience of others
Activation of the citizen
[arte de conducta]
Immigrant Movement International (2010 – 2015)Immigrants as political subjects – self advocacy
Instrumental assistance (e.g., work permits, naturalization, deportation prevention)
Activist organization understanding value of artists
Arts institutions being politically involved
[arte útil]
Donde tus ideas se convierten en acciones cívicas (100 horas lectura) [The Origins of Totalitarianism] (2015)State as co-author – touching the people who you want to change
[political-timing specific, arte de conducta]
Table 1. Summary of Artworks and Related Discourses

Beyond focusing on a specific discourse, Bruguera’s works also seek to activate artist, viewer, participant, and institution. She says: 

I don’t think art alone can change any political system but it can be a good tool for people to understand things that are hard to visualize, and to bring them to a place where they can imagine other realities that don’t exist yet. Art can unite people and inspire them to do things they think they cannot do. Art can deconstruct images that have been built by political structures. Art can be useful for social change, [but] art alone cannot be useful for social change. (Columbia University School of the Arts 2022, 1:13:35)

This desire to activate has culminated in Instituto de Artivismo Hannah Arendt (INSTAR), which Bruguera founded. It is a long-term project of institution building that the artist has called a “wish-think-do” tank implementing civic solutions. Its website describes the project thusly:

INSTAR—an acronym, and also a verb meaning “to encourage,” “to instigate,” or  “to incite”—works at the fault lines between artistic practice and activism. The institute’s main objectives are the promotion of civic literacy and social justice in Cuba. Operating collectively and by consensus, it creates a model of institutionality guided by freedom of expression, the observance of human rights, and the fulfillment of labor rights such as fair working hours and wages, zero tolerance to discrimination, and favorable working environments for single-parent families. INSTAR is a space that generates content through programming, developed through social networks and at its Havana headquarters: it institutes and promotes awards and scholarships for the financial support of independent practice on the island; and it aims for the restitution of historical memory through public programs and the archive created for this purpose. 

INSTAR was among the many collectives at Documenta 15 with an installation entitled Operational Factography (2022). It was described as a counter-narrative of Cuban cultural history, installed between Havana and Kassel, designed to create the conditions for the crossover and coexistence of ideas that lead to the restitution of historical memory and its activation in the present. Every 10 days, a different exhibition was mounted that displayed a specific project or or practice of Cuban artists across many mediums—performance, painting, photography, video, music, literature—and intellectuals censored by the Cuban government. In addition to the changing exhibitions, there was also a series of public events, workshops, and discussions. Brugera states that the form was, of course, intentional: 

I needed an unstable aesthetic for documenta  so the exhibition changed every 10 days. I wanted people to feel how we felt—insecure. We felt we were missing something, that nothing was complete. We felt uneasiness. We would prepare for something and the next day, the Cuban government could have a new law that could erase months of work. So the changing exhibit was a metaphoric gesture to tell people, you don’t know the whole story. You will never know the whole story.

Figure 3. One of the 10 exhibitions staged by INSTAR, Documenta 15, Kassel, Germany. 

In many ways, Documenta 15 as a whole–as a collective of artists collectives who programmed collectively– was a demonstration of the shift from representation to implementation depicted in Bruguera’s continuum, and a testament to the influence of her work across the decades. It operated in the liminal space between the utopic and the real, art and life; the art on view was not the objects but rather the processes, relationships, and engagements that occurred.


  1. According to Bruguera, “actions need narrativizing and explaining. They are not necessarily legible to others, because the references belong primarily to the artist or a small self-selected group. Gestures, by contrast, are self-explanatory, part of a larger conversation that is happening in society—they communicate beyond individual experience” (Bishop 2020, 16).


Bishop, Claire. 2020. Tania Bruguera: In Conversation with Claire Bishop. New York: Fundación Cisneros

Bruguera, Tania. 2011. “Introducción acera del Arte Útil.” Transcript of presentation delivered at the Creative Time Summit.

Bruguera, Tania. 2012. “Manifesto on Artists’ Rights.” Transcript of speech delivered at 

Center for the Humanities. 2020. Blurring the Lines Between Art and Activism: A Conversation with Tania Bruguera. Vimeo, October 14, 2020, 1:19:37.

Columbia University School of the Arts. 2022. To Transform: Tania Bruguera. YouTube, November 17, 2022, 1:22:41.

Dickerman, Leah, Hal Foster, David Joselit, and Carrie Lambert-Beatty. 2018. “A Questionnaire on Monuments.” October, Summer 2018: 12 – 15.

Expert United Nations Meeting on Artistic Freedom and Cultural Rights, Palais des Nations, Geneva, December 6, 2012.

Feiss, Ellen. n.d. What is Useful? The Paradox of Rights in Tania Bruguera’s “Useful Art.”

Herb Alpert Award in the Arts. 2015. “Tania Bruguera in Her Own Words.”

Malzacher, Florian. 2022. Tania Bruguera: Truth or Dare. Video, The Art of Assembly, 24:06.

Neuberger Museum of Art. 2019. In Conversation: Tania Bruguera – Art as a Verb [artist talk]. YouTube, April 29, 2019, 1:06:26,

Rose, Gillian. 2022. Visual Methodologies (fifth edition). London: Sage Publications

Tate Modern. 2018. Ask the Artist: Questions for Tania Bruguera. YouTube, November 16, 2018, 5:24.

TED Global. 2013. Art + Activism = Artivism: Tania Bruguera. YouTube, 11:20.

Whitehead, Frances. 2006. What Do Artists Know?