El Acercamiento was conceived and is organized by Evelyn Serrano, faculty at CalArts School of Theater, with Yamile Pardo, Dean of Sculpture at San Alejandro. El Acercamiento is part of the CalArts Center for New Performance. El Acercamiento/The Approach is a 4-year project that originated in 2015 and will culminate in 2019. Detailed information about the project can be found at www.cubausaproject.net

EL ACERCAMIENTO/THE APPROACH is a groundbreaking multimedia transnational project that investigates the past, present and possible futures of Cuba-U.S. relations. In La Habana, the current process of normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States is termed “el acercamiento”, the slow and cautious act of getting closer. Professional artists and arts students from the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in Los Angeles and Academia Nacional de Artes San Alejandro in La Habana, along with artists in Miami, are developing artistic proposals for an acercamiento between our two countries in the form of urban interventions, workshops, performative actions, public dialogues, and arts exhibitions that will begin to give shape to a multiplicity of potential futures. The project challenges participating artists and audiences to insert themselves in the process of visioning and enacting of these futures.

This year, Los Angeles-based artists had an opportunity to travel to La Habana to meet their Cuban collaborators, the first in a series of collaborations in Cuba and the U.S.. They worked on the creation of original projects and opened an exhibition and public dialogue in La Habana. The following is a series of reflections about our first encounter in La Habana.

Yamile Pardo, Professor and Dean, Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes San Alejandro and Evelyn Serrano, Faculty, CalArts School of Theater.

Aissa Santisso, Cuban multimedia artist and professor at San Alejandro; Agustin Hernandez, Cuban visual artist and professor at San Alejandro; Aubree Lynn, Designer and recent graduate of the CalArts School of Theater; Carmina Escobar, Performance artist and professor at CalArts School of Music; Shaina Simmons, performance artist and graduate student, CalArts School of Theater

Tell us about a moment during our time in Cuba that illustrates the idea of “acercamiento/approach.”

Aissa: An experience that describes our “Acercamiento” was when we all decided to hike up a mountain together in Soroa, on the first day we met. At that moment nothing bothered us. Not the pouring rain or our exhaustion. What really mattered was that we reach the top of the mountain together.

Hiking together with our Cuban collaborators in Soroa, Pinar del Rio.

Hiking together with our Cuban collaborators in Soroa, Pinar del Rio.

View from mountain top.

View from mountain top.

Aubree: During the first few days of our time in Havana we were fortunate to have the opportunity to see “Guan Melon, Tu Melon”, directed by Nelda Castillo at El Ciervo Encantado. We were met with generosity and hospitality from the theater, the director and the performers – as was the case in our experience of every adventure in Havana.

Before the performance started one of the students realized that the show would be performed without translation and that all of the materials provided to illuminate the context and process of development for the piece were also in Español. They approached me unsure if they were up to the challenge of sitting through a play they “wouldn’t understand”, trapped and unable to leave. In the moment I was fighting feelings of frustration, focused on fully reciprocating the generosity with which we were treated. But in retrospect I have to admit I also experienced these moments of nervousness, confusion and doubt, fleeting seconds of near panic, not knowing what was happening in my immediate surroundings. These moments of confusion were sometimes related to my own language barrier. At other times they were related to the fact that as a guest I lack understanding of context and the nuance of exchanges. It is hard to admit to myself that my U.S.-cultured sensibility told me I should have access to, and understand, everything all the time.

Our lovely professor responded to the student’s concerns, as is her way, with an impressive amount of patience and kindness. Before long we were in the theater watching a comedic, challenging and complex series of vignettes unfold, complicating our perception, as visitors, of the “real” Havana and the subtext of Cubans performing themselves and their cultural histories.

After the show, the air thin from the exuberance of the performers, the audience excited and weary with questions they don’t wholly know how to ask, the director came to speak with us. The student who was formerly apprehensive about a lack of access rushed her, exclaiming “I understood everything!”

I laughed. This rang true for myself as well. At the time did not understand more than a quarter of the words said in the play, yet I felt like I understood so much. But I also felt like there was still much that I lacked not language but the experience to understand. However the play, the experience of Havana, the generosity of our Cuban collaborators, all felt like an invitation to try – an invitation to expand my own capacity for understanding complicated cultural contexts and exchanges, for comprehending divergent and shared histories.

To me this sense of invitation in the face of questioning feels directly related to the idea of El Acercamiento: When we come together, there is much we might not comprehend. However if we are listening closely – with more than just the language part of our brain – if we are listening with our whole body, we will hear, we will understand.

And likely what we will learn is un-translatable.

