OMNI ZONA FRANCA at Glasshouse by Zoya Kocur
This essay was first published on our catalogue ‘7 Invitations’: a gathering of essays that document and respond to seven projects made by artists, researchers and curators at Glasshouse ArtLifeLab during the years 2012- 2014. Each responds to an invitation extended by Lital Dotan & Eyal Perry – to enter, to homage, to transgress, to resist, to tell, to fail and to construct. Contributing writers include: Sara Jane Bailes, Lital Dotan & Eyal Perry, Jennifer Johung, Zoya Kocur, Esther Neff and Nick Zedd.
“OMNI Zona Franca: Meaning and Performance, Home and Away”
by Zoya Kocur
I first met the Cuban performance collective OMNI Zona Franca after attending the group’s provocative biennial performance Hay Que Luchar at the 2006 Havana Biennial. Since then, I have been involved in researching and writing about the collective’s performative interventions in Revolutionary Cuba, and have organized events in the United States in an effort to bring the work to a wider audience. In the spring of 2012, three members of the collective (Amaury Pacheco, Luis Eligio Pérez Cafria, and David D’OMNI) traveled to the United States for the first time, presenting the multimedia performance Makina Total City in cities across the country including Chicago, Providence, Washington, New Orleans, Miami, and New York.
When Lital Dotan and Eyal Perry, artists and founders of Glasshouse, issued a call last year for projects on performance art and modes of curatorial practice, I proposed a residency at the space with the Cuban collective. In fall of 2013, the OMNI artists were invited to the U.S. with a project titled Image and Possibility. The final leg of their tour, in New York City, concluded with a residency at Glasshouse in Brooklyn.
OMNI Zona Franca’s Project
A series of informal collaborations between Zona Franca (an experimental group in Alamar founded by poet Juan Carlos Flores) and a group of local sculptors led to the eventual creation of OMNI Zona Franca. Since the late 1990s, the broad aim of OMNI’s collaborative project has been to expand the space of performance and creative expression in Cuba. Propelled by a utopian and non-hierarchical communal impulse, the group’s artistic and social goals meet in the process of integrating poetry, art, performance, and community engagement.
OMNI Zona Franca has participated officially (and unofficially) in the Havana Biennial and in international exhibitions and festivals throughout Cuba and Europe, however, most often the collective has organized activities and actions performed in the streets of Alamar, a sprawling Revolutionary housing project east of Havana and the group’s home base. OMNI’s public interventions have included reciting poetry on the overcrowded camello ( the truck-bus hybrid of the Cuban Special Period), organizing a spiritually syncretic pilgrimage on the Day of St. Lazarus, and burying themselves in a mound of garbage to bring attention to lack of municipal services. Each year since 1999 they have organized the performance, poetry, music, and video festival Poesía Sin Fin with the participation of artists, musicians, and poets from Cuba and abroad. In 2005, they produced an underground music and poetry CD titled Alamar Express, copies of which traveled from hand to hand all over the island.
OMNI’s history of engaging in unauthorized actions (such as those mentioned above on the bus and in the garbage) and the group’s persistent assertion of its right to free expression has resulted in limited exposure for the collective within Havana’s official art circuits. They were invited to take part in the Havana Biennial of 2006, at the urging of an Italian curator and with the support of the cultural consul from Spain. An invitation to perform in another Biennial event was withdrawn. They have had only one exhibit in an official gallery, at the Center of Art and Design in Havana. In December 2009, at the beginning of the month-long Poesía Sin Fin festival, the collective was evicted from its studio space and the site of many of the festival events in Alamar, part of a series of state actions intended to curtail cultural activities considered contrary to state interests. The group responded by moving the events into their own homes, where they were nonetheless subject to official restrictions.
To counter the lack of institutional support in Cuba, OMNI has forged an array of institutional and informal relationships with curators, artists, and cultural producers from Latin America, North America, and Europe who visit and work in Cuba. The conditions under which OMNI has had to work since being forced to leave their studio/workshop space have led to a shift toward individual projects, but through their international contacts the collective has found increased opportunity to work abroad. In recent years they have been invited abroad for several residencies in Europe and the United States.
The Residency at Glasshouse: Event/Process/Performance
The residency at Glasshouse provided an opportunity to investigate OMNI’s practice in a new context, outside of the island but not necessarily removed from its socio-political influences. The ten day residency produced a number of events and projects, including an exhibition of paintings, prints, and videos in the gallery, and a moderated artist’s discussion that generated an energetic and wide-ranging public exchange about experiences of producing art and the conditions of daily life in Cuba. The group presented two performance events during the residency; a multi-media evening of spoken word, performance, and free hop music; and a performance in the streets of South Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
The latter was an interactive event that generated a wide range of reactions from the public. The public action was an iteration of a performance called Cuerpo Nacional (National Body), most recently presented in Providence, Rhode Island in 2012. As in Providence, at Glasshouse the artists invited the public to participate in a workshop beforehand, offering an opportunity to participate in the preparation and also the performance itself. The scheduled time of the workshop at Glasshouse fell on a weekday and the number people who could participate for the entire day was limited. However, many passers-by stopped in front of the Union Avenue storefront window of Glasshouse to watch the artists wrap and tape each other’s bodies in newspapers, some of whom ventured into the gallery to ask what was happening. The laborious process took several hours, until finally the three artists were completely wrapped in newspapers and connected to one another with ropes resembling umbilical cords fashioned from newspaper and blue tape.
