For his first web-based project, Cuban artist Wilfredo Prieto invites visitors to take part in a moment of silence via the internet, with no stipulations or expectations aside from the willingness to cede control of one’s computer while the minute is observed. Once launched, the ineluctable sixty seconds begin to pass. Your screen becomes black, and attempts to escape the moment with mouse or keyboard interaction are unheeded.
Why would anyone agree to surrender control of the device that is so central to daily life? For many people, computers serve as the key repository of information and the primary conduit of communication. Requiring more trust than hurling one’s body down a Carsten Höller slide, Prieto is asking for temporary abdication. It’s a daring example of the pas de deux of artist and viewer in expanding art experiences ever further beyond the visual.
Prieto typically works with materials and situations of daily life, making a simple intervention to invite a fresh look at what often goes unnoticed. As with Untitled (Crane), 2005, where Prieto hooked a huge crane’s rigging to itself, or Magia, 2004, two bicycles parked with their front wheels intertwined, or White Library, 2004, a six thousand book installation consisting of only white, blank books; the artist’s interventions subvert functionality. The crane and bicycles are rendored useless, the library is devoid of words, the computer is briefly out of commission.
Prieto’s interventions are usually elemental: an addition, subtraction, or repositioning. For A Moment of Silence, he chose to experiment with imposing real time on a medium in which time can feel divorced from reality. On the internet, time zones border on inconsequential, the bank is open 24/7, and user interfaces condition us to expect immediate feedback to almost every click or keystroke. A minute can feel like a long time, but here, after 60 seconds the world returns, intact.
The other aspect of the internet that Prieto responded to in this piece is the extremes of its international and public scope vs. the very local and private nature of the computers we use to access it. It was this paradox that he saw mirrored in the typical practice of a moment of silence. As a gesture of respect or mourning, a sign of solidarity, or simply a period of quiet contemplation, observing a moment of silence is practiced world wide at gatherings ranging from intimate funerals to massive political protests. As a collective experience, it is unique in that it is intensely personal and introspective, yet almost always practiced in some kind of public setting. Prieto re-sites the practice, moving it from a public to a private context.
For Mute, a site-specific installation at the McMaster Museum of Art in Lancaster, Ontario in 2006, Prieto transformed the exhibition space into a disco, full of swirling and flashing lights but lacking music. In an essay for the exhibition catalog, Cuauhtemoc Medina wrote of the disco lights, "They point to an absent collective experience—that of an ecstatic crowd dancing. . . ."1 Medina goes on to discuss the effects of a museum setting, which by lacking the music or crowds, makes evident the function of the disco: "to bring the partygoers to a point of sensual obliteration able to subvert their daily isolation as modern individuals." If Mute revealed disco’s role in attempting to subvert this isolation, A Moment of Silence confirms the role of computers and the internet in reinforcing it. Launching the project at one’s computer, alone, it becomes clear that observing a moment of silence feels almost ridiculous in the absence of others. Prieto’s intervention here, removing the collective aspect of a moment of silence, renders a cultural practice disfunctional as it becomes evident that the presence of others is a critical component of the custom.
It is tempting to read politics into Prieto’s art, especially given his nationality and penchant for works that explore systemic breakdown. But his art resists simplistic interpretation. Apolitico, his installation for the VII Bienal de La Habana in 2003 presented thirty national flags reproduced in grey scale. The piece was anything but apolitical, but its title reinforced the piece’s potent ambiguity: as an artist, especially a Cuban artist, is it political to proclaim being apolitical? Blake Gopnik described another set of contradicting possibilities well, "Prieto’s move could be read as a sign of optimistic one-worldism. Or it could be a cynical rejection of differences among nation-states, asserting that one is as bad as the next, and that none deserves colorful celebration."2 Prieto succeeds in exemplify the complexity of what it is to be a Cuban artist and a global artist: Cuba, like the rest of the world, has lots of bad, lots of good. It’s complicated.
Part of the brilliance of Prieto’s work is that it asks viewers to hold conflicting possibilities in mind simultaneously, an impact elegantly illustrated by his 2003 piece Footprint, for which he reversed the sole of a pair of shoes, leaving footsteps pointing backwards as he walked. A Moment of Silence, also invites contradicting reactions: is this minute meant to instill feelings of respect, grief, protest, solidarity, relief or panic? Try it and see.
1. Medina, Cuauhtémoc. "Neither In the Slime of the Earth Nor in the Purity of Heaven". In Mute, Exhibition Catalog, McMaster University Museum of Art, Hamilton, Canada, 2006.
2. Gopnik, Blake. "La Habana, an air of possibility". The Washington Post, November 16, 2003.