When Buffalo artist Brian Collier was invited to be the one exhibiting artist in an international poetry forum held last month in Cuba, he knew he would have a packing problem. To get his art to Havana intact would take a lot more than simply tucking it into a sturdy box filled with Styrofoam peanuts and shipping it out.
Collier and another local artist, Isabelle Pelissier, were to be the representative visual artists in what was called "Encounter: First Festival of Language Poetry." The festival, organized through the University at Buffalo and involving a contingent of UB doctoral candidates, was a rare international event in Cuba and it drew poets not only from Cuba and the United States, but from Nicaragua, Argentina, France, Luxembourg, Norway and Spain. When Pelissier was unable to show her art because of an exhibition conflict, Collier became the sole U.S. visual artist to exhibit in the festival.
Collier makes very elaborate installations that involve a multitude of small objects, plus a few fairly large and fragile ones. Interested in combining the methods and display techniques of both art and science, he bends scientific collection, analyses and classification to aesthetic purpose. Natural objects - rocks, roots and earth - are at the core of his work. These are displayed on (and in) carefully fashioned tables and specially designed panels - interesting objects themselves - and joined by related paintings, photographs, books and maps. (Collier's work can currently be seen in an exhibition at CEPA Gallery, Main Street, through April 13).
Getting all of this in a box proved to be an art itself. Collier found that the only way to secure all the pieces was to make custom-designed compartments for the various components. After many hours of fastidious work, he created the ideal box - secure, weather-tight and nice to look at. His art would travel to Havana in high style.
"Getting the art work down there was a disaster," Collier said in a recent interview. "I couldn't get an answer on size and weight."
The folks at the airline that would be flying his art to Cuba out of Toronto, could offer only a single suggestion. "Just bring it," they said."
So he did.
A couple of hours before the flight was to leave, Collier found himself kneeling on the floor of the Toronto airport, his ingeniously designed box hurriedly disassembled and all the objects in it spread out in disarray around him.
"It turns out the box was twice as heavy as the weight limit of 35 kilos (a little under 16 pounds)," he said.
Collier and his friend Kristin Dystra, a UB doctoral candidate and one of the organizers of the festival, spent a desperate hour and a half repacking the art in three separate travel bags that they managed to buy at the airport. The box went along, too, but with many of its artfully crafted chambers empty. So much for well-laid plans.
When the pair arrived with the UB group in the Havana airport, the saga of the box continued. Though they were met by cultural representatives of the Cuban government, officials still wanted to know what was in the mysterious box.
As Dystra described it, "It took Brian 20 minutes to explain what an 'art installation' was." The term still draws puzzled looks in this country; in Cuba it was a complete enigma.
With paperwork done in advance and the representatives on hand, they got in without trouble and -- best of all -- without unpacking. Once in, they were immediately launched into a swirl of events.
"I had four hours to install my art," said Collier. The work was set up in the Raul Martinez Gallery nearby to the Book Institute, the site of the literary doings. When he arrived, he found another show next door by Carlos and Omar Estrada, Cuban brothers and artists. There was an immediate accord, and visitors assumed that the two shows -- though quite different -- were somehow connected.
On top of the rush installation, Collier learned that he would be expected to give a speech that night for the opening of his show. It was the custom. He knows no Spanish, so it fell to Dystra, a translator of Spanish poetry, to write and deliver the opening speech -- plus another to close the weeklong festival.
Collier, Dystra and the other Buffalo participants were staggered by the colossal energy and enthusiasm of the Cubans involved. Sharp and articulate, they showed no signs of flagging in what turned out to be marathon readings and continual rounds of translation workshops dealing with not only Spanish and English texts but French as well. And later, the discussions continued on for hours in the cafes.
The festival came out of a proposal by Cuban poet Reina Maria Rodriguez and writer Jorge Miralles when they came to read at UB in the spring of 2000. Dystra had first encountered Rodriguez's work in 1995 while on a trip to Valenzuela. Enthralled with the poet's uncanny mix of the commonplace and the odd, she subsequently began translating Rodriguez's poetry into English with friend and fellow scholar, Nancy Gates Madsen. A book of Rodriguez's poems, in a translation by Dystra and Madsen, will come out later this year by the Los Angles publisher, Integer Books.
Dystra told of Rodriguez's critical role in Cuban intellectual life. For the past 20 years, she has been operating what is essentially an alternative cultural salon from her rooftop apartment. Over the years, the poet has added on, in bits and pieces, expanding the apartment as if it were a big assemblage, so that today it projects outward over the street.
"In that space," Dystra explained, "she gathers literary theorists, artists, poets, photographers and writers from around the world. They represent an incredible range of knowledge."
When Abel Prieto, Cuba's minister of culture, visited the Book Institute to meet festival participants and give the requisite speech, he also celebrated the release of a new magazine called Azoteas -- rooftops. Rodriguez, Miralles and Anton Arrufat had founded the magazine and named it after this cultural nerve center. Some speak of the unprecedented cooperation between the Azoteas group and the state cultural institutions and hope it will last.
Although politics play a major part in discussions on Rodriguez' rooftop, Dystra noted the poet doesn't want her work to be about a political stance. Her poems are instead driven by everyday images and quite ordinary things. The last part of "debts," for example, is almost an inventory -- an inventory that accumulates emotions as it gathers objects. (See accompanying box).
"It was an amazing, wonderful experience," Collier exclaimed. "One of the things that surprised me about this country that is supposed to be lost in time -- it isn't. The artists here know a lot about art and artists; the same can be said about the poets." Everybody, he added, "is also highly educated -- right down to the the concierge and the cab driver."
In the mid-'80s visitors told tales of having to walk miles to find a place to buy something to eat and drink. Now with tourism so important to the economy, cafes, coffee and pizza stands abound. Collier had high praise for the Cuban pizza with its soft, bready crust.
Cuban streets are filled with odd transport vehicles -- American cars from the '40s and '50s outfitted with diesel engines, strange buses called "Camels" and, according to Collier, something called a Coco taxi -- "hideous tourist taxis in the shape of a giant egg, cut out in a scoop shape where two people sit." It doesn't help that the drivers of these things drive like maniacs.
From the Cuban perspective, another kind of weird wheeled vehicle circulated that week: Collier's box.
"We pulled it around the streets of old Havana," Dystra recalled. "We went from the convent where we stayed to the Book Institute. It made people very curious, and they kept asking, 'What's in the box?' "
UB Gray Chair Professor Charles Bernstein, a highly regarded poet who was instrumental in the evolution of what is called "language poetry" in America, was involved early on and pushed for an international festival. Jorge Guitart, Joe F. Buscaglia-Salgado, UB's director of Cuban and Caribbean programs, and others in the English department all contributed to the success of the event. The other participants were: Rosa Alcala, Christopher Alexander, Joel Bettridge, Mike Kelleher, Nick Lawrence, Doug Manson, Linda Russo and Jonathan Skinner.
The UB English department and Dennis Tedlock, McNulty Chair, helped with the funding.