On Trauma, Grief and Resilience: A project at the Museum of Modern Art.

How can art ask us to think deeply about resilience, and what it means to be resilient? Which experiences are supposed to be remembered and which are supposed to be forgotten? How can we begin to imagine a nonviolent world when we are rarely allowed to grieve over its violence?

Objects can connect us through their histories and the powerful stories they carry with them. When we are able to change their form, it can be monumental. We can add our own voice and that can be healing.

In the fall of 2015 I proposed a project to the Museum of Modern Art’s education department. I hoped that through it, we could tell a story about changing national priorities – from a war and consumption-centered nation to one that is eager to learn from its own violence and vulnerability.

What would it mean to take an object with a violent history and cooperatively transform it? How can we begin to share our experiences and differences through an intergenerational, multiracial, and multinational conversation about pain, and love?

I proposed purchasing a US military trailer at government auction and asking the students to be the idea makers, the re-creators. They would architect the redesign, keep budget, and be project managers. I would facilitate, question, advise on, and ultimately champion their ideas.

A trailer that had been redelivered to the US from Iraq was ours to work with. With seventeen high school students, we began with a series of architectural charrettes. We decided upon a criteria, or guidelines that defined what’s important to us that should be reflected in the project. It was overwhelmingly practical: what we had the budget for, our aesthetic positions, and most of all our concerns about safety. Even with all of us, this two-ton trailer was a force.

We started and then later abandoned a series of ideas. The things we didn’t end up doing:


We didn’t turn the military trailer into a park or a garden.

We didn’t turn the military trailer into a mobile kitchen.

We didn’t turn the military trailer into a giant printmaking press.

We didn’t use the tires for tire swings.

We didn’t completely deconstruct the trailer and rebuild it into a sphere.

We didn’t turn the military trailer into an art studio.

We didn’t turn the military trailer on its side and project films on the trailer bed.

We didn’t melt the military trailer down and mold the steel into a sword.


Instead we made it into a social space that’s near impossible to define. It was a small piece of each of those things; it came from different voices and took months of compromise and working together. It came from a process of learning how to use new tools and taking time to teach each other the tools we were already skilled in.

The project was about revaluing the ability to grieve. From there, it was about transforming an object into a symbol, and then into a space. We looked for a premade form to process some of those emotions collectively, but finally had to create a new one.

photo 5

A Utopian Turn – Manifesto for a Nonviolent Art

Mary Mattingly, 2015 (excerpt)

In every way, shape, and form, we are at war. A Manifesto for Nonviolent Art proclaims that art and utopian thought can cultivate systemic social change. Art can transform people’s perceptions about value, and collective art forms can reframe predominant ideologies.

1. A Violent Economic Order:

From the supply chain to the landfill, if our systems of production, trade, and consumption use the social and ecological space of others, it is a form of violence.

(Art and) A Nonviolent Economic Order:

Make all works of art without participating in economies of violence. Boycott so-called Free Trade, companies that participate in slave labor, or militia-managed extraction. Demand fair wages on behalf of silenced workers and build informal, cross-border supply chains within interdependent Art World networks.

2. A Violent Political Order:

Since supplying social services interferes with the military industrial power structure, military spending in the U.S. will continue to dominate and define the political order, and the US will continue making war in perpetuity.

(Art and) A Nonviolent Political Order:

Imagine and realize the replacement of war economies, war propaganda, and dominant strategies that oppress. Strengthen an understanding that a military approach fuels arms races, human rights abuses, and weakens economically hallowed-out States. Use social capital to transform multinational governing bodies like the *U.N. to be fair while working to dismantle war organizations like NATO.

3. A Violent Education:

The business of education and compartmentalized forms of learning best serves the people we work for, and those that they work for. With steady erosion of job security, it leaves us dependent while increasing their control.

 (Art and) A Nonviolent Education:

Share underrepresented histories. Expand school curriculums and individual classes to include mutual education around peace, and nonviolence training towards active compassion. Flip the so-called script.

4. A violent ecological order:

As increased desertification, land degradation, and water privatization continue to fuel global wars through droughts, famine, and resulting forced migration, investors trade in weather derivatives and reinsurance, profiting from ecological disasters.

(Art and) A Nonviolent Ecological Order:

Work towards worlds where humans serve as caretakers and stewards rather than private owners. Help to recognize the reciprocity of commons and indigenous rights to land, while protecting it from being sold off. Help to disempower the word “own”.

5. A Violent Social Order:

Collective traumas are known to change our collective sense of what is possible.

(Art and) A Nonviolent Social Order:

Reset the dial by working together on utopian projects. Be a transgressor and an empathic lover. Promote difference not indifference. Remember that we have bigger battles to fight than those we may want to fight against each other.

