In the following short text, I will briefly describe Tania Bruguera’s performance piece Untitled (Bogotá, 2009) and discuss some of the critiques made in the Colombian media and link this with an idea from Sarah Ahmed’s book: Complaint! (2021)
The performance took place the 26th of August 2009 on the second floor of the Fine Art department’s building of Colombia’s National University. It was part of the 7th Gathering of the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics. For her piece, Bruguera invited 3 panelists to discuss the political construction of the hero. The panelists were: a community leader of a group of forced migrants, a former member of the FARC guerilla and the sister of a victim of kidnapping (still in captivity). While each of the panelists were talking about what the hero figure means to them, Bruguera circulated a tray of lines of cocaine for the audience to consume. Some time later, representatives of the university and the event interrupted the panel and voiced their opinion against drug consumption on campus. After this some members of the audience grabbed the microphone and started to talk for or against the performance. At the end, Bruguera grabs the microphone, thanks “all Colombian members of the audience” and leaves.
After the performance, the artist writes a letter on her website
addressing some aspects of her practice and a few of the reasons why she decided to conduct the performance as she did. In this letter she explains Untitled (Bogotá, 2009) is part of a larger body of work comprised of Untitled (Havana, 2000), Untitled (Kassel, 2002) and Untitled (Gaza, 2009), a series of works where she explores the dynamic nature of the public and what she calls behavior art, “a type of art that works with social behavior as material, product and documentation as means of expression”.
On her website Bruguera also states the following: “I would like to clarify that the work presented was entirely funded by me without the support of any local or foreign institutions. The institutions backing this event are not accountable for the opinions expressed or for the actions carried out since they did not agree with the piece, as was expressed that day. Now well, although the work of the institution is to carry out implementation from its point of view, artists are not obliging beings.”
In Esfera Pública, a Colombian online art critic publication, there were several essays and papers published about this performance. Some authors, like Ivan Rikenmann, praise her work saying the adverse reaction of the audience was intended and was part of the piece. Other Esfera Publica contributors, like Maria Alejandra Estrada and Jorge Peñuela, condemn the poor treatment of the Colombian conflict and of the victims in the work.
Victor Albarracín, in his book El tratamiento de las contradicciones complains about the long lines at the event and discusses the missed opportunity of engaging with real victims and actors of the Colombian conflict. I would say there was a missed opportunity of engaging with anyone at the event. At the beginning of the performance, the audience already knows there will be some sort of element of surprise, something shocking. When the cocaine tray does its round thru the audience and some start consuming cocaine in front of everyone, the individual stories of the panelists are quickly set aside and tucked away to make room for the spectacle of the cocaine. The Hemispheric Institute and the organizers at the university, incapable of censoring the consumption of cocaine within the frame of the performance, condemned the use of drugs but at the same time sponsored the whole event and paid the artists.
In her book Complaint! Sarah Ahmed writes about what she calls non-performativity. “By nonperformativity, I refer to institutional speech acts that do not bring into effect what they name.” (Ahmed, 2021 p. 30). We could extend the term institution to actors working within institutions, like Tania Bruguera being commissioned to do a performance piece for The Hemispheric Institute inside a University building.
According to The Hemispheric Institute’s website the goal of Bruguera’s performance was to “coexist and co-create a parallel, temporary universe as an act of international reconciliation.
The artist set out to explore a society in conflict as an “interlocal” artist and transform the audience, both a mixture of national and international guests into a “translocal” audience. However, in my opinion, she ended up alienating herself, her collaborators, the event organizers and the audience given their actions in the aftermath of the piece. In this sense Untitled (Bogotá, 2009) could be a non-performative performance.
In the performance, Bruguera turns itself into another institution that fails to provide a safe space to openly discuss the conflict through the voice of real victims and perpetrators but instead turns it into an echo chamber where the sound of cocaine snorting and the absence of her own voice drown all possible conversation.