Noah Simblist: Tania Bruguera: The Francis Effect

Tania Bruguera: The Francis Effect

Edited by Noah Simblist

Deep Vellum Books, 2022

Stemming from a performance that originated at the Guggenheim Museum, The Francis Effect explores Tania Bruguera’s work as an artist, activist, and Cuban immigrant to the US, engaging the tension between art’s pragmatic, activist, and aesthetic possibilities.

The performance of The Francis Effect follows the form of a political campaign, aiming to request that the Pope grant Vatican City citizenship to all immigrants and refugees. As a conversational, collaborative project, the resulting book mirrors Bruguera’s artistic practice with essays and conversations from the curators and Bruguera. In addition, the book-project includes commissioned essays from art historian Our Literal Speed, sociologist Saskia Sassen, and historian Nicolas Terpstra.

By Noah Simblist

The Francis Effect is a performance in the guise of a political campaign, the aim of which is to request that the pope grant Vatican City citizenship to all immigrants and refugees as a concrete gesture of support that transcends simple charity and instead offers legal protection. Tania Bruguera refers to Vatican City as having been “born as a conceptual nation without borders,” arguing that its international population aligns it with the idea of a global state into which people are accepted without judgment. An example of this sentiment in The Francis Effect is the use of Pangea as its icon. The artist and her collaborators gathered signatures on postcards, addressed to Pope Francis, in Cuba, France, Germany, Israel, and Italy, as well as in Dallas, Los Angeles, and New York. As of October 2014, over fourteen thousand signatures were gathered from participants living in 190 countries. By using the form of the petition, the project appropriates a fundamental forum for civic engagement and addresses the denial of political rights to immigrants and refugees. The broad goal of the project is to challenge public perceptions of immigration by responding to recent shifts in world culture.

While bringing together the subjects of religion and migration through the pope and Vatican City, both of which are often regarded as apolitical, the artist reminds us of the Catholic Church’s long history of helping to establish kings and queens, treaties and borders, and of its influence over world affairs. The pope’s status as a head of state empowered to enact local governmental policy to international effect offers participants in the project a plausible role in using art as a vehicle for social change. Throughout the project, Bruguera has maintained a unique relationship with her audience, engaging in direct conversations on the streets outside museums with individuals who often take her and her collaborators to be canvassers. She thereby blurs the line between art and life and underscores her work’s political element.

The style of this book is conversational, collaborative, and self-reflexive––much like Bruguera’s practice. It deliberately is interdisciplinary, drawing from curatorial practice, art history, sociology, and religious studies. It’s also global, weaving narratives that incorporate, by implication, the Americas (including the US, Latin America, and the Caribbean), the Middle East and North Africa, Europe, and elsewhere.

One important idea in Brugeura’s practice has been what she calls “politically timing-specific” artworks. In 2014, when The Francis Effect began, the migration of Syrian, Afghan, and Iraqi refugees leaving their war-torn homes for Europe via the Mediterranean was reaching a crisis point. For many of them, Italy and Greece became the first point of entry to the continent, and media images showing thousands of desperate people washing up on the shores of Southern Europe shocked the world. The other main immigration crisis surrounded young children fleeing violence in Central America who moved north toward the United States, as Saskia Sassen notes in her contribution to this volume. Given these crises, The Francis Effect could be seen as a “politically timing-specific” work in response to those moments.

But when the book about this project comes out so long after the initial performances in 2014, one might question its relevance at the time of publication and for future readers. Sadly, while the immigration patterns of 2014 have changed, immigration has continued to be an unresolved issue around the globe. Furthermore, it was a central issue in the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and his subsequent administration, which demonized Latin American, Muslim, and Asian immigrants and made a border wall central to his legacy. The hope is that this book can be useful not only for art historians, curators, and artists researching Bruguera’s practice but also for those seeking the possibilities of using art to address immigration issues as they evolve over time––issues that, as this book will show, have been with us for centuries.

As Bruguera notes in her essay, her identity is personally connected to immigration and thus to the larger concerns of The Francis Effect. She became an immigrant when she moved from Cuba to the United States. She experienced firsthand the complexities of being identified as Latina or Hispanic, nuances that have also been explored in the mainstream media following the 2020 election, which revealed the Latin American immigrant population of the United States to be split into multiple ideological camps as wide-ranging and diverse as Latin America itself.

For the institutions involved in this project, our relationships to our publics and our communities also had to be negotiated with this socially engaged project. The curator conversation elucidates some of the challenges and opportunities that The Francis Effect offered to see more clearly our relationship to the public. For instance, this project didn’t just address immigration; it also addressed the difference between the museum and the street as public spaces. It brought up the difference between private and public spaces as civic spaces and the difference between the museum and the church as civic spaces. In each case the artist and the curators of the project had to work in and around the laws and policies governing these spaces and whether they would allow the performance of art or political advocacy within their confines.

