Art, politics & power

René Francisco and Rainer Simon connect nations through culture

Screen shots from René Francisco’s project “Agua Benita.”
Screen shots from René Francisco’s project “Agua Benita.”

René Francisco has a flair for the serendipitous.

His notorious artistic interventions—often aimed at improving an economically depressed community near where he is a professor of fine arts in Havana—are products of circumstance, often created out of individual encounters with members of the community. For instance, when Francisco and his students became aware of an elderly disabled woman’s desire to care for a flower garden, they built, and documented the creation of, a patio adjacent to her house, exhibiting it on the international art circuit with a host of other such ‘social insertions.’

It’s appropriate, then, that his upcoming visit to Canada was subject to the same serendipitous fate.

Initially intending to arrive in June, Francisco—a UNESCO award winner who holds an honorary doctorate from the San Francisco Art Institute—had difficulty obtaining a Visa from the Canadian embassy and was forced to delay his arrival until autumn. Coincidentally, the acclaimed German filmmaker Rainer Simon was scheduled to make the Kingston stop of his North American film tour the same week.

Modern Fuel, with the help of The Artel and Cinema Kingston, quickly seized the rare opportunity to mingle the two variously renowned artists and created Cuba/Germany/Kingston: A Week of Intercultural Exchange in Film and Art.

Saturday night will be the premiere event of the week, where Francisco, Simon and two Canadian artists—Clive Robertson and Johanna Householder—will all be communing under the venerable name of Joseph Beuys, the famed German insertion artist who Francisco modeled himself after in the 1990s. Although none of these artists have ever met before, their discussion will invoke some of the vastest and most difficult themes the art world has to offer. Entitled “On Art and Politics since ‘89”, the discussion will take place at the Artel, bringing together Cuban, German and Canadian perspectives on the issue, all contextualized by the commemorative dedication to Beuys.

“We’ll be getting, in Kingston, an international perspective on these issues and the issues surrounding Beuys—his postulation that art had a great value for humankind and was transformative for society,” said Michael Davidge, artistic director of Modern Fuel.

“And we have no idea what will happen, these people have never met before. It will be very interesting to see if any sparks fly, if there’s any difference in opinion.

“Then, on Sunday, there’s this video screening in the FRILL [Friends Revitalizing Industrialized Lands Lovingly] community garden—serendipity again. We couldn’t get René here earlier this year, we could only get him now, and it turns out that the date he is coming is the date the garden is having their harvest festival, just showing, in some ways, the solidarity between people who are working at a grassroots level to better their communities.” Like Francisco, Simon has also worked amongst decrepit communities in an avant-garde method. He has pioneered a collaborative documentary style, employed in Ecuador, which removes the director from the helm and involves the subjects in the film-making process.

Both individuals emphasize, in their own way, the revolutionary power of art. But to many in the art community in Canada, that power is being compromised by forces external to it—one of the many reasons that make this weekend all the more exciting.

“Currently, arts organizations and artists leading up to the federal election are having to make an argument about the power of art,” Davidge said. “It will be interesting to test these ideas about the power of art over the arguments for the federal level of funding for the arts.” Susan Lord, who studies Cuban film and visual culture and has aided in coordinating this intercultural week, said this weekend’s events are very significant.

“This means a great deal for Cuba and Germany,” she said. “One of the main connecting issues is art and politics, north and south, the way media communicates across borders. When we talk about art or film events or productions we often talk about things in terms of nation—Canadian film, Cuban art, German visual culture—and we don’t often get to put the specific localities of these people’s practices together.

“What I think is significant is that it’s a trans-local event. We are bringing people together who don’t necessarily represent their nation but the community that they’re involved in. We’ve got these connections between different localities or communities and that’s what brings these people together and makes it significant.” Lord said she views the convenient coincidences of this intercultural week as an opportunity to not only discuss art in the trans-local sense, but also to use it as a platform from which the particular events occurring within Canada can be addressed; specifically, the recent arts funding cuts by the Conservative government.

“This event may be on the tail end of an era,” she said. “The funding may be so poor next year that we won’t be able to have events like this unless we make a concerted effort to protest the magnitude of the cuts and emphasize the important role that art plays in negotiating between nations.

“I don’t think it’s without significance that these three localities are coming together through their art practice when there have been many times in the history of these nations when the communications between them have been complicated. The artists assume the role of brokers, almost, opening up the dialogue between nations.

“If we don’t have funding for artists to produce and travel their work we lose the opportunity to participate in the global discussion about how we share this world.”

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