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Finding Open Channels’ Place in the Caribbean Cultural Landscape

On 30 June 2023, I set foot in Cuba for the first time in my life. I traveled with my fellow theatre artist Tomas Perez Hubier to participate in the theatre events of the Festival del Caribe in Santiago de Cuba and to be part of the Open Channels/Canales Abiertos residency program organized by Plataforma Eje. The Festival del Caribe, also known as Fiesta del Fuego is a week-long, citywide party hosted by Cuba's premiere cultural institution, Casa de las Americas, that takes place throughout Santiago in early July each year. Santiago is the original capital of Cuba, and the festival celebrates Caribbean and Cuban cultures through music, dance, and other performances, as well as academic conferences on a wide range of topics. It's a unique chance for tens of thousands of people from across the globe to exchange ideas and strengthen ties by highlighting commonalities.

Tomas and I departed from La Isabela International airport in the outskirts of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic and arrived at Santiago de Cuba in a trip that took about one hour. This trip was the milestone that physically connected me, as a person and a theatre artist, to the Caribbean. It took me more than three decades to bridge the four hundred miles that separate the capital of the Dominican Republic with Santiago de Cuba.   

I had many links to Cuba, but I was not completely sure what to expect. My father traveled to the island in the 1990s. I had Cuban friends, colleagues, and teachers who had shared their hopes, dreams, and thoughts about their country. I also had a lot of references from books, movies, and the media of what Cuban life could be. They were all slices of a fragmented reality that could not be fathomed in a singular idea.

Due to my tiredness caused by an early morning flight, I was silent and reflective, taking in the information of what would constitute my first impression of the largest island of the Antilles. At that time, a thought came to my mind: the islands repeat themselves. Referencing the idea developed by Antonio Benítez-Rojo of the repeating island—he said (I am paraphrasing) that the Caribbean is a meta-archipelago, a repeating island without a center that expands itself like a galaxy. I was experiencing the notion of seeing myself in the mirror in an oddly familiar but completely different space that I was about to delve into.

A group of artists sand in front of a brightly painted mural.

Group photo after one of the residency workshops. Standing from left to right: Denise Frazier, Tomás Hubier, José Emilio Bencosme, Leslie González, Mat Schwartzman, Helen Ceballos, Carolina Caballero, and L’Orangelis Thomas. Sitting: Roiman Gamez, Yuri Elías Seoane, Lilian Rodríguez, and Alejandro Mineto. Photo by Rubén Aja Garí.

Open Channels/Canales Abiertos had been going on annually for three years by the time we arrived in Cuba. What began as a way for Caribbean theatre artists/activists to use the internet to stay connected to one another and their colleagues in the United States during the pandemic has evolved as we reconnected with one another physically. The first two annual meetings involved over one hundred people each and was held 100 percent virtually with discussion forums and panels about pressing issues for Caribbean popular theatremakers. In 2022, it became a hybrid event with physical activities happening in Santiago and virtual activities engaging a small core group at their homes in other parts of the Caribbean. In 2023, a major shift happened in the structure of the annual meeting. Thanks to the organizing and production efforts of Plataforma Eje which is based in Puerto Rico and led by Helen Ceballos with the support of Michael Bonilla and Wandimar Matos, we adapted the program to function as multidisciplinary artists working together in a residency that allowed us to share ideas, processes, and workshops in a more intimate space than what was previously done. Also, due to the needs of embracing a dialogue with young creators, we connected with and are strengthening our relationship with the Asociación Hermanos Saíz (AHS). AHS is a national nonprofit organization which brings together the young artistic and intellectual vanguard that balances the institutional formalities required to operate in the Cuban cultural landscape while also taking great aesthetic risks and promoting the most revolutionary art and literature produced by young people. These talks, the performances from Cuban artists that we attended, and the connection to new artists were possible through the efforts of its current president in Santiago, Juan Edilberto Sosa, who included us in AHS activities within the Festival del Caribe.