6. Working Towards a Nonviolent Art.

How can we dedicate ourselves to living nonviolently, today? This is not an ambitious question – it’s an essential one. In art and life, create flexible and inclusive schemes for living that encompass respect, non-hierarchy, nonviolence, and tolerance. Art making is powerful; and a nonviolent art is a duty.


Bodies such as the UN Can be useful and fair, if:

  • It stops favoring rich nations.
  • It represents Latin America and Africa, not just North America, Europe and Asia.
  • It prohibits the abuse of war in self-defense.
  • Veto power is taken away from most powerful countries.
  • It enforces labor and environmental laws.


COUNTRY OR STATE Dates of intervention Forces Comments SOUTH DAKOTA  1890 (-?)  Troops 300 Lakota Indians massacred at Wounded Knee. ARGENTINA 1890 Troops Buenos Aires interests protected. CHILE 1891 Troops Marines clash with nationalist rebels. HAITI 1891 Troops Black revolt on Navassa defeated. IDAHO 1892 Troops Army suppresses silver miners’ strike. HAWAII 1893 (-?) Naval, troops Independent kingdom overthrown, annexed. CHICAGO 1894 Troops Breaking of rail strike, 34 killed. NICARAGUA 1894 Troops Month-long occupation of Bluefields. CHINA 1894-95 Naval, troops Marines land in Sino-Japanese War KOREA 1894-96 Troops Marines kept in Seoul during war. PANAMA 1895 Troops, naval Marines land in Colombian province. NICARAGUA 1896 Troops Marines land in port of Corinto. CHINA 1898-1900 Troops Boxer Rebellion fought by foreign armies. PHILIPPINES 1898-1910 (-?) Naval, troops Seized from Spain, killed 600,000 Filipinos CUBA 1898-1902 (-?) Naval, troops Seized from Spain, still hold Navy base. PUERTO RICO 1898 (-?) Naval, troops Seized from Spain, occupation continues. GUAM 1898 (-?) Naval, troops Seized from Spain, still use as base. MINNESOTA 1898 (-?) Troops Army battles Chippewa at Leech Lake. NICARAGUA 1898 Troops Marines land at port of San Juan del Sur. SAMOA 1899 (-?) Troops Battle over succession to throne. NICARAGUA 1899 Troops Marines land at port of Bluefields. IDAHO 1899-1901 Troops Army occupies Coeur d’Alene mining region. OKLAHOMA 1901 Troops Army battles Creek Indian revolt. PANAMA 1901-14 Naval, troops Broke off from Colombia 1903, annexed Canal Zone; Opened canal 1914. HONDURAS 1903 Troops Marines intervene in revolution. DOMINICAN REPUBLIC 1903-04 Troops U.S. interests protected in Revolution. KOREA 1904-05 Troops Marines land in Russo-Japanese War. CUBA 1906-09 Troops Marines land in democratic election. NICARAGUA 1907 Troops “Dollar Diplomacy” protectorate set up. HONDURAS 1907 Troops Marines land during war with Nicaragua PANAMA 1908 Troops Marines intervene in election contest. NICARAGUA 1910 Troops Marines land in Bluefields and Corinto. HONDURAS 1911 Troops U.S. interests protected in civil war. CHINA 1911-41 Naval, troops Continuous occupation with flare-ups. CUBA 1912 Troops U.S. interests protected in civil war. PANAMA 1912 Troops Marines land during heated election. HONDURAS 1912 Troops Marines protect U.S. economic interests. NICARAGUA 1912-33 Troops, bombing 10-year occupation, fought guerillas MEXICO 1913 Naval Americans evacuated during revolution. DOMINICAN REPUBLIC 1914 Naval Fight with rebels over Santo Domingo. COLORADO 1914 Troops Breaking of miners’ strike by Army. MEXICO 1914-18 Naval, troops Series of interventions against nationalists. HAITI 1914-34 Troops, bombing 19-year occupation after revolts. TEXAS 1915 Troops Federal soldiers crush “Plan of San Diego” Mexican-American rebellion DOMINICAN REPUBLIC 1916-24 Troops 8-year Marine occupation. CUBA 1917-33 Troops Military occupation, economic protectorate. WORLD WAR I 1917-18 Naval, troops Ships sunk, fought Germany for 1 1/2 years. RUSSIA 1918-22 Naval, troops Five landings to fight Bolsheviks PANAMA 1918-20 Troops “Police duty” during unrest after elections. HONDURAS 1919 Troops Marines land during election campaign. YUGOSLAVIA 1919 Troops/Marines intervene for Italy against Serbs in Dalmatia. GUATEMALA 1920 Troops 2-week intervention against unionists. WEST VIRGINIA 1920-21 Troops, bombing Army intervenes against mineworkers. TURKEY 1922 Troops Fought nationalists in Smyrna. CHINA 1922-27 Naval, troops Deployment during nationalist revolt. MEXICO 1923 HONDURAS 1924-25 Bombing Troops Airpower defends Calles from rebellion Landed twice during election strife. PANAMA 1925 Troops Marines suppress general strike. CHINA 1927-34 Troops Marines stationed