Things between day 18 and 32
As I rode in the taxi to Habana Vieja on Tuesday I felt for the first time like I wasn’t spectacularizing or voyeurizing the city. Instead of looking at buildings, cars, or signs, I was looking at people. Things other than people (who are always changing and different within a certain landscape) had become a little mundane. I don’t mean for this to sound pretentious, I think it’s just a sign of being here for a month and having taken the same taxi ride more than a few times. As I walk around Vedado I find that my eyes don’t wander as much as they did a few weeks ago. Though one’s (foreign) appearance is a big clue that someone might be a tourist, something else that has power in how one is perceived is how one carries oneself. Though I’m still very obviously a foreigner because of my appearance, I’m interested to see if/how this newfound comfort might affect my days. Mary says there’s a joke here that says you can always tell a tourist from a local because tourists look up and locals look down.
A couple weeks ago when I strolled around Féria San José with Kristina, and Becca we came across a vendor who sells prints (etchings and woodcuts). She asked if we knew the process. From there she and I got talking. She is an anthropology student who juggles her academics and vending. I told her a little about my project and she seemed to understand. She also sells for one or two other printmaker friends. She does small etchings for children in different bright colors of animals. One of her friends does black and white etchings of cityscapes, some of which include old American cars and colonial architecture. Since then I’ve gone back multiple times since then to try to talk to her more and to buy some of her work. The first time I went and looked at her work since I didn’t immediately see her. I expected her to come up to me like vendors usually do. Instead another vendor came up and said she hadn’t arrived yet. I said ok and left. As I left I realized that was a missed opportunity to introduce myself to that vendor. Though I’ve never seen her again in the few times I’ve gone back, I have (learned from that one [non-]interaction and) introduced myself to two other vendors. I’ve learned that there are two types of ways people sell at the market: por cuenta propia (on your own) or through a gallery. I still don’t really understand the difference other than to say that the three vendors I’ve met are working through a gallery. One of them spoke about the por cuenta propia artists (calling them the artists who sell artesania) saying that they use poor-quality materials, exploit the talent they have, and sell cheaply (since they assign little value to their work). I want to get to know one of these artists.
I think it’s starting to stay lighter longer which means maybe we’ll be able to eat dinner on the balcony like Courtney and Rebekah told me they did.
Last night (Friday) a group of us took a stroll down Paseo to the Malecón. The same way we spent our first night here exactly four weeks ago.
It looks like all the dogs here have been crossbred with long dogs.
I met a magician. On Tuesday I was doing my once-,-twice-or-three-times-a-week hanging out in Habana Vieja and walked past a restaurant that had some metal tables outside on the walkway (street closed-off to cars). I saw a magician-looking (groomed facial hair, relaxed, glasses, a little detached from the world but still very aware of it) sitting there doing one-handed shuffles. He also had a top hat on a cane stand next to him full of things, presumably. As I was about to approach him he bought some maní and put away his cards. Since I only wanted him to think I was a close-up magician and not a mentalist, I walked past him and hung out in Plaza Vieja a little until he brought out his cards again. There were kids playing a form of baseball, and tourists taking pictures with the metal inflatable snowman and hard candy. Sitting next to me on the steps a street cleaner asked me for the time as she did some knitting while on a break. I sat and thought about how I could approach the magician. I decided I’d ask where I could buy a good deck of cards here (a legitimate question since I had [very mistakenly] forgotten to bring a deck) because all I had been able to find was cheapy touristy Cuba playing cards in hotels. I ended up sitting down and talking to him for about 40 minutes. We did a little magic talk, but a lot of it was him (and sometimes me) performing for the crowds that naturally gathered as we would be doing things for each other. He’s been doing magic of all kinds for the past 40 years (since he was 20) and has been doing close-up in Habana Vieja for the last 11 years (I think). He’s the president of some kind of magic organization of about 80 Cuban magicians. He said it’s very difficult to find new decks of cards. He offered to sell me a deck of Bicycle cards for 10 CUC. All I would have to do is tell him and he would bring them the next day. Hmmmm. I think he might have also wanted to sell me other things since he kept asking if I worked with anything else. He’s there Monday-Friday in the afternoons and nights and jumps between three different restaurants on Mercaderes near Plaza Vieja. Along with Feria San José, I plan to make the corner a weekly stop.