In the residency, the participating artists from Cuba were writer and performer Alejandro Minetto, visual artist Yuri Elías Seoane, dancer and performer Yanoski Suárez, and sound artist Roiman Gamez. These local artists exchanged with musician Denise Frazier from the United States, performer and cultural activist Helen Ceballos from Puerto Rico, and theatre artists from the Dominican Republic Tomás Hubier and me, José Emilio Bencosme. But this group was bigger than what was first envisioned since we also had the participation of cultural activist L’Orangelis Thomas from Puerto Rico, as well as other artist-students that orbited in the activities like Lilian Rodríguez and Leslie Gonzalez. These exchanges left the impression that in Santiago de Cuba there is a thriving and established cultural movement in a city that is not a capital.

Two actors rehearse in a dimly lit space, with one standing and one laying on the ground.

Alejandro Mineto (standing) and Ada Iris Domínguez Parada (lying on the floor) in preparation for the performance of "Viaje alrededor de mi habitación" by Alejandro Mineto. Photo by Rubén Aja Garí.

While in Santiago, I also thought about the concept of Sankofa: looking back to go forward. I was introduced to this Twi language word in the first virtual encounters that Open Channels organized during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, so it was logical that I went back to it when being in Cuba for the first time. Sankofa has come to be an important philosophical notion of my practice and my views. To me, it has become a grounding word.

Both the residency and the conversations with AHS Santiago opened the possibility of evolving the Open Channels/Canales Abiertos yearly meeting in Santiago de Cuba to a sort of artistic residency on its own sponsored by them in December linked to other activities organized by AHS. Although there are some drawbacks to changing the dates, like not witnessing the bursting cultural movement that happens in the context of the Festival del Caribe or not participating directly in the popular theatre activities that happen on these dates, the positives outweigh the negatives. Besides the financial challenges that maintaining a cultural project entails, for Open Channels/Canales Abiertos to remain sustainable we must create our own space and identity in the Caribbean and, specifically, the Cuban cultural landscape. By separating the events, some activities will have reduced friction since there will be a dedicated space to work with young people, strengthen current relationships while also incorporating new actors, and to generate a safe space and a community that can create and exchange visions and practices, as horizontal as possible, for the development of the theatre and arts in the Caribbean.

One important aspect of Open Channels/Canales Abiertos has been social impact. For example, for the first virtual event in 2020, the structure was organized on the following topics:

  1. Theatre and Ritual
  2. Elements of Popular Theatre Training
  3. Women, Blackness, Marginality, and Theatre
  4. Youth To the Rescue of Popular Theatre
  5. Popular Theatre in a Time of Pandemic

These topics had the common thread of connecting theatre with communities and provided a framework of work that explored the broad spectrum of what is relevant for Caribbean creators. The layering of arts for social change (from a United States perspective) and popular theatre (from a Caribbean perspective) became an important part of these discussions. Caribbean theatre artists might not use the word intersectionality to talk about our work, but our work is intersectional when we think about the different ways identity operates in our societies.

A woman wearing glasses and a black shirt stands to speak.

Denise Frazier speaking about her work as a musician and her research on Afro Creole folk music. Photo by Rubén Aja Garí.

In our 2023 meeting, these elements of popular theatre and social practices were not named as such but were present throughout the week we spent in Santiago. For example, the Matrilineo exhibition curated by Lorangelis Thomas dealt with relevant issues for women and menstruating persons with techniques for reappropriating the medical gaze over the bodies of people with uteruses, like self-exploration and art made with menstrual blood. Or Helen Ceballos’s talk about her performances that carry her queer Caribbean body and migration experience in a profound, political, and poetically moving fashion. Or the abstract but politically committed art of Yuri Seoane in his exhibition Sinfonía de Presión in which a daily object—a pressure cooker—becomes a metaphor of the things that bring people together while also experiencing a lot of pressure coming from the political, social, and economic situation of the world and how Cubans experience it. Likewise, there were performances from Caja Negra Teatro that adapt classics like Shakespeare to the current political situation in Cuba and the current crisis that the island is facing.

As I probably said to Mat Schwarzman in one of our many conversations in Santiago about Open Channels/Canales Abiertos, I believe that the collective endeavor that we are building to unite theatre and performance artists from the Caribbean has been gradually evolving from that first time that we met online in 2021, to the following year in which it was a mixed event, and finally in 2023 in which we did not have a virtual meeting and everything was done in person in Santiago de Cuba. But the question transforms itself into a new one: Now what? How do we sustain the work in the long term and how can we keep renovating it each year?