Shaina: In a silent room in the back of the La Havana opening of El Acercamiento, I sat with 9 strings of 60 ft. rope attached to my head like extensions to the braids in my hair. The rope represented the roots that both Afro Cubans and Afro Americans share to Africa. Evelyn, Tyree, and Yamile braided the rope. As you can imagine a rope that long created a lot of tangles and extended well into the audience observing. Then a beautiful moment happened, surpassing all barriers of race and language, the audience simultaneously rose to assist in completing the braid. Several people gathered at each braid and devised unique techniques to complete the task. In order to recreate the possibilities for the future of Cuban & U.S. relations we must first acknowledge our innate & historical connections to each other so we can build a better future together. The rope was too long for the braiders to reach then end at the gallery. But we began the process of working towards solutions during the performance of Afro Futuro. This is El Acercamiento/Approach.

"AFROFUTURO" A performance by Shaina Simmons. Photo by Pablo Bordon.

“AFRO FUTURO” a performance by Shaina Simmons. Photo by Pablo Bordon.

Describe your creative process in regards to the work you created for this project. What questions, knowledges, concerns, doubts, fears, certainties did you consider while creating your work?

Carmina: The process of the piece HORAS COMUNES originated from the desire to have a poetic action that played between the tangible and intangible of people’s relationships within their histories and desires as a way to connect people through them. I wanted the voice to be at its core because, as I see it, every single voice has history of the self and of its community embedded with all its nuances and inflections. I also wanted to have a very specific structure that gave enough space in which the performers could invest themselves and have a meaningful experience in order to create a connection between them. My fear was not imposing a constructed narrative, or being so abstract and constricting that the piece would not connect the two people involved. The only one certainty was that once it happened something would happen and it did.

Horas Communes was a simultaneous performance that took place in La Habana and Los Angeles conceived by Carmina Escobar. Photo by Emily Lacy.

“Horas Comunes” was a simultaneous performance that took place in La Habana and Los Angeles conceived by Carmina Escobar. Photo by Emily Lacy.

In your opinion, what is the value of our project El Acercamiento? Why is this project a necessary initiative in the context of the current social/political context, and in the context of the historic relations between our two countries?

Aubree: El Acercamiento is restoring a sense of agency to young artists who have voiced a desire to participate in relevant sociopolitical conversations amidst mounting concerns and frustrations that they lack the power to have meaningful or sustainable impact in a political climate of fear, uncertainty and doubt.

Participating in a cultural exchange like El Acercamiento, where space and time have been made for questions, allows for connection and understanding to unfold slowly and meaningfully.

This for me has affirmed the truth that relationships between two places are not formed exclusively by those who hold public or institutional office, but are formed and informed by individuals who are doing the work of developing those connections, the work of overcoming distance and articulating possible futures.

Agustin: A true “acercamiento” between our two countries can only take place if their cultures are the protagonists of this encounter. We dreamt of this project little by little, without having to force a single gesture. We learned that we have a lot in common. An acercamiento is not only possible but it is essential to all the individuals who share this continent and are proud of our roots. Through this project I met a sister who taught me that distance doesn’t exist if we share the same wings.

Work by Agustin Hernandez.

Work by Agustin Hernandez.

Carmina: The importance of our project lies, for me, in the certainty that art, within its many social, cultural, and mnemonic functions, connects us. It creates intangible bridges that anchor their beams into the hearts and minds of the people that create it and experience the art. In our particular context of El Acercamiento this precise condition of art is of the utmost relevance as it created points of encounter between young generations of artists and a broad audience from the US, Cuba, and beyond (as I, myself, am from Mexico). The necessity of this project resides in the fact that there is a need, both humane and historical, to create a creative space in which to explore ideas, reflections, and possibilities regarding human interactions, desires, and memory between these two historically opposed countries.

Aissa: The project has a very “humanistic” core. It helps us address the fears and prejudice that exist in both cultures due to politics and ignorance.

Why do you continue to be a part of this project? How did you become involved?

Aubree: My involvement began because I have a deep curiosity about what it means to be neighbors in a time of mounting panic, questions, and demagoguery about “protecting” borders. I have admired Evelyn’s practice and pedagogies since I took my first class with her and when the opportunity was presented to participate in the inaugural phase of El Acercamiento, I leaped at it.

Aubree Lynn facilitates the first encounter of Cuban and U.S. artists in La Habana at Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes San Alejandro. Photo by Pablo Bordon.

Aubree Lynn facilitates the first encounter of Cuban and U.S. artists in La Habana at Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes San Alejandro. Photo by Pablo Bordon.

Aubree Lynn facilitates the first encounter of Cuban and U.S. artists in La Habana at Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes San Alejandro. Photo by Pablo Bordon.

Photo by Pablo Bordon.

Carmina: I was invited by Evelyn Serrano on October 2015. Evelyn told me about the project, which I am very appreciative of, and I was immediately on board. I continue to be a part of it because I believe in the force it carries, the potential for change, and the connections it creates. It has given me new close friends I never thought I would know and that I will continue to work with.