The Hampshire students have been invited by a group of people from Santiago de Cuba to see a private demonstration of a “ga-ga” (what Carol’s been calling it—something of a mix between Santería and Voodoo religions) ceremony. There was concern and hesitation amongst some in the group when faced with the personal decision of going or not. Because of the religious-affiliation the ceremony might have, some felt uncomfortable in spectacularizing the event as outsiders. Others raised whether there would be any religious sentiments felt on anybody’s part since, for example, it would be a performance for which they would be paid. This was met with the idea that if there were the smallest sentiment of religious significance for the “performers” or a religious root in the performance, it would still feel voyeuristic. In contrast others said the group invited us which should relieve some concern of feeling like an exploitative tourist. I raised the point that it was trivializing to say “they invited us” when there exists a blurry line between the ‘decision’ to invite out of goodwill and the need to invite out of needing to earn an income. Then the invitation to the ceremony was compared with the private performance we paid for and received from Alzar la Voz, a group of female rappers, some of who have worked with other Hampshire students. Responding to the idea that if one feels conflicted about going to the ceremony then they should not have gone to Alzar la Voz, I said that I feel a complex—a crisis of identity and positionality (oh boy, Hampshire)—similar to that that I feel now with all the things I have done here. This is to say that nearly every interaction I have here (from the place I am staying, to the tutor I work with, to the magician I met in Habana Vieja) is made more complex by some sort of (sometimes potential) financial incentive. It becomes even more complicated knowing that having a genuine desire to share something or get to know someone is not mutually exclusive from receiving an income or stipend (i.e., someone can both have a genuine want to do something as well as want money). See thing below for more on what I think on the ceremony.
See thing above for what this thing is about. First, I strongly believe in everyone’s own right to believe what they want and decide for themselves whether or not they want to go. I’m not trying to (retroactively now, perhaps) convince anyone to go or not go. So here: For me, I see no religious conflict. If the performers feel a religious connection to the ceremony, I feel OK about myself witnessing it as long as they have invited me. Though I’m not religious, I respect people’s right to have outsiders not be part of any ceremony/event/action that might hold some sort of greater significance for them. If I’m invited, I think it’s fine. There’s the tricky “invited.” For me, if there is any kind of genuine desire to share, simply to share, in an invitation then I have little problem attending. Where it gets problematic is if one takes advantage of an invitation which turns out (or is apparently) to be actually more of a need or necessity within the performers’ lives. Now something even trickier. For one reason or another I trust that within the invitation we have received from these people there is a genuine desire to share. I’m not sure where this trust comes from as I know little about the circumstances of the invitation, but I suppose it comes from a trust in the experiences we’ve already had (in which I think I’ve seen a genuine desire to share, such as in the Alzar la Voz performance), in the program, and in the people who are involved with organizing the event and/or who also know a little about how things work around here (Roberto, Gangy, Carol). I’m going because I think they are eager to share, and also because I think a sharing attitude can get somewhere ever so slightly deeper if we approach it as an opportunity to get to know people. Someone said in response to this response that I have just laid out that the trust I’ve found is self-fabricated to justify my desire to go. I respond saying that my desire to go is most definitely not strong enough to push me to justify myself my going.
After this conversation was first held at the end of the weekly Project Seminar, five of us found a bench on Paseo and talked a little more. It was clear that for everyone the past month—and even longer—has been full of defining ourselves (oh, Hampshire, again) with identities that are much, much, muchisima bigger and more complex than “a student” or “a tourist” or “an insider” or “a spectator.” There will never be one category into which we (nor anyone else) will fall. It’s this ambiguity, imprecision, and gray area that makes each of our days and interactions so complex. What an experience.
I’m happy and proud to be here with people who are thinking critically about themselves.