Open Channels/Canales Abiertos has changed and will continue to do so in the coming years. The possibilities are endless but as a group we need to start questioning its future and design a plan for the project to be sustainable. As both Juan Edilberto Sosa and Mat Schwarzman have expressed, we must think of ways to measure the social impact of our work together as a community in different countries in the Caribbean, our impact in Santiago de Cuba, and the impact that it can have back in each of our countries after each yearly meeting.

We want to create a place where youth and young artists can work along with mid-career and established artists, that broadens the perspective and network spaces for Caribbean artists.

While we value the intimate experience of a residency and will endeavor to push it forward as a deeper way of engagement between artists from the Caribbean, there are still challenges that we must address. The objective is not to create a self-indulging space for like-minded theatre artists and scholars that meet each year to catch up on their projects and personal lives, but a space for constant growth and exchange that is permeable enough to allow regular and new participants each year. We want to create a place where youth and young artists can work along with mid-career and established artists, that broadens the perspective and network spaces for Caribbean artists. 

In the words of Juan Edilberto Sosa, one of the challenges we face is the balance between the work we do inside the residency, its outreach, and impact. He thinks that we must find ways to broaden and open the call for artists across the Caribbean and, particularly in Cuba, from other provinces so we can have a myriad of new voices in the project. Juan Edilberto also considers that we must aim to create a space that can foster professional relationships and results so the experimental work that we develop in the residency can be shown and mobilized in new artistic circuits. The first task at hand, in his opinion, is to connect the El Cruce residency in December with the Festival Desconectados 969, allowing the residents to work on their projects for about six months so they can be part of this experimental, multidisciplinary festival. He believes this can be achieved by finding new partners, both in Cuba and across the region, that can support the sustainability of the project.

One of the efforts that Open Channels did in the first two years was to include people from the Spanish, English, and French Caribbean in the round tables. Our working languages have always been English and Spanish. Our connection with the francophone and creole speaking countries of the Caribbean, apart from some participants from Haiti, has been a weakness that must be addressed. We must develop a strategy to keep the conversation going across languages and how we can build a multilingual platform with all the challenges that it brings.

Also, we do not envision Open Channels/Canales Abiertos just as a meeting that happens in Santiago de Cuba but as an ongoing process with continuous activities throughout the year. Besides the possibility of participating in a residency in December and connecting our project with the experimental theatre festival in June, how many of these activities can happen virtually? How many in other countries of the Caribbean? Could we incorporate an Open Channels/Canales Abiertos institution in each country or stay as an umbrella space in which many partner organizations convene?

Artists sit at a table speaking at a workshop.

Helen Ceballos participating in a workshop. Photo by Rubén Aja Garí.

And most importantly is maintaining the financial sustainability of the project. The cultural, institutional landscape of the Caribbean is still developing. Theatre work in the world is undervalued, but in the Caribbean, it is particularly difficult to sustain an artistic practice by itself due to systemic pressures, lack of professionalization opportunities, and funding. How can an artist travel to Cuba each year without funding opportunities in their countries of origin for this type of events or activities? At least in the Dominican Republic, there is currently no specific institution or grant that could aid in the sustainability of constant participation from Dominican artists. Analyzing this cultural landscape in each country to find partners is something that could help in the expansion and continuity of the project.

Talking to Cuban documentalist Ruben Aja, who recorded our 2023 experience with his team, he suggests that maybe we need a diversification strategy. He imagines Open Channels/Canales Abiertos as the annual meeting, residency, or any similar activity that we envision, but, paraphrasing him, he asks if Open Channels could generate its own income. Could we have Open Channels/Canales Abiertos as an institution with its social impact work, its residency or annual meeting, and a sort of exchange marketplace where people could support both the artists and the mission of bringing together the Caribbean? Due to the limits of the cultural dynamics that he knows, he cannot elaborate further on this suggestion, but he throws this wild idea out to us which will need to be discussed since it puts the focus on the type of collective that we want to be.

We need collective agreements on what bridges we want to build, what crossings we want to make, and what channels we want to unlock.

This question is vital. We have been working on a beautiful communal project that has been slowly evolving into something new each year. To further embrace the future of Open Channels/Canales Abiertos we need a long-term plan. We need collective agreements on what bridges we want to build, what crossings we want to make, and what channels we want to unlock.

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