The ninth Havana Biennial is made up of a dynamic yet chaotic mix of official and unofficial events. In a dense landscape where the histories of colonialism and modernism coexist in an uneasy decay, the biennial’s official theme of Urban Dynamics holds promise. However, the central site of the biennial, located outside the city at the historic La Cabana fortress on the island’s shore, throws the strength of the theme into question. Dominant here is a type of urban landscape photography that glosses over differences to portray the idea of a “global city” In contrast, the more interesting projects subvert such literal interpretations and instead investigate notions of community as a complex and often confrontational aspect of urban experience. At a time when Canada is descending into its own War on Terror, investigating al Qaeda-inspired bomb plots, the ninth Havana Biennial exposes community as a fragile and temporary construct.
Cinthia Marcelle makes the confrontations innate to community manifest in the video Unus Mundus-Confrantacion (2005). A wide overhead shot reveals a scene on an anonymous city street. With traffic stopped at the lights of an intersection, two young people juggling fire appear from outside the frame. They walk in front of the waiting cars, delivering a performance that ends when the lights change. However, as the video unfolds and traffic stops again, the two jugglers become four, the four become six; finally, eight jugglers occupy the street, holding their position even after the light turns green, effectively blocking the flow of cars. As Marcelle’s video ends, the viewer is left with a growing swell of car horns protesting the jugglers, and a new, fluid border is drawn across city space.
Better Lives (2003), by Sue Williamson, presents the experiences of pan-African refugees living in Cape Town and at the same time it investigates the tension between still and moving images. Williamson assembles five different sets of refugees to pose for traditional studio portraits, then exhibits the photographs as large-format prints. Mirroring the photographs, five separate monitors present videos of the refugees in the same studio setting. Here, Williamson’s subjects hold similar portrait poses as they listen to audio recordings of themselves telling their tales of exile, which had been taped earlier. Allowing viewer and subject to encounter the recordings simultaneously releases the refugee experience from the realm of the fixed photograph so it may be explored as a continuously unfolding struggle, the concrete consequences of which remain broader than the borders that frame them.
Entering Cuba as a North American I am aware that this biennial continues to happen in the shadow of the Helms-Burton Act and Cuba’s geopolitical isolation from the North and yet flourishes along with the rise of the New Left in Latin America. Ironically, the transitory international art community that congregates briefly in the city provides the best example of a contested meaning: the conflict between the city and everyone’s occasion for being there. I immediately think of this community, of which I am a member, when I encounter the untitled installation by Shilpa Gupta. At the entrance to La Cabana, yellow tape of the type used by police at crime scenes covers the handrails of a small bridge over a moat. On the tape, black text features a repeating phrase in both English and Spanish: “THERE IS NO BORDER HERE,” Bringing artists to the city to exhibit alongside visiting artists, critics and curators from around the world, the biennial does indeed transcend traditional borders of geography, if only momentarily. But at the Havana Biennial there are, of course, borders everywhere: between the context of the viewer and that of the artist, between the biennial’s mandate to exhibit contemporary art from Africa, Asia and Latin America and the primarily Euro-American provenance of many foreign visitors, between the international audience and the boundaries of language, nation and region. Gupta’s installation neatly expresses this double meaning, drawing a boundary with perimeter tape to expose the role of the international biennial in the new globalist fiction of a borderless world.