Last night I had a dream that I was in a giant, multi-level food court. I was going around to each of the stalls and deciding what to get. Each of the vendors tried their best to get me to patronize their stand. Mexican, Italian, Japanese, Chinese. On the third floor I ended up finding an In N Out. I got a Double-Double with grilled onions and well-done fries.
That’s a 10 peso pizza.
During the last meeting I had with Eduardo I showed him some of the most recent pictures I had taken. He came across the above and said it was my best yet. He said the majority of my photos are too wide and include too much. I always try to find a subject or focal point in my photos, but a lot of the time I like to place that subject within a greater context. He urged me to focus in (visually) on certain contrasts within the city that I wanted to explore. He wanted me to make my message of themes more explicit. We walked around Habana Vieja and he pointed out some things he thought were interesting. Below are some photos. At first it was a little hard to take his critique since he kept repeating things that I always try to keep in mind like “You must spend a lot of time here and take your time observing. Only then will you find the photos you want” or “Find different angles” or “Wait for the photo to appear for you. Don’t be in a rush.” I guess it was frustrating that it wasn’t apparent in the photos of mine he’d already seen that I hadn’t already heard all of that. That said, I really appreciate his critique and I know it really helped produce some interesting photos.
That’s Carol and Eduardo (my tutor) at a retrospective of his that opened last week.
I’ve been taking photos of lots of type I come across. I hope to recreate found fonts to display overheard quotes or quotes gathered from interviews. We’ll see.
For the past week the Cuban Cinema Art and Industry Institute (ICAIC) has been holding its 10th annual Muestra Joven film festival. I got really excited about it when I saw how nicely designed our ‘credentials’ (tickets) were that Hampshire put on hold for us. I got more excited when I found an equally nicely designed newspaper for the festival that includes a schedule of the day’s events. I got even more excited when I saw that there was going to be a talk on the design of credits in films. The talk consisted of a panel of two designers Nelson Ponce (one of the few Cuban designers I had come across on the internet in pre-trip research. Google Nelson Ponce and Havana Club and you’ll probably find the video that was done on him and other Cuban creatives) and Raupa who talked about the importance of the design of credits in the beginning of films. Credits of movies like Catch Me If You Can, Sherlock Holmes, Fargo, Eurotrip and Hitchcock films were mentioned or shown. The panel talked about how filmmakers should understand that the design of beginning credits can and should set the stage for the film the audience is about to see. Also that intentionally designed graphics are within arms reach for Cuban filmmakers—it’s not an unattainable Hollywood standard. After the talk I approached Raupa explaining that I was a design student here for the next two months. After a little chatting and him asking me exactly what I was seeking, he gave me his number and an invitation to his house so I could contact him after had some work for a critique. He seemed more than happy to offer. This is pretty exciting since Eduardo has (and will, I think) be most helpful for photographic feedback. As we spent more time going to films and events, I realized that Raupa was the designer for the whole festival. He’s credited with doing the festival’s poster and identity. The prospect of working with him will help me kick things into high gear now that we’re in the second month.
Oscar in our group is doing a film about five (?) different examples of people living lives that contradict a grander hegemonic identity or way of living. As part of that, Hampshire paid for a table at a weekly drag show (bottle o’ liquor and coke included!) for Oscar, Carol, Roberto and two others to go to (Andrew and I went). After going up two very narrow flights of stairs in a converted house we got to a good sized room adorned with fake Aztec stone facades, disco balls, Christmas lights, paper streamers, and fake flowers. The hour and a half show included about seven different performers lip syncing to a few songs each. Numbers included Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance, something by Cher, and lots in Spanish. Every once in a while audience members would come up and stick bills in cleavages. One performer’s song was interrupted by a brief blackout. Though a “source” Roberto has, before we went we learned that Benecio Del Toro was thinking of doing a film about the show. Lo and behold, soon after we arrived we arrived with a crew of Hollywood-looking types. He sat on the opposite side of audience as we did which resulted in most of the performers playing to him rather than us. Though it got a touch monotonous toward the end, I’m happy to say I attended my first drag show in Cuba…in a funky house…with Benecio Del Toro………and Carol.