The trio exited the gallery around 4:30 p.m. and began walking down Union Avenue in South Williamsburg, encased in newspapers from head to toe, connected to one another, moving slowly and deliberately, without talking. Cars on the busy avenue slowed down, some honked their horns or yelled out in response to the spectacle. A busload of laughing and pointing school children stuck their heads out of a bus to see them. Pedestrians encountered on the sidewalk stopped short. Many attempted to elicit a response from the wrapped figures. Some thought the spectacle was related to Halloween as the date was close. Dozens of people photographed the trio with mobile phones, some taking “selfies” with the artists. When the artists stepped onto a small concrete island in a particularly busy intersection, where they stood motionless for several minutes, they stopped traffic.
The reactions in the street were puzzlement and curiosity and laughter and the majority of spectators openly enjoyed the unexpected encounter. The most typical questions asked of the silent papered figures were “What is this? What are they doing? What are they supposed to be?” Though the artists did not speak, they allowed spectators to freely interact with them. One man ran up to Amaury Pacheco, grabbed his newspaper-wrapped hand with a vigorous handshake, thanked him with an expression of solidarity, and gave him money. Once night began to fall, the performers made their way back to Glasshouse, and concluded the performance by energetically ripping all the newspaper off their bodies in the gallery, once again with passers-by looking on.
In the Cuban context, this performance may be understood as a commentary on the closed loop of official news and information under the state controlled media. The image of the artists’ bodies sealed shut by newspaper with no source of air supply refers visually to the suffocation of free speech and the stifling of open communication. In non-Cuban geopolitical contexts, this performance might be read through local and universal lenses as a commentary on censorship and media monopolization in the service of state and corporate interests, and as a reference to threats to the freedom of speech under the specter of a globalized and monolithic media. The final action of tearing the newspapers off their bodies and throwing the ripped paper on the ground physically enacts a rejection of censorship and issues a symbolic demand for democratic speech.
OMNI’s struggle for freedom of creative expression in the Cuban public sphere characterizes much of their art. However, a work that may be considered controversial or transgressive in Cuba runs the risk of dissipation or dilution when removed from its original sociopolitical context. The Brooklyn performance of Cuerpo Nacional suggests that new possibilities can emerge from these shifts of context, raising locally relevant sets of questions and making connections to broader transnational issues. The performance presented an opportunity to observe how performance art is mediated by a specific environment and highlighted ways in which OMNI’s performative interventions could create community in the spaces of everyday life, art, and the street.
Glasshouse was conceived by its founders as an art-life-lab dedicated to exploring the concept of hosting as a central element. Therefore, the OMNI artists-in-residence shared not only gallery space but also the domestic space of the Glasshouse artists-founders. Because of my prior relationship with the guests and hosts, I trusted that the combination of objectives would be realized and synergized; indeed, during the residency’s short period of intense work, I was struck by the vitality of the artistic project that emerged, nurtured and fueled by the interaction between the OMNI artists and hosts, Lital and Eyal. Their efforts were characterized by a mutual generosity of spirit, openness, and a willingness to take risks on an artistic and human level.
From my perspective as guest curator, I had a chance to see the development of the relationship between guests and hosts who had not met before the residency, and to reflect on how the domestic aspects of the project intersected with its artistic aims. From the outset of the residency, the literal act of communication had to be addressed - on both sides - due to lack of a common language (not all the OMNI artists are fluent in English, and the Glasshouse founders don’t speak Spanish). The efforts undertaken by the OMNI artists and their hosts to solve this everyday challenge influenced the art context and of necessity created one form of art-life linkage.
The time in residence at Glasshouse provided OMNI Zona Franca with the opportunity to engage new gallery audiences in their performance process. I was curious to see if connections would be made between the Cuban artists and the working class Latinos who have historically lived in this rapidly gentrifying area. The openness of the artists of OMNI led to conversations with neighbors, with whom they found common ground. The interactions between the local residents, some of whom had no prior personal interactions with the gallery, and the artists expanded in a modest but meaningful way the perimeter of the art-life laboratory.
I close with a general observation about the creative potential of the art-life domestic space. The relationship between hosts and guests who occupy a common domestic space must be negotiated in expected tangible ways, that is, working out use of space, sleeping and eating arrangements, etc., but the guest-host relationship exists also in registers that are fluid and poetic. These have to do with the creative energy and potentials generated out of the mindful integration and balancing of the domains of the art-life space (for example, the choreography of multiple bodies occupying a space in the course of a day). An area for further reflection on the generative impact of the art-life experiment as it unfolds at Glasshouse and other experimental spaces is an analysis of these cumulative human interactions, including the body memory of movements, and their residues, so we might discover how these experiences are transformed and reimagined, to resurface in performances and forms of art yet to be seen.
© Zoya Kocur, New York City, August 2014
Bio: Guest curator of the OMNI Zona Franca residency at Glasshouse, Zoya Kocur holds a PhD in Visual Culture from Middlesex University, London. Her current research centers on alternative cultural production in Cuba and the OMNI Zona Franca collective. She is an independent scholar and curator and has served on the faculties of New York University and the Rhode Island School of Design. Her publications include Theory in Contemporary Art Since 1985 and Global Visual Cultures.