On Saturday and Sunday March 16-17, CLACS continued its partnership with the New School of Design to host the symposium, The Revolution Recodified: Digital Culture and the Public Sphere in Cuba. The two-day academic conference— kicked off by an energetic keynote on Friday by Cuban blogger, Yoani Sánchez— brought together academics from around the country, experts on the international blogosphere phenomena, and Cuban bloggers to explore the ways that digital technology is transforming Cuba’s cultural and political landscape. Despite the academic material presented, the conference drew an audience as diverse as its presenters. The attendees represented the many points along the political spectrum in terms of Cuban politics and history, and they engaged in a lively discussion about the current political climate on the island and questions of the future for US-Cuban relations.
On Saturday, the morning panel was titled THE INTERNET AND SOCIAL MEDIA IN CUBA: ITS RELEVANCE AND IMPACT. The invited panelists included Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, a free-lance writer, photographer and dissident blogger, Ted Henken, professor of Sociology and Latin American Studies at Baruch College, CUNY, Ariana Hernandez-Reguant, a research associate at the University of Miami, and was moderated by Coco Fusco, a Cuban-American interdisciplinary artist and writer and Associate Professor at Parsons The New School for Design. The panel was political in its focus, allowing for the audience to ask pointed questions about the politics of the Cuban blogosphere and to question the role of foreign and domestic scholars in the maintenance of the status quo or facilitation of potential social and political change within the Cuban community.
The afternoon panel was titled CUBA IN A GLOBAL CONTEXT: SOCIAL MEDIA AND POLITICAL CHANGE, which was comprised of panelists John Kelly, founder and lead scientist of Morningside Analytics who spoke to the social media phenomenon and shared his experience in social network analysis through visual mapping, Yoani Sánchez, a Cuban blogger who has achieved international recognition for her blog, Generación Y, Nitin Sawhney, an assistant professor of Media Studies at the New School whose research engages the critical role of technology, artistic interventions and DIY cultures among communities in contested spaces, and Thomas Werner, an assistant professor at the Parsons The New School for Design who focuses on the introduction of contemporary education methodologies and the development of creative cultures throughout Russia. Although the second panel was dedicated to the role of technology and social media in social and political transformation, the Q&A session included many questions political in nature, and a group of supporters of the Cuban Revolution expressed their backing of the Castro government through signs and slogans, while fans of Cuban blogger community simultaneously cheered “YO-AN-I” in unison. The rapid transition from academic discourse to the archetypal polarized cheering— from both sides of the political spectrum— was fascinating for me as a student studying Cuba. It represented to me both the progress of and obstacles to social movements for change in Cuba.
The vivacious events continued into the evening, inviting conference attendees and the greater public to a free concert hosted at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. The concert was performed by Pablo Menéndez and Mezcla, known for its unique fusion of jazz, rock, rap, and Afro-Cuban rhythms, like rumba, yoruba, son and bolero.
On Sunday, the first panel was titled THE DEVELOPMENT OF AUTONOMOUS CULTURAL AND PUBLIC SPHERES IN CUBA TODAY. The panelists included Ana Dopico, professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at NYU, Pablo Menendez, singer-song writer and member of the band Mezcla, Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, and it was moderated by Chris Stover, assistant professor at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. In relation to the day before, the panel was low-key and very academically oriented. The audience was very respectful and receptive to the different opinions and expertise of the panelists. Two parts stuck with me, however; the first was Ana Dopico’s beautifully written piece that she presented, which spoke true to the sentiments of longing, nostalgia and separation of the Cuban community; the second was a video filmed by Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, consisting a series of images of contemporary Havana. Both pieces left me with a longing to revisit Cuba, and gave me hope for continued dialogue among academics and Cubans alike.
The second and final panel of the conference invited speakers from the various earlier panels throughout the weekend to answer audience questions. The panel was titled PLENARY SESSION WHAT’S NEXT? CUBA’S EVOLVING POLITICAL AND CULTURAL LANDSCAPE and included Ted Henken, Ariana Hernandez-Reguant, Coco Fusco, Ana Dopico, and Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo. It was moderated by Jill Lane, Director of CLACS. The panelists were asked to answer tough questions about the reality of the blogging community in Cuba and the perpetual legacies of Cold War ideologies that plague US-Cuban relations today. I was impressed with their ability to field such a wide array of questions. It is my hope that in future conferences and discussions about Cuban policies, that representatives of the Cuban government will participate and offer an alternative view and also answer pointed questions.
Overall, the conference was very helpful in contextualizing the current academic debate about the social and political landscape both on the island and within the Cuban community abroad. I am very grateful for such a thorough and well put together conference, and I hope that CLACS continues to promote Cuban Studies as part of its curriculum and event series.
Kailie Middleton is an MA Candidate at CLACS at NYU, and is currently enrolled in the CLACS Interdisciplinary Seminar: “What’s Left of Cuba? Culture, Politics, and Civil Society”