throughout the country. EL SALVADOR 1932 Naval Warships send during Marti revolt. WASHINGTON DC 1932 Troops Army stops WWI vet bonus protest. WORLD WAR II 1941-45 Naval, troops, bombing, nuclear Hawaii bombed, fought Japan, Italy and Germay for 3 years; first nuclear war. DETROIT 1943 Troops Army put down Black rebellion. IRAN 1946 Nuclear threat Soviet troops told to leave north. YUGOSLAVIA 1946 Nuclear threat, naval Response to shoot-down of US plane. URUGUAY 1947 Nuclear threat Bombers deployed as show of strength. GREECE 1947-49 Command operation U.S. directs extreme-right in civil war. GERMANY 1948 Nuclear Threat Atomic-capable bombers guard Berlin Airlift. CHINA 1948-49 Troops/Marines evacuate Americans before Communist victory. PHILIPPINES 1948-54 Command operation CIA directs war against Huk Rebellion. PUERTO RICO 1950 Command operation Independence rebellion crushed in Ponce. KOREA 1951-53 (-?) Troops, naval, bombing , nuclear threats U.S./So. Korea fights China/No. Korea to stalemate; A-bomb threat in 1950, and against China in 1953. Still have bases. IRAN 1953 Command Operation CIA overthrows democracy, installs Shah. VIETNAM 1954 Nuclear threat French offered bombs to use against seige. GUATEMALA 1954 Command operation, bombing, nuclear threat CIA directs exile invasion after new gov’t nationalized U.S. company lands; bombers based in Nicaragua. EGYPT 1956 Nuclear threat, troops Soviets told to keep out of Suez crisis; Marines evacuate foreigners. LEBANON l958 Troops, naval Army & Marine occupation against rebels. IRAQ 1958 Nuclear threat Iraq warned against invading Kuwait. CHINA l958 Nuclear threat China told not to move on Taiwan isles. PANAMA 1958 Troops Flag protests erupt into confrontation. VIETNAM l960-75 Troops, naval, bombing, nuclear threats Fought South Vietnam revolt & North Vietnam; one million killed in longest U.S. war; atomic bomb threats in l968 and l969. CUBA l961 Command operation CIA-directed exile invasion fails. GERMANY l961 Nuclear threat Alert during Berlin Wall crisis. LAOS 1962 Command operation Military buildup during guerrilla war.  CUBA  l962  Nuclear threat, naval Blockade during missile crisis; near-war with Soviet Union.  IRAQ 1963 Command operation CIA organizes coup that killed president, brings Ba’ath Party to power, and Saddam Hussein back from exile to be head of the secret service. PANAMA l964 Troops Panamanians shot for urging canal’s return. INDONESIA l965 Command operation Million killed in CIA-assisted army coup. DOMINICAN REPUBLIC 1965-66 Troops, bombing Army & Marines land during election campaign. GUATEMALA l966-67 Command operation Green Berets intervene against rebels. DETROIT l967 Troops Army battles African Americans, 43 killed. UNITED STATES l968 Troops After King is shot; over 21,000 soldiers in cities. CAMBODIA l969-75 Bombing, troops, naval Up to 2 million killed in decade of bombing, starvation, and political chaos. OMAN l970 Command operation U.S. directs Iranian marine invasion. LAOS l971-73 Command operation, bombing U.S. directs South Vietnamese invasion; “carpet-bombs” countryside. SOUTH DAKOTA l973 Command operation Army directs Wounded Knee siege of Lakotas. MIDEAST 1973 Nuclear threat World-wide alert during Mideast War. CHILE 1973 Command operation CIA-backed coup ousts elected marxist president. CAMBODIA l975 Troops, bombing Gassing of captured ship Mayagüez, 28 troops die when copter shot down. ANGOLA l976-92 Command operation CIA assists South African-backed rebels. IRAN l980 Troops, nuclear threat, aborted bombing Raid to rescue Embassy hostages; 8 troops die in copter-plane crash. Soviets warned not to get involved in revolution. LIBYA l981 Naval jets Two Libyan jets shot down in maneuvers. EL SALVADOR l981-92 Command operation, troops Advisors, overflights aid anti-rebel war, soldiers briefly involved in hostage clash. NICARAGUA l981-90 Command operation, naval CIA directs exile (Contra) invasions, plants harbor mines against revolution. LEBANON l982-84 Naval, bombing, troops Marines expel PLO and back Phalangists, Navy bombs and shells Muslim positions. 