Taken together, Bruguera’s essay, the curator conversation, and Our Literal Speed’s contribution begin to show us how The Francis Effect navigates the spaces between art and politics. Furthermore, we see how Bruguera has addressed this space in her practice in general and questioned the ways in which art can engage with both the real and the symbolic. She has a number of ways of articulating this tension, including terms that she has coined, such as Arte Útil (useful art), Artivism (the combination of art and activism), and Est-Ética
(the combination of aesthetics and ethics).[1]

Another issue that arises from The Francis Effect is the use of socially engaged practices, specifically conversation as a medium to negotiate politics. In her essay Bruguera talks about the challenges of short- vs. long-term projects. She notes that for an art project to truly engage a social and political reality it can’t be bound by the artificial cycles of time that culture is usually based on and must allow for long durations that, if successful, may leave the artist and the institution behind. In the curator conversation Bruguera speaks about her critique of the artist as a do-gooder and advocates for models of antagonism to create truly radical forms of social and political change.

To complete the project, Bruguera has written a letter to Pope Francis––the first Latin American pope, who also made headlines by engaging with refugees in Lampedusa, Italy––requesting an audience to deliver the postcards in person. In doing so, she turns direct accountability to an institution that has tended to shun it. The artist suggests that the Catholic Church may, by helping those in need on a global scale and moving from charity toward public policy, become an agent for implementing long-term, economically sustainable change.

This book includes an essay by Bruguera that explains the genesis of The Francis Effect and its relationship to her other work on immigration, most notably Immigrant Movement International (IMI). IMI was a project that was conceived in relation to the 2005 immigrant protests in Paris but became officially manifest in New York in 2011 with support from Creative Time and the Queens Museum. In 2018–19 it transitioned into an independently run community center. The Francis Effect overlapped in many ways with IMI, as Bruguera explains.

The book also includes a conversation between the curators from each of the three commissioning institutions and Bruguera. The conversation describes the project’s development in the context of three different cities and curatorial frameworks, revealing the behind-the-scenes process in which a socially engaged artwork takes shape.

In addition to the artist’s and curators’ description of The Francis Effect’s evolution, three commissioned essays look at the performance from a critical perspective. First Our Literal Speed places the work in the larger context of Bruguera’s oeuvre and her biography, arguing that both Communism and Christianity played an important role in her early development in Cuba. They also point out an earlier work, Generic Capitalism (2009), as an example of not only an artwork that uses conversation as a medium, like The Francis Effect, but one that critiques uncritical assumptions within progressive politics, phenomena which could be described as “preaching to the converted.” This work, performed in Chicago, involved a panel discussion with former members of the Weather Underground and plants in the audience that challenged the speakers in ways that went far beyond the usual politeness of an academic event. Preaching to the converted is a stance that Bruguera adamantly rejects, and, as she and the curators describe, the discussions involved in the performance of The Francis Effect were truly political in the sense that they involved the negotiation of different points of view around the composition of our shared social reality.

Then the sociologist Saskia Sassen analyzes The Francis Effect in relation to the contemporary state of globalization and international migration. Looking at the conditions that produce systems of migration––including colonialism, economic development, climate change, ethnic cleansing, and drug violence––Sassen’s analysis helps elucidate who is the migrant to whom Bruguera’s project refers. As a case study for the complexities and nuances of these systems Sassen examines the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Myanmar, and their plight in relation to not only the dominant narrative of religious persecution but also multinational land development. The other case study revolves around minors escaping violence in Central America––under circumstances tied to the takeover of small-scale farms by larger agribusiness, which led to migration to the cities, overpopulation, job shortages, and the rise of the drug trade and its related and inevitable violence.

Finally the historian Nicolas Terpstra addresses Bruguera’s project in the context of the Catholic Church’s history of political interventions and its attitudes towards exiles and refugees in the early modern world. He shows us that, with the Inquisition in the fifteenth century, the Church created refugees and that, with the Reformation movements in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, Rome became a refugee center for Catholics exiled from Protestant countries. He shows how the Enlightenment and the rise of nationalism compounded the political influence of the Church and how in the twentieth century it landed in the place where it sits now, in the borderlands between national sovereignty. Given this context, in which the “Catholic Church, of all modern churches, experiences most directly the global refugee crisis at its key sources,” Terpstra offers a question: “How can and should it use that experience and its unique status as a state in order to address that crisis?”

Both Terpstra and Sassen help us to understand the histories of refugees and of the Catholic Church as a political actor. Their writings serve to contextualize The Francis Effect in histories of political economy. These are the social relations that Bruguera points to through The Francis Effect. Our Literal Speed tells us that “an artwork can exist before it becomes a manifestation of this social relationship, but it can exist as art only upon entering the flow.” The flow, they say, is the way in which an artwork becomes a part of a series of social relationships. This book is meant to illuminate the complex web of social relations that are at stake with The Francis Effect and to produce a readership that can enter this flow and continue an engagement with a project that maintains urgent relevance to our contemporary politics.

[1] For more on this see Claire Bishop, Tania Bruguera in Conversation with Claire Bishop (New York: Fondación Cisneros, 2020).

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