Shaina: I am blessed to be a part of a project that has united my passion for social justice with my gifts as an actress. I became a part of this work after Mirjana Jokovic suggested I take Evelyn Serrano’s class Art & Activism. I developed a knowledge of Public Practice and language for my work that I will be forever grateful to Evelyn for. Our trip to La Habana was transformative. I had never experienced such a humbling, gracious, and eye-opening cultural exchange. We have only just begun the work that is needed for the US and Cuba, that is why I continue to work with this project.

Was there anything that surprised you about our first encounter with our collaborators and our trip to Cuba?

Shaina: I was surprised by the current impact of U.S. culture on the people of Cuba despite the historically tension that we share. Our collaborators shared interest in some our favorite songs, movies, and artist. The experience revealed the impact that colonization has on both places. Through research for Afro Futuro, I explored the intersectionalities of the diaspora in Cuba and New Orleans. And hope that both places can expand their knowledge of each other specifically in the areas of healing communities of color from internalized effects of racism. Like the work of Susana Pilar Delahante Matienzo in Cuba mirrors the Natural Hair Movement by creating radical self love for black women, Afro Futuro also encourages aims to recreate the possibilities for black women. If we can continue to be inspired by each other progress can be made.

Carmina: Yes, how we are so different but so much the same. The connections, dreams, and energy of all involved, the desire to make it all happen, and the fact of how it happened was surprising and energizing. Because of the energy and honesty in which this project is based it has a lot of power, not only to convene artists but to have an effect and affect on the audiences.

"What is your news?" a performance conceived by Melis Nur Yoruk and Jocelyn Dimaya. Photo by Pablo Bordon.

“What is your news?” a performance conceived by Melis Nur Yoruk and Jocelyn Dimaya. Photo by Pablo Bordon.

What did you learn during our trip to Cuba and/or in your work for this project?

Carmina: This particular question is hard to sum up. I think I still have not yet processed all that happened. One of the main things, I think, that has made an impact on me was seeing the power of ideas turned into action. In my piece. in particular, it was seeing the involvement of two wonderful people that I love, Emily Lacy and Agustín Hernandez. How without knowing each other, but with trust, they participated in and created an action that, if rather poetic, had a lot of symbolic meaning and connected them.

What is the potential of a project like this?

Carmina: This project plays a role in the transfiguration of the present status quo. It has created relationships between the individuals that worked alongside or together from the two points in the map, it made trade happen: cultural, emotional, creative, and experiential in defiance to the politics and economies that rules us. I think it has an immeasurable potential to change views and perspectives in the singular and the collective.

Aissa: At the start of our collaboration I felt as if I was walking into a foreign landscape, one that I was determined to explore. You feel disoriented at the beginning, going in circles perhaps, and exploring new spaces, until you encounter a truth. At that moment, the only thing that exists is you and your connection to that landscape. In that instant you are breathing the landscape, and you want to listen more closely, start a new beginning.

"Wet Steps" a performance conceived by Aissa Santiso. Photo by Pablo Bordon.

“Wet Steps” a performance conceived by Aissa Santiso. Photo by Pablo Bordon.

How do you define success in a project like this one?

Carmina: I think that the mere fact that it happened, it is still happening, and it will happen more and more. El Acercamiento is a dare to the affairs of our particular political and commercial time. I think it was a success the moment the first encounter occurred in the airport in La Habana.

Aubree: We met with serious challenge in documenting this project, let alone measuring its success. One barometer are the changes in the process of the project effected within the individuals and the institutions involved. Where was the project met with resistance – and are we now met with support?

How I would define success seems so immeasurable in terms of tangible outcomes, but I find myself asking these questions:

What is at the core of the relationships being formed?

How are we, or can we articulate that core at every phase?
How have the relationships changed?
How have assumptions of our respective places and cultures changed?

Friendships in this context have been formed instantaneously. However trust, a necessary ingredient for any coming together, can only be developed over time. El Acercamiento is a spark, a willingness to be open to listening with both your own personal and institutional vulnerability.

I think the ultimate success of this project will be in its continuation: continuing to overcome distance and limited resources; continuing to rise to the challenges of the work (even when the work itself is immeasurable); continuing, with grace and curiosity, the process of a slow and meaningful coming together.

"Nosotros/We" a performance by Carolina Vargas and Gabriel Jimenez. Photo by William Lawrence.

“Nosotros/We” a performance by Carolina Vargas and Gabriel Jimenez. Photo by William Lawrence.

El Acercamiento/The Approach is part of California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) Center for New Performance (CNP)/Duende CalArts. Key partners in La Habana include the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes San Alejandro and the Instituto Superior de Arte. In Miami, the project has partnered with New World School of the Arts.