241 Marines killed when Shi’a rebel bombs barracks. GRENADA l983-84 Troops, bombing Invasion four years after revolution. HONDURAS l983-89 Troops Maneuvers help build bases near borders. IRAN l984 Jets Two Iranian jets shot down over Persian Gulf. LIBYA l986 Bombing, naval Air strikes to topple nationalist gov’t. BOLIVIA 1986 Troops Army assists raids on cocaine region. IRAN l987-88 Naval, bombing US intervenes on side of Iraq in war. LIBYA 1989 Naval jets Two Libyan jets shot down. VIRGIN ISLANDS 1989 Troops St. Croix Black unrest after storm. PHILIPPINES 1989 Jets Air cover provided for government against coup. PANAMA 1989 (-?) Troops, bombing Nationalist government ousted by 27,000 soldiers, leaders arrested, 2000+ killed. LIBERIA 1990 Troops Foreigners evacuated during civil war. SAUDI ARABIA 1990-91 Troops, jets Iraq countered after invading Kuwait. 540,000 troops also stationed in Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, UAE, Israel. IRAQ 1990-91 Bombing, troops, naval Blockade of Iraqi and Jordanian ports, air strikes; 200,000+ killed in invasion of Iraq and Kuwait; large-scale destruction of Iraqi military. KUWAIT 1991 Naval, bombing, troops Kuwait royal family returned to throne.  IRAQ 1991-2003 Bombing, naval No-fly zone over Kurdish north, Shiite south; constant air strikes and naval-enforced economic sanctions LOS ANGELES 1992 Troops Army, Marines deployed against anti-police uprising. SOMALIA 1992-94 Troops, naval, bombing U.S.-led United Nations occupation during civil war; raids against one Mogadishu faction. YUGOSLAVIA 1992-94 Naval NATO blockade of Serbia and Montenegro. BOSNIA 1993-? Jets, bombing No-fly zone patrolled in civil war; downed jets, bombed Serbs. HAITI 1994 Troops, naval Blockade against military government; troops restore President Aristide to office three years after coup. ZAIRE (CONGO) 1996-97 Troops Troops at Rwandan Hutu refugee camps, in area where Congo revolution begins. LIBERIA 1997 Troops Soldiers under fire during evacuation of foreigners. ALBANIA 1997 Troops Soldiers under fire during evacuation of foreigners. SUDAN 1998 Missiles Attack on pharmaceutical plant alleged to be “terrorist” nerve gas plant. AFGHANISTAN 1998 Missiles Attack on former CIA training camps used by Islamic fundamentalist groups alleged to have attacked embassies. IRAQ 1998 Bombing, Missiles Four days of intensive air strikes after weapons inspectors allege Iraqi obstructions. YUGOSLAVIA 1999 Bombing, Missiles Heavy NATO air strikes after Serbia declines to withdraw from Kosovo. NATO occupation of Kosovo. YEMEN 2000 Naval USS Cole, docked in Aden, bombed. MACEDONIA 2001 Troops NATO forces deployed to move and disarm Albanian rebels. UNITED STATES 2001 Jets, naval Reaction to hijacker attacks on New York, DC AFGHANISTAN 2001-? Troops, bombing, missiles Massive U.S. mobilization to overthrow Taliban, hunt Al Qaeda fighters, install Karzai regime, and battle Taliban insurgency. More than 30,000 U.S. troops and numerous private security contractors carry our occupation. YEMEN 2002 Missiles Predator drone missile attack on Al Qaeda, including a US citizen. PHILIPPINES 2002-? Troops, naval Training mission for Philippine military fighting Abu Sayyaf rebels evolves into combat missions in Sulu Archipelago, west of Mindanao. COLOMBIA 2003-? Troops US special forces sent to rebel zone to back up Colombian military protecting oil pipeline. IRAQ 2003-? Troops, naval, bombing, missiles Saddam regime toppled in Baghdad. More than 250,000 U.S. personnel participate in invasion. US and UK forces occupy country and battle Sunni and Shi’ite insurgencies. More than 160,000 troops and numerous private contractors carry out occupation and build large permanent bases. LIBERIA 2003 Troops Brief involvement in peacekeeping force as rebels drove out leader. HAITI 2004-05 Troops, naval   Marines & Army land after right-wing rebels oust elected President Aristide, who was advised to leave by Washington. PAKISTAN 2005-? Missiles, bombing, covert operation CIA missile and air strikes and Special Forces raids on alleged Al Qaeda and Taliban refuge villages kill multiple civilians. Drone attacks also on Pakistani Mehsud network. SOMALIA 2006-? Missiles, naval, troops, command operation Special Forces advise Ethiopian invasion that topples Islamist government; AC-130 strikes, Cruise missile attacks and helicopter raids against Islamist rebels; naval blockade against “pirates” and insurgents. SYRIA 2008 Troops Special Forces in helicopter raid 5 miles from Iraq kill 8 Syrian civilians YEMEN 2009-? Missiles, command operation Cruise missile attack on Al Qaeda kills 49 civilians; Yemeni military assaults on rebels LIBYA 2011-? Bombing, missiles, command operation NATO coordinates air strikes and missile attacks against Qaddafi government during uprising by rebel army.

(Death toll estimates from 20th-century wars can be found in the Historical Atlas of the 20th Century by alphabetized places index, map series, and major casualties .)

A Briefing on the History of U.S. Military Interventions By Zoltán Grossman, October 2001 Published in Z magazine. Translations in Italian Polish

Since the September 11 attacks on the United States, most people in the world agree that the perpetrators need to be brought to justice, without killing many thousands of civilians in the process. But unfortunately, the U.S. military has always accepted massive civilian deaths as part of the cost of war. The military is now poised to kill thousands of foreign civilians, in order to prove that killing U.S. civilians is wrong.

The media has told us repeatedly that some Middle Easterners hate the U.S. only because of our “freedom” and “prosperity.” Missing from this explanation is the historical context of the U.S. role in the Middle East, and for that matter in the rest of the world. This basic primer is an attempt to brief readers who have not closely followed the history of U.S. foreign or military affairs, and are perhaps unaware of the background of U.S. military interventions abroad, but are concerned about the direction of our country toward a new war in the name of “freedom” and “protecting civilians.”

The United States military has been intervening in other countries for a long time. In 1898, it seized the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico from Spain, and in 1917-18 became embroiled in World War I in Europe. In the first half of the 20th century it repeatedly sent Marines to “protectorates” such as Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. All these interventions directly served corporate interests, and many resulted in massive losses of civilians, rebels, and soldiers. Many of the uses of U.S. combat forces are documented in A History of U.S. Military Interventions since 1890: http://academic.evergreen.edu/g/grossmaz/interventions.html


Zoltan Grossman [send him mail] is a faculty member in Geography and Native American Studies, The Evergreen State College. Visit his website.

Anti-war organizations around the world

Society of Peace






United Kingdom

  • Liverpool and Birkenhead Women’s Peace and Arbitration Association[5]
  • Rationalist Peace Society – Britain[5][2]
  • Workman’s Peace Association – Britain[7]

North America

United States







  • Association for Muslims of United States [11] [5]

Researching military spending








List by the International Institute for Strategic Studies
World Military Balance 2015 (for 2014)
List by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute
2015 Fact Sheet (for 2014)[2]
Rank Country Spending
($ Bn.)
 % of GDP
World total
1 United States United States 679.5 3.3
2 China China 129.4 1.2
3 Saudi Arabia Saudi Arabia 80.8 10.7
4 Russia Russia 70.0 3.7
5 United Kingdom United Kingdom 61.8 2.1
6 France France 53.1 1.8
7 Japan Japan 47.7 1.0
8 India India 45.2 2.2
9 Germany Germany 43.9 1.1
10 South Korea South Korea 34.4 2.4
11 Brazil Brazil 31.9 1.3
12 Italy Italy 24.3 1.1
13 Israel Israel 23.2 7.6
14 Australia Australia 22.5 1.5
15 Iraq Iraq 18.9 8.5
Rank Country Spending
($ Bn.)
% of GDP
World total 1,776.0 2.3
1 United States United States 610.0 3.5
2 China China[a] 216.0 2.1
3 Russia Russia[a] 84.5 4.5
4 Saudi Arabia Saudi Arabia[b] 80.8 10.4
5 France France 62.3 2.2
6 United Kingdom United Kingdom 60.5 2.2
7 India India 50.0 2.4
8 Germany Germany[a] 46.5 1.2
9 Japan Japan 45.8 1.0
10 South Korea South Korea 36.7 2.6
11 Brazil Brazil 31.7 1.4
12 Italy Italy 30.9 1.5
13 Australia Australia 25.4 1.8
14 United Arab Emirates United Arab Emirates[a] 22.8 5.1
15 Turkey Turkey 22.6 2.2


Push/Pull (A Cultural Exchange in Havana)

I just wrote a conversational piece about my time in Cuba for Art in America’s online journal. Part of what I wanted to express in this piece about my time in Cuba was this question (buried at the bottom of the article): Should United States media/bodies/citizens continue to demonize Cuba’s human rights records as our own country is one of the leading human rights violators? Instead of the guilty throwing stones, why not try to be leaders, and mobilize our country’s military/corporate/educational complex to change?

Paraphrasing Cornel West here: Young people of oppressive regimes have to be willing to tell the truth. We need to refuse to live within an empire, a democratic experiment that does not treat other human beings with dignity and decency in our name.


Push/Pull: A Cultural Exchange in Havana

Installation view of Mary Mattingly’s sculpture Pull, 2014-15, in “Wild Noise” at the Museo de Bellas Artes, Havana, 2015, as part of the 12th Bienal de La Habana. Photo Mary Mattingly. 

For the past eight years, I’ve focused on co-creating sculptures that address public food, energy production and cyclical water use. These works have almost entirely been created for people in the United States. My most recent sculpture, Pull,  was created through a cultural exchange led by the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de la Habana and the Bronx Museum of the Arts as a collective effort alongside the 12th Bienal de La Habana, titled “Between the Idea and the Experience.” The artwork consists of two mobile, inhabitable spheres that contain living ecosystems. One of the spheres of Pullcurrently functions as a temporary autonomous zone in Havana’s Parque Central, while the other half is stationed inside the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes as part of exhibition “Wild Noise” (through Aug. 16).

I tracked international news on Cuba throughout my formative years, mythologizing the country that created a local resilience plan based on barter, large-scale urban farming and public service to survive everything from trade embargos imposed by the United States to the economic collapse of the Soviet Union during the Special Period. In my ongoing studies of resilience, Cuba features prominently.

In preparation for the project I spent over two months in Cuba this past spring, working closely with a collaborative team of art students, architects, organizers and teachers based in Havana to create the structures and internal living systems. Inside the spheres’ wide, hollow and netted walls, water is collected to grow plants that support fish, songbirds and insects. We carried the two parts of Pullfrom Havana’s Playa neighborhood by truck, van and bike. On May 17, we dragged them through the Malecón and to various sites in Old Havana, before reaching Parque Central via Paseo del Prado in a procession that attracted a crowd as we walked.

Pulling a large sphere full of precarious ecosystems to Havana’s Parque Central in order to create an autonomous zone first required maneuvering within the local government. To date, the physical route of Pull across the city has trailed a laborious, protracted series of permits. Without a clear procedure in place we repeatedly presented offices with written testimonies from multiple parties involved in the project, along with our request. Returning to the offices every few days, we would learn about additional requirements, fulfill them and return later to the same news. As with navigating New York City’s layered and overlapping governmental agencies, which all subscribe to the “C.Y.A.” (cover your ass) methodology, we learned to map out each physical location according to potential necessary permits and apply for them all. I believe that patient and persistent attempts to maneuver through the Kafkaesque cyclical maze of urban regulations and policies can be an effective way to work toward policy change. In the end, our group’s endurance gained us permission to install the first temporary artwork in nearly a decade on the Parque Central.

Many of the materials that comprise the sculpture Pull have painful histories. Partially constructed from U.S. army surplus materials transformed into tools for interdependent ecosystems, the sculpture proposes a nonmilitary economy. In two trips, parachute netting turned into translucent walls and air hoses turned into watering devices were carried from the United States in the form of excess baggage by Minnesota-based charter Sun Country (well known for their many charters that supported Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s). The bulk of supplies, meanwhile, was sourced within the network of Cuba’s informal markets, and we redesigned the structure based on what we could locate. In a country where cars and homes are more commonly traded than bought or sold, bartering could be easier than using cash.

If you see something in a store and have the means, buy it,” the logic goes, because you know someone who needs it, or because you won’t be able to find it when you need it. While this rang true consistently for me, I quickly adopted the everywoman inventor mentality, realizing that searching for plumbing glue is never as practical as fitting a scrap of hard foam into a crevice and sealing it with paint.

Trying to find bolts and self-tapping screws could often devolve into a several-hour challenge. We once went to the corner of Neptuno and Soledad to talk with the gentleman sitting in a chair in front of a shuttered storefront. He then directed us to a side street and told us to look for a man named David. David met us on the corner and directed us inside his home, which contained the leftovers of a hardware store as well as more recent stock. He sold us self-tapping screws for one Cuban peso each, and then asked if we needed any wiring while there. Thinking we could use wiring for something, we bought it then and there, because otherwise we feared we wouldn’t be able to find it when we needed it. We made sure we got David’s cell-phone number, hoping he could find something else for us if we were in a pinch and could pay.

Finding wood to build the spheres’ two bases, which imply flotation in their design, required dismantling discarded carpet-covered benches, dismembering ladders and stripping the side of an abandoned shed in Alamar. There was virtually no wood to buy, aside from the facade of a shipping crate being returned to Belgium, which we purchased through a back-door negotiation. Driving to harvest plant clippings from the Jardín Botánico Nacional, on the outskirts of Havana, we made our way through the unmarked streets in El Hueco (a neighborhood whose name is translated as “the gap”) and reached a worn-down cul-de-sac on the edge of the motorway Autopista Este-Oeste. Arriving at a half-hidden dirt road, we located a gas station where our car could be filled by hand with gas from Venezuela for a fraction of the price of anywhere else in the city. Of course we asked to purchase their empty 55-gallon drums. Our inability to find particular materials produced a clumsy ingenuity. I sifted through communal bins of discarded organic matter on my walks home looking for broken pottery, and spent a few nights trying to fit pieces together.

More straightforward was creating the regenerating habitats insidePull. Based on Cuba’s Organopónicos resilience strategy, the interiors of the sculptures fed themselves. We created small aquaponic systems with freshwater fish in tanks, a form of permaculture. Edible plants were abundant and easily obtainable. We were trusted to temporarily care for several songbirds—a common pet throughout Cuba, one laden with symbolic and nostalgic overtones—in a balcony-based aviary. Prior to the biennial’s opening, a friend dropped off two chickens. They nested beneath the sphere and laid eggs that visitors took with them.

While living and working in Cuba, I discussed personal and political struggles with artists and art workers. Sometimes artists described struggling alongside the socialist government as it works to stay afloat despite authoritarian global capitalism that robs the land, animals and people who share the planet. Others described struggling against a government that has unevenly distributed prosperity in the form of educational opportunities and material goods to a revolutionary cohort.

Yet, for contemporary artists in Cuba, the island can currently be a bubble. From a monetary perspective, after the tourist industry, art generates some of the largest influx of international currency. (With two separate currencies, residents navigate between the international CUC and the Moneda Nacional, or the Cuban peso). While there, I witnessed international blue-chip gallery directors soliciting recommendations for local artists in order to expand the appeal of their stable, while hundreds of U.S.-based collectors visited artists’ studios by the busload looking for something exceptional. It seemed the steps involved in making one’s way to Cuba (from visa to travel arrangements to affidavit) were inconvenient enough to convince even the stingiest collector to bring something home.

Of status similar to movie stars and professional athletes in the United States, artists are among the few groups in the country occupying such privileged societal positions. The government (well known for championing regime-supportive art) understands the potential power of cultural producers and therefore largely controls the media and many forms of public speech. Many Cuban citizens seem well accustomed to suppression of speech, and habituated to reading symbolic significance. Too many of the artists I met chose to make nonpolitical artwork, describing themselves as “ready to move on” from topics that have become “too easy” and “too expected,” while other artists I met, such as Wilfredo Prieto and Alexandre Arrechea, engaged with politics carefully or covertly. A smaller cohort of contemporary artists consider themselves activists.

For decades, international news organizations have reported cases of surveillance and silencing of politically active artists, including the still-incarcerated Danilo Maldonado (“El Sexto”) and the recently arrested Tania Bruguera. Yet conversations about Cuba’s lack of basic human rights always returned to a frustrated comparison with the United States government, a government also known worldwide for violating human rights, and one that has led a debilitating propaganda campaign against Cuba for more than 50 years.

Sometimes I believe we share very similar experiences. And at other times, I felt a mixture of astonishment and even awe over our divergent experiences. An archivist in Havana attempted to explain to me the artist’s place in Cuban society by recalling what her ailing father had said to her when she married a young artist: “I’m so proud of you, you are in the art world. I no longer have to worry about your future. Now I can die.”

Swale is in progress

Swale – A Floating Food Forest

Food forests are arguably the oldest form of gardening, generated through companion planting methods. These cultivated diverse arrangements of plants strengthen, support, and nourish each other while fighting pests and attracting pollinators. Edible forests re-integrate us with natural resources we need, and need to care for. They invite more interdependent living, and over time, provide inexpensive production of fresh food where it is lacking. Naturally regenerating, food forests are one of the most resilient agro-ecosystems and means for sustainable food production. Unlike traditional gardening and industrial agriculture, food forests grow to be stronger and more plentiful each year. Food forests on New York City’s land have been off-limits for almost a century for fear that a glut of foragers may destroy an ecosystem. Yet, a food forest built on the water can imagine a different set of rules.

Swale is a mobile, floating food forest that will dock at different piers around New York City’s harbor for months at a time. A 50 foot wide torus-shaped floating platform contains a gangway entrance, railings, walkways, and an edible forest garden. It is being planned through inputs from different groups and individuals citywide. The base layer of wetland plants on Swale is designed to eventually grow from the river when a permanent home is found, filtering and wicking water to edible plants.

Collaborating with a nautical engineer, gardeners, and landscape architects, the superstructure is made up of materials from the US Army’s longest war in history in order to reestablish a different material, economic, social, and conceptual pathway. The project will be introduced to local nurseries, environmental groups including the Project for Public Spaces, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, and the New York Restoration Project, as well as additional schools around New York City through a series of design charettes and permaculture workshops.

After an initial year of planning sessions, organization, and building, Swale will function as a floating island, open to the public. People may visit, partake in the caretaking process, and collect fresh food on Swale. At once, Swale produces fresh food, connects people with the water, and with an entire ecosystem. Engaging with an ecosystem on the water creates a microscopic view into a macroscopic living system. When we are only able to see a part of a whole, we rarely have the chance to understand how the entire system works. On Swale all of the working parts will be seen, understood, and then reimagined.

In its formative stages, Swale has begun partnerships with organizations including the National Parks Service in Jamaica Bay, and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation in the Bronx, with preliminary permission to dock on the Bronx River, and in Jamaica Bay. Build-out space has been arranged through the North Brooklyn Boathouse on the Newtown Creek in Brooklyn, New York.

While working with city, state, and federal agencies is essential, the project plan needs to have local co-ownership. Swale will be introduced at community board meetings in neighborhoods near potential piers, to better understand needs and potential uses for each space and work these uses into the design. To spread knowledge about the project, it depends on these working in partnership with local organizations. Currently, Swale is being supported by “A Blade of Grass” a fellowship program that provides funding resources to assessment and pro-bono legal services.

Pull – Havana Biennale with the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de la Habana and the Bronx Museum of the Arts



Push / Pull: The Art of Negotiation
It has been a privilege to collaborate with the Bronx Muse­um of the Arts, and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in this special project in Havana at a time when the relation­ship between Cuba and the United States is changing. As it turned out, in the midst of planning this installation, President Obama announced a new policy of engagement between the two countries. Due to changes slowly accompanying this political conversation (of course large-scale changes never happen overnight), I was asked to extend a projected three-week stay into a two-month period. On a personal level, the time extension meant that I would have to establish deeper relationships with a wider group of possible collaborators, including architecture professors at the University of Habana, local art students, and artists, as well as architects, builders, conservators and the entire team at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Together, we have been able to complete a two-part sculpture that will not only be up through the Bienal but for some time after, used and shared by a growing list of places and people in Havana.

Pull is a Proposal
It has been a personal mission of the last few years to propose a transformation of supplies once used by the United States Army’s longest war in history into sculptures that can represent another way, and another world. The blue tubing that transfers extra water to other plants and fish is part of this proposal. Some of the fabric that covers the sphere was also once used in combat. I want Pull to ask how could resources be redistributed from the many military complexes into something that can potentially begin to re-contextualize and reverse the traumas incited through wars.

Pull is an Ecosystem
Pull is made up of many human and nonhuman networks. Inside of the spheres, plants live with birds, fish, butterflies, and other insects. Plants depend on insects like butterflies, while the birds depend on seeds from the plants, and the fish depend on the rain and nutrients from the soil, and vice versa. People use the space to learn in, create in, convene in, live in, and be in. During my first weeks in Havana, I thought I heard a child wistfully calling his mother. I thought I listened him calling her every evening as I drew in my apart­ment in Vedado. One day a friend came over and told me it was a bird I was hearing, not a child crying. Bird keeping in Havana is tinted with symbolist (I know why the caged bird sings) and nostalgia overtones. Being here, I have become transfixed by the parrots, hummingbirds, and especially the songbirds of Cuba. This fascination has expanded the way I’ve described the ecosystem I’m building. I now realize that this was another component that I was often leaving for last; one that addresses nostalgia, loss, and love. The birds in Pull are as central to the ecosystem that I have created as the food that will lovingly grow over the next months in old juice containers, made by architects, students, and conservators. In a poetic way, the birds are an essential part of the team, together with the staff at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Ha­bana, the art students, Yoandy Rizo and Osmany Fuentes and their capable building team, and Ananda Morera and her extended team of city officials.

The Art of Bureaucratic Documents
I am aware that Pull can be seen as an absurd proposition, but my goal has been to inspire ways of being together, acting together, and with a larger world. At the core of this project is a performance in which the values of balance, strategy, and care hold central roles. Dragging large spheres full of precarious ecosystems to Havana’s Parque Central needed strategic maneuvering as well as a keen sense of bureaucratic tact. The trail of paperwork and permits necessary to allow the structure to be placed at different sites has been an important part of this process. Mirroring New York’s dizzying bureaucracy, this paperwork is the result of one attempt to navigate a Kafkaesque cyclical maze that makes up an organization, city, and country’s policies.

Pull – On Utopia
Art is a necessity. Without art there is less room for reflec­tion and evolution. Pull takes into consideration our bodies’ spatial relations, expenditures, daily movements and chores. In a social system in which the individual lacks security or place, Pull proposes a utopian zone in which the many aren’t governed by the few, but act as interdependent agents, relat­ing with each other and with the world. As the new policy of engagement between the United States and Cuba moves forward, there is a unique opportunity to learn from each other in many ways. With the collapse of entire cities like Detroit, which was dependent on one kind of industry, Americans could learn from Cubans about post-in­dustrial resilience. In Cuba, when sugar factories closed, and entire towns suffered from the lack of jobs, the govern­ment subsidized adults to return to school. During the period of the Green Revolution, when industrial farming was being promoted around the world, most Cubans relied on Organopónicos, a less aggressive farming practice that only now is catching up in the United States. Other ways are possible.