Por Carina Pino
This is the first time that Cubans on the Island can see the Special Holding Unit Prison Quarters of the United States (SHU), to go into it and if they prefer, to experience the conditions of a maximum security prison in solitary confinement, if only for five minutes.
The installation reproduces a part of this type of US prison where “The Five” were prisoners having suffered a trial in Miami and being sentenced for searching for information about terrorist actions to be carried out against Cubans and in the United States, in a legal process which is considered to not even have a precedent in the history of American jurisprudence.
Certainly, it is still recent news that there in the United States, on the 8th of May the Prize for Human Rights 2014 Global Exchange, will be bestowed on the five fighters (three of them still in prison), in the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, California. It is a recognition that, in addition, has been received by Alice Walker, Harry Belafonte, Noam Chomsky among other prestigious personalities, from this international human rights organization.
The work in the Palace of Fine Arts recreates the conditions of the Hole, a space 4 and a half meters long by somewhat more than two wide on the 12th floor of the Federal Detention Center of Miami, where they stayed for 17 months beginning on the 29th of September of 1998 and before the trial of the Cuban Five.
Besides representing “Chu”, as the prisoners in the United States call him, is included, in front of the first prison cubicle, the exhibition space El Hueco, un espacio para el arte contra la injusticia (The Hole, a space for art against injustice) that will be desined for transitory exhibitions and where the personal show Yo me muero como viví (I die the way I lived) of 15 watercolors by Antonio Guerrero, who has been behind bars for the same number of years.
In the back part of the square that is located a few meters from the entrance to the National Museum of Fine Arts the scene continues with ten school desks in whose tops catalogues about the exhibition are screwed down, in addition to a digital screen on which are projected all the documentaries since 1998 about the case of the Cuban Five making a small open theater.
The sum total of the installation grouping is titled No agradezcan el silencio (Don’t thank the silence) and it is the latest work of Alexis Leyva Machado “Kcho” who, together with Wilfredo Lam, forms part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) of New York.
The public becomes the principal performer if it wishes and it can live the experience of being imprisoned there if only for the symbolic sum of five minutes.
The visitor must surrender their personal belongings, sign the entry into prison in a black folder with the name of the show and later be photographed with the number that has been assigned to them on a board.
A brief line of people wait, the first day open to the public inside the museum, in order to experience that which Fernando González, one of The Five, now free, but who was confined there like his companions, characterized as “a horrifying experience”.
My five minutes in the Hole can be described as follows:
After being handcuffed, I was guided to a small area where I was given an orange uniform bearing the name Gerardo Hernández Nordelo and the number of years he was sentenced to (which was life in prison). I had to roll up the pant legs several times because the size was much too big, while the guard, impeccably dressed in blue with the initials of the FDC, ordered me to put on gray socks and slippers of the same color. Following that, I was chained around the ankles. The chains were double and were locked with the jailer’s key. The brief transit toward the cell was carried out therefore, handcuffed and with chained feet. One minute after removing the chains to enter the cell, it was closed with a bang. The “guard” shouted to back up near a small pass through in the metal door, to take off the handcuffs.
The second order was for me to hit the bunk. This is double and in front, a cement triangle sticks out in the way of a table which is paired with a concrete stool that appears to be coming out of the floor. The dirty humidity of the ground is in a scene that has for all its decoration a cockroach – detained in its apparent ascent up the wall -, the lens of a security camera and a strip that could pass for some type of window. Inspecting the group I found only two ventilation ducts. One of these a grating like the ones used in Cuba for drains, over the toilet close to the ceiling.
(I tried to imagine that which Antonio Guerrero relates printed in the catalogue about how he got up on top of the lavatory in order to read poems through those holes, to his companions in the neighboring cell).
In the next instant the orders are heard: Lift one leg, lift the other, show your private parts, now do knee bends! Barely seconds later, another voluntary player in the performance, entered. A blonde woman of thirty some years, also in uniform asked me if I had read the poems that were on top of the cement stand, along with table game of Parchese (crafted totally by hand). The performer looked around and immediately said: I want you to take me out of here now. At that very moment a guard came in order (to “free” the lady) and by the way handcuffed me again. I was double-chained at my ankles again, which makes it hard to walk around the installation clumsily to its entrance, the last point of personal theatrical performance.
“In the “excesses” of the tourtures, awhole economy of power is seen”, says Foucault in his erudite study Vigilar y Castigar. Nacimiento de la prisión. (Watch and Punish. Birth of the prison). In truth, the penal action staged in the museum, reflects incidentally, how alienated the powerful are from the human condition which should be intrinsic.
Beside the fact that the work does not propose to expressly reflect a criticism of the penitentiary system of the united States, the role carried out voluntarily by the visitor (whether Cuban or not) in the role of the prisoner turns out to be impactful with respect to the Hole, where in real life, the most dangerous prisoners are held during 22 and a half hours a day, only leaving to go to REC for only one hour in certain prisons. Hunger strikes, suicides and the sharpening of mental illnesses in US jails are the result of thousands of people being held in the SHU during many years, according to declarations by specialized American writers, analysts and scientists, such as the APA (American Psychological Association).
Nevertheless, as Kcho would say on the 5th day of its inauguration, the work was not created to show hate, but rather “as a space for love, peace and reflection centering on the case of the Cuban Five” who were imprisoned in the United States.
The installation and performance in their unity apply the cultural and auratic meaning of the fine arts, upon being shown in the museum. With the result that it is the place where the staging is developed that which qualifies the experience as esthetic.
In the showing of 15 watercolors that Antonio Guerrero, self taught, created in prison represent objects and life experiences that – in addition to having been useful to document the installation -, transmit the anguished memory “of the unjust and cruel treatment that we were given from the first day of our arrest” in Guerrero’s words.
In his plea at the trial he declared that he did not defile, offend, plagiarize, deceive, defraud, nor commit espionage: “The Intention, there was no other – he assured in view of the sentence- than that of avoiding the senselessness and crime, saving the flower of life from fortuitous death, brusque, vain and premature.”
This space in which his watercolors are shown, will be used to show future groupings that are not tied to a specific subject, according to what Kcho told me, rather they would gain much if their quality and meaning had a common denominator a non complacent art, that would gear into this same tendency of transforming the spectator by way of the lived or observed.
And likewise this installation and esthetic performing experience is inclined to a social message, ethical and meaningful in the political sense, whose effectiveness will be greater as its incidence in the public who visit the museum grows; in the same way works like this can also make extensive non material supports or include them, in order to influence large international auditoriums and publics.
At present are found re-sentenced, for crimes they did not commit, Ramón Labañino (30 years), Antonio Guerrero (21 years and 10 months) and Gerardo Hernández (two life sentences plus15 years).
The work in the National Museum incites us to be participants in a communication or solidary action. To not grant them our silence would be, in this sense, an important act of valor, honorable and just.
Translation: Daniel Fenton (